Title: Code of Unaris 
Author: Gary Pratt
Publisher: Goldleaf Games, LLC
Year: 2004
318 pages

Product Rating: 3 (***)
Game Play Rating: 3 (***)

Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2005 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John

         Code of Unaris is a fantasy role-playing system specifically designed for play over Internet chat systems. Rather than designing particular software, it is published as a semi-traditional printed book with diceless mechanics similar to tabletop but that are intended to encourage fast resolution and take advantage of the text medium. I should begin by saying that this is a capsule review, and that I am reviewing this because I received a comp copy. I have not played it, and indeed, I haven't played any game online for many years. When I did, though, it was a text-based MUD which is similar in some sense to chat.

         It is rather unusual to have a game designed for online play which is not software-based. On the good side, I think Code of Unaris is a fusion of tabletop roleplaying principles to online play, bringing a perspective different from what is often done by programmers. On the negative side, I don't think that the mechanics are well integrated into the play experience. I think if there are future games of this type they should be developed hand-in-hand with the software.

         Code of Unaris is set on the fantasy world of Unaris, which is Earth's own moon a billion years in the past in a magical age which preceded our own. Ostensibly, time travel has allowed the interface of chat to contact directly from the modern world to that time. There are two time periods detailed. The Third Age is a high fantasy setting set in a fertile and wondrous land. The Fourth Age, 5000 years later, is a dark fantasy setting that follows a cataclysm that has destroyed almost all life save in a magical tower.

Material

         The rulebook is pocket-size (8.5x11) and 318 pages. There is a brief 1-page Table of Contents and a 3-page index. It is divided into three sections: "Code of Unaris", "The Sunset Kingdoms", and "The Alfar Tower". Section One ("Code of Unaris") is 121 pages (1-121). It briefly introduces the world and then explains all the mechanics of play. Section Two ("The Sunset Kingdoms") is 106 pages (122-227). It has detailed background, creatures, and characters for the magic-rich, high fantasy time period (the Third Age). Section Three is 83 pages (228-310). It has detailed background, creatures, and characters for the low-magic, dark fantasy period (the Fouth Age).

Mechanics

         At base, Code of Unaris relies on diceless comparison of stats. i.e. If my character has Strength 8 and yours has Strength 6, I beat you by a factor of 2. The only for you to win the contest is to arrange for modifiers based on circumstance, such as if my character were fatigued or if yours had some boost. Unlike recent diceless games such as Nobilis or Marvel Universe, there is no resource spending in contests such as hero points (though there is a different resource, hack points -- see below). Rather, the contests are like a slightly crunchier version of the Amber Diceless system -- you win by your character having favorable circumstances and/or outright cheating.

         In addition, there is no initiative system per se. Actions happen as they are typed. So as happens in Amber Diceless, I expect there to be a fine dance short of an invisible, subjective line. i.e. If as a player, you can type quickly some text explaining that your character has some advantage, then you win. The restriction is that the GM has to accept your narration -- so if you claim too much, then you will presumably be shot down. For example, you can get a +2 Fight if you are on higher ground than your opponent. However, there is no map or movement system to show higher ground. Rather, you have to convince the GM that your character has higher ground. All of this is similar to the issues in the Amber system. The advantage is fast resolution and highly descriptive combat.

         The most innovative and controversial mechanic, however, is hacks. This is very specific to the text medium. By spending one hack point, a player can change one word in what the GM has typed within the last ten seconds. Every player gets 20 hack points per session. For example, the GM writes "It was a dark and stormy night." The player replies "Hack 'stormy' to 'starry'". The GM then repeats the phrase to explain it "OK, it was a dark and starry night." There is a list of restricted words which cannot be hacked -- but you may instead just hack the words around them.

         Given that hacks are such a huge effect on play (especially with 20 per player per session), it is surprising that there are only two pages devoted to them. I sort of hoped for more examples and especially trying to deal with the bizarre continuity from more serious hacking. i.e. The GM says "There are six Northlanders bearing down on you" and a player says "Hack 'Northlanders' to 'women'" (an example from the book). The GM must now think quickly for this to make sense. It's something one will mainly learn from doing, I think, but still a little more preparation from the book would have been nice.

Character Creation

         Character creation is quite fast and simple. You pick one from a set of 18 templates, then spend 6 bonus points on extras, pick one reputation, pick one special equipment or companion, and go. There are no attributes (like Strength or Dexterity) -- only skills (rated 1 to 10 or so) and binary traits: special abilities (i.e. like advantages or feats) and reputations. The lists are relatively short, though not hugely so. Skill are divided into 23 Common Skills and 29 Learned Skills. There are 13 special abilities, and 35 reputations. A template will have five Learned Skills at rank 5, and 1 to 4 Common Skills at rank 3.

         The character creation system is quite fast, but also does not produce very distinctive characters. There is heavy overlap among the templates among key skills like Fight, Notice, and Dodge. So characters are less distinctive than, say, Dungeons & Dragons with its distinctive and complementary classes. Perhaps with players liable to drop out or enter more easily, the overlap among characters is a good thing.

