System Review: Fading Suns, Part 3


Character Lifepaths

Fading Suns has the distinction of being the only system of which I’m aware to retrofit a history-based character creation method on top of a point-buy method. In first edition, Fading Suns character creation was very similar to White Wolf: X points to raise characteristics 1-for-1, Y points to raise skills 1-for-1, and Z bonus points to raise everything else on a chart-based scale.

In second edition, this system was kept, but the preferred method is to make a character by following a life path. Instead of doing history-based creation like Mechwarrior, where characters that come out aren’t mechanically equal, the Fading Suns method essentially breaks the existing character creation method into pre-set packages. For example, in the first stage of creation, a High-Court Hawkwood compared to a Landless Decados would have the same number of points using the original method, they’re simply spent on different traits.

While this method does preserve bonus points and min-max opportunities at certain stages, it goes a long way towards preventing the hugely idiot-savant-esque characters that the system would otherwise incentivize. It also does a good job of helping a new player sort through the huge mass of options inherent in a skill-based system.

So, I actually can’t find fault with the character history creation method. I’m honestly curious why it didn’t go further, and why more games with robust settings and standard PC assumptions don’t do something similar.

Combat Manuevers

A strange element of Fading Suns is its reliance on purchased combat maneuvers. Perhaps as a way to balance mundane characters against the cost of making powered characters (see below), the game features a wide variety of combat maneuvers for martial arts and swordfighting (and a few for guns). These maneuvers must be purchased independently from the associated combat skill (though each maneuver has a minimum skill prerequisite), and getting a wide range can become very expensive.

While the maneuvers are flavorful, they are often very specific as to their utility. And trying to buy a lot of maneuvers can functionally double or triple the cost of raising the combat skill (they’re not cheap). A player could probably get more benefit out of trying to get the GM to allow putting points into blessings and benefices to provide skill bonuses and better equipment.

Ultimately, the combat maneuvers are a cool idea, but are both over-priced and under-utilized. They seem like something to which a price tag was added to try to balance mundane fighters against the incredible expense of building a psychic or a theurge, but mundane combat has easier tradeoffs for potentially less cost. Using similar focuses for lots of other skills could have resulted in a fun and innovative system, but, instead, charging for maneuvers that would traditionally just be standard options for a skill feels grafted on and out of place with the rest of the system.

Powers (Psi and Theurgy)

Even compared to the cost of building a mundane fighter with all the combat maneuvers, creating a character with powers is prohibitively expensive.

As mentioned in the last entry, psychics and theurges require a whole characteristic (Ego or Faith) that no mundane character really worries about. This becomes the prerequisite for their powers. Unlike other characters, they need to buy up their Wyrd trait, because it’s required to use powers. But the real kicker is that every power requires a different characteristic + skill combo.

Let’s look at just one path: Soma (one of the better combat paths). The traits involved in each level are:

  1. Introvert + Vigor
  2. Passion + Vigor
  3. Calm + Vigor
  4. Introvert + Stoic Body
  5. Extrovert + Vigor
  6. Extrovert + Charm
  7. Introvert + Remedy
  8. Calm + Focus
  9. Introvert + Vigor

To use a single path, a character needs to have good values in four characteristics (which are two sets of opposed characteristics, so having a high value in all of them is impossible) and six skills, in addition to the cost of raising Psi as a prerequisite and buying the powers. Conversely, a character can master the fencing arts with a high Dexterity, decent Strength and Endurance, and paying triple-cost for Melee (the skill plus associated manuevers). A level 9 Soma specialist easily paid twice as much exp as a level 9 Fencing specialist. And the Soma character is probably also trying to round out additional psychic paths, while the fencer has effectively peaked as a playable character.

The powers in Fading Suns are neat. But they come with an in-setting limitation (the inquisition) and an in-system limitation (Hubris or Urge, which are big negatives on powered characters). They’re neat, but even at high levels they’re only rarely overpoweringly good. The decision to make these powers both individually expensive and multiple-attribute-dependent is somewhat baffling.


2d20 for Fading Suns

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Based on a suggestion from another Fading Suns GM, my preferred method of using the Victory Point system was with two d20s instead of one. The gist of the system (apart from accenting and wyrd mechanics explained at the link) was:

  • Roll 2d20, keep the highest die that’s still a success.
  • The roll is only a critical success if one die roll the target number and the other is also successful.
  • The roll is only a critical fumble if one die rolls a 20 and the other is also a failure.

