[Universalis] A first session

Started by aya_aschmahr, January 29, 2008, 08:38:22 AM

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Yeah, yeah. I know Universalis is "old" - I mean... 2002.... on the net that's like....ages ago? But nevertheless I wanted to try it, because I have never done anything like it before. All I know, and all my friends know are classical RPGs. We usually play D&D.

Last weekend we did it. After one week of waiting and shivering, because I was so unsure if something like Universalis would work, COULD work, if the players would accept it, we finally tried it.

We, that was 5 people, 4 men, 1 woman. Me (Bernd), Stefan, Carina, Carsten and Jan. As I already said, we usually play D&D - I am GM in a Midnight Campaign (a dark fantasy setting for D&D) - and at least Carsten and Carina have very little experience with RPGs in general. Carina is a GM and staff member in some online RPG stuff, but that also is somewhat different from our usualy pen and paper RPG. Maybe that's good. Less experience also means less fixed opinions on how an RPG should work.

Most of the people are not much older than 20 years, I'm 30, Stefan is the oldest and probably most experiences player, but also the most sceptical. He jsut couldn't imagine, that something like Universalis would be fun at all. He couldn't grasp some of the concepts I tried to explain to him a few days before we played and was very unsure if Universalis could work.

We cooked a bit, and then it was was 8pm, and we started. Our time frame allowed us to carry on 'till midnight, a good 4 hours. That should do for a first try, without forcing too much on the players. Perfect. I did prepare ahead of time of course. I didn't prepare a story, I knew that wasn't necessarry, but I got some stuff we might need. Since Universalis uses a limited resource to allocate the right to tell the story or control components, we would need Coins in some form. Coins? Oh right! They sell poker sets everywhere these days. I guess about 200 chips would be enough for the moment and thus bought one. Wasn't expensive either. And if the idea of Universalis would fail, we would have an alternative now.
Although Universalis had me hooked the first moment I saw it, I was still very unsure.
I also got some tabs to write "moveable components" on and a scratchpad. Somehow one has to keep these bits and pieces of information organized.

Okay, ready to rock'n'roll!

First I explain the others how things work in Universalis. I had a play aid printed out for everyone and we quickly went through the basic concepts. There are no questions so far, things are starting off pretty well. Then we started bulding the Tenets, so all know, what our story will evolve around.

We took turns, everyone introduced one tenet at a time, sometimes we skipped players who had no ideas yet, but everyone contributed. Let's see what we got, it was quite a number:

    • Dark Future
    • supernatural elements
    • Low Tech

    Whoa, whoa! Hold it right there! Low Tech? Stefan introduced it, and already three people, including me, were ready to Challenge this decision. But before we actually got into bidding Coins for and against this, we tried to compromise. A wild discussion erupted over the table, but it didn't take long for us to work out a compromise: We defined Low Tech a bit clearer. First, Low Tech was not true for everyone, the leading classes would have access to things we couldn't even imagine. The normal people were stuck with technology, which would roughly resemble the 1970s or 1960s. So this issue was solved, without Coins being paid, and everyone was happy. Including Stefan!
    On we went, as I said, we had quite a few Tenets.

      • Slaves
      • Apocalypse long ago
      • there is hope (I wanted to avoid a too much whiny mood)
      • A resistance movement
      • spatial division (not all parts of the world affected by "apocalypse", we speculate it might be Africa that got spared)
      • religious zealots rule
      • bio-engineering
      • Monarch: Pope
      • space travel
      • first contact (Aliens)
      • part of the technology incomprehensible

      What I like about this part is, that by phrasing things in certain ways, you leave room to speculation. I don't stay, why the technology might be incomprehensible. Maybe the rules by which it works has been forgotten. Maybe our laws of nature and science doesn't really apply.
      We're not really done with the Tenets yet:

        • Megacoorporation
        • faschist behaviour of church
        • NO Comedy

        The last point probably was not neccessary with all the Tenets we established, but if for whatever reason a player would drift off too far, now we have a fact, to bring him back on track. No one knows what the other players will do. I like this about Universalis!

