Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Unisystem experiences and "unbalanced" games

Earlier this year, I was trying to expand my vistas by playing with some new people. This also meant playing some new games. We used the Unisystem from  Eden Studios, Inc. To summarize I guess you could say that it didn't work that well. Some of it was the people, and some of it was the game system. Some guys you just don't game well with, that's just how it is. I'm going to talk a little more about the game system, since I think there might be something interesting to learn from that part of the experience.

I need to say from the start that I hate Buffy, Angel and all those shows. While it might have coloured my perception of Unisystem, I think there's more to it.

There are three classes of characters in Buffy/Angel (the edition we used of Unisystem) and I think they were called White Hat, Supporting character and something else I have forgotten. The idea being, of course, that this would be a way to model the different kind of characters in the TV shows, and how they had roles to play in the drama. I played a character in one of the lesser classes, Supporting character. You make a character by spending points on stats, skills, and special abilities. In addition to that the different classes also get different pools of Drama Points, to be used to influence the narrative in different ways. Since the list of skills is fairly short you probably want to focus on a few things to stand out as someone who can seriously contribute. It was here that my first beef with the game showed up. 

We had one guy playing a White Hat, who managed to buy roughly the same skills that I did. We had different concepts, but since the list was fairly short and the others had specialized in many of the other abilities it was to be expected. So, that shouldn't be a problem, but these two characters were of different classes, which meant I was always trumped.

The Unisystem buffs around will now probably tell me that the characters should have different roles. The big thing is of course Drama Points. Using these the Supporting characters are able to step into the spotlight and do their thing. Different classes of characters are not to be played the same. It's explicitly said that some characters are to be more in focus than the others.

Now compare this to the old school scorn for "game balance". 

The thing is I still think game balance is a bogus goal. My problem wasn't really that my character was of lesser importance and that some other player had an "unbalanced" character. I had much more problem with having less possibility to shine, to be in the spotlight. Maybe I could even call some of it niche protection.

No matter how much you fiddle with your rules to make it balanced, you will not be able to make sure I get as much attention from the GM as that other guy. Well, it might not be entirely true. It can be done, and the most extravagant I know of is Burning Empires, where you have a quota of scenes.

Non the less. I think that what very often is the case when people holler about game balance is time in the spotlight.

A game system should be able to generate characters that are distinctly different from each other, and not only in the backgrounds and psychology but also in the hard numbers on the sheet. If you have that support from the game, any character should be able to contribute in any given adventure. Spotlight is much more intangible, and thus harder to know how to handle. But, a game with fairly simple rules don't have to be the only thing needed. Much can be said about Unisystem, but it wasn't the complicated and convoluted rules that kept me sidelined. 

I have myself been GM in games where there's this one guy who never steps up, so I think it's not always easy to handle from the other side of the screen as well. In the space between game balance, rules and support for distinct and interesting characters there are many opportunities to stumble and fall. Take a moment to think about it, and maybe you see some possibilities for improvement as GM, as a designer or a player. I'm not all sure about the lesson of all this, but there's food for thought.


  1. I only recall two character types being in the game (Hero and White Hat) It isn't balanced, strictly speaking... and the game is also trying to model a TV show. Specifically, it is trying to model a TV show that features a group of characters who are basically an unbalanced party, from a gamer perspective. The Heroes get tons of stats, skills, and quality points, while the White Hats get lots of Drama Points to hijack the plot when they need to. It's not a perfect system and needs a lot of player/GM trust, particularly with those Drama Points.

    For a different take on the Unisystem, try All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Witchcraft. (If you didn't know, the Unisytem was originally the rule system for Witchcraft.) Those two games have no Drama Points. There are different power levels of characters, but in AFMBE campaigns are meant to feature characters of similar power levels, whereas Buffy and Angel assume the default of one or two Heroes and a bunch of White Hats. (Just like the TV shows) always, YMMV.

  2. See I even managed to purge my memories of how things worked. Thanks for setting me straight Ryan!

    I think you right that it needs some player/GM trust. My experience with these games makes me think it the real core of most balance issues.

    Right now I'm not very enamoured of the system to try it again. I think I vastly prefer more complete systems when they are skill based. Those systems need a finer granularity to work well, I think.

  3. no familiarity with the game, but I think part of the problem trying to replicate the show is that in Buffy they are always splitting the party. On TV it works, is even encouraged but in a game it's frequently more trouble than it's worth, so everybody is present when something needs doing, fewer chances for the lesser beings to shine.


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