Doing this changes the success rate pretty drastically:

Target 1d20 Success 2d20 Success
1 5.0% 9.8%
2 10.0% 19.0%
3 15.0% 27.8%
4 20.0% 36.0%
5 25.0% 43.8%
6 30.0% 51.0%
7 35.0% 57.8%
8 40.0% 64.0%
9 45.0% 69.8%
10 50.0% 75.0%
11 55.0% 79.8%
12 60.0% 84.0%
13 65.0% 87.8%
14 70.0% 91.0%
15 75.0% 93.8%
16 80.0% 96.0%
17 85.0% 97.8%
18 90.0% 99.0%

Just looking at the chance of success, it’s interesting how much it suddenly curves to look much more like a White Wolf-style dice pool mechanic than a percentile mechanic. Importantly, in my mind, this means that it’s not as drastically necessary for players to try to absolutely max out their skills to regularly succeed: in practice, a trait total of 10 is supposed to be pretty good for a starting character, and now that character has better than a 50/50 shot on rolls. It’s immersion-breaking in the extreme for the system to pretend that you have a good trait and then fail on it half the times it’s important, at least in my opinion.

Additionally, this method puts a curve on fumbles and criticals. In 1d20, you have a 5% chance of a crit and a 5% chance of a fumble, no matter what. In 2d20, the chance of crit goes from 0.3% at TN 1 to 9.3% at TN 19, while the chance of fumble does exactly the opposite. Effectively, the higher your TN, the bigger your chance to crit and the smaller your chance to fumble, which seems more logical.

The other interesting thing is what it does to expected success totals:

Target 1d20 Avg. VP 2d20 Avg. VP
1 0.0 0.0
2 0.0 0.0
3 0.3 0.4
4 0.5 0.5
5 0.6 0.6
6 0.8 0.9
7 1.0 1.1
8 1.1 1.2
9 1.3 1.5
10 1.5 1.7
11 1.6 1.9
12 1.8 2.1
13 2.0 2.4
14 2.1 2.6
15 2.3 2.8
16 2.5 3.1
17 2.6 3.3
18 2.8 3.7

The chart above is the average number of victory points for a successful roll (not counting criticals). The numbers don’t look terribly different, save that the 2d20 is slightly higher. In practice, this is because, with 1d20, success VPs are completely flat: if you succeed on 1-10, you a successful roll has a 10% chance for each result. In other words, any time you succeed, you will roll less than half your best result half the time. Conversely, with 2d20, you have at least a 75% chance of rolling over the halfway mark (because if both dice are under the target number, you choose the larger result).

Old school game design looks at the 1d20 and declares it adequate: the higher your score, the higher the chance of success and the result of success. But looking at the raw numbers doesn’t cover the feel at the table, where excessive swinginess results in player disappointment. Over multiple rolls, a flat die result evens out, giving an advantage to the better character, but how often do characters make multiple rolls on the same skill outside of combat? In practice, a player may get once chance to shine with a given non-combat skill per session, and, with a flat die, the result of the roll can feel almost completely disconnected from the score. Using 2d20 to curve the result creates a situation where, even on a single roll, a higher score feels meaningful.

System Review: Fading Suns, Part 2

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Character Statistics

If the dice mechanic for Fading Suns is like Pendragon, the character mechanic is much closer to White Wolf (with some notable carryovers from Pendragon, discussed below). This isn’t surprising, considering that Fading Suns was created by former White Wolf developers.

In most cases, a character’s trait total is equal to Characteristic + Skill + Misc Mods, just as in White Wolf. Characteristics range from 3-10, with 6-8 being regarded as a good range for a competent starting character. Skills range from 0-10, but, interestingly, the most commonly necessary skills (combat skills, perception, stealth, athletics, and social skills) start at 3. So, before modifiers, the worst a character can have in a common skill combo is generally 6 (min characteristic 3, min skill 3). The most a character can have is 20 (which, as mentioned in the last post, isn’t any better than an 18).

