Let those with eyes see…

Have you ever noticed that something which was initially off-putting about a system may become a favoured aspect of that setting once you really get into things? I think this is the quieter cousin of the brash and well-known truth that often the things that first draw us to something become the very things which lose their lustre the fastest.

As I mentioned earlier in the week, I am quite excited about the opportunity to run a shared Hollow Earth Expedition campaign with my friends here in Seoul. While this process will not be without problems at the outset, particularly because it requires a shared vision and approach, it will also provide each of us with an opportunity to raise our level of play in terms of campaign management as GMs, and focus as players.

That’s Easy!

I was first drawn to Ubiquity via the setting for All for One: Regime Diabolique. Once I began reading the book, I was taken with the style and flow of the game, which at first blush seems very light and simple. This impression was reinforced when I read over the rules and setting material for Desolation. I was taken with its apparent speed, its options for player control of elements which tend to bog down play or cause annoyance, and for its mix of the traditional with the more innovative elements of current roleplaying games.

Easy is lodged in the eye of the beholder with Beauty, a log, a mote, and the homework the dog ate:

That my first impression of the Ubiquity system was that it was fast to use and easy to learn does not mean that my exploration of it was without complication. It took a little time to get into how a character is really represented in the system. It took some experimentation to sort out how to design spell effects or design weird science projects, and it took a little patient checking of each game’s forum looking for errata and other players’ points of confusion before I felt like I could say that my beliefs about the system had been confirmed. More on that later. For now, let me leave it at saying that the system is deeper than it at first appears.  

The system has been out in the wild for a number of years now, and it has evolved or had more of its core concepts clarified since its original printing. From a player’s perspective, few systems come close to the ease of learning what to do in play, while still providing this amount of control over expectations. As a GM, however, some elements of the system, which seem simple in hindsight, definitely needed the perspective of experimentation, or clarification from the authors to truly make sense. Foremost among these to my mind are envisioning the character, dealing with item or spell creation, and perhaps the continuous initiative system (which seems to have been discarded).

The so-called problem of Character Generation:

Unlike a lot of point allocation systems, you do not have to allocate points to specify all aspects of your nascent character. There is an almost invisible concept of a zero sum balance which enables character creation to actually focus on what you want the character to actually be known for doing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the core assumption of the process is that you will take a character with a single focus. This winds up feeling a bit like a leap of faith after so many years of Storyteller, and the like; where allocation of precious points has you feeling like you need to decide if you want your character to be homeless in order to know how to drive or not. A nice, but not overtly obvious feature of Ubiquity is that it makes certain basic assumptions about play that in a sense seem inspired by ‘old school’ sensibilities, and that seem to expect you to operate in a loose framework of freeform common sense. Much like in the long-forgotten days of the red box, when a character’s complete personality was essentially reduced to a line for race and/or class, and alignment, but yet fully-developed characters strode forth from the minds of their players anyway, Ubiquity allows players the freedom to play what and who they want, by just getting out of the way. Of course, this also puts the responsibility for issues of balance, setting atmosphere/appropriateness, and actual playing of a fleshed-out role in the hands of the group at the table and not the guru at the game company. This is a lovely side-effect/result of what can only be personal experience and good design. Imagine~

Decisions, Decisions

As an example of this, the concept of character wealth is a quick and easy one at which to look.  A player who opts not to take the Wealth Resource at character creation is not destitute unless the player wishes them to be….  Yes, I can hear the gasps from here, and I can hear the sotto voce accusations of heresy from the back corner. Worry not, the sky will not fall and neither will the game collapse. What will happen is that the player will be able to focus on what their character can do. If wealth, and its ability to purchase items and fund expeditions is a necessary part of the character, buy Wealth. If it isn’t, move on, there is nothing to see here. Without Wealth, a character has enough money to get by. How that is defined is also up to the player. It is not that they have no money, it is that the money coming in, and the money going out, balance out to zero. If you want to be a cargo pilot with a plane working hard to make ends meet, then voila – you can be. If you want to run a character who is living on handouts on the streets of Marrakesh; no problem!  If you want to be a spoiled second son living off a trust fund stingily controlled by an elderly lawyer – great. No Wealth required. The system stays out of your way and lets you get on with the business of tying down what your character is, or will become, known for doing. Each version of Ubiquity for each game that uses it, follows this approach, with appropriate flavourings, additions, and subtractions as befits their distinct genres. Again – the game gives you what you need, then gets out of your way.

