The Ubiquity system was introduced in 2006 with the release of Exile Game Studio’s flagship product Hollow Earth Expedition (HEX). I immediately bought it at Gen Con because of the evocative cover art. But the beauty wasn’t just skin deep–it quickly became my favorite system of RPG mechanics.
Ubiquity character sheets (sample below from HEX) look similar to other RPG systems; There are attributes/abilities, an array of skills, equipment and weapons lists, Defense rating, Initiative and Perception scores, personality traits, and special talents/edges the particular character possesses.
So what makes the Ubiquity system special then? I am going to bullet point what I consider to be the highlights of the system. Then I will address (and rebut) the most common complaints about the system.
- Character Creation is Fast. You may spend extra time agonizing over which Talents and Skills to take, but mechanically the process of character creation is a breeze.
- The Dice Pool. Ubiquity uses a binary or success\fail dice pool mechanic. This means you don’t have to be particularly good at math to understand your chances of success: Just divide the number of dice you are going to roll in half and, on average, that is how many successes you will have. For example, your attack rating with a rifle is 12. That means, on average, you can expect to get 6 successes.
- Modifiers are Applied Before Rolls. In Ubiquity, modifiers affect the number of dice in the pool rather than changing the final results. This makes it much easier for new players or at running at conventions because the GM takes into account the modifiers and just tells the player to roll fewer of more dice. Many games require you to take your results, then remember to add your proficiency modifier or extra weapon damage, etc to get the final result. It may not sound like a big difference, but in practice, the game just flows better this way.
- Attack and Damage Rolls are Combined. Combat is greatly sped up with players only rolling once. This is often cited as a flaw, but I’ll rebut this later.
- You can “Take the Average.” In stress-free situations, a character can “Take the Average” for Skill checks rather than rolling and potentially failing. Let’s say you have a really good lockpicker and you have an average locked door that needs opened. The character, being highly skilled, can simply “Take the Average” of their skill (say it’s 12, so 6 successes on average), and automatically succeed at the task. This speeds up play by getting rid of non-essential rolling. The key here is stress-free. If this same character had enemies firing guns at him or a speeding car bearing down, actually rolling with a chance of failure makes more sense. The “Take the Average” feature is all about giving the GM and players options to keep the game moving.
- There are No Classes or Levels. Ubiquity uses Archetypes to help the GM and players understand the concept behind a character, but it has no in-game mechanical effects. In other words, the characters are not boxed in by a class that dictates what they can and can’t do. Instead of gaining levels, characters gain Experience that they can then spend on raising Attributes, skills, or buying Talents and Resources. Certainly, there are character builds that would be considered “sub-optimal” in terms of game mechanics, but it’s never outright forbidden. I’d rather give players a chance to build that wacky character idea they have in their head rather than just saying “No, the class restrictions don’t allow that.”
- It’s Difficult to Raise the Primary Attributes. Some may see this as a negative, but I see it quite the opposite. Many games have scaleability issues as characters get to higher levels. Their attributes and health\hit points get so high they are nigh invincible. In Ubiquity, because a character’s Health (and to a lesser degree, their Defense) is directly tied to their Primary Attributes, which are expensive to raise, there is always the risk of injury and death. Your characters certainly become more skilled and talented, but essentially they are still human (or humanoid, depending on the genre you are playing). They are heroic, but not invulnerable super heroes.
- Style Points. Style points are much like Bennies in Savage Worlds. The GM doles these out for good roleplaying and playing up characters’ Flaws. They provide the ability for a character with a middling Skill Rating to still achieve heroic deeds. Imagine Marty McFly doesn’t have much of a Brawl Rating, but by spending those Style Points, he is able to knock out Biff with a single punch.
- Homebrew Friendly. Ubiquity is rather modular in that there are many rules you can put in or take out that don’t cause a “ripple effect” in the game mechanics. Prefer the card-driven initiative of Savage Worlds? Go for it; the only thing you have to remove is the Talent Quick Reflexes (+2 to Initiative), or perhaps just change what it gives a character.
The main criticism I hear leveled against Ubiquity is the combined attack and damage roll. Critics argue it is conflating accuracy, or the ability to actually hit a target, with the how hard something hits. Well, yes, it is combining them, but it isn’t confusing them. Take a look at this recent quote from Luke Gygax talking about the concept of Hit Points in D&D:
Hit points don’t mean flesh coming off or a spear through the kidney every time there is a successful attack. It’s the back and forth, a narrowly slipped sword thrust, a parry, a deflection, rolling away from the fireball’s blast. A skilled warrior has more endurance and skills to avoid the death stroke. But the last few hit points are the structural damage of an arrow in the chest, etc.
