A first look at the Unity RPG–Part Two

This post concludes my first look/review of the fantasy RPG Unity. If you haven’t read Part One yet, you can check it out here.

Before having a closer look at the rules, let’s talk about the setting a bit more. Aside from the detailed history, the Unity core rulebook gives you an overview of the world and its locations, as well as its new gods – or rather demigods. When the mortals slew the Ivory Queen her divine energy wasn’t lost and six new gods formed around certain human ideals and beliefs. The book gives short descriptions on these demigods like Aluvane the Dawnwalker and Mave the Trickster.

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Following a certain god has – as far as I know – no mechanical effect, but it helps to immerse yourself more deeply into the setting.

Magic and Technology
One aspect of the setting – which I didn’t mention enough – in Part One are the techno-magic artifacts of the Golden Age. Unity is not your standard pseudo-medieval setting, but the technology level is much higher. There are firearms, huge mecha called Titan Rigs, and many other technological and magical marvels from this lost era. This aspect of the Unity setting reminded me a lot of Japanese video games like the Final Fantasy series which might have been one of the inspirations.

A Shattered World
The world’s geography is described in pretty broad strokes which I like a lot. Often GMs and players get quickly overwhelmed with setting information. In Unity you get description of a few major locations like capital cities and the rest can be fleshed out by the GM. One focus of the game is definitely exploration since the world changed a lot since the Cataclysm. The broad strokes approach to the setting also makes it easier to strip it out if you want to use Unity for your homebrew world.

Character Creation
Creating your character is a pretty straightforward process in Unity. The game recommends that you set up a Session Zero for that purpose. So everyone can talk about what they expect from the game and what character they want to play. This definitely helps to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

After choosing one of the playable races (the aforementioned Valla, Furians, Human, and Afflicted), you distribute a number of points among your four attributes: Might, Agility, Mind, Presence. Each race give you a baseline set of stats. A Furian for example starts with Might 2, Agility 1, Mind 0, and Presence 1. If you prefer rolling up your stats, there are alternative rules for that as well.

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A Class of Its Own
The probably most important character creation choice is your class. It defines what powers and perks you get access to. The available classes are Dreadnought, Driftwalker, Fell Hunter, Judge, Mystic, Phantom, Priest, Primalist, and Sentinel. The Dreadnought and Sentinel are your basic fighters, the first focused on heavy weapons, while the latter is more of a defensive type. Driftwalkers remind me of the D&D warlock and dabble in dark magic from the Drift. Fell Hunters are basically marksmen, Judges are pretty much Paladins (or similar faith-based fighters), Mystics are mages, Phantoms are assassins, and last but not least Primalists are shamans or druids. What struck me as odd is that Unity does not have a classic thief-like class. Sure the Phantom is a stealthy backstabber, but there doesn’t seem to be a large focus on picking locks, disarming traps, and picking pockets. Interestingly the Mystic actually has a level 1 perk called Unravel which gives them benefits when opening locks.

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Each class’ description comes with an advancement table which describes what a character gets while leveling up. This may be a HP boost, additional Core Path point (I’ll talk about that later), Attribute boosts, new perks, power tokens (see below), a higher artifact capacity, or bonusses to attack and defense ratings. Phew.

One last thing: Clerics in Unity have two class paths. They can either be Chaplains, or War Priests. Depending on that choice you get different class features. As the names suggest, the War Priest is more like a templar or crusader while the chaplain is more of a religious scholar.

Perks, Features, Resources and Power

Perks are used to enhance your character’s class identity and usually give non-combat benefits like the aforementioned Unravel or the Phantom’s Stealthy which gives them bonuses to all kinds of stealth checks. If I am not mistaken, you pick from one of two class perks at character creation and may later pick additional perks from a list available to all classes during character advancement. Mechanically I think they compare most closely to D&D’s feats. Luckily the list is much less exhaustive and you don’t get to pick new perks every level.

Class Features are special abilities which every member of a class eventually gets access to like the Driftwalker’s Siphoning Strike (which transfers health from the target to you), or the Primalist’s Beastwalker feature which allows you to “inhabit” the body of a wiling animal, while your body falls unconscious. Think of “warging” from A Song Of Ice and Fire. Characters get new class features every level.

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Powers are special attacks or magical powers which come in two tiers. Tier I powers can be taken as early as level 1. You start with three Tier I powers, and acquire two Tier II ones at level 5. At certain levels you’re granted power tokens which can be used to buy new powers or upgrade existing ones. Unfortunately this section of the rules could have used a serious rewrite since it’s often not clear how everything works. Or maybe my reading ability wasn’t up to snuff since it took me quite some time until I understood how and when you acquire new powers. I eventually found what I was looking for in the “How To Read The Class Advancement Table” section.

