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[Actual 'Play'] Worldbuilding using Uni

Started by Dave Versace, January 30, 2004, 03:14:10 AM

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Dave Versace

Since it's been a bit quiet here lately, and since I *finally* got the weekly group back together after a long hiatus (which commenced when the most enthusiastic player left town), we decided to strike out in a new, more collaborative direction. We used a round-robin Universalis Game Preparation Phase setup to create a setting for standard tabletop roleplaying game, most likely using a modified HeroQuest system.

One of the players was pushing the idea of a troupe-style campaign, where the focus is on different characters from game to game, so we wanted a pretty vibrant setting with potential for short 'campaigns' (what's the new word for that again?) featuring different characters in the same world.

We stuck pretty much exclusively to Story Element tenets, as Social Contract and Rules Gimmicks weren't going to be relevant to the play itself

Most proposed Tenets were modified after some discussion or elaboration (and occasional Challenges).

* * *

Here are the tenets as they came out:

1. The game is set in a fantasy universe

2. Flying boats are a feature.

3. Slavery is legal and common.

4. Magic is not formalised/scientific/structured

5. Prostitution is an honoured profession

6. Society is a Roman-style empire in decline

7. There are three distinct atmospheric layers - the water at the bottom, the "thick" layer in the middle (where the human society is located) and the "thin" layer at the top. Further discussion established that the airships move by tacking between the thick and thin layers and that there are floating plants and animals in the thin layer. This is all obviously magic.

8.  The empire in decline is the dominant culture and is human.

9. In the thin atmospheric layer, a bronze-age, Pictish warrior people who can fly live amongst the plants.

10. The Emperor is leading a  magical vision quest to find some way to halt the decline. It was established that he is physically present (leading to speculation that some might believe he is simply insane).

11. One sign of the Decline is that a traditional religious dogma requiring that mutant children be killed is often not observed, leading to more mutants growing to maturity.

12. The previous dominant culture was that of an artistic dwarven people who have since retreated into the mountains.

13. There is a cabal within the senate-equivalent who are dedicated to accelerating the decline in order to fulfil a Prophecy.

14: The dwarven people fight constant battles for territory with the scorpion people.

15: Some in the Cabal are not human by the traditional definition (ie mutants)

16: There is intense rivalry between seaborne and airborne trade. Further discussion established that airborne travel is expensive, dangerous and prone to Pictish piracy.

17: Travel in the thin layer is much quicker than sea travel.

18: The thin layer is turbulent and unpredictable.

19: Downsiders need to wear "cool steampunk helmets" because there are some areas of the thin layer where it is dangerous to breathe.

20: The Empire has mapped (but not necessarily explored) the whole world, which is round.

21: Rich idle nobles hunt mermaids for sport.

22: Humans are predominantly colourblind and most human art is sculptural. Further discussion established that mutants see colours and can leave "invisible" messages to each other.

23: An olympic games-style content is held in the capital each year attracting contestants from the scattered provinces of the empire.

24: Everyone who matters (ie PC and important NPCs) knows fu. There are styles and schools of martial arts

25: The imperial military is run like a corrupt mafia

26: The (human) religion is monotheistic

27: The scorpion people live in a matriarchal society and practise ancestor worship.

28: The empire consists of a large central continent surrounded by radiating archipelagos.

29: The Emperor's vision quest is to find a new Empress to complete the traditional ruling structure. There was some vague discussion of whether there might have been a previous Empress and what might have happened to her, but nothing firm.

30: There is a huge merchant class.

31: Merchants are organised into clans of allied families.

32: There is an eight-year weather cycle, commencing with a long winter/short summer and oscillating to the opposite. Currently it is one year before the longwinter.

33: Winters are dangerous for sea travel (the seas freeze) and moreso for air travel.

34: There are signs (or a widespread belief) that the supplies provisioned in the capital for longwinter will be insufficient. Further discussion established that provisions are controlled by the military.

35: Wealthy merchants patronise famous and successful adventurers and employ them to represent their interests (they presumably also bask in their reflected glory).

36: In human society, only adult virgins can practise magic. Further discussion established that slaves are 'deflowered' to ensure they will not possess magic and that this was one reason that prostitutes are respected. The implication that magicians could be raped to neutralise their power was noted.

* * *

That took about an hour, prolonged by a lot of discussion and debate, and when it started getting harder and harder to come up with new stuff, I suggested that we call it and start thinking about characters. Because we have not actually played with HQ before, we decided the first game would be pretty much a straight-up traditional adventure featuring desperate merchants gambling heavily on a desperate trade venture ahead of the approaching winter. He'll need tough heroes, experienced sailors etc etc. Pretty much a straight up "there and back again" shakedown cruise to get everyone used to the system while minimising damge to our setting.

Obviously we didn't really take advantage of Universalis' main features, since we weren't actually telling a story, but there were a couple of Challenges, one of which went to a vote (and we sort of mutually agreed to fine ourselves when one tenet blew out into a freeform brainstorm).

Still, it was an excellent creative exercise and I'm very keen to get started on filling in enough of the gaps to have a functional game.


Dave Versace
"Ever notice that B.A.'s flavour text swells in direct proportion to how much one of our characters is getting screwed?" - Brian, KoDT


Wow, that sounds like a really cool environment to play in.  While I'd love for you to play the game in Uni all the way through, I certainly can't complain about it being used to link into a game of HQ.