In other words, it’s an abstraction–a distillation– of a variety of factors boiled down into a single number. And so it is with Ubiquity and the combined roll. It is an abstraction of factors like the character’s skill with a particular weapon, the weapon’s accuracy and area of effect, the weapon’s potential damage output, etc. Really, it comes down the the GM’s narration of what happens. Let’s look at some examples:
The Snooty Professor only has a firearms skill rating of 4–he’s a scholar not a fighter! But in desperation, he picks up a shoulder-fired rocket launcher (damage rating 5L, let’s say). Total, the Professor rolls 9 dice for his attack.
The mercenary, highly trained in Firearms, 7 rating, fires her pistol (2 damage rating) at her target. She also rolls 9 dice.
Now let’s say their targets both roll the same amount of successes defending themselves at 6. That would mean in both cases the target took 3 points of Lethal Damage.
Critics would say this doesn’t make sense as the Professor isn’t as skilled as the Merc, yet did the same amount of damage. They argue the Professor probably wouldn’t have even be able to hit the target in the first place. This all comes down to the narrative.
The Professor picks up the RPG, aims it haphazardly, and fires! The grenade veers several feet left of his intended target, but the concussive blast knocks his enemy off his feet.
The mercenary coolly levels her pistol at her target, aims, and pulls the trigger. The henchman turns at the last minute and the bullet passes cleanly through his forearm.
I think most arguments against the combined hit/damage roll are made from a philosophical position rather than a practical one. In practice, this mechanic doesn’t really affect outcomes. I have known people who split the to-hit and damage roll and ended up just recombining them later as it didn’t make a difference other than taking up more valuable game time.
The other criticism I hear about Ubiquity is:
The game is too light and breezy for me. My players and I like some crunch.
Ubiquity is great for new roleplayers and GMs because it is easy to teach and quick to learn. Those characteristics also make it great for conventions when you want to spend time playing rather than explaining. But here is Ubiquity’s dirty little secret: there is crunch hidden in there!
Most demo games of Ubiquity are straight forward: run up and punch this guy, shoot at this dude, etc. But the game has rules for Aiming, Grappling, Total Attacks, Cautious Attacks, Total Defense, Charging, Shoving, Tripping, Shield Bash, area of effect attacks, cover, poisons and drugs, environmental conditions, the list goes on and on. And if you get some of the other Ubiquity games and supplements you can have Magic, Psionics, mad science/gadgets, animal companions, followers, and Alchemy. The game can be as crunchy as you want it to be and is fully compatible with using a grid and miniatures.
The Two Real Issues
Alas, I would be remiss if I glossed over issues with Ubiquity. There are two main ones I see, but neither is insurmountable. Indeed, they may well be categorized as Wishes rather than Issues.
- There is no Ubiquity Core Rulebook. After Hollow Earth Expedition came out, Ubiquity was licensed to other companies. Each company has to reprint the Ubiquity rules in their respective products. Thus, there is no definitive “core book” you could purchase and attach a genre of your choice. Any of the products will do, as the core rules in each are very similar, but there are slight changes to match the genre of the product. For instance, Desolation happens in a post apocalyptic fantasy setting, so you will not find stats for a bunch of modern weapons, or even the Firearms Skill, for that matter. Your best bet is to choose the genre closest to what you want to recreate and go from there. Of course, all the stand alone games are great on their own, too.
- Ubiquity Dice are hard to find. First and foremost, Ubiquity does not require the use of the proprietary dice, I just really like them. Ubiquity got its name because you can use any dice that have an even number of sides. Since the system is binary, simply choose whether even or odd numbers are the successes. Ubiquity dice just make it easier as not only do you just add up all the numbers that are face up, you can also reduce the number of dice rolled thanks to their color-coded system. White dice have 4 failures and 4 successes, just as expected. But the red dice have blank faces, 1’s and 2’s and is the statistical equivalent of rolling two white dice. The blue dice add a face with a 3 on it, making them the equivalent of rolling 3 white dice.
Triple Ace games often have Kickstarters for their new Ubiquity supplements and these usually feature dice as an Add On. It’s a great way to nab some Ubiquity dice. Alternatively, there are sets of binary D6’s out there for purchase.
Ubiquity is a fast, fun, easy to learn and teach RPG with surprising hidden depth. There is several genres available now and the rules are quite adaptable if you want to tackle a new genre.
A great channel for more in-depth Ubiquity info. https://www.youtube.com/user/Runeslinger
A centralized resource for sample characters, adventures, play aids. http://mythiceras.net/