Modifiers typically come from Blessings and Curses (the system’s merits and flaws), which typically provide a plus or minus 1-3 to certain rolls (Beautiful characters gain a +2 Charm, for example). These stats aren’t terribly well balanced, especially during character creation. The value of a blessing or curse is often equal to the value of the skill bonus it provides. Since the Current Level Conundrum is in full effect, it’s often far more effective to buy up the associated skill further instead of taking a blessing, or to buy up the skill with the points from a curse to completely negate it. Essentially, blessings and curses are too straightforward and mechanical, making them very easy to min-max.

Characters also have Benefices and Afflictions, which replicate White Wolf’s backgrounds and non-mechanical merits and flaws: rank, ownership of property, addictions, phobias, etc. As with blessings and curses, these are fairly easy to min-max. Also, an interesting artifact of the price of rank means that many PCs will start off much higher ranked (in their noble house, church sect, or guild) than the setting seems to assume. For example, becoming a Baron is easily within range of a starting character, when all the fiction assumes PC nobles will be knights (the minimum possible rank). Since the genre fiction is less specific about the relative political potency of church and guild titles, it’s not uncommon to have PCs with 5-7 points in their guild or church rank being led around by and deferring to knights with only 3 point titles. This is weird.

But not as weird as Opposed Traits.

Opposed Traits

As mentioned at the top of this entry, there is one set of character statistics that takes more inspiration from Pendragon than from White Wolf: Spirit characteristics. In addition to three physical and three mental characteristics, characters also have six opposed characteristics (eight in first edition). A character’s sum of two opposed characteristics cannot exceed 10. Since they start at 3 and 1 for each pair, a character will typically have 3-9 in the primary characteristic, and will only raise the secondary characteristic if the GM likes to call for rolls of it a lot. But the GM probably won’t, because, despite being the most complicated traits in the game, the opposed characteristics have erratic mechanical support.

For example: Extrovert vs. Introvert. Extrovert is the only social characteristic in the game. There are two primary skills and four secondary skills that require Extrovert as a base. There are only two skills, both secondary, that suggest using Introvert. Introvert is effectively another mental characteristic, so Wits, Perception, and Tech are much more frequently used. A character that decides to make Introvert primary is effectively deciding to not be able to participate in social rolls, in tradeoff for an advantage with a handful of psychic powers (at least as many of which use Extrovert).

Another set of opposed traits, Faith vs. Ego, is typically meaningless unless the character has powers, in which case psychic characters raise Ego and church mystics raise Faith. Of all the opposed traits, Passion vs. Calm is potentially the hardest choice, as both traits actually have useful associated skills. However, because the system rewards having very high trait totals, it’s still probably better to raise one of the two to exclusion of the other to gain a good chance on one vs. a mediocre chance on both.

Opposed traits work (to the extent they can be argued to work) in Pendragon because they are rarely directly, mechanically used except to test a character’s response to a social stimulus and to qualify for prerequisites. And there’s still relatively little reason not to completely favor one trait out of each pair. Also, a character automatically has the maximum possible value with both traits combined (e.g., there’s a total of 20, so a trait of 5 on one side automatically means a 15 on the other) and strategy is about shifting the midpoint to a place that the player is happy with. In Fading Suns, the opposed traits start out low and paying to raise one lowers the effective maximum for the other. The game tries to make both sides relevant to all characters and fails.

In practice, players raise Extrovert if they have to make a lot of social rolls, raise Faith or Ego if they have special powers, and otherwise completely ignore the traits as too much exp for the benefit. While I have some issues with the opposed traits in Pendragon, Fading Suns managed to copy all of their flaws and none of their merits.

Part 3

Dungeon Inertia (D&D/Pathfinder)

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Shieldhaven posted a system for improving the odds of fleeing characters to actually escape. I suggested that it needed a morale system to go with it, but noted that it might not be enough: in new school linked dungeons, players are never going to want to let monsters flee and potentially come back later to either add to another fight or to drag in more enemies. Below is what we came up with to try to solve these problems.

Dungeon Inertia is usable in any situation where there are a number of allied enemies broken into smaller encounters. Primarily useful in any dungeon where the enemies are allied such that rooms might reinforce other rooms, it could also be used in external encounter areas such as bandit camps or cities. Essentially, it’s for situations where a much larger enemy force is broken up into encounters where the PCs can take them on piecemeal, but where it would make sense for enemies to flee and get help once the encounter goes south for them.

