Author: Ramshead Publishing (Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2002-11-25
I'm proud to say that Universalis represents a real Forge game. Its designers met on-line during the course of bludgeoning various elements of my RPG theory back since the Gaming Outpost days (1999), they are counted as founding members of the Forge's current incarnation, and they spent most of their time following GenCon 2001 wracking their and everyone else's nerves about this "whacked new game," which made its print debut at GenCon 2002. Universalis is currently available only in print form and by direct order through Ralph's Ramshead Publishing website.
Two good reviews may be found at RPG.net:
Universalis exists as a digest-size, 86-page soft cover book (very nifty-looking, actually). It was not released in electronic form first nor was it publicly available before GenCon 2002. It is available only through direct sales, not through stores; Ramshead Publishing is not currently moving the book in that manner and its first print run was very small for that reason. However, this tactic has led to a dilemma: now that the print run is just about completely sold out through direct sales, what's the next viable commercial step?
I have no recommendation at all, but I do think Ramshead should consider the following points.
The only solution lies in easier fulfillment mechanisms for direct-order only hard copy, like Dust Devils or Kayfabe. I think it's time we all started to consider fulfillment operations at the small-press, direct-order level.
About the game
I suppose the best way to describe it is that everyone begins play in Director stance, because without characters, no Author or Actor stance is possible, to start. Play proceeds mainly as a round-the-table contribution session in terms of people, places, things, contexts, and events, with no fixed GM (or rather, everyone is GM). In this sense, the game resembles Soap greatly, and the mechanics of its resolution system are palpably influenced by Story Engine, Once Upon a Time, and Hero Wars ... but all these are just influences or parallels - Universalis really is doing something different.
Here's the necessary vocabulary, simplified to be sure (annoying voice On, management states that the following text does not purport to be a replacement or substitute for actually reading the rules of the game, annoying voice Off).
Coins: real coins; everyone starts with 25 (default) and spends Coins to establish any imagined element of play. Things to "pay for" are called Components; they include contexts ("this is a Star Trek-style SF"), setting ("far out on the edge of known space"), social rules ("no Monte Python jokes"), characters, things, places, and, later in play, events. Everything in or about the game costs Coins - or rather, since nothing is listed in terms of "costs," it's better to say, establishing anything in or about the game requires spending Coins.
One gets Coins back in two ways. (1) At the beginning of a Scene (and not all play is conducted in or requires a Scene), everyone gets a dose of Coins (5 default). (2) Players who participate in a Complication (see below) receive a bunch of Coins as it is resolved, which can add up to a real booty-call worth of Coins.
Components are often nested within one another, such that if we've created Zarkons and given them all sorts of Coins' worth of details, I can spend only one Coin to name Gzork, a particular Zarkon, and he'll have all those Zarkon things too.
Players who disagree with another's paid-for Component may Challenge it, un-buying it, so to speak. When this is done immediately, the proposed Component is ignored; if it's done later, it's potentially much more complex, which I'll discuss below.) Also, the turn structure is subject to Interrupts exactly as in Soap.
Characters or other "volitional" Components have an interesting feature: Control. If you invent a character, he or she is under your control; to take over someone else's character, you have to pay a Coin. If two characters (or groups, whatever) under different Control come into conflict in a scene, a Complication ensues.
This is a big deal; Complications are the mechanical heart of the game's actual events and resolution - even if technically or potentially, they don't have to arise at all. Basically, everyone around the table assigns existing Components to various sides of the Conflict (or buys new Components into existence for this purpose), all of which bring dice onto the table for that side. When everyone's done talking about that, then the dice pools are rolled (they are d10's, treated as 50-50 for resolution purposes, but the rolled values do count regarding Coins gained).
I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say that the winning "side" gets to spend a bazillion Coins on resolving the Conflict and the losing "side" gets to spend some as well to moderate or mitigate the effects. Narration power is total (in lieu of Challenges) - the person who assigned Coins to something-or-other in the heat of the Complication gets to say what it does or what happens because of it. Unsurprisingly, after a pretty hefty Complication gets resolved, usually a huge amount of Components have been destroyed and a huge amount of new ones have come into existence.
How is all this vocabulary used? The basic idea is to proceed from metagame inwards, not in-game-stuff outwards. Establishing what the game is "about" and "how it is" precedes and helps to determine "what happens," rather than emerging from "what happens." The process isn't entirely one-way, as I'll discuss below, but it's the chassis for the game and tends to be its central feature of discussion, as it's the reverse of how most people are used to role-playing.