        Well, that's quite a lot, isn't it? Still it leaves enough room to fill this world with life. I don't think this number of Tenets is unreasonable for 5 players. It was nice to see the synergies, once the first ideas appeared. Very much of the Tenets describe a comic I read: YIU, but no one else but me knows this comic. The first Ideas carved a path, which much of the later ideas would follow. The tenets formed amazingly smooth and everyone has some kind of picture of the world now.

        In the next post I will describe how the first scene was formed.


The story begins: We bid for the first scene. I go through explaining the mechanism of bidding again, and how the coins may be used in that scene. Everyone understands the basic idea. The more ideas you have, the more you can dare to bid.

Stefan wins the first scene. Good, our sceptic begins then. So far he has embraced the ideas driving Universalis and we have no problems. Maybe it's good that he can be so active at this point in the story. He doesn't know quite what to do yet, so I explain quickly, what framing a scene is about. What bugged Stefan most is, that other people would gain control over "his" characters. He was pretty sure that when all people work together for a story, only chaos would break out.
I am happy that I didn't refer to Universalis as an RPG. Maybe that prevented makign false assumptions about the game.

So Stefan starts out by giving us a camp with captives. There's a lot of flavour in his description, like loudspeaker to control the camp, unnamed captives, which scutter about, doing seemingly mindless work. Not simply flavour however are 2 solders in front of the camp, and a big car parked near the entry. Stefan also gives us the captive Frank#23, by now a simple captive with a name (okay - not so simple). The captive is called to the commander of the camp.

Stefan realizes how fast Coins vanish. Everyone is afraid of this fact and think this might not work right. I'm quite unsure myself. We didn't yet experiences the power of Complications though. Still we go one. It's Carsten's turn now.

Carsten takes over and we learn that inside the commanders office, it's quite dark. A desk-light illuminates the commander, a somewhat fat person (clichee? We don't mind that). A bit to the side sits a man in a black suit, with glasses and a suitcase. Later we learn that this guy is called Mr. Smith.

I like the dynamics. (Huh? Dynamics? What is the guy talking about?) It was never said, that the soldiers outside the camp or the car belong to Mr. Smith, but already ideas form in that way. At least I would make a connection there, but... it's not worth spending coins to interrupt, yet.

We all suspect that the camp belong to the church which rules the world, but the camp and Mr. Smith could as well be part of this mysterious Megacorporation that must exist somewhere in this world. It's nice how you can leave things in the dark by simply not saying them. It's of course also a danger. If you want something be known and not changed later on, you best pay for it while you have the chance. Otherwise it isn't a fact.

Frank#23 enters the office, and Carsten ends his turn.

Through Carina we learn of Natalya#9, another captive, who tries to catcha  glimpse of what's happening in the office. Natalya only watches, and looks very concerned.
Carina doesn't pay for the last bit, so that Natalya is concerned is not a fact, but only flavour. This is important later in the story. Maybe it would have been better, looking back, if things went a little different. We are still elarning though, what spending Coins means, and when best to spend them and when not.

We also didn't yet fully embrace some of the mechanisms of Universalis. We should have "cut" in between the scenes with Frank in the office and Natalya outside. There's a change of place and the two situations are distinct, even though they are connected to each other. These two parts of the story sound like distinct scenes to me. I know that now, but when we did it, we didn't think of this yet. The effect of not cutting so far, is interesting though: People are running low on Coins. Things will have to get interesting soon, because the best way to gain Coins are Complications.
And so it happens:

I think it's Jan's turn now. Jan takes control of Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith pulls a box from his suitcase, which he tries to put on Frank's hand. Frank is controlled by a different player and so our first complication starts!
Frank carries a stone in one of his pockets. Yes, the guards never searched him. Mr. Smith on the other hand is a tough guy - as the conflict builds traits are bought and we learn a bit more about the two characters. I didn't think about it that way, but because you actually get your Coins refunded in a conflict, it's a good way not only to build tension, but also to drive the story onward and define relevant aspects.

