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[Universalis] First go

Started by Mikael, June 16, 2005, 03:14:19 PM

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Ok, our first game of Universalis. It was our first Forge game as well, unless Puppetland counts?

The Group:

We have a group of seven players which has stuck together for quite a few years now. Six guys, one girl, no romantic ties within the group (I hope). One of the players has recently semi-retired, citing social contract problems, i.e. he does not like the way a more "arrogant" player gets more airtime in most of our games. This may very well be true, but has not really bothered any of the others, and I think that most of us GM's try to be reasonably impartial. Oh, well.

We have played several more "traditional" games, including Shadowrun, Dark Conspiracy, Torg, Star Wars, Earthdawn, Everway, and yes, D&D in the dawn of time. In Torg we did not utilize the narrative-encouraging cards really to that effect; Everway is a relatively recent addition where I have tried to do something different with the cards and narration.


This game of Universalis was played during our traditional yearly gaming weekend at a somewhat removed cottage. I had recently been referred to Forge from the Everway mailing list (thanks, Kat). Before the game I initiated a discussion on GNS concepts, since after reading Forge articles and forums I had realized that we had never, during all the years, discussed our preferences in gaming, or even seemed to realize that there might be alternatives. That is, we were the traditional D&D-branch sim crowd: turns, initiatives, "real players do not use information that their characters do not have" etc. And during the years we had had some terribly boring sessions.

The discussion was very enlightening and clearly a subject of a whole another post (which I probably will not have time to write). Suffice to say that some surprising aspirations were revealed, and that all those that had GM'd for the group seemed to be most prepared to discuss their preferences, perhaps because they had thought about "what would be cool?" and "how could this be different?"

Well, anyway, the game. After some hours of interesting discussion, I suggested we could try Universalis as some sort of a "practical exercise" to full-blown narrative power.


None of us had played Universalis before. Four of us had read the rules, more or less, and I had read about all the available Actual Play material available on the net.

Before the game I stated that based on what I had read, this was a game that had great potential of getting pretty silly pretty fast, but it did not need to be so if we could keep ourselves focused on the theme, whatever it would be. What's wrong with silly? Well, silly to me is a one-off that does not compete with our more serious but often funny "real" games. And I wanted this to be more that just this one try, having bought the game and all.

I also said that it would be very nice if there were absolutely NO ZOMBIES in the game. When the game started, I forgot to enforce both the no-silliness and no-zombies rules with Coins. Silly me.

I suggested that this first game would use vanilla rules in order to get to know the basic game before testing any variations. I also suggested we use the cards (1-10) instead of Coins and dice, since it seemed more convenient. We also made enough mistakes with the rules to make the whole point of vanilla rules moot.

We also cleared the table and used Post-It Notes for each concept and the traits. In retrospect, I think they worked really well. They kept everything visible, there was no need for one designated record-keeper, people could concretely take Control of a Concept, and possession relationships were easy to visualize as well by attaching the relevant notes together.


The story ended up mixing 1920's Cairo with the galaxy-spanning Culture à la Banks. Indy was there as well. Since this was our first, try-out game, no one Challenged either the Culture or Indy, but after the game, one player said that if this hadn't been the first game, he definitely would have, since the Culture is easily such an overbearing concept, easily dwarfing the back-alley dealings of the Cairo thugs. I probably would have done the same to Indy, to keep the game a bit more serious.

The story was to be drama and a love story to boot. Anyone familiar with our group would know that these were really not our strong suits, so our setup was really pretty bad.

Well, scenes got framed, by me to start with, then the other players. An archeology professor got apparently corrupted by a voluptuous succubus, who was in love with the professor. This corruption later turned out to have changed the dear professor into a zombie (and I was still not Challenging - can't understand why, in retrospect). The professor was in love with Indy, who in turn was interested in one particular police. Said police was eaten up by the professor/zombie, but later returned, having turned out to be a demon or something similar.

The Culture was interested in the ring that was on one finger of the severed arm of the succubus. In a dramatic and microscopic fight between a Culture knife drone and the ring, the ring was neutralized and could not create more zombies - I think.

We had some Conflicts which were confusing as we tried to have people on one side of the conflict, but at the same time keep track of how many cards they had contributed to that side. We ended up keeping the cards in front of the contributing player, and trying to remember who was on which side. At least this made in impossible to count the numbers of cards on each side.

The player who had introduced Culture tried to keep up that agenda with some nice camera angle descriptions and "justifying it all" as being some simulation in the Culture Mind Fun Space or something like that. The problem with this was that all the others were really more interested in the whole 1920 thing, and no one really took up his cues.

At one point, one player tried to frame the next scene in 2040. This resulted in two players blowing most of their Coins/cards in one massive Challenge, with other players supporting one side or the other with a few cards. In the end, we stayed in 1920, which was rather an anti-climax after 2040 had been flashed as an opportunity. Also, I now think that moving to future would have allowed us to integrate Culture better, while at the same time letting it fade more to the background. (You know, something like Culture having revealed itself to the general populace, and everyone remaining on Earth is really a low-life outcast who did not have the nerve to join the galactic civilization - and all our protagonists are still alive for one reason or another.)

The first time we had a dialogue with two characters Controlled by different players was a surprise to us all, as we suddenly realized that we could have real in-character interaction as well.

