Reexamining a Ubiquity-Powered D&D

In 2019, I started a series of posts about tweaking Ubiquity to make it a suitable replacement for Dungeons & Dragons. I was proud of the work I put into that conversion. However, in the proceeding years, I have been exposed to different RPG design elements that made me have an epiphany: My game was needlessly complex.

It began when the inscrutable YouTube algorithm suggested a Dungeon Craft video. In it, Professor Dungeonmaster explains how more rules only give the illusion of choice, but actually limit creative thinking, essentially turning a character sheet into a control panel of toggles and switches that players activate in response to specific stimuli. In contrast, older versions of D&D had more nebulous rules, relying more on DM fiat. The Professor argued this is a feature, not a flaw.

I was introduced to other channels, like Runehammer and Questing Beast as I continued devouring Dungeon Craft videos. I learned about Index Card RPG, Knave, and got in depth reviews on OSR games as well as the general principles of the OSR. It’s these channels where I learned about a whole subset of games called Minimalist RPGs, like Tiny Dungeons and Mothership. All of this new information and viewpoints led me to really want to redo my Ubiquity-powered version of D&D.

This revelation was also informed by my own experiences with 5e D&D at the table. I really enjoyed 5e when it first came out. I thought the Advantage/Disadvantage system was brilliant in it’s simplistic elegance. But as the game matured, I found it impossible as a DM to keep up with all the character options that were steadily released. In addition, game sessions had too much rulebook page-flipping, elongated combats, tedious initiative tracking, and enough player downtime that you saw them scrolling on their phones.

With all this in mind, I have decided to make a new generic fantasy rule system. The system needs to have the following characteristics:

  • Binomial-based dice pool mechanics
  • Fairly quick character creation
  • Intuitive, yet potentially dangerous magic system
  • Uncluttered character sheet
  • Easy initiative
  • Character death is a real possibility
  • Rulings, not rules (GM fiat)

Let’s take a quick look at each of these.:

Binomial-based dice pool mechanic

This seems like an oddly specific requirement, but hey, it’s a system I really like. Dice pools allow more predictability in the results than a D20 system’s “swingy-ness.” For me, the interesting and unpredictable results can come from a single meta-currency in the game design, allowing characters to succeed at things they would not normally be able to do.

Quick Character Creation

As I like a game where character death is a real possibility, it is important that characters can be created quickly. I completely understand the frustration of a newly minted character that took an hour to create suddenly being killed off in the first adventure. But if the character creation process is quick and the deadliness of the game is explained beforehand, character death doesn’t have to pull the game down–it can be a feature and a source of new drama in the story unfolding.

Intuitive and Dangerous Magic System

I never understood why spellcasting level doesn’t match character level in D&D, especially in 5e which was supposed to make the game easier. I’ve also never been a fan of spell slots. I understand why the exist (as a way to regulate spellcasting), but it stands out as very clearly a game mechanic rather than having a good in-game world explanation.

Magic should be dangerous, especially to the caster. EVERY spell should require a roll and bad things should happen when the spell fails. With inherent danger is casting, there is a built-in regulatory system for magic users. It’s up to them how much they want to risk their own lives. It also means many wizards don’t live to old age; This explains why magicians don’t completely rule the world, and also means those old, gray bearded magic users should be feared.

Uncluttered Character Sheet

OSR and Minimalist games have taught me to embrace sparse character sheets. Creativity increases at the table as the character sheet becomes less cluttered. Tons of options on the sheet encourages players to look at the sheet for game solutions rather than immersing themselves in the story and coming up with creative ideas. Less information on the sheet also makes it easier to read and use.

Easy Initiative

Tracking initiative can be a pain in the arse. I’ve tried magnetic boards, note cards, pen and paper, but they all lead to the same issue–it pauses the game and wastes valuable time. An initiative system should require no record keeping from the GM.

Character Death a Real Possibility

Plot armor, in my opinion saps a certain amount of tension from a game. If a character can’t die permanently, what’s the point of rolling dice at all? I want character death to always be possible. Low hit points/health, dangerous and tactically sound enemies, and limited magical healing are ways to achieve this.

Rulings, not Rules

This is a classic mantra of OSR games. The concept is simply that the rules for a game do not have to cover every possibility or situation that may arise in a session. That doesn’t make it an unfinished game; It makes a game where the GM can make logical rulings based on the situation. It keeps the game moving and eliminates much of the rules-lawyering from players.

So What Now?

Future posts will lay out the rules to the new RPG ruleset. They won’t be polished and will probably change as I go along. Consider them more like a thinking out loud exercise.

Ultimately, things will change enough I don’t think this can be considered “Ubiquity” anymore. I think it’s final form will be an amalgamation of D&D, Ubiquity, Tiny Dungeon, Index Card RPG, Various OSR games, EZD6, and Shadow of the Demon Lord. It’s not so much about reinventing the wheel as it is rearranging the spokes.

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