Typical Universalis play begins with everyone contributing terms (Components) to the genre, in the broad sense of the word, using general or specific terms. A setting and a lot of colorizing elements are usually constructed at this point, such that everyone gets committed to the Wild West or gritty dark Batman or whatever. The formal game mechanic of "Scenes" kicks in sooner or later, which is to say that situations are proposed and played out; during this phase, the situations proceed and themselves add more setting stuff. We're now seeing events as well as putting in more setting-stuff, and characters begin to pop up and develop components and, well, "character" of their own. Lots of neat things start happening: character control entails in-character dialogue, situation develops into a conflict that people at the table care about (Premise), and Complications begin to arise left and right, which feed back on the content of the components (i.e., removing and adding rapidly). It's practically guaranteed that a complex, climactic Complication will eventually resolve the session, if not entirely finish it.
This process doesn't always have to be genre-to-setting-to-specific. The first time I played, the first proposed Components were things like "barn" and "shooting a porn movie," and we proceeded eventually to establish that the story concerned the production of an expressionist film in the medium of expressionist film. Or a group can certainly start with an Event ("A hooded figure appears on the horizon," which would be at least two or three Coins' worth).
My overall point, however, is that the players' interactions at the initial stages of play, and on and off throughout play, occur at the metagame level.
Squinting at it slightly
Some of the most important inter-related permutations of the system don't seem to get much air time in the discussions.
1. Theme/Premise can be treated as a Component, or perhaps opposed Components. In our game, described in more detail below, I paid for "Romantic Luddite Ideals" couched in Rules Gimmick form. It (or any concept-statement) could simply have been added as a Component as well, adding dice to the appropriate side of Conflicts that it applied to. That's what happened in the other game I played, in which "This is a French Expressionist film" became a Component that factored into all sorts of later events.
2. Importance is extremely, well, um, important. I especially like the way that damage or harm can either decrease or increase Importance, such that Bobo the Henchman is diminished in importance when he's shot (the Coin buys off a component, or all of his components, which would kill him), but shooting Boss Scapio increases his importance, i.e., the player spends a Coin to add a trait, like Bleeding or Collapsed or Shot. Interestingly, one might even give Boss Scapio a Component called "Dead," which establishes him as dead but keeps him around at increased importance (and I don't mean like a zombie, I mean like Don Corleone after he dies in The Godfather).
3. Related to the above point, sometimes a Coin is just a Coin, increasing a Component's Importance (making it harder to remove) but not doing much else at the time. Later during play, though, it adds more dice when that Component is involved in a Conflict.
4. Most significantly, anything that's established by a Coin can be bought off with Coins, which permits far more down-the-line flexibility than one might imagine. A real whopper of a Complication can give a player the power to alter tons and tons of things about the entire context of play. This rule necessarily includes Social Contract Components, which interests me greatly, and I'll discuss it further below.
In the latest session I played in, Atlantis sank. (pause) All right, I'll go into more detail.
Here are the first few Components that kicked off the game, from my notes: Intrigue (1), Island chain (1), Far-flung science fiction (1), Zolon-7 (1), and Atlantis (1). Play proceeded to add some characters and other ideas, and then, in one very rapid round-robin, we also added the Elari (1), Natives to Zolon-7 (1), Amphibious (1), Beautiful (1), Mystic (1), Humanoid (1), and Slightly sinister (1).
All this stuff was modified and added to later in the session (after some characters and scenes got going) with the additional Components: Dr. Fen-Ri (1), defined as a sub-Component of Intrigue, and himself containing the sub-Component Chairman of the Prize Committee (1); Sacred to Elari (1), and Elari birthing grounds (1), both defined as a sub-Component of Island Chain; alien Pleistocene-like animals (1), defined as a sub-component of Zolon-7; and Scientists' distinctive hat and robes (1) and Radium-jewel technology (1), both defined as sub-components of Far-flung SF. [Note: "sub-Component" is not a Universalis term; these things are Traits in the game. I like the hierarchical aspects of the Components/Traits relationship, though, so I'm emphasizing it here.]