Some additional thoughts:

I think the way HQ designs characters makes it relatively painless to convert characters in Uni into HQ stats.  So as you start to need characters to populate the world (or flesh out the troupe), you may want to slip back into actual Uni play to develop those.  I'm thinking getting the group as a whole to start mapping out the relations and machinations of the various trade houses would be an excellent use for a Uni session.  Really wind up the back story in a way that all of the players are involved in creating, and then play it out in HQ.  I've found Uni to be pretty ideal for handling all of those "larger scale" factional Illuminati plotting kind of things.

You mentioned that you avoided Rules Gimmicks and Social Contract tenets.  You should feel free to use those to bridge the gap into HQ.   Since you noted that you'd probably be playing a modified version of HQ, if there is any doubt about how to modify, one might let that be established in one of your ongoing Uni sessions as a Gimmick.  Especially when the session invents something that you're not sure how to handle in HQ..."Ok, I say we handle the power of the Phage like Animism in HQ - 1 Coin" "Sure, but instead of the rule for X use ...."  that sort of thing.

Looking forward to hearing more about how it goes.

Dave Versace


An excellent idea that I can't believe we hadn't considered before. It might help to solve a small 'creative differences' problem that has cropped up since that session. Yesterday a couple of us flashed around a few speculative emails considering various aspects of the setting, at which point another player sent a pretty sharp reply that she would rather these matters were debated face to face.

Fair enough, she was having a pretty rough day at work and didn't have the time to sit around worldbuilding (neither did I, but that's another matter...). Yet one of the worries I have is that, knowing my group, someone will start to lose interest if the momentum starts to wane, and inevitably when that happens they drag some or all of the rest of us with it.

I've suggested that we start each session with a short, tightly focused Uni session (maybe limiting the starting Coins to 10 per person or so) to "flesh out" some part of the world: "Tonight we're looking at the Cabal in the Senate".

Unfortunately I'm the only one who (sort of) knows the HQ rules, so we'd be starting pretty HQ-lite. That means that until the others are comfortable enough with the rules, they're probably not going to be making suggestions like "use Animism". That said, we've sort of agreed that Fu can probably work pretty much like Common Magic (subject to stress-testing in play) and I've suggested that we use a modded Theism for magic. But we have yet to really establish what magic is, and that's one of the bones of contention, so we'll see.

Hmm, that was a ramble. Anyway, I certainly will update as events warrant.

Dave Versace
"Ever notice that B.A.'s flavour text swells in direct proportion to how much one of our characters is getting screwed?" - Brian, KoDT


Very cool example, Dave. Universalis' handiness as a method for collaborative worldbuilding was one of the main reasons I purchased it. Its usefulness in further fleshing out a setting on the fly or advancing a storyline "behind the scenes" is also something that caught my eye.

Ralph, great suggestion on how to use Rules Gimmicks to outline house rules in other game systems. I had not considered that, and it definitely gels with Uni's overall usefulness as a general roleplaying tool. Troupe-style play may see a resurgence soon, and Uni suits the concept nicely.

Dave Versace


One of the early ideas I had to move away from our "Dave-as-GM does all the work" vanilla Forgotten Realms D&D game to a more collaborative effort was to use Universalis as a tool for building the plot between sessions - moving around the various interwoven factions that had cropped up in the campaign so far (for anyone who knows the FR or cares: Zhentarim, Harpers, Drow, a Shar-worshipping vampire cult, clans of dispossessed dwarves etc), creating new NPCs and running little cut scenes showing what various NPCs might be up to - and then use those scenes to inform the direction of the pretty standard Step On Up Gamism campaign (with some Setting and Character exploration mixed in for taste).*

That was scotched because really only one player was interested in staying with that system, setting and those characters (and I might well continue it one-on-one with him, if he's interested). But I think it would have been a pretty cool little experiment, and it certainly would have kept the grind of coming up with new Gamist challenges every week more fresh for me.

And I think most of the players are pretty receptive to the idea of exploring universalis as a tool for creating settings (both of our passes at it so far have resulted in viable settings for at least some short-term gaming).


* Pretty sure I'm using the basic Forge-speak correctly, but please feel free to picture me as a foreign tourist with a phrasebook and halting pronunciation :)
Dave Versace
"Ever notice that B.A.'s flavour text swells in direct proportion to how much one of our characters is getting screwed?" - Brian, KoDT

Mike Holmes

QuoteThat was scotched because really only one player was interested in staying with that system, setting and those characters
D'oh! We didn't ruin them on D&D did we? :-)

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Dave Versace

Nah, it's just that he's (from my observations) mostly interested in Sim Exploration of Character and Setting (with occasional Gamist leanings), and he was the only one that was really getting any satisfaction from that game.

I have noticed in our few Uni sessions so far that he is the player most likely to propose characters and tenets that cement other people's ideas or extrapolate from them, rather than proposing ideas with no precedent. He's also said that he would be quite happy to spend the next four sessions using Uni to flesh out the setting (but that he also wants to play). So, pretty heavily slanted towards Sim, is my guess.

I suspect that our agreed small-a agenda for this game is going to be to keep the worldbuilding and (for want of a better expression) character play in more or less equal balance. Which should make for an interesting blend of preferences...

One thing that everyone agrees on, though, is that Universalis is exactly the right tool to use to keep everyone engaged and feeling that they can contribute.

Dave Versace
"Ever notice that B.A.'s flavour text swells in direct proportion to how much one of our characters is getting screwed?" - Brian, KoDT