Telling Straight Stories
A common experience with Universalis is for play to wind up silly, or
bizarre, or a strange mishmash of competing genres. This is
perfectly normal for initial games. Folks confronting Universalis
for the first time often require a bit of a "shake-down cruise"
to grow comfortable; comfortable both with the rules and with opening ones
own creativity up to the judgment and appreciation of ones peers. It
can be a daunting task to realize that you aren't there "to be
entertained" but instead to actually participate in the
entertainment. Often times the safest play is to retreat into
silliness so that any criticism can be shrugged off.
Eventually, however, new players realize that the
friends they're playing with (if they're worth playing with at all) aren't
there to be critical and judgmental but to enjoy the experience of
co-authoring a story. They learn that Its ok to to delve into drama
and tragedy and try to create stories of poignancy and beauty. And
they especially learn that its ok to fail at creating such stories,
because the experience of the shared creative journey is its own
reward. That and when you do finally hit on one of those special
moments when every one leans back a little stunned and speechless it will
be all worthwhile.
But what can you do to help the process along?
What advice is there for people who want to tell a "serious"
story using Universalis?
First: play a couple of games of Uni
completely open without any expectation of getting to a story that is even
marginally good literature. As noted above it can take a few
games for players to get their feet under them, figure out the flexibility
of the system, and get comfortable with the the level of ownership and
responsibility they have. Early games have a tendency towards farce
because its easier to generate low humor than high drama and less embarrassing
when one "screws up". Once players get over the fear of
"screwing up" I've found them much more prone to generating good
Second: pay especial attention to the Tenets
being established. If one wants serious play its necessary to first
identify what specifically makes a story "serious" to you, and
then ensure that those things get created as Tenets. Emulating an
example from literature is a good basic start. There is nothing
wrong with a Tenet like: "This story will be like Wuthering
Heights", or "Its set in Dickensonian London".
Even better is to identify what it is about Wuthering
Heights or Dickensonian London you find most appealing and make the Tenets
about that. The more specific and actionable, the better. Pick
your Tenets with an eye towards leading to similar situations in the game.
Something like "All true love affairs must end tragically",
"Every character must have a romantic interest in another character
as a Trait", "Every character who is married must have a trait
that expresses dissatisfaction with their spouse", "Every
character must identify another character as their confident whom they'll
tell everything to as a Trait".
Gimmicks are a great way of introducing some specific genre flavor into
the game. Imagine a Gimmick where the protagonists own conscience is
Created as a separate character. How perfect for a character like
Third: Traits, Traits, Traits. Choose
Traits that evoke the genre you're trying to achieve. If you're
playing in Dickens' London, create Traits that could come right from the
pages of a Dickens novel.
Flora (1 Coin)
Pick Pocket (1 Coin)
Heart of Gold (1 Coin)
Mother (1 Coin) is dying of Tuberculosis
But don't limit yourself
to just a static list of attributes. What role is Flora meant to
play. Sure we know she's a pickpocket, but so what. Traits
that express relationships with other characters are especially powerful
and especially effective at keeping stories from veering off into the
space. When no one has any clear idea of what to do next, people
start brainstorming, and raw brainstorming can lead to silliness.
Creating a tangled web of relationships with Traits means players will
always have a notion of what to do next, simply advance those
relationships. This will cut down on those groundless flights of
fancy in a hurry.
Consider the effect of adding a Trait
like "Has a romantic interest in Flora" to the school
teacher. Consider how this will likely play out much differently
than adding "Believes the school teacher is sweet on me" as a
Trait to Flora. All's you have to do is throw Flora's friend Jane
(who is "Jealous" and "has a crush on the school teacher)
into the mix along with the teacher's wife and peers and every player at
the table will be instantly chock full of possibilities for the next
scene. Possibilities that are entirely in keeping with the desired
genre because the selected Traits are all pointing the way.
don't stop there. Give some thought beyond characterization to why
you, as an author, even want this character in the story to begin
with. What is Flora's purpose? Is she there to be the
exemplar of innocence in stark contrast with the corruption of the other
characters? Is she there to provide light comic relief? Is she
there to be the one sympathetic character whose tragic story tugs at the
Any of these can make splendid
Traits. Not only will they serve as guideposts to the other players
as to how Flora should be used but they'll give you the weight of Fact to
back up any use that doesn't conform.
difference between adding "Perpetually sweet and Innocent" and
"Her happiness is always fleeting" as Traits. Consider the
effect of adding both.
players are ready to take their Universalis play beyond superficial
pastiches of assorted genre tropes effective use of Tenets and Traits will
pave the way for stories of startling power and depth. Not every
time, to be sure. It would be unreasonable to expect works the
caliber of Bronte or Dickens every time you sit around the table with
friends. But I bet you'll wind up with stories of much greater
caliber than you imagine.