THE UNICORN SYSTEM
Fantasy Role Play Gaming System RULES
By Jennifer Diane Reitz
It is assumed that the reader already understands the nature of a Role Playing Game, or RPG. If this is not true, please read A Role Playing Game Primer before continuing with the Unicorn Rules.
The approach to tabletop role play I present here has been developed over the past 20 years, and it allowed me, at one point, to act as a professional, paid Game Master. The reason I, and my system were in such demand was because the system I present is focused on only one goal: providing entertainment to the players.
The Unicorn System is not for the person who is brought to gaming by exacting rules, by the micromanagement of details, or the slavish adherence to a specific, published game product. The Unicorn System takes a wholistic approach that eliminates anything which is overly complicated, removes details in favor of storytelling and gameplay, and places the focus of attention not on the Game Master but instead on the players that the Game Master serves.
The essence of the Unicorn System of tabletop RPG play is to reduce complexity to a minimum required for efficient and exciting gameplay. This System can be applied to essentially ANY tabletop RPG with just a little imagination: The Unicorn System is more an ethic, than a Book Of Rules. The ethic is simple: Fun, Simple, Easy, Entertaining. It is a generalistic, minimalist ethic applied to the often overly complicated rules of the tabletop RPG.
This goal is achieved by following a set of 3 basic principles for the Game Master to follow:
1. Nothing Is Hidden
All die rolls are seen by all players. No "Referee Shields", hidden dice rolls, or secret messages. In the case of events that some or all of the player characters are expected to be unaware of, the players are expected to actually role play, that is to say, they are expected to play the actions of their characters as if the characters had no access to the same information that the players themselves have. If a player sees the dice roll up a hidden trap, the player's character does not know this fact, and the player is expected to make choices accordingly. Do this, and you will seldom, if ever, be accused of unfairness, all players will still have just as much fun, if not actually more (anticipation has great value), and everything will move faster and work better.
2. Players Make Their Own Dice Rolls Themselves
Whatever action is occuring, make the players roll the dice for anything that involves their character. ALWAYS keep the players active! Whenever possible, have the players actually doing the game mechanics. They are there to play for themselves, not to watch a Game Master roll dice. If a player is somehow eliminated from the game, or absent from a scene, have them assist you...let them 'be' the monsters and choose the actions of the enemy, for example. Ultimately: keep your players doing things. Every minute a player sits and does nothing, has nothing to say or contribute, or has no choice to make, and no participation in events, you are failing as a Game Master to some degree. You win only if your players are busy and having fun.
3. The Stats Are There To Be Used
This is the heart of the Unicorn System. The basic, defining stats for the Unicorn System include:
Basic Universal Stats
INT Intelligence Used for actions involving the mind
DEX Dexterity Used for actions of physical manipulation
WIL Will Used for actions involving internal willpower
AGL Agility Used for actions involving the whole body
STR Strength Used for actions involving physical strength
CHA Charisma Determines both beauty and influence
CON Constitution Determines resistance to physical insult
PER Perception Used for actions involving awareness
HP Hit Points Life Energy. When it is zero, death occurs
ALI Alignment Good, Neutral, Evil, and all inbetween
MA Movement Allowance How far one can move
AC Armor Class Special Case (see Below) Normally ZERO
All statistics are considered to have 10 as the hypothetical human average. 10 is considered to be 100, really, as in an I.Q. of 100. We just ignore the percentage aspect to keep things simple. 10 is human average. Simple.
Instead of dealing with rolling dice against result tables, or ignoring the actual stat numbers in favor of only the bonuses they provide, or any other such way of handling things, just USE THE STATISTICS AS GIVEN. This is straightforward, easy to grasp, easy to explain to new players, and makes the game mechanics as efficient as it is possible for them to be.
Need to dance a Jig? Roll Agility as listed, adjusted by any plusses or minuses caused by the situation (Character is drunk? that's a minus. Character has a Skill for dance? That's a plus. Easy.)
Need to spot a trap? Roll Perception the same way. Constitution to survive shock or resist disease...Constitution is the universal physical 'saving throw'. Will is the universal psychic 'saving throw'. Simple.
There is another value to doing things this way: Players can instantly deterimine who among them has a character best suited to doing a specific task. This choice can be decided in seconds, with little fuss, or argued about without resorting to books and diagrams. It speeds play, and thus the story, and in the Unicorn System, the story, and ease of play are the RULE.