Science!

Once this perspective on character encapsulation has been gleaned, the other things on my list become easier to sort out. Inventions via Weird Science, spell creation, alchemical experimentation, and the like all function under the same framework of defining the pluses and minuses of what is being done. Complications are considered such as how long is spent on the task, what materials are at hand, what assistance is available, how long and over what ranges the ‘thing’ is expected to do its work, and what shortcuts, limitations, or compromises the character is willing to accept. The system works similarly for all these creation options, helping to define the effect that is being made, and then getting out of your way. That lets it apply equally easily to formulating anti-aging potions in a medievally-appointed lab in the Alps, cursing an enemy in a tribal dance, or manufacturing a robot servitor to polish the brass on your zeppelin. The rest, as they say, is roleplaying. Go figure~

Getting the drop on things

The last example, continuous initiative, walks an uneasy line between the conceptual barriers found in the first two items, and one born of personal preference. Using it requires a further abstraction of combat or other scenes requiring a more strict awareness of sequencing than most games expect, and it can leave both players and GMs on a precipice of perspective, uncertain of what it is that they are seeing.

From a purely mechanical point of view, the system as printed allows faster characters, with faster weapons to act more often compared to slower characters, or those with slower weapons. It rewards economy of motion, and the rapid application of controlled force over flash and big bore weapons. Also from a purely mechanical point of view, this can leave players of non-combat characters feeling marginalized as they simply do not act as often. In the standard initiative system, this feeling is limited more to variance in combat effectiveness than to ability to act. Again, the conception of what is being envisioned can be altered a bit, and the narrative of the combat can take in the realities of the combat scene in ways which place the focus of the combat on the combat characters and gives the non-combat characters something else to do which suits them and the enemy’s threat assessment of them. No one needs to be marginalized at all. Watch the movies carefully – what really happens when the stone-fisted hero and the absent-minded professor get attacked by ninjas? Ubiquity’s continuous initiative option allows you the freedom to do this without restricting either the combat monsters or the slender reeds.

The Inevitable Conclusion?

Now that all of that is out of the way, this long entry can get a little longer by finally getting to my two initial points, which are of course related. No groaning, now.

The first is that long, long ago, when I started playing Shadowrun, I found myself not liking the concept of having to invest my karma points into spell design if I wanted my character to create his own custom spells. I learned the hard way why that rule was in place, but that is a story for another day. When I noticed this type of rule existed in Ubiquity, I had that same stab of annoyance that I had with Shadowrun. The concept of XP has become pretty firmly rooted in the idea of character improvement, and that idea seems to have calcified with the perception of that improvement meaning using the points to increase stats and skills. Ubiquity is not that limited.

In this system, if one is going to invest time and inspiration in the creation of something new, and use it in play for one’s own benefit, this – when stripped of everything else – is simply an enhancement of the character, no different than raising a skill or boosting an attribute.  Once seen in that light, the requirement to use XP for things other than the basic improvement of items on the character sheet, makes a lot of sense, and to my eyes, needs no further justification. Of all the things I had to work on to grasp in Ubiquity, this single element is the one which moved from being a possible detractor, to being strongly compelling as a reason to like the system even more. It just makes good, clean, practical sense.

Ultimately, Ubiquity is intended to be fast, engaging, and easy to learn and implement around the table. It is all of these things and is called such even by its detractors. On closer examination it is looking more and more like a real tool for experienced GMs to power their visions in the old self-reliant ways, using a lot of the more interesting and creative elements of the newer approaches. It is not flashy, it is no one’s sweetheart (except maybe mine, and the hardworking and talented people at Mythic Eras), and it never seems to steal the spotlight from its flash in the pan brothers and sisters with their indie sensibilities and mechanic of the moment alignments. Pound for pound, however, I think a closer examination will reveal that under the slick production values of all three lines using this system, there is a monster just waiting for you to let it, and your imagination, off the leash.

Speak your piece~

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