Welcome back for Part 2 of “Unity’s Setting: Why does it exist and can I use my own setting instead?”
In this piece we’ll examine an example of one of Unity’s mechanics that is informed by the setting and also how those with a creative itch can fit their own setting into Unity’s system.
Mechanics Influenced by Setting – Example: Breaches
In Unity there are certain mechanics that are born from the flavour of the lore that pervades the world. Unity is set in a time when the world is on fire from certain cataclysmic events. A significant piece of fiction is that the fabric of reality has been sheared and the crossing over of two worlds is an ever present threat. The Drift is an immaterial world that exists alongside physical reality and is home to the collective emotional, psychic and spiritual energies of all living things. It is also home to demonic entities known as the Fell.
The sundering of reality by the Skyfather has caused the Drift to spill into the physical realm and this bit of fiction has gone on to inform a mechanic for what we call “Breaches”. A Breach is a reflection of the unstable flux of energy that presses against the walls of reality constantly. Sometimes, the surge of energy is so great it actually breaks through the already damaged barrier and causes a portal to open that may or may not bring all manner of Fell spawn screaming through into the real world. A Breach opens up many different possibilities, mechanical and otherwise.
Mechanically speaking Breaches are used as a device to instill a sense of tension and overarching feeling of danger to the world. The conditions and triggers leading up to the possibility of a Breach opening and potentially causing much mayhem encourage players to make thoughtful and sometimes difficult decisions. As of the current iteration, a “long rest” in the traditional sense of RPGs increases the probability track of a Breach opening somewhere. A group that likes to play it overly safe and have “15 minute workdays” by constantly resting pushes their luck as the chances of a Breach opening continue to increase as they burn time recuperating more than they should.
One of the other triggers that moves the Breach track along are morally questionable actions. The Drift being an amalgamation of the energies of the living is powerfully affected by what’s going on in the physical realm. Hatred, maliciousness, duplicity and a host of other vile thoughts and emotions provide fuel for the dark entities dwelling within the Drift. Massacres and unjust deaths cause a spike in spiritual energy within the Drift, sometimes enough to break through and create a Breach.
Does this mean that players need to be goody two shoes hero of the people types? No, not at all. With the opening of a Breach comes possibility. The possibility of wanton destruction but also the possibility of discovery, growth and rare treasures.
As a storytelling device players might want to cross over to the Drift. For what purpose? Maybe at higher levels they could go in to rescue the soul of a fallen comrade, having to fight through hell and back to get to it. Or perhaps the party believes so strongly they can get to the source of the Fell and end it once and for all. Bold thinking. But bold thinking inspires great risks which can lead to great adventures. A more morally ambiguous group of players might want to cause a Breach to open then just “happen to appear to save the day” for some very grateful folks now ripe for manipulation and exploitation. Maybe they might want to capture a demon and good cop/bad cop it into coughing up some much sought after secrets. There is a lot of potential mechanically and story-wise to play with here.
Fitting Your Own Setting into Unity
I led with the example of a mechanic built upon Unity’s setting to give you a sense of my design goals and at the same time have some context to speak with in regards to reskinning or outright removing mechanics in order to satisfy congruency with your own setting and vision.
Before we dive into this next part, please keep in mind that Unity was crafted to be an epic fantasy RPG. This means there will be magic and fantastical creatures. These themes are built into the very core of Unity and if you have a setting in mind that deviates significantly from “fantasy” then you will be required to roll up your sleeves more and more to achieve the immersion and congruency you are looking for. It will get to a point where it won’t make sense anymore especially if you want a sci-fi Star Trek style game or a simulation of one of the World Wars. Unity was NOT created to be a generic rule-set but I’ve built it to be as flexible as possible as I do not believe there is one true way to play a game. I’ve taken steps to not compromise its core identity or the integrity of its mechanics while I strive for this flexibility.