The problem this concept is meant to solve is the need to utterly destroy all threats for fear they’ll remain a danger if unslain while, indeed, allowing enemies to run for aid when it makes sense. As runners tend to make it easier to take apart the morale of a dungeon, hopefully this system makes it less of a huge worry for players to experience encounters that pile on top of one another (i.e., “adds” in MMO parlance). A side effect of this system is to create a practical reason to avoid the “Five Minute Adventuring Day” even when there’s no exterior time pressure: enemies  recover Inertia if left to recuperate.


When creating a linked series of encounters as a GM, total the number of enemies in the area subject to morale (i.e., don’t count undead, constructs, etc. in most cases). This is the Inertia total for the area. Effectively, each enemy in the area starts with one Inertia Token when the PCs enter the area, and these will be depleted as enemies die or otherwise have their morale break.

Since every enemy starts with a token, you can actually track this in the negative: only mark the enemies that are still alive but do not have a token. The total Inertia of the dungeon vs. remaining combat-ready enemies becomes important if the PCs take a break.


Whenever an enemy is defeated (slain or dropped negative and not immediately picked back up), remove its Inertia Token. If it did not have an Inertia Token, remove one from another enemy in the same encounter.

If the enemy died in one hit and/or was the leader of the group, remove a token from one of the still-fighting enemies in the encounter. Any time something else that might appear on an old-school morale chart happens (e.g., monster is bloodied, magic is used in front of superstitious enemies, PC performs a particularly brutal attack, etc.),  you may roll or just your judgment as a GM to remove an additional token.

Any still-fighting enemy without an Inertia Token is considered Shaken (getting a -2 to most rolls). These enemies will also tend to try to stay out of harm’s way, making attacks from range or using Aid Another for their allies.

Any enemy missing a token that would gain Shaken from another source (such as Intimidate) instead gains Frightened and flees. If all remaining enemies are missing their token, all enemies gain Frightened and flee. The Frightened condition persists until the enemies either reach allies or some other area that they think is safe, at which they return to simply being Shaken.

If an enemy without an Inertia Token is encountered again, its “one-shot” threshold is set to its current HP, even if it’s already wounded (e.g., if a wounded creature without a token returns with friends, if it is slain in one hit, one of the friends will lose an extra token beyond the one lost for the death of an already token-free enemy).

If a PC is dropped unconscious, restore a token to a single enemy in the encounter that is missing one.

If the PCs take a long rest, restore all Inertia Tokens to the enemy. This will likely result in extra tokens (from the enemies that were slain). Apply these extra tokens to other enemies in the area (to a maximum of one extra token). Any enemy with two tokens essentially has the opposite of Shaken, gaining a +2 Morale bonus to all d20 rolls. This bonus represents having time to plan for the next PC assault and to become enraged at the invaders.

Intended Results

This system should have the following benefits:

  • Enemies will flee organically when a battle turns against them, especially when PCs use Intimidate as a tactic.
  • PCs will be more likely to let fleeing enemies flee: if they are stopped and slain out of view of their friends, their death will not remove an extra token.
  • Fights where multiple encounters worth of foes bear down on the PCs should be more manageable: more and more of the foes should be Shaken as the fight goes on, effectively reducing the encounter level of the fight.
  • PCs should be less willing to expend most of their resources up front and then try to take an extended rest, as doing so will make the remaining enemies more dangerous.

System Review: Fading Suns, Part 1


The New Dark Age of the Year 5000

The year before Fading Suns released, I picked up a promotional flyer for it at Dragon*Con, where it was set to release at the next con. I spent much of the year in anticipation, and got my copy as soon as the dealer room opened on the first day. I have a larger percentage of the supplements for Fading Suns than for probably any other game line with more than a half dozen products. My longest running campaign was Fading Suns. To sum up: I am a huge fan.

I say all this to give some context when I also say that the system is generally pretty terrible.

The Fading Suns setting is brilliant. You can run just about any kind of game in it from epic fantasy to gritty mystery to Lovecraftian horror to technological thriller to political drama. The books do an excellent job of putting together a fairly coherent universe in broad strokes such that it’s easy to fill in whatever detail you need to run what you want and still make it feel consistent with the setting. My game linked above featured running around on spaceships looking for ancient artifacts, dealing with intrigues in the succession of a noble house, tracking down the source of an intergalactic drug ring, stopping a horrible enclave of genetic engineers, and thwarting a plot to throw the politics of the known worlds into disarray by unleashing a barbarian horde into civilized space. It was pretty wide-ranging in tone, and I couldn’t have done anything similar in any other setting.