Frank is controlled by Carsten, Mr. Smith is controlled by Jan, I take control of the guards, which so far were not described into the conflict. They are simply soldiers (x2) and thus gain 2 dice. In the end, the pools on both sides of the conflict are equal, and indeed it doesn't matter for the story, if Frank#23 succeeds or not. One way or the other, the story will continue.
We roll dice, Frank wins, and doesn't only destroy the box, but he hits Mr. Smith, injuring him and destroying the box. As the box shatters on the ground, black smoke fills the office.

And players win Coins.

(to be continued)


Oh, that conflict was an eye-opener. Suddenly players look for conflicts everywhere. We realize hwo you don't only gain Coins and define Traits more easily, with the pressure of a conflict. You also hold your breath as you don't know, how the story will go on. And defining traits and facts for components you don't control? That's fun!

Back to the scene:

In the camp, Natalya#9 spreads unrest among the workers as black smoke drifts out of the building where the commander's office sits. A supervisor struggles for control and fights to restore order. More Complications and all players want to join in. Once I have to calm them down a bit, as I want to prevent subconflicts. I think they take away the focus, because in a Complication the storytelling focuses on just that complication. I don't want that focus to be dilluted. We still take turns clockwise, there are no interruptions yet.

Things are really exciting, as no one knows if the captives will rebel, if Frank and Natalya will flee or if order is restored and everyone will be subdued.
Well, Frank and Natalya manage to escape.

Great fun! For the story as a complete thing, it would not have been relevant if Natalya and Frank would escape, if they are separated or flee together. The story could continue nontheless. This is very exciting.

So, in the end Natalya and Frank manage to get away. Frank and Mr. Smith clash as they steal his car, Frank carries a heavy injury in the process, but manages to escape. They also get hold of the suitcase of Mr. Smith.
There we have a trait changed into a component of its own. I never explained the rules for that, but it's accepted right away and the cost appears logical to everyone. Wonderful.


We continue:

The fleeing captives end up in a forest. We learn a bit about Natalya, as they try to make camp. She knows how to survive in the woods. Both them are hungry. Frank has a borken jaw from his fight with Mr. Smith. The importance of Natalya and Frank rises.
So Frank tries to hunt, finds a cottage with food, so the fire they made stay unused, as does the cottage, because we have soldiers searching for them, but they don't make it because...

Okay. You get the drift. No one knows what to do with the scene, but the scene framer also doesn't end it. It's not good, when no one has a good concept of where things should go. I do not think this is ta really bad thing. I've seen this happen in conventional RPGs a lot, too, when players simply don't find the clue they need or don't know what do with it.

We are jumping between the search troup and the fleeing captives without building new scenes. At one time I mention that it would be better to do so, and as we start doing it, things run better again. Scene bidding and framing restores focus and restores Coins. People are less afraid to try things out. Good. Also, if you frame a scene, you wanna do something with it. That also helps focus. We lose our fear of starting scenes and of ending scenes. Especially in short scenes, if you bid too much, you really have to see how you'd spend your coins.

The captives reach a river, find an improvised raft, and escape with it. The raft falls apart in the rising current of the river (Complication between the characters and the river), but of course Frank and Natalya make it.
The search troup talk about how no one returns who reaches that river. They are afraid. B-Movie? I don't care!