Last but not least I have to mention Resources. Each class has a resource they use to fuel their powers with. A Mystic uses Mana, a Driftwalker Bile and Blood, the Dreadnought uses Fury, etc.
Resources are replenished during rest.

Core Paths
Unity doesn’t use skills, but rather something the call Core Paths. These serve as backgrounds, help define your character, and also may grant you bonuses when you try to do something. I’d describe them as a melange of skills and Fate’s aspects. You can create these from scratch or pick one from a list of predefined ones. Personally I’d recommend doing the latter, especially if you are new to the game.

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Personally I like the idea of Core Paths and how they are an easy and customizable way to make your character unique. On the other hand some GMs and players may be uncomfortable with loosely defined abilities like these.

Core Rules
I have to admit that all this stuff with perks, powers, tokens, resources, tiers, levels, etc. can be pretty overwhelming quickly. The core rules in contrast are surprisingly light. As in other class and level-based fantasy RPGs you use all common polyhedral dice from the d4 to the d20 (including percentile dice). What differs from most classic RPGs is that all dice-rolls are done by the players. The GM doesn’t roll for NPC attacks for example, but the players roll for evading those attacks instead. This was one of the things I really liked about Monte Cook’s Cypher System and I like to see it here as well. If you really need to roll your own dice as a GM, there are optional rules for that.

The core resolution mechanic is 2d10 + any bonuses vs. a target number (TN). The bonuses usually come from one’s attack or defense rating in combat, or from one of the attributes and a fitting Core Path in non-combat situations. Simple, everyday tasks have a TN of 5, while for a heroic task you need a result of 22 or more.

Unity also borrows the advantage/disadvantage mechanic from D&D 5th Edition. Here it is called Benefit & Hindrance. When the rules grant you either condition, you may roll 3d10 and either drop the lowest or highest die respectively.

Spark and Ruin
Many modern games uses a meta currency to encourage people to roleplay which is then used to grant benefits to the players. In Unity this currency is called Spark Points. When a character takes the extra step to describe their actions in detail, or make the game more fun for everyone by a clever quip, the GM may grant Spark Points. All players share one pool and the number of available points is represented by a die placed visibly on the table. For four players the game recommends a d12 as Spark die.

In a four-player game you then need 4 Sparks for 1 Moment of Glory. When choosing to use a Moment of Glory, the player character has Benefit for the next action!

Of course there’s also a special resource for GMs called Ruin. Ruin is used to power certain monster powers, allows forced intrusions into the characters’ rest, and generally allows the GM to create tension and difficulty. Accumulated Ruin may even cause breaches into the Drift which can make a bad day even worse. Ruin is generated by immoral actions of the players, or just by the passing of time.

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Failing Forward
What I especially like about Unity’s core rules is that they fully embraced the concept of “failing forward”. A failed check should always make the story more interesting. “Nothing happens” is just boring. Some of the powers even have special failure conditions. For example the “Mark of the Heretic” power of the Cleric allows you to deal half  damage even if you failed the roll. Nice.

Combat!
Combat in Unity was build around the idea that the party should decide in which order they take action. Usually the narrative decided which team (the player characters or their opponents) act first. If unsure the players may make Speed checks against the monster’s speed rating. If successful they may act first, or decide against it.

If it is your character’s turn, you can take one of the available actions once (aside from the free action). The available actions are: Standard (like a basic attack), Movement, Quick (like quaffing a potion or switching weapons), Reaction, Maintain, Overdrive and Ultimate. Overdrive and Ultimate are special since they can only used once per Full Rest, although Overdrive can be recharged by an Adrenaline Rush.

Whenever you roll two 10s on your attack roll you can either cause a Massive Hit which causes three times the normal damage against one target, or maximum damage against multiple targets, OR you can cause the aforementioned Adrenaline Rush. Each power lists which Actions it uses. As expected Overdrive and Ultimate powers are extremely powerful. Reactions can be triggered during an enemy’s turn, but – as with all other Actions – only once per round.

Unity doesn’t use a grid system, but rather range bands from adjacent (about 2.5 meters) to very far (24 meters), which makes things so much easier.

Describing all Unity’s combat rules is beyond the scope of this review (which is pretty long already). I recommend to check out the free primer which should give you a good overview of the game’s look and design philosophy.

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Perhaps I should mention that Unity also comes with special rules for Titan Rigs, which are basically huge mechanized war machines (think of humanoid mecha) from the Golde Age. These machines are not piloted by one pilot alone, but the whole party cooperates.