And I had my players roll dice as little as possible.

Core Mechanic

The only other game I’ve played that has a similar mechanic to Fading Suns’ Victory Point System is Pendragon. It has some minor differences, but the core concept is the same “Price is Right” mechanic: roll as high as you can on a d20 without going over the target number. Like in Pendragon, rolling exactly your target number is a critical, and rolling a 20 is a fumble. Unlike Pendragon, the results are actually converted to successes (“Victory Points”): if your result was successful, divide it by 3 to get successes. If it was a critical success, those points are doubled (so rolling a 15 as a normal success is 5 VPs, rolling it if that’s exactly your target number is 10 VPs).

This is probably a good time to mention, again, that I have a nigh-irrational dislike of roll-under systems in general. Even though, statistically, it’s possible to make a roll-under system a 1-to-1 match for the probabilities of a roll-over system with the same kind of die, it doesn’t feel the same. As a GM, it’s harder to remember to apply a bonus or penalty to rolls than to set a difficulty to roll over. As players, we’re trained that rolling higher is better, so it’s a disconnect to actually want the results toward the middle of the die. In addition, “Price is Right” methods feel even swingier in play than normal roll-under mechanics: over many rolls, a higher score makes a difference, but on any given roll it may feel like your score is meaningless if you happen to roll low anyway.

All that said, the problems with the Victory Point system are not limited to the die mechanic.

Part 2

Levels vs. Verisimilitude

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The concept of increasing in level has long been a boon to progress-based RPGs, as it creates a potentially unlimited path of advancement for player characters. And players love to advance their characters. RPGs without levels typically have to pin their advancement scheme to a fixed scale, often striving for realism. Barring hideously expensive powers generally not expected to be possessed by the populace at large, it may be hard to keep a determined player from becoming amongst the best in the world at a specialty very quickly, possibly even at character generation. For some RPGs, this is a boon, but others are built around a continually ramping series of challenges. For these games, basing advancement on levels makes balance and maintaining player interest far easier.

But it makes world building far harder.

The hallmark of levels is how much of a difference there is between one level and the next: a progressive ramping up of power. It’s difficult to make a level-based game where a several-level power difference doesn’t make the lower-level character completely ineffective in most challenges vs. the higher level character. It’s hard to make these settings “gritty” or even marginally realistic; just in the realm of combat, a kid with a gun or a punk with a knife very quickly becomes completely negligible in a way he wouldn’t in the real world. And the real world (or at least Hollywood’s interpretation of it) is how players expect the game world to work intuitively until it’s proven otherwise.

This intuition is less of a problem for actual play; players can very quickly adjust to being superheroes. But it makes world building problematic: a designer’s default assumption is to create a world space that just doesn’t make any logical sense if there is a multiple-order-of-magnitude difference in capability across the spread of levels in the world. High level characters and creatures are so much more powerful than low level ones that it very quickly makes little sense if they don’t completely dominate the socio-political landscape of the setting, creating a massive base of the population that will literally never do anything of historical note if they don’t level up. Even attempting to mandate that high level characters are rare is a very hard assertion to make when having to design adventures that continue to challenge leveling heroes: a single high level mook could live a life of power and prestige dominating a lower level region rather than waiting to serve as a speedbump for high level adventurers going after his boss.

Massively multiplayer online RPGs have this problem worst. Tabletop GMs and the designers of single-player computer RPGs can more easily contrive situations that less arbitrarily segregate power levels in the game world. Sealed underground warrens, extraplanar threats, and a constant pressure to deal with the next big challenge can keep the goalposts moving long enough to keep suspension of disbelief afloat. And, at great need, a high-level PC can be allowed to journey back and realize the massive power now wielded over most of the cultural landscape. But MMOs can’t do this as easily. Gameplay needs to funnel players from zone to zone where threats increasingly ramp up, resulting in huge fields of high level creatures and NPCs waiting for the slaughter. Balance and protecting against jerks requires that safe areas include lots of friendly, high-level NPCs. The world can very easily become an inexplicably ramping heatmap of levels along the optimal player path.

