Great Conflicting Responsibilities

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This system was inspired rewatching Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. It’s intended primary for modern occult heroes or detective superheroes, but works for any game where the PCs have to balance a normal life (including school or a day job) with the need to investigate in order to find and stop opponents. Virtually all scenarios should involve enemies that grow in power and get further towards fruition of schemes as time passes, granting big rewards to the players for constantly working to curtail their activities, get wind of their plots, and quash their plans early.

The examples below are system-agnostic but assume something with difficulties on roughly a ten-point scale and low-granularity experience points (like oWoD). Adjust values accordingly for other systems.


All investigation attempts take an hour or two and can include:

  • Patrolling: Both superheroes and monster-hunters tend to get their first leads by running or flying around the city looking for heads to crack and vampires to stake. In addition to keeping an eye of the streets for anything big or weird, this tends to reduce the number of minions available for bigger capers.
  • Research: Less formidable characters can keep an eye out for upcoming occult junctures or attractive targets of crime in order to get a clue that something might go down soon. Once someone has a name or description of a threat, research involves cracking books, trawling the internet, or hitting up periodicals looking for patterns, secrets, or weaknesses.
  • Forensics: Sometimes, the villains leave a crime scene that our heroes can get to (ahead of or with the blessing of the police). Going over the scene can yield clues, as can taking away any material or mystic traces left behind for evaluation in the lab.
  • Gathering Information: Sometimes, your more gregarious characters can get word that something is up by keeping up with contacts. Once a threat has presented itself, hitting up known informants can be the best way to find exactly what’s going on and where it’s going on at.

Depending on how you like to run mysteries, you can either give out fixed successes based on relevant skill totals every time a player takes an investigation phase or have players make rolls and track margin of success for relevancy. You can track accumulated successes toward a conclusion where they know everything they need to pursue the endgame or have various pieces of information available to various types of investigation with the players trusted to decide when to act upon them. The important thing is that investigation is a time-consuming process that feels like building up information toward a goal rather than just following pre-scripted encounters.

In the background, the villains should always have their own progress bar toward some goal. Patrol might set their progress back by defeating minions and capturing materials, but ultimately their plan is proceeding toward some hidden end in an unknown place, and the job of the players is to ascertain both in time to stop it.

Each day, every player character gains one free “investigation point” that can be spent to:

  • Make one attempt at patrolling, research, forensics, or gathering information
  • Train non-job/school skills (see below)
  • Lower either Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction by one point (see below)

This represents using free time to pursue the investigation, train, or catch up on relaxation or work.

Additional Points:

  • Each player can choose to gain one additional point per day by taking on either a point of Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction. This represents either staying up late for another round or cutting class/skipping work for a couple of hours.
  • Each player can choose to take up to two more points, but each point past the second represents majorly ditching out of school/work and the stress this entails, essentially spending all day on extracurricular activities.
  • On weekends, the GM may choose to just award three points for free (with the fourth point available for a single point of Stress or D/D, representing the stress of blowing off a whole day of free time or not doing homework).

Needless to say, most villainous plots should proceed fast enough that the PCs won’t be able to stop it with just the one free investigation point each day. The point of the system is that stopping the bad guys involves having to make cuts to free time or slack off at school/work.


Players have to spend investigation points (on a one-for-one basis) to spend experience points on any skills that can’t be justified being learned from normal school classes or on-the-job skills. If you want to get that 4 exp upgrade to Getting Medieval, you need to spend time on weapons training that you’re not spending on investigating. Training is a major downtime activity, ensuring that players may not totally zero out Stress and D/D between stories (but also see Long Downtimes, below).


Stress represents exhaustion, lack of concentration, and just general frustration at spending all one’s free time on the mission. Stress becomes the minimum difficulty for all rolls. In a system like Unisystem with a fixed DC, your stress total is similar to an opposing roll on every task (i.e., stress grants a success penalty equal to the margin of success it would achieve if it were a roll on that result). The intention with either version is that Stress shouldn’t become much of a problem until it gets fairly high. Players should be tempted to throw some points into it for extra investigation points because it’s not a big deal… until it is.

