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.

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).


System Review: Cinematic Unisystem, Part 2

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The Conundrum

It would be remiss for me to talk about Unisystem without mentioning the Current Level Conundrum. It’s one of the chief offenders for this problem. Specifically:

  • During character creation, skills and attributes cost 1 point of the appropriate type, qualities cost a fixed amount, and skills or qualities can be purchased with the same points from drawbacks.
  • During play, skills and attributes cost new level x2 exp and qualities cost the same fixed amount in exp.

For example, the Sorcery quality can be purchased multiple times, with each instance giving a bonus to magic rolls. Magic rolls are based on the Occult skill. During character creation, each +1 to magic rolls costs 1 point to raise the Occult skill or 5 points to raise the Sorcery quality. It’s a no brainer to max out Occult before buying Sorcery. During play, raising Occult higher than 2 will cost increasingly more than the cost of buying more Sorcery (6, 8, 10, or 12 exp vs. 5). A character that starts out intending to become good at magic can do it drastically more cheaply than someone who decides to do it in play (unless “becoming good at magic” means taking Sorcery at character creation, when it is more expensive).

It tends to lead to characters min-maxed all to hell at character creation, and I’m not a fan of it, but I’ve said more than enough on that front.

I’ve been damaged!

The hit point (or, “life point”) system for the game is somewhat unusual. A character’s total HP is equal to (Str + Con) x 4 + 10. Effectively, characters have a minimum of 10 HP, and each point of Str and Con increases this by 4. Character on a human scale will range from 18-58 HP (and can buy a few more via the Hard to Kill quality).

During the game, each attack does ([a calculated amount of base damage] + successes – armor) x multiplier. The calculation is generally some multiplier of the character’s Str: Kicking is (Str + 1) x 2, an Axe is Str x5, etc. The multiplier is mostly used to make blades and guns more dangerous than blunt trauma.

This has two major results:

  • It’s nearly impossible to figure out maneuvers on the fly. Players are encouraged to do the math on their sheets for any maneuvers they intend to use, and in-game modifications to Str score will require recalculating all of these. In general, success-based-damage will be dwarfed by base damage and a high roll mostly serves to make it more difficult to dodge the attack.
  • Combat maneuvers do have a more interesting spread than in a less granular system. In the next most similar system, White Wolf, it’s very hard to make more than a few tiers of damage: if a punch is Str + 0  and a Sword is Str + 3, there’s little wiggle room to differentiate things in between. Meanwhile, Unisystem can cleanly differentiate a punch from a kick from a jump kick without making any of them on par with various types of weapon.

Hit points work mostly like in D&D or the like: effectiveness isn’t impacted until they drop very low. Once a character gets below 10 HP, he or she gets penalties and eventually makes rolls to avoid death.

I’m not convinced that the added granularity makes the system better. It’s effectively fake granularity: small numbers are multiplied and modified various ways to create more variation, and the calculation time required is probably more complicated than the system otherwise supports. A character really has HP equal to Str + Con, with some math done on both ends to make it easier to reduce that by fractions. But in an otherwise rules-light, low-granularity game, that degree of math is somewhat glaring.

Ultimately, the combat system for Unisystem feels like the designers were not able to effectively model the variety of tactics used in Buffy and Angel on the default scale of the system, and resorted to some ungainly math to create the necessary granularity. They did succeed in creating a wide variety of attacks, but at the cost of inelegance and increased time at the table. I’m not sure it was the best way to go.

Also, dodging does absolutely nothing if you can’t beat the attacker’s roll. What’s up with that?

Part 3

System Review: Cinematic Unisystem, Part 1

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In the Silver Age of Licensed Games…

Licensed RPGs have been around virtually since the beginning of the hobby. Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Marvel, Star Wars, and many more all got treatments during the 80s. Each had its fans, and many are still fondly remembered, but in an era both dominated by D&D and lacking an internet for communication about niche markets, these licensed games seem more popular after the fact than they were at the time. That is, people on RPG forums profess to being huge fans of these systems, but the actual utility of them, even amongst serious hobbyists at the time, seems like it might be somewhat less.

Today, the licensed game market seems primarily filled by Margaret Weis Productions, who have recently produced a whole slate of film-and-TV-inspired games: Serenity, BSG, Supernatural, Smallville, and Leverage. Several of these games have quickly become favorites not only with RPG-playing fans of the properties, but with systems aficionados interested in some of the tricks the games have used to better recreate the feel of a TV show or movie.

However, it’s probably very safe to say that MWP is walking a trail initially blazed by Eden Studios in the late 90s. As the licensed games of the 80s had been primarily small publisher affairs, production values often suffered in a climate where desktop publishing wasn’t cheap and easy and license fees ate up operating budget. Eden Studios, who had a few modest successes in making RPGs with their own IP (i.e., Witchcraft), decided to make high-production-quality licensed games, starting with the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer universe. Their books featured full color throughout, decorated with screencaptures and production photos from the show. It wasn’t just a book for RPG players, but something that actually might attract casual fans of the show.

While the cost of renewing the license (and probably higher production values than the sales could support) eventually caused Eden to stop pursuing the licensed game market, leaving it to MWP, it’s pretty safe to say that the Cinematic Unisystem’s games set the new standard for a licensed RPG product.

My experience with the system in actual play is far less than either of the previous system entries. I played for several sessions of a Buffy game, ran a couple of sessions of Angel, and considered starting several other games using the system. Unlike some of the latest stuff from MWP, the interesting thing about Cinematic Unisystem is that, at heart, it’s a simulationist, universal engine with some minor tweaks to fit the genre. You could run pretty much anything with it, provided you were willing to leave the genre simulation up to the actions of the players and GM and rely on the system to handle the physics of the world. It’s a toolkit system, and, thus, I’m inclined to be favorable.

Core Mechanics

Unisystem uses a basic Attribute + Skill mechanic. Unlike White Wolf, instead of rolling the total as dice, it’s added to the result of 1d10. So a character with a 2 attribute and a 3 skill rolls 1d10+5. This has two interesting variations:

  1. Stats are scaled 0-5 for mundane characters, such that a completely untrained and untalented character will roll 1d10+1 and a master will roll 1d10+10 (or slightly higher, as some very exceptional skills can go to 6). Functionally, with the d10 randomizer, this means that a terrible roll for an expert can be equaled by an amazing roll by a beginner. Meanwhile, supernatural characters can go up to 10 on individual stats. This serves to break play into tiers of competency: a lucky beginner may roll better than an unlucky expert, and a lucky expert may roll better than an unlucky supernatural master, but a beginner will always be completely trounced by the supernatural master.
  2. The game isn’t directly difficulty based. That is, the GM doesn’t say: “roll Attribute X + Ability Y vs. Difficulty Z.” Instead, the result is compared to a chart to gather success level. For example, if the result was 15, looking on the chart this is described as 4 – Very Good. If the GM had set the task as a Very Good difficulty, this would have succeeded (and would have been, de facto, DC 15, but hey). The interesting thing about the chart is how it scales. Up to 4 successes, another success level is a 2 point increase on the roll. Then 5 successes covers a 4 point spread of results. After 5, each result covers a 3 point spread. Essentially, all results on the normal human skill level (up to +10), fall into a 5-success range, and 5 successes is twice as likely as any other result under 5. Then supernatural skill level is actually somewhat compressed: having a 10 point advantage on someone is less significant between supernatural and mundane masters than it is between mundane experts and beginners.

However, despite these interesting conceits of the dice mechanic, it’s fairly similar to any other roll-over system. The interesting parts of the system come, as usual, from elements I’ll discuss in the next few weeks.

Part 2