So, how do you solve the problem?

In a tabletop or single player computer game, it’s about consistency. If leveling is a common result of the physics of the world, logic can be applied to the problem: powerful political figures are very high level, cities are built to account for the abilities of powerful creatures that might attack them, and the only reason to field armies of lower level individuals is to try to level them up into higher level individuals before a single champion of the other side crushes them. If leveling is an unusual fact, making the PCs more and more exceptional as they grow, the world needs to reflect this as well: player characters very quickly exceed threats on a mortal scale (no 20th level city guards), more and more adventures take them to places of great danger that are somehow blocked off from casual interaction with the world, and there is an expectation that they will be able to enact great change on the political landscape should they so desire.

In an MMO, it’s much harder. Unless you’re doing very complicated things with instancing, a player character can’t have a significant effect on the world. And, as more and more players race to the level cap, you wouldn’t really want them to anyway. It’s almost inevitable that player characters can return to areas where previously challenging enemies now fall like wheat, and the question starts: why don’t some of the max level characters take some time off of showing off their outfits in the central zone and deal with the problems that are now easy to them, so the people slightly below them can deal with easy problems, and so on down the line? Sure, the answer is, “because it’s a game,” but it’s also supposed to be using as many tricks as possible to preserve immersion. Auto-scaling things to the right level is not much more of a solution, as it can lead to feeling like leveling is mostly meaningless. Some possible, modular concepts to mitigate the problem off the top of my head:

  • Periodically spawn higher level NPCs in low level zones that are somehow set up as the bosses of the area but not required in the main quest line for the low level story. Encourage high level PCs to return to deal with them in a way that doesn’t also encourage them to wipe out quest targets for the lower level characters in the zone.
  • Frequently spawn much lower level NPCs in high level zones as the toadies for the appropriately-leveled threats. Players will mow through them and potentially enjoy getting to feel awesome.
  • Avoid putting in drastic attack scaling between high and low level combatants: armies of low level characters vs. high level threats makes a little more sense if they can actually hit the target, even if for only a tiny fraction of a percent of its hit points. If PCs take on low level swaths of foes, they might get chewed up a little (and might be able to similarly chew up higher level targets).
  • Set up the major threat of the world with some kind of story reason for clustering power in a central location and waning as it spreads away. Maybe it’s societal, or maybe there’s an actual power source of some kind that improves effectiveness based on proximity. Essentially, there should be some story based reason why the weakest, rather than the strongest, of an enemy group are able to penetrate furthest towards the good guy seats of power.
  • Spawn non-boss NPCs at low level. Give them exp and let them level when they kill players on roughly the same scale as players gain exp (and maybe make them not target PCs for whom they’d get no exp unless attacked, just like PCs will rarely attack gray NPCs). Figure out how to get levels and location to persist through server restarts. When they die, have them rez like players at the nearest stronghold of their enemy group (or in the next nearest of higher level if they die in their stronghold) and then wander out to staff it. See what happens. (This could obviously go horribly awry.)
  • Use instancing/phasing and gating to prevent players from returning to low level areas and preserve the fiction that time is passing. Everything in the world effectively levels up slightly more slowly than the PC so the gains in power feel more gradual. If players somehow return to low level zones, preserve the illusion that this is some kind of flashback, possibly even temporarily reducing their level to match (i.e., let them help their low level friends but not wander into low level zones as modern gods).

Some of those have been tried to some extent in previous or upcoming MMOs, but most of the time, AAA games tend to punt on this particular problem because it’s a game and games have levels and players, as a whole, are willing to ignore the inconsistencies. But I hold that, at some level, suspension of disbelief is being strained and it makes the world feel like a theme park, even if most players don’t consciously worry about it. With a few tricks to incorporate this weird inheritance from wargames, though, I believe immersion in games could be greatly increased, and everyone enjoys a little more immersion in their escapism.

System Review: Cinematic Unisystem, Conclusion

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Perhaps I’ve been remiss in that my review of Cinematic Unisystem does not contain any true understanding of regular Unisystem. I played Witchcraft for one session, made a mundane character with GM assistance, and don’t recall rolling anything except maybe Alertness (that GM rarely calls for rolls that aren’t Alertness; building a character is very easy). Otherwise, I know it as the game that’s doing a lot of the same stuff as White Wolf, but in a different way.