Unity’s combat engine rules, character creation rules and its approach to non-combat scenarios that promote character development and interesting scenarios are fully transferable to any setting. Where things require a little elbow grease are the races, classes, powers and any setting based mechanic like the Breaches mentioned above that you’d want to keep.
Races: Depending on your setting and how far it deviates from epic fantasy, races are pretty easy to convert. Their appearance and lore can be reflavoured without issue. Their ability score bonuses are also easily transferable as there’s a race that excels at each stat except for Presence but you could easily add a fifth race that grants that bonus. The bonuses do confer a ubiquitous mechanical advantage for the character and help players quickly identify with the fast, strong, balanced, smart etc. race.
A bit more creative juice is required to get the feel of their distinctive racial powers right depending on how far off in any direction your setting is going from what Unity’s setting is about. But if we examine the initial Valla racial power, it’s a strong defensive power that gives credence to the Valla’s once great psychic abilities. You might not have psychic abilities in your own, possibly low fantasy setting. What you could flavour it as is “Soldier’s Discipline” – a race that honors skill, practice and the man standing beside them at all times. Back to back they are unstoppable. In a state of utter awareness even a minute twitch of muscle communicates danger to your fellow comrades and confers said defensive bonus.
Classes and Powers: This is an area of conversion that’s deeply seated in the epic fantasy theme. I’ve laid out the ‘blueprint’ with regards to Class combat roles and Powers. What I mean by blueprint is that underneath all the fluff, there’s a framework that informs each power or feature that a class receives. When you look at a Class’ power card you’ll see a bit of italicized fluff and then the EFFECTS of the power. By reading the EFFECTS section you are able to tease out my design intent for the power and its purpose – Single or AOE direct damage? Utility? Environmental manipulation? Repositioning? Etc.
From here if you can understand the intent and spirit of the power, you can reflavour the fluff to fit your world. Keep the effects the same because each power was designed as its own unique moving part that plays a role in the entire construct of classes as a whole.
Work will be minimal if your setting is based in fantasy as well. With magic as an accepted reality, a lot of the powers won’t need touching. If you want to run a setting without magic then you may have your work cut out of you 🙂 It’s not impossible because most of the hard work has been done by providing you with the blueprint for a cohesive and heavily tested class and power system but you may have to get creative to explain some of the abilities fluff-wise. You can see an example below of a power that’s easily acceptable in a traditional D&D style fantasy setting but might require some creative limbo to fit a super low magic/fantasy world.
Setting Based Mechanics: I spoke a bit about the Breaches mechanic at the beginning of this blog post. This is a good example of something that GMs can either toss right out the window or use if they like the idea of it even if they are using Unity’s default setting. It doesn’t make or break the game but it adds something that during a Session Zero you might find the group would really enjoy.
It’s also got built in levers and dials to tune to the tastes of your group. There’s rules that the group could take or leave out. What moves the probability track of a Breach opening up? Do you like one trigger but not another? Feel free to ditch the one you don’t like. Want Breaches to occur less? Expand the cap on the track or vice versa if you want more Breaches. How dangerous should Breaches be? Tune the level of invasion to your tastes.
If the mechanical idea of Breaches sounds enticing to you but you want to use your own setting devoid of another parallel energy world or demons then go ahead and reflavour it to marauding bandits, political tyranny manifesting as a random shakedown of a village, or if you have a “big bad evil guy” then play it off that he/she has time to gather agents and send them forth to pillage and plunder or what have you. Your imagination is the limit because the mechanics and blueprint have been provided for you.
In conclusion, I hope you walk away from this post understanding the philosophy of design I’m approaching Unity with and that I am encouraging you to make it your own but there are limits that I’d like to be transparent about and give you a sense of the amount of work it will take the further you deviate from the core themes that give Unity its identity. One of the things I’m looking forward to after Unity is finished and in the hands of players are the cool homebrews and worlds that folks can fit the Unity Tabletop engine inside of. I live and breathe the world of Unity each and everyday since the project started so it’s going to be a nice treat to explore someone else’s setting using my game system 🙂