Equipment and Artifacts
Unity doesn’t come with long lists of equipment, nor complex coinage. The currency in Unity is the Denerim. 10 to 15 Denerim pay for a hot meal and a room. Player characters start with 150 to 250 Denerim. Armor and Weapons come in broad groups which share stats. A light melee weapon (like a dagger, shortsword, or club) does 1d6 damage and costs 40 D. A light reinforced armor (like a chain shirt, or reinforced leather) costs 2000 D and grants a Armor Value of 3. This allows the player and GM to easily make up weapons on the spot. Simple and efficient!

All other equipment (aside from artifacts) is grouped under either Necessities or Gear. Both cost 5 D each and a character can carry a certain number depending on their Might attribute. When ever you need to rest outside of a shelter, you mark off one Necessity. Necessities are basically food rations, water flasks, maybe your bedroll.

Gear is pretty much everything else, from flint & steel to a set of tools, or a torch. Each time you use something like that, mark off a piece of Gear on your sheet, and write it down, to remind you that you carry this piece of Gear around. The next time you use it, mark off another Gear. This represents the wear and tear of your equipment. Some players and GM who love shopping might be put off by this abstract mechanic, but in my opinion its genius!

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Artifacts are more complex and precious pieces of equipment. Unity gives a few examples and also guidelines on how to reflavour them. Artifacts can also be upgraded during play. So the magic sword you found in session 3 is probably still powerful and relevant in session 30. Overall there’s not a huge emphasis on equipment like in – for example – D&D. Again, this may put off certain players, but as a GM I believe it might make things much, much easier for everyone at the table.

Bestiary and GM  Guide
Since Unity took the “One Rulebook To Rule Them All” approach, the bestiary and GM Guide are all included in the core rulebook. This also explains why a pretty rules-light system needs an almost 400-paged book. The 40+ pages long Bestiary not only gives stats and descriptions for quite a few NPCs (from standard foes like Zombies, to more unique monsters like Zoog & Rikkisi).

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Each bestiary entry gives a description of the monster, a stat block, and one or more illustrations. There are also rules on how to design encounters and also how to come up with your own monsters. This is probably especially helpful if you wish to use your own setting.

The GM Guide starts with the design philosophy of the game. Together with the sidebars all over the book, you should get a pretty good picture of why the game was designed in this way. It’s obvious that the authors of Unity wanted a game with a lot of cool player abilities and powers, which allow cinematic action and high drama without the minutiae of marking off every single piece of ammunition, or having to keep long lists of equipment. Fun for both the players and the GM were very high priorities.  What I especially like about the GM Guide is that it provides really useful information on how to run Unity instead of rehashing general GMing tips we have read thousands of times before. Instead it answers questions like how can I approach levelling in Unity? How can I embrace “fail forward”? How do I use Ruin and Intrusions? That’s really helpful stuff for a change.

The Small Details
The PDF this review is based on, comes with a fully bookmarked table of contents and an extensive index. A character sheet and a map of the world are included. Nice!
Unfortunately they decided to disable copying which is a massive pain if you ask me (Printing works fine). Using Sumatra PDF I was at least able to copy images and texts (as an image), but Adobe Acrobat didn’t allow either. I guess its a measure to fight piracy, but in my opinion it hurts the legitimate owner more than the ones who download it illegally. But this could be an issue with the copy I got for this review. (UPDATE: This issue was only with my review copy. I got another digital download from DriveThruRPG which isn’t restricted in any way)

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Summary
Unity is a class and level-based fantasy RPG with a very cool setting and  light but deep rules which allow both narrative gameplay and tactical combat. It takes elements from popular games and melded it into something new. The Unity core rulebook is a huge tome of almost 400 pages with gorgeous artwork and a clear design which rivals the products of much larger companies. Personally I enjoyed reading the book and can’t wait to actually play it. Unfortunately the name is probably one reason you haven’t really heard about Unity yet since it shares its name with a popular video game engine. But don’t let the generic name fool you. Unity is a game with heart and soul, and it should be on the radar of much more people than it is now! If you are into fantasy RPGs with a techno-magic twist, you should definitely check it out!

Unity is available directly from the official webstore or Modiphius both in PDF form or as a book+PDF bundle. The bundle sets you back about €50. The digital version is also available from DriveThruRPG and costs about €25.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

One thought on “A first look at the Unity RPG–Part Two”

  1. Sounds pretty good and, assuming it’s from the book, the artwork is beautiful.

    I think Session Zero is always a good idea regardless of the system, so it’s nice to see it recommended!

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