The game ended when it started to get late and one player used Coins to say that the next scene would be the last scene, and before the end, Indy and the police need to end up in bed together. I think this was a good way to signal that we needed to get the story ended somehow.

One of the funny things in this game was that Finnish being a language with gender-neutral pronouns, the gender of the police character remained until that last scene (where he was revealed as a man, if you absolutely must know).

The ending stayed true to the tone of the whole game, and is not really worth relating. Actual game lasted roughly 2 or 3 hours.


We made one consistent rule mistake which I think we will adopt as a standard gimmick. That is, the framing player could end a scene at any appropriate time, not just on his or her turn. I think it was agreed that this made the scenes more dramatic. It also served as an additional incentive to Bid for scenes.

I think we suffered from a rather typical phenomenon in Universalis play, where no one really felt connected or responsible for any of the characters. Partly this was because we forgot about the rule that you need to control a character to add traits for it - so everyone kept adding stuff to all the characters - and partly because introducing characters to scenes also transferred the control. To foster attachments with characters, I think we will go with the correct rule about limiting adding traits to only those concepts you control, and modifying the rule about introducing characters to scenes so that the introduction does not automatically transfer control. Both of these aspects should make players' control of a character a bit more long-lived.

There was discussion about whether known concepts like Indy or Culture should have some default traits. We quickly rules that yes, you can think of Indy as automatically having a whip, for example, but if nobody has paid for it, it is not relevant to the story.


I think that here, analogously to the GNS-inspired discussion preceding the game, those of us with experience as GMs took to the game more readily than those who have only been players. The exception to this was the "Culture-guy", who has not been a GM but was very active. Here the lack of GM experience might have manifested as a lack of sensitivity to the general mood of the group.

It was interesting to note how our traits seemed to have some very AD&D Wish-like qualities. That is, if you did not carefully define and phrase something, the gap would almost certainly be misunderstood or intentionally exploited by another player. Examples include "Indy has the hand of the succubus... but that does not mean that the succubus would only have one hand", the police gender thing etc.

Funny enough, one of the players said that there were "too many rules". This despite Universalis being the game with the least rules in all of the games we have ever played (except Puppetland, of course). I think this was to do with the fact that this was the first session and we were all a bit confused about the rules. This differs from a more traditional game where the GM knows or wings the rules and the players basically just need to ask.

In the after-game discussion, there was interest in trying Universalis again, but using it with a ready-made background (like Earthdawn). This appeals to me as well, to curb some of the silliness, but I am also wary that this idea might just be a throwback to our more traditional games.

Well, I think that is enough for a first game. I will post more as experience grows.

+ Mikael
Playing Dogs over Skype? See everybody's rolls live with the browser-independent Remote Dogs Roller - mirrors: US, FIN


That gimmick with the framing player is really nice. Good work!

Your game sounds great in the way Challenges became an increasingly huge part of it. Many groups I've introduced Uni to have been hesitant to Challenge so quickly.

Now, I have a couple of questions:
1. When did Indy get introduced into the game? When did the Culture? Was it during the Tenet phase or in game?
2. Did those aspects of the game excite any particular player? If so, were those excited players the ones taking control of Indy or the Culture most often?
3. What sort of stuff did you set up in the Tenet phase?

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


Quote from: hix1. When did Indy get introduced into the game? When did the Culture? Was it during the Tenet phase or in game?
3. What sort of stuff did you set up in the Tenet phase?

Pretty much every "big thing" I discussed was introduced in the tenet phase: Cairo in the 1920´s, Culture, Indy. The other characters were creared during play.

Quote2. Did those aspects of the game excite any particular player? If so, were those excited players the ones taking control of Indy or the Culture most often?

I think the only one who got some real excitement out of the game was the Culture guy. Everyone else was mainly just interested, explored the system and had loads of simple fun with all the silliness. If we had deliberately set out to create a "silly story", the session would have been a great success. Silly seems to raise out of disconnectedness with the characters, and character attachment seems to require some extra work in Uni.

One problem I forgot to include in the previous post was that at least one of the players had not read any Culture books. That made it "not really work" on one more level.

Another thing I forgot to mention in the original post: to clarify the confusion of cards in a Complications, I am planning on getting one of those boards that you can write on and wipe repeatedly. I will use a permanent marker to draw a line in the middle and boxes for the stacks of cards. We can use it in the Complications by writing something to indicate the stakes in the Complication and initialing the card-stack-boxes for the players. Or something like that.

We could of course just try and use Coin-equivalents and dice for one session, to see how different it would be.

Thanks for the questions!
+ Mikael
Playing Dogs over Skype? See everybody's rolls live with the browser-independent Remote Dogs Roller - mirrors: US, FIN


Thanks for the answers. One other thing - this Card method you're talking about. I haven't seen it anywhere. I mean, I can understand using cards to generate a number between 1 and 10, but how to you use them to replace coins?

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


Here's the Add-On from the Universalis site:

Using Cards as Coins

+ Mikael
Playing Dogs over Skype? See everybody's rolls live with the browser-independent Remote Dogs Roller - mirrors: US, FIN


Quote from: EverspinnerHere's the Add-On from the Universalis site:

Speaking of add-ons, would the "Scene framing player can end the scene anytime (subject to Challenge, of course)" be worthy of an Add-On entry on the Ramshead site? Or is it there somewhere already?

Playing Dogs over Skype? See everybody's rolls live with the browser-independent Remote Dogs Roller - mirrors: US, FIN