But how do we actually roll these stats as given? Simple again. Faced with a task, the player rolls a number EQUAL TO, OR BELOW their own statistic value. To hit a target, for example, a player with a Dexterity of 10 would try to roll a 10, or below, on a 20 sided die, if one were using a D20 style of play.
Which brings up another point: you can play an RPG with any set of dice. Only have four six-sided dice? No problem, adjust the stats, and the game to match. You do not have to be the slave of the D20. However, the D20 is very convenient, and very commonly used by many systems, so I will use it as the basis of this article...just keep in mind that any dice system will work in a pinch...percentage dice, a couple of D8's, whatever. Play is the point, not the dice used.
Unicorn System Criticals And Fumbles
A 20 on a D20 is ALWAYS a FUMBLE, and a 1 on a D20 is ALWAYS a CRITICAL. Yes this is the reverse of some systems, such as D&D 3rd edition. But it makes sense, because the player is required by the Unicorn System to roll equal to, or UNDER their own stat number. Think of it as zeroing in on a target. A 1 is bang on, a 20 is way off.
How are 'Crits' and 'Fumbles' handled under Unicorn Rules? Very simplistically: a critical does double damage, and a fumble cause the player to screw up and hit themselves instead. Some readers may immediately go 'Huh?' to this last bit, but it is based on the real world. In actual, historic battles, a significant number of deaths and dismemberments are always caused by individuals to themselves. Ever hear of a horrible chainsaw accident? People playing with dangerous toys have lethal or crippling errors when they screw up. This is real. Don't like reality? Use the alternate rule and just have a fumble cause the player to be unble to take an action that turn. Oopsie!
So What About Armor Class Then?
'Armor Class' is listed as a special case in the stats given above, did you notice? There is a reason. Unicorn Rules deals with the issue of Armor in a very special and simple manner. Armor Class, in Unicorn Rules, is not treated the same way as other game systems do. Armor in Unicorn Rules, for a normal, naked human is exactly ZERO.
All Armor Points do is ABSORB damage. Armor soaks up damage. That is it. Simple and straightforward. If a character has natural armor, such as scales, or a tough hide, then they have a natural Armor stat. Otherwise, Armor is what protects you.
If you have two gladiators facing off in an arena, and one has leather armor that absorbs 8 points of damage (Leather Armor 8) and the other has just cloth on that absorbs 3 points of damage (Cloth 3) then an attack of 10 points of damage to one would have 8 points absorbed by the leather armor, and only 2 points of damage would 'get through' to harm the gladiator. If the same damage was done to the warrior in cloth, then 7 points of actual harm would get through, and three would be absorbed, soaked up harmlessly, gone.
That is it. Simple, easy, no fuss. Armor absorbs damage, no armor is being vulnerable. Just like real life. It really makes sense, and it is easy for any player, new or old, experienced or not, to grasp.
But what about ducking, parrying, or having a natural ability to avoid being hurt somehow? Great...ROLL FOR IT. Roll on agility to sidestep some of the damage, if the character has such an ability or skill. Intelligence to anticipate. Consitution to endure. Wisdom to duck in time. How much damage is avoided? What is the level of the skill? That number is the damage avoided. Simple.
Few things in the Unicorn System are ever automatic. When in doubt, have the player roll on an appropriate stat!
How About Hit Points?
Hit Points are how much damage a being or creature can take before death or the equivalent of death. Zero is dead, usually, but if you like, there is nothing wrong with making zero the point of unconsciousness, and -10 as actual death, or even making death impossible in the game altogether....zero HP then becomes simply being out of the fight and missing the experience points for that battle (the incapacitated character is useless until healed, just as in a computer console RPG). How serious do you want your game to be? Whatever ruling you make, make sure all the players understand the rule of life and death before the game starts, then stick with it...unless everyone votes to change it.
Oh yes. Want to settle all of those inevitable conflicts, arguments about events, complaints about some occurance or result or decision you have made? Dump your own pathetic little ego (you are there to please the players!) and resolve things by setting up a vote on the matter. If the players feel that they have a say, if you as a Game Master seem reasonable, then things WILL work out. A player endlessly complains that their character should have a second chance at something...put it out to the other players. Let the unhappy player make a QUICK, succinct case, and take a vote. Go with the result of the vote, or if deadlocked, then let the fool have another chance. It's not a big deal, really. End of problem. If this is not enough to end the problem, you have one or more players you do not need playing that day.