Still, no one has the right idea to continue here, so I claim the next scene and do something different. Something I usually can't do in a normal RPG. It was quite costly with 8 Coins, still I know what I wanna do. We jump into what seems like a HQ or intelligence central of the "percieved enemy". There is a big round room with computers everywhere. From the far end from where we watch we zoom in on a man with stern looks and a metal hand. I also give him a name, as he picks up a phone and learn about Frank's escape. Natalya seemingly doesn't matter here. Interruptions happen now during this scene, as the other players are hooked on the idea of simply jumping into the other side and trying something out. Control of the Inquisitor and the setting changes from here to there. We're not simply taking turns anymore. A whole new perception of the game rises. Still, the whole thing does not tumble into chaos. The established facts are considered by all players and thus we're all driving on the same track. We just don't know where we're heading yet.

We have to end our game here. After roughly 5 scenes.

(one more post coming up)


My thoughts?

Wow. I am amazed. It works and it works like Ralf Mazza describes it! I really didn't think that it would work so well! It works best, when someone creates a scene and all people know what to do with a scene. There are weaknesses, when someone starts a scene, without a good idea and no one else knows what to do with the scene either. When the scene-framer also doesn't want to end the scene, things can grind to a halt. Ending the scene helps a lot. Sooner or later an idea will come how to deal with the situation, and as we have seen so far, ideas arise tend to arise sooner.

A little talent to organize stuff is needed. Universalis doesn't play more smoothly than a normal RPG, there are interruptions as actions and traits are quickly discussed and noted down. However, in my eyes, all the mechanisms and interruptions further the story, and I can't say that for too many RPGs.
At the start all have to learn what best to spend Coins for. I think we have to be somewhat more restrictive on what is flavour and what needs to be paid for. There's really no issue with too few Coins, especially once you grasp the power of Complications. And the pressure and focus of Complications defines facts more easily and drives the story onward. One solution to a number or problems - well actually to ONE problem: How do we drive the story. I love it.
I think we can still do a lot mroe with Complications. Usually our Complications have been of physical nature, mostly combat. Once we get past this idea, there's a lot more we can do. And usually it doesn't matter so much for the players, if a Complication is won or lost by one side. The story will continue one way or the other. That's not to say Complications don't matter storywise. Of course they do! Amazing how powerful this mechanism is.

I really like to continue this experience. Maybe I even can get new players to try this out. We'll see.

Even our sceptic, Stefan, said it was fun in the end. Great. And even our inexperienced players had a lot of impact on the story. Yes, everyone took part.

There are some issues with people winning too many conflicts, which can imbalance the storytelling, I'll have to see if this occurs. Jan is very good at Complications and gaining Coins and using them. At the moment that is not really a problem, but I could see this happen. I'll deal with the problem, once I see it happen.


Bernd, fantastic!

Thanks for writing this up.  I'm thrilled that your group nailed down how to play so perfectly in the first session.  The way you describe teaching the game, introducing things in stages when it seemed people were ready was great (did you get that from my "how to play" text?  If so, I'm glad that text worked so well, you really nailed it).  There were a number of "epiphany" moments in play as new things were introduced an I've found that to be far more effective at getting things to stick than an overwhelming data dump at the beginning.

I'm very happy that Stefan seemed to really engage with the game and give it an honest try.  Sometimes skeptics try to sabotage play to prove their skepticism, but clearly he didn't go there, I think it sounds like you have a pretty great play group.

Some thoughts that occured to me as I read your posts:

Check out the rules for Mini Scenes.  From your description, you might have found those rules helpful a couple of times (like Natalya outside the office).  But, how generous or strict you want to be with such cut aways is really up to the aesthetic of your group.

I didn't see any mention of Master and Subcomponents...that's almost always a good idea to avoid those in first sessions, but it sounds like your group might be ready for them.  The soldiers and the captives in the camp would be ideal candidates for such treatment, if needed.

It is legitimate to use Challenges to get a scene framer to end the scene.  It sounds like you folks worked it out anyway, but keep that in mind as a tool if needed.

Your cutting to a completely different scene (the HQ with the inquisitor) was exactly right, and exactly the right time.  Frank and Natalya clearly have a story...but clearly no one really knows what it is yet...so lets go elsewhere and see what's going on, and use that to inform what Frank and Natalya are up to later.  That's a great technique that will serve you well in Uni play.