Simultaneously, various characters like Bernard, Tanya, and Devon were invented and their relationships to one another were established. Here's an example of a character Component and how he developed over the course of the session. In the first couple of turns of play, people invented Devon (1), Rival to Bernard (1) for the Prize (1), Geothermic engineer (1), Sabotaging Bernard's project (1), Romantic with Tanya, Bernard's daughter (1). Then as the first few scenes kicked in and we ended up in Bernard's lab at one point, Devon gained Works in Bernard's facility (1) as Bernard's employee (1), and a Security guard ally (1). In a quick mini-Scene, Devon also gained Calculating (1), and Lascivious (1).
So a little while later, a player (me, as it happened) framed a Scene in which Devon met an Elari Warrior (1), revealing a Plot to attack the facility in two hours (1), with the Special target of Bernard's project (1). All sorts of things flew in from various people: Devon gained Betraying the Elari (1) and Radium pistol (1), and the warrior gained a name, Rior-Ra (1), and Scary war tendrils (1).
To review, at this point, Devon's Importance is 13. Rior-Ra only has an Importance of 3, but he gained lots more stuff later.
These are just snippets from my notes, along with much much else. I want to emphasize that every Component of play can be "hitched" to other Components, either by defining them as subsets or by creating some kind of connecting trait ("loves ..."), and most especially that any Component at all can be brought into a Complication.
Therefore, when the island sank at the climax of the session, over many dozens of Coins of material had to be "bought off" to do it, and at least as many more were invoked without destroying them (e.g. a scientist's hat sadly floating up on the beach of a distant island, Rior-Ra and Tanya escaping to begin a new race of human-Elari people).
Overall? It works. It works really, really well, with no broken rules and no need to "break play" and remind people what we're supposed to be doing. I'm especially interested in my observation, from all of my experiences in playing this game, that exactly those players who have the most trouble with Director-stance-stuff in more traditional RPGs have the least trouble playing Universalis. I dunno why this is, seems counter-intuitive, but it's cool.
I think all three of the following points are major Universalis play issues, and all of them should be well-established by a given group prior to play, or through early play (i.e. Coins spent on Social Contract).
1. Record keeping is a huge, huge deal, as Components' costs and relationships (e.g. nesting) are crucial to conducting Complications, and Complications are really the heart of "what happens" during the most interesting parts of the game. I can't imagine playing Universalis and just keeping all this stuff in mind at all times, without writing it down. I've toyed with the idea of setting up sticky-notes or 3x5 cards, which allows keeping track of the nested Components' organization, but in practice, we've just designated someone the note-taker. I think everyone should have access to these notes and get used to looking over them all the time, as otherwise the record-keeper tends to do a lot more Sub-Componenting than everyone else, and also people will tend to get confused about what's what during a Complication if they see the notes-list for the first time as they try to find Components to add into it.
2. The game includes a curious relationship between players and dialogue, in that if Player A begins his turn and includes Character X, but Character X is still controlled by Player B - suddenly both players are thrown into character and deliver the dialogue of the characters, just as in a traditional RPG. It's especially different-feeling for the player B, who is essentially "grabbed" into play. A lot of Universalis play is conducted in a "hovering above the fray" sort of way, so this sudden "descent" is something to get used to. It's not hard to avoid, if people don't like it (Player A has to buy control of Character X), but on the other hand, other people might find it to be the big role-playing strength of the game and play it up as much as possible.
3. The biggest conceptual difficulty in play concerns with assigning dice to pools during a Complication, which seems to be a point of procedural difference between the authors as well as sporting a fairly wide array of Add-Ons at the website. The most basic way is for only two players ever to be involved in a Complication, as the two sides; other people can add in Components (and do so round-robin), but only these two people roll. Also, the sides' goals are stated outright at the beginning.
However, two possible variants have cropped in play, and I confess to being confused about whether they are or are not explicit in the rules, looking across the text and the website-posted Add-ons. The rules do state that multiple pools are possible, but how that relates to the sides of the Complication is what gets tricky.
Anyway, in variant (A), each player sets up a dice pool, independently, so that everyone gets to roll. In variant (B), whoever has rolled (two or all players, doesn't matter) can assign which side his or her dice come down on after the roll. This can get weird; if (A) is employed and (B) is not, then each player might conceivably, individually, have two little pools to track . If (B) is employed, it's possible for the rolling players to have, individually, more than two little pools apiece, and the starting "sides" are wholly up for grabs. None of these options are unworkable, but some of them are incompatible, so it's important to get the procedure straight early in play.