Stress has a practical cap at the maximum reasonable difficulty for the system (or the result of a really good roll, for fixed DCs). At this point, the character is so exhausted that even the simplest tasks are huge efforts.


Delinquency represents skipping classes at school, while Dereliction represents taking long breaks, getting in late, or leaving early at work. Both are the kind of thing that eventually get you in a lot of trouble. A student whose Delinquency reaches the same number as the practical cap for Stress is visited with whatever punishments seem warranted (suspension, detention, or even expulsion, plus likely grounding by parents). An adult whose Dereliction reaches this number is fired. Additionally, it works like Stress to set a minimum difficulty for all interactions with school officials and parents (for students) or employers (for adults); since Stress is a minimum difficulty for ALL rolls, it takes precedence if higher. Once it gets fairly high, the GM may initiate scenes with the PC having to talk officials, parents, or employers out of assigning more onerous tasks, with failure resulting in some responsibility that will gain an additional point of Delinquency/Dereliction if skipped.

Students can take a trait called “Honors” that represents being good at school and having easy access to school resources like the goodies in the science labs. Adults can take a trait called “Income” which works like wealth traits do in any system. Both of these traits are “free,” but essentially set a higher starting value for Delinquency or Dereliction (e.g., if you have Income 4, two points of Dereliction raises you to 6). The students with the brightest futures have more onus on them to live up to expectations, and the adults with the best jobs have more people that will notice if they skip out of work too much. These traits should scale so their maximum is about half the cap for Delinquency/Dereliction.

Players can purchase levels of “Gifted” or “Idle Rich” with character points as normal advantages, representing access to Honors or Income without the associated responsibilities. For example, if you have Gifted 3, you could choose to have a total Honors of 5 while only starting at 2 Delinquency.

Long Downtimes

This system assumes that there will be fairly limited downtimes. Stories represent an active few days or weeks, and then the next story starts only a week or two after the last one. In this case, there are no need for modifications; players will use the time to buy down Stress and D/D earned during the last story or spend points on Training, but will probably not have time to accomplish all their goals before the next story starts unless they ended the last one with very low totals.

If your game includes longer downtimes, simply allocate as many points as they spent on training minus 1d6 to their choice of Stress or D/D. This represents other life stuff coming up; either adventures too minor to note, or home events that made a nuisance of themselves.

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

Fear Tests

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Originally posted January 2008

I saw a post about fear tests and, still thinking about the Buffy RPG, that got me considering fear mechanics. I’m a big advocate of always retaining control of one’s PC, so I tend to dislike mind control mechanics. The standard fear test in games is, “succeed at this random roll or you lose control of your character’s decision.” I prefer systems that make certain actions advantageous or more difficult, but leave the ultimate decision up to the player. Harbinger helped me put together the following basic system idea.

  1. The fear-related stats normal to the system stay the same. If you would normally roll Wits + Willpower to resist fear, your fear resistance remains Wits + Willpower (we might call that the Courage rating or something).
  2. The fear difficulties are scaled to match the Courage ratings. If a PC with Wits + Willpower 10 could never fail an average fear test (except maybe on a botch), the average fear test difficulty should be 10 or less. Other difficulties are scaled to match.
  3. When there is a scary situation, the PC’s Courage rating plus applicable modifiers is compared to the fear difficulty.
  4. If the Courage rating equals or exceeds the fear difficulty, the PC is brave enough to choke back any horror and deal with the situation normally. If the Courage rating is much higher, there might be some kind of bonus awarded for the situation.
  5. If the Courage rating is less than the fear difficulty, the PC is shaken by the experience and finds it hard to focus and act past the fear. If he or she does not decide to flee, for the remainder of the situation (as long as the fearful source’s influence is felt), he or she is at a hit point penalty. This is phantom damage, but cannot be restored until after the situation (unless it’s appropriate for cures to remove fear). The damage is equal to the difference between the difficulty and the Courage rating (possibly multiplied by another number in the case of high hit point games; in Buffy, for example, I’d probably multiply the result by 5).If the damage is enough to drop the character to unconsciousness or death, the GM may rule that the PC is slain or paralyzed by fear (though this probably isn’t very fun) or may apply all applicable penalties but allow the PC to stay active until actually struck for damage.
  6. The lost hit points return after the fear source is removed, but in grittier games a character that dies partially due to phantom wounds is still dead. It will vary from game to game whether it is appropriate for characters in scary circumstances to wake up from unconsciousness after being dropped by horrors.
  7. In situations where the characters are only inclined to stay behind because the players don’t think they actually stand any chance if they run, the player can declare a fair escape at the cost of the phantom damage becoming permanent. This can be explained as the character taking risks and hurting him or herself, but somehow escaping. Whether the character escapes to a completely safe area or just a temporary respite is up to the genre of the game.