Combat

         Combat is a special case of the resolution rules -- Fight skill vs Fight skill, or Shoot/Throw vs difficulty -- plus further guidance on how to apply damage. Every character has a track of 10 Life Points. Damage done by a blow is the level of success minus the amount of armor. Interestingly, weapons add to Fight skill rather than increasing damage or cancelling armor. So if you have two opponents with +3 weapons and 3 armor, then each has +3 to Fight but has to succeed by a margin greater than 3 to do any damage. Thus, heavy armor may result in a stalemate regardless of the weapon bonus.

         Overall, it seems to work well enough. You can forego an attack to get +2 to your Dodge, or charge for +2 Fight but -2 Dodge. It is fairly quick and forces players to think hard about how to get advantageous modifiers.

Magic and Mathematics

         The magic system is also simple. To use magic, you must have one of the Calculate, Cast, or Engineer skills at 5 or greater. There are 57 predefined spells and theorems. Spells are not rated in level -- all spells are equal difficulty, though some also require the Forbidden Knowledge skill. Spellcasters know three spells at the start of the game, and may cast a number of times per game session equal to their skill. Note that this is a meta-game limit: characters have no way to regain spells.

         The spells themselves are varied, but cover most usual fantasy tropes. The unusual aspect is the mathematical and engineering theorems, which are treated just like cast spells but have distinct flavor -- like "Calculate Trajectory" or "Increase Gravity" or "Heatsink Theorem".

Third Age Background

         The Third Age is a high fantasy setting, a time of advanced and exotic civilizations powered by magic. However, there are various undertones and hints of the impending doom. There are various universities, but the study of mathematics has recently been banned after the discovery of its possible consequences (especially time travel). The place descriptions have many other hints of impending danger, like the city of Allure which is slowly sinking into the sea over the past decade and rumors of a large sea creature eating local fish.

         The setting is something of a mix in flavor between Tolkien's Middle Earth and Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom. It is inhabited by humans plus a mix of elves ("Alfar"), dwarves ("Dwalfar"), and gnomes. There are also trolls, sprites, dragons, silkies, and other creatures. However, it is a more advanced and civilized land. The adventure seeds are partly in the clash within the central Unarian Empire between the loyal Knights Unari who guard the 14-year-old emperor, and the corrupt Knights Leucretis who operate within the arms of the church.

         Most of this section is spent detailing various towns, kingdoms, and other locations. In addition, there are 18 varieties of creatures described including game stats, and there are 12 individual heroes and villains provided. The NPCs here are generally much more powerful than starting PCs -- they will presumably be figures in the larger plot rather than direct opponents or allies.

         There is no sample adventure in the book, but there are two available for download from the website. The longer one deals directly with the announcement of the banning of the practice of mathematics, in which the PCs deal with sabotage to the Imperial library and find an important mathematical document. Given the impending doom, there is something of a central story to this setting. The cataclysm which all but destroys the world is set to happen two years from the given starting date for Third Age adventures. Individual GMs can ignore that in favor of wandering adventures if desired, but they may seem trivial in the face of what is going to happen.

Fourth Age Background

         Set five thousand years later, the surviving people of Unaris are trapped in the Alfar Tower -- a gargantuan structure fifty miles on a side and 100 miles high. The outside world is a frozen wasteland due to the devastation of the Winter Warlock. Inside, the good people of Unaris exist on dwindling resources as they fight scattered monsters and undead, and corrupted beings. Magic now depends on having a limited supply of the rare mineral arcanite or arcanite-infused lichen. All creatures on the edges and top levels of the tower are succumbing to the corrupting influence of the Warlock. This

         Like the Third Age book, most of this section is spent detailing locations on the 18 levels of the tower. There are 11 varieties of creatures described and statted out, and there are 6 individual NPCs.

         It is not clear to me what adventures within the Alfar Tower should be like. While it is possible to fight scattered monsters, it seems rather pointless. The major threats seem to be the creeping corruption and dwindling resources. I would imagine that adventures here would have to hold some hope through the possibility of time travel. Even moreso than the Third Age, I feel like that adventures here will tend to revolve around the central drama of what is happening to the world. Neither of the sample adventures are set in this age, and there are no suggested seeds provided.

Conclusion

         Overall, this is an intriguing game. The diceless game mechanics are fast and simple. They have a certain arbitrary portion to them, but that is true of many games, both dice-using and diceless. The setting is in a sense well-fleshed out with many places and at least a good starting set of creatures and NPCs. It has a strong central plot involving mathematics, time travel, and the cataclysm which nearly destroys the world leading to the Fourth Age.

         What I have trouble wrapping my head around is the contrast between the chat nature, and the central drama. Chat, as the authors describe it, is full of digressions. This is enhanced by the nature of the hack mechanic which -- if players utilize it well -- can lead to lots of back-pedaled explanations. As the authors put it,

The nature of chat lends itself to the lighter side of play, with wordplay and swordplay intermingling throughout the evening. So while your friends are all banding together to fight evil forces and save Unaris, don't forget that it's just a game. And if a session or two ends in uproarious laughter instead of the defeat of a Great Worm, so much the better.
On the other hand, the background as described has an extremely serious and possibly unavoidable cataclysm just around the corner. And dealing with it involves time travel which is usually extremely sensitive to continuity. These two -- chaotic chatting and hacking vs. tightly-plotted intrigue -- don't at first glance seem to mix well. I have not playtested the game yet, but the book as written doesn't seem to address the issue here. I think it is worth trying for those so inclined, but I would expect some tricky GM decisions early in a campaign.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sun May 1 01:19:43 2005