Combat And Time Flow
Combat in Unicorn Rules is not set in concrete time. Indeed, time under the Unicorn System is flexible, malleable in general...it is event-relative time. Days, and months can be said to pass, according to narrative requirements, but basically, time depends on actions taken. In combat, or in most events of any sort, time effectively is frozen, and the clock moves only as each action is taken.
In the Unicorn System there are Turns and Rounds. A round is one full sweep around all the players. Choose a direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, and stick with it. Each player, takes a turn, just like in any board game. In a given turn, a player may have their character perform one basic activity, such as searching a desk, equipping a weapon, making an attack, moving to the limit of their movement allowance, or eating a plum bun. Movement allowance is also used to decide if a character can do more than other characters, or less than the average human movement allowance. But in general, one turn, one basic choice of action. When all players have taken their turns, that is one round completed.
Should any enemy be attacked, or involved in an action, they enemy may respond on that same turn, tit-for-tat. By the same token, any player character that is attacked or affected may also respond immediately if they are involved in an action or an attack. The moment of being involved in an action includes the player or enemy in the 'bubble of time' created by that specific action. In short, if a character is involved, it is part of the moment in time.
However, each character or enemy can normally only take one action each round, so, if they have already acted, they cannot immediately respond every single time they are involved in an event. They may be part of the time, but they have already 'spent' their action for the round. Can a player choose to remain on guard, alert, and save their action just in case? Yes. Can a player ask to 'pass' their turn, so that it comes up at the end of all the rest of the turns? Yes, but they can do so only once per round. Can two or more players ask to 'spend' their actions as a single, unified, cooperative act, all in the same turn, as one? Yes....that is acceptable. However, once a character's action is taken, they cannot act again (normally) until the next round.
Actions, Time Flow, and the Rule Of Threes
A player chooses to have their character attempt to pick a lock. That is one basic action, and so it can be done on their turn. They might have to roll their Dexterity (or under) to see if they have successfully used a lock pick of some sort, for instance. How many times can they try this? Forever, until they finally get it right? If so, what is the point of turns and rounds and attempts at all? Sooner or later they will succeed, so whay roll at all? No! The Unicorn System has a solution to this called the Rule Of Threes.
A entire party of characters gets three attempts exactly to succeed at a non-combat task. If they collectively fail all three, they cannot succeed. That is it for them. The lock is damaged beyond repair. The circuitry cannot be fixed. The characters refuse to obey the players, if nothing else. This demands two important things of the players, and the Game Master too. The players must be careful who they have attempt things, and they must find another solution to a problem if they fail utterly. The Game Master, in setting up her world, must make sure every puzzle or obstacle has two, and preferably more, possible solutions, or an alternate route altogether for the players to find. As long as this is done, choices have meaning, and turns matter, and the game feels like accomplishment.
How complicated can an action be an still fit within a 'turn'? This is a matter of general agreement and basic reasonability. Making a bed or picking a lock could fit under 'one turn', even though picking a lock takes but seconds, and making a bed can take minutes. This is a GAME after all, and fun is the point, not total realism. Always keep this in mind! However, a ridiculous interpretation of time is destructive of fun, unless one is deliberately enjoying it as a joke of some sort. So, while making a bed or picking a lock might be roughly equivalent to 'one action' in the fluid, event-driven time of Unicorn Rules, constructing a starship from spare parts in one turn is NOT. If you must have one turn nailed down, it is an event that can be reasonably performed within a time frame from one second to a handful of minutes at most. If you want to be anal, making a bed could take two or three turns...but such accuracy only bogs down game play.
If you ever see a player having to spend their turn saying "My character is still doing <ACTION>, next!"...then you are failing as a Game Master. Why? Because a turn has passed and a player did not really have the opportunity to contribute or choose or act in a decisive manner. In effect, they were forced to 'pass', and sit and be bored. This is not so important in a typical board or card game...but in a Role Playing Game, being forced to pass more than a single turn gets really boring, really fast....this is because each player turn can take several minutes to explain and resolve.
Always strive to achieve a game where every player has the option to take real action once every round.
This rule alone will all but guarantee that a game will be at least mildly amusing, just by itself. Keep the players involved!
SUMMARY Of The Most Important Points
Never Hide Dice Rolls
Have The Players Make Their Own Dice Rolls
Use The Stats Literally
Keep The Game Moving
Keep The Players Making Choices Every Turn
When In Conflict, Call A Vote
Keep The Game Mechanics Simple
Focus On Entertainment, Gameplay And Story, Above All
The Game Master Exists ONLY To Serve The Players
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by Jennifer Diane Reitz
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