And it works for them. While I haven’t actually gotten around to using Cinematic Unisystem for anything but Buffy and Angel, I’ve been sorely tempted a number of times (and mainly only stopped because running modern day games always winds up becoming more work than I expected, and D&D is a much easier sell anyway). It’s a less daunting system for the task of running a modern game than, say, White Wolf’s. It has a small list of skills and minimal balance problems adding or changing a few. It has concrete but simple guidelines for making traits that can be anything from a good sense of direction to fire breath. It’s a toolkit system that basically solves character stats and conflict resolution so you can get back to your game. Kitbashing White Wolf into another setting is more work: you have to decide what to do with the typical 30 skill list, you have to make up backgrounds, you have to make up powers, and you have to figure out what kind of tempers you’re using (e.g., do you need a Humanity trait? A magical power stat like Gnosis?). Once you’ve done the work, you gain the advantage that the game plays like a White Wolf game (if you like White Wolf games), but it’s significantly more work. Sometimes you just want enough stats to give the players something to look forward to raising with experience and to lend a veneer of credibility to conflicts.

That’s what Cinematic Unisystem excels at. It’s unabashedly just good enough to emulate a wide variety of genres set on a basically human power scale. It’s not trying to do something deep with the system influencing play (though drama points trend in that direction). It’s not trying to present a million player options (though you can certainly go crazy with advantages if you’d like). It’s a simple system that can basically fade into the background and, if you have a strong idea for a mortals-level, probably-modern setting, it’s a fine solution to serve as the engine for your game and let you tell the story you want.

Just remember to pre-calculate your maneuver bonuses.

D&D/Pathfinder: How much is +1 worth?

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A friend of mine is looking to play a dual wield fighter (I did try to talk him out of it), and was curious about the tradeoff between attack and damage: i.e., which feats should he take, when should he power attack, etc. So I started thinking about the math.

Basic Premise: In d20, unless you can only miss on a 1, each +1 is an additional 5% of your base effectiveness, per roll.

This is pretty easy to calculate:

  • Each roll has a chance of success based on the number you need to roll on the die to succeed. If you succeed on an 11 or better, that’s half the possible rolls on the die, so you have a 50% chance of success. If you only succeed on a 16 or better, you have a 25% chance of success. And so on.
  • Because there are 20 possible results, each represents 5% (100%/20).
  • Each +1 to your roll makes you 5% more likely to succeed (e.g., you go from needing a 11+ to a 10+ to hit, going from 50% chance to 55% chance to succeed).
  • Thus, over time, you can add 5% of base effectiveness (e.g., 50% hits at your normal value vs. 55% hits at your normal value). If you do an average of 10 damage, a +1 is going to give you half a point of damage per attack.

Attack bonus is, thus, more effective over time the more damage you do, base.


Basic Premise: In d20, each +1 damage is an additional X damage, per roll, where X is equal to 1 times your chance of success.

This is a similar calculation:

  • As above, over time you can base your expected damage on the chance to hit: if you hit 50% of the time, you will do 50% of your base damage over time.
  • At 50%, each point of damage is, therefore, actually worth half a point of damage per attack.
  • Meanwhile, if you have a higher or lower chance to hit, the worth of the point of damage scales accordingly.

Damage bonus is, therefore, more effective over time the greater your chance to hit.


Obviously, these two premises stack very nicely: if you have a higher attack, you’ll deliver your base damage more often, and if you have a higher damage, it will benefit more from having a high attack.

But what if you have to choose? Greater Weapon Focus or Weapon Specialization? Activate Power Attack or stick with regular hit bonus?

In these situations, attack bonus becomes more valuable the higher your damage already is, and damage bonus becomes more valuable the higher your chance to hit already is. Obvious based on the premises above, right? But where is the breakpoint?

Base Damage 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20
Value of +1 Attack 0.1 0.2 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.7 0.8 0.9 1
Necessary Roll to Hit 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20
Value of +1 Damage 0.95 0.85 0.75 0.65 0.55 0.45 0.35 0.25 0.15 0.05

Effectively, at around 10-11 points of damage and having to roll 10-11 to hit, a point of damage and a point of attack are roughly equivalent. Lower base damage is equivalent to a higher chance to hit when trading off.