This system probably works best for survival horror or other genres where the choice is between fight or flight. It may not work well in systems where fear checks often occur in investigation or other non-combat situations, unless the system also includes a wound penalty mechanic that would affect applicable rolls.

What am I missing? Would this be a more fun system than stand or flee fear rolls?

RPG EXP: The Current Level Conundrum


Originally posted December 2007

I’d been thinking about this after playing Serenity, but reading through the Buffy books I got during the Eden $5 sale really drove home the problem. A lot of skill-based games have two different systems for character generation (the earliest examples of this I’m aware of are White Wolf games, but pretty much every game that isn’t level based or Chaosium-style use-based is like this now). During character creation, you buy all your statistics out of a pool of points, where the level of the trait doesn’t mean much (e.g., raising a skill from 1 to 2 or from 3 to 4 costs the same amount of points). This is probably done to speed an already slow character creation process.

But once you’re in play, you switch to a completely different system for raising traits with experience points. Almost always, it’s cheaper to raise low traits by a level than it is to raise higher traits by a level (it might cost 1 point to raise a level 1 skill to 2, but 3 points to raise a level 3 skill to 4). This seems to be done out of some combination of simulationism (it doesn’t make sense for it to be just as fast to master a knowledge as to learn the basics) and player gating (to discourage PCs from singlemindedly maxing out their traits rather than dabbling).

The problem with this is that it’s heartbreaking to systems-minded folks like me that want to buy traits appropriate to the character but don’t want to gimp our characters in the long term (okay, I admit it, I’m a power gamer in some respects, but it also means that hardcore power gamers have a dramatic advantage over casual players). Essentially, the character generation system makes it efficient to concentrate your points on maxing out your key traits rather than spreading your skills out:

In a simple current level system for skills, you could buy one skill at 5 and one skill at 1 or two skills at 3. Assuming you wanted to eventually max out both skills to 5 in play, it would cost 10 EXP in the first case (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 to raise one skill from 1 to 5) and 14 EXP in the second case (3 + 4 + 3 + 4 to raise two skills from 3 to 5). That’s a 40% difference in cost and that’s on the smallest scale.

In almost all cases, it’s drastically more cost-effective to take any low traits that you don’t expect to need immediately in play and move their points into traits that you’d eventually like to have high. Sure, you’re an idiot savant for a few sessions, but you can quickly round out your character with low levels of EXP. And it doesn’t help that most EXP guidelines seem to be written with the expectation of playing twice a week; for a less frequent game, it becomes more and more pressing to blow your EXP on low level skills, since it will take forever to save up enough to see any improvement buying up high-level skills.

And what’s really baffling me is the Buffy-specific EXP chart. During character creation, you can use freebie points from drawbacks to raise qualities or skills. In this case, qualities are radically overpriced: the major benefit of additional levels of the 5 point Sorcery quality is to give you a +1 to magic rolls (whereas those 5 points spent on skills could give you +5 to magic rolls). However, in actual play qualities cost a tiny fraction of skill points; I read a review pointing out that the Sorcery quality that’s overpriced during character creation is far more cost-effective to raise than the magic skill with EXP. This makes my head hurt.


The moral of the story is that I think I’m just going to stick with trait-level-agnostic freebie points for EXP in future skill-based games I run. (I’d use an exp-based system for chargen, but I think casual players would hide from a blank sheet and a huge pool of EXP.) If it costs the same to raise a trait from 1 to 2 as from 3 to 4 in character creation, it will cost that much with EXP too.

And if this encourages unrealistic or twinkish spending behavior, I’ll just ask the offenders nicely to stop it, and then everyone can benefit from consistent improvement at all skill levels to the traits they want to buy.