GNS rises from the swamp
One of the key Component categories in the game is called "Social Contract," which is to say, explicit standards for play itself ("No Monte Python jokes," "Turn off cell phones"). This is an interesting term, because according to GNS Theory, Social Contract (the uber-one in which all of play is embedded) is largely nonverbal and is about things that people rarely if ever put into words with one another. Stuff like, no cell phones, sure, but also stuff like, I won't hit on your girlfriend's character, or Bob can take ribbing but Sam can't, so lay off Sam. All role-playing exists within such Social Contracts, including flawed ones which guarantee dysfunctional play.
Is the paid-for-in-Coins Social Contract in Universalis the *real* Social Contract? Not in my terms, it isn't. The question is whether the Universalis in-game Social Contract rules can reinforce a functional real/uber Social Contract. I think they can reinforce them, especially since, going by the rules, rules-Social-Contract Components can be altered or negated through spending Coins, which is to say, real Social Contract now has an overt means of expressing itself (about some things, anyway) and adjusting to circumstances as play progresses.
[All this should be read with the understanding that a game design can name anything whatever it wants; calling their rules "Social Contract" isn't some kind of violation of theory or anything.]
I read a number of drafts of the game as it went through at eight distinct versions during its design process, and I have to say, it twisted insanely under the knife, in terms of GNS. It began as a "group storytelling game" with a lot of emphasis on group conflict resolution, then a it became a "group world creation system," and at one point I was sure it'd be mainly Simulationist with lots of Director stance and a sore-thumb sticky-out Gamist twist ... but in its final form, I think the game stands firmly in the category of facilitating Narrativist play. This is because (1) you must play the metagame to start, which for Simulationist play can be tricky (it's historically not common, certainly), and (2) no competitive or strategic element can be easily realized (i.e. resolved), and therefore - as Situation emerges from all the other elements of Exploration - Narrativist play is pretty much going to occur. It's a lot like The Pool in this regard; the Narrativist Premise has to be generated during play, but all the tools for doing so are present, and no other approach really works.
As with most group play with a heavy Drama mechanic in action (Amber, Pantheon, octaNe, The Pool, to pick very different examples), multiple players function as a randomizer for any given player, creating a pseudo-Fortune system. The neat thing about Universalis is that, in application, Challenges and Interrupts don't play much of a competitive role (as they do in Once Upon a Time). Based on reading the text, it seems as if they might, but play experience suggests, to me anyway, that they don't "resolve inter-player conflict" so much as add some mechanics-substance to non-confrontational dialogue about what happens or what's included.
The Amazing Potential
Universalis may be played as a freeform-game with a Coin-tracking system to handle "oomph" of components and disagreements. As such, it might be perceived as a fairly micro-managed form of consensual storytelling and not much of an RPG at all, beyond the occasional "speak in character" rule.
However, and this is a big deal, its actual rules-functions are themselves customizable through play, using the Rule called the Rules Gimmick. It's very easy: a player may *add or change rules* through spending Coins (called a Gimmick). So that means that ... say ... I propose that any Complications which arise in the Darhk Lohrd's Kastle have an altered rule - instead of a 50% chance per die against "the heroes," it's a 70% chance. It's nasty in that Kastle, you see.
Or! Someone might propose that any conflict facing characters X, Y, and Z is automatically a Complication. Or! "Ownership" might be bought as a trait for a character, making him or her a (gasp) player-character, always under a particular player's Control. Or! A single player may be designated as The Buck, as in, the buck stops here, meaning that he or she always has authority over the outcome of a Challenge. (I'm making these up as I type.) In other words, Universalis may be transformed all the way into a traditional RPG, if desired, as a role-playing game whose rules are constructed *as needed and wanted* as play continues, with the rules for negotiating that construction being the same rules as anything else.
Some of the variables that get worked out through Social Contract and Gimmicks include: functional units of Stance distributions across players, rights to scene framing, and arbitrating resolutions when "your" character is involved. Traditionally, these issues have been squashed into two fixed roles (GM and player), even the most innovative RPGs have usually provided a fixed alternative for them, rather than a mechanism for working them out via play itself.
Both times I've played the game, I tried to let this particular feature of the rules operate without pre-planning it, to see what aspects of as-we-understand-it role-playing were needed by the group as we went along. To me, this feature makes the game, and I suspect that continued play will be tremendously useful for game designers, permitting them to create "chassis" or foundations for entirely original RPG designs.