What about 2 damage? Power Attack in Pathfinder gives you +2 damage for each -1 attack (with one-handed weapons).

Roll Needed to Hit
Damage 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20
2 19 17 15 13 11 9 7 5 3 1
4 9.5 8.5 7.5 6.5 5.5 4.5 3.5 2.5 1.5 0.5
6 6.3 5.7 5 4.3 3.7 3 2.3 1.7 1 0.3
8 4.8 4.3 3.8 3.3 2.8 2.3 1.8 1.3 0.8 0.3
10 3.8 3.4 3 2.6 2.2 1.8 1.4 1 0.6 0.2
12 3.2 2.8 2.5 2.2 1.8 1.5 1.2 0.8 0.5 0.2
14 2.7 2.4 2.1 1.9 1.6 1.3 1 0.7 0.4 0.1
16 2.4 2.1 1.9 1.6 1.4 1.1 0.9 0.6 0.4 0.1
18 2.1 1.9 1.7 1.4 1.2 1 0.8 0.6 0.3 0.1
20 1.9 1.7 1.5 1.3 1.1 0.9 0.7 0.5 0.3 0.1

The chart above shows the ratio of the value of 2 Points of Damage to 1 Point of Attack. So if you’re doing 2 points of damage and hit on a 2+, 2 points of damage is 19 times as good as +1 attack. Meanwhile, if you already do 20 damage and need a 20 to hit, 2 points of damage is less than 10% as good as +1 attack. The breakpoints are in red: past that number, you shouldn’t Power Attack (for example). If your chance to hit is decent, though, you need huge amounts of base damage to make Power Attacking a bad idea.

The more you know!

System Review: Cinematic Unisystem, Part 3

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Innovations: Drama Points and Fixed NPC “Rolls”

Drama Points

Cinematic Unisystem was not the first system to use dramatic editing. The first system that I saw with this idea was Adventure!, which came out a year before, and it might have been included in other systems even earlier. Nonetheless, the Buffy RPG was likely one of the first to come up with something that has become a staple in a lot of games, even getting included as Action Points in d20.

Unlike Adventure!, in Cinematic Unisystem, Drama Points are explicitly an out-of-character mechanic. Rather than being a resource available to characters specifically because they are larger than life (and used also to fuel their powers), Buffy turned this idea on its head by primarily giving them to lower powered characters. In another system included for genre emulation, Drama Points were there to mimic how non-powered friends could manage to hang out with the Slayer without it being a terrible risk. Spending them functionally represented the story writers on the show giving the weaker characters more lucky breaks.

This conception has become the de facto standard for all later games that allow a point-based player impact on the flow of the game independent of innate character abilities. As mentioned, Action Points in D&D work similarly, and Fate points in FATE are directly inspired by this notion (up to and including giving characters with fewer powers more Fate points in the Dresden Files RPG). Effectively, giving players a systematized and resource-based control over the story that is actually outside the scope of their characters can be used as a balance mechanism to ensure even players of mechanically weaker characters have fun.

In its original conception, Cinematic Unisystem even nailed most of the uses for dramatic editing that are still used in the most modern systems: Minor causality declarations, increased potency at a certain action, increased resistance to a certain attack, and managing to survive when it looks like the character would die.

Fixed NPC “Rolls”

In Cinematic Unisystem, GMs are encouraged not to roll for NPCs in most cases. Most creatures are statted with three scores that are functionally an average combat roll, and used as such. In contested rolls, you try to beat the NPC’s score with your result. In combat, the NPC automatically does a set amount of damage each turn (possibly varying based on tactical choices) unless you roll against its score to dodge.

The upshot is that this probably greatly reduces the swinginess of contests in the system, for much the same reason as I like to simply set the defender in d20 games to 10 or 11 + score instead of d20 + score. In practice, this may reduce some of the tier benefits I mentioned in my first post (as these were basically predicated on the idea of the higher-ranked character rolling a 1 while the lower-ranked character rolls a 10).

Like Drama Points, “only the players roll dice” has become popular in certain games since Cinematic Unisystem was developed, and it was the first system I’m aware of that made a big deal about this. It’s an interesting concept that can increase player agency, reduce GM work, and reduce swinginess in flat-roll systems. Though I’m not sure if it completely works in Unisystem (consistent damage output being a bit weird).