Having a player take a Coin lead through Complications shouldn't pose a long term problem for play.  It likely will give Jan the ability to direct the story over the short term more than the other players (having the Coins to define Components and win Challenges and such) but that's fine.  Eventually, he'll have spent more than the other players in order to do that.  Also, whatever huge Component with a ton of Traits he builds...someone else can Take Over and use and gain the dice for in a Complication anyway.  Unless Jan gets more Coins than all the other players put together, you shouldn't notice any problems.  If you do, let me know, there are solutions.  One of the simplest is to require the Winner of a Complication to spend a certain minimum amount of their winnings instead of just keep them.  But that probably won't be necessary.

I look forward to your next session.



You're right about Mini-Scenes. I am not sure I want to use them though, because I am not sure they will break the structure. The same goes for multiple conflicts. I so far have a feel they would divert from the focus of the original idea.

When you break a scene to frame a new one, you:

- Get a break from thinking about the scene itselt because you bid for a new scene
- Focus anew, after bidding, when you frame the scene
- You are interested in making an impact with the new scene, because you don't wanna waste coins

I like that. Same goes for Complications. I was amazed, how much a complications serves to focus on THAT aspect of a scene. Suddenly everyone is alert and tries to work out an idea to take part in the Complication.

We avoided Master- and Subcomponents. I am not very sure, where they should be used. To me it seems a bit, as if these structures could be used to easily generate many coins without a lot of effort. Once the master component is there, you can easily draw on traits to use in  Complications without spending for them. Still you get Coins for them. Sounds a bit like Inflation. I might be wrong there.
And there sure will be situations, where master- and subcomponents will be fitting.

I didn't know that you could Challenge to end a scene. That's a bit of information I will keep in mind.

As if to the Coin imbalance, we will see if it really becomes a problem. I tend to jump to conclusions too soon and thus force myself to wait and see a bit longer before taking action. I'll voice myself, when we played a bit more. Sadly we can only play once a month.

And cutting fro and to between different scenes, different sides of a story, especially when you don't only have "the evil ones", but several parties simply trying to fulfill their goals are pretty interesting. To me it's actually the most fascinating aspect of Universalis. I can actually show the "enemies", their motivations and maybe make clear, that they are not actually enemies. They do have a legitimate goal, they are, from their point of view, on the right side. I can't do that in a normal RPG. There you can only focus on the characters. No way to convey that information. (well... there ARE ways, but it's very limited).

Universalis.... is... unlimited in regards to storytelling. I love that. I loved it from the first moment I read it, and I was right. I fear the problems with my group and mechanisms will have to show themselves. There sure are some. We'll see.

David Artman

Quote from: aya_aschmahr on January 30, 2008, 05:50:44 AMWe avoided Master- and Subcomponents. I am not very sure, where they should be used. To me it seems a bit, as if these structures could be used to easily generate many coins without a lot of effort. Once the master component is there, you can easily draw on traits to use in  Complications without spending for them. Still you get Coins for them. Sounds a bit like Inflation. I might be wrong there.

It's kind of a non-problem. A Master Component lets you make a "template" (ex: a class, profession, race, etc) so that you can have several Components draw on such "standards" without every mook being created with (frex) 6 Coins of Importance. A mook Subcomponent has only an Importance of 1 (for the Master Component Trait) and, thus, while it can pull Traits (sometimes, not always!) and generate Coins, it's easily destroyed (1 Coin).

Of course, your group's tastes will predominate. If y'all want to drop 8 Coins on every Stormtrooper #5 or Prisoner #22, go for it. Establishing your Coin economy and standards is part of the game.

HTH--sounds like you're having a great game!
Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages


Nah, we did handle that differently, by simply declaring the captives or soldiers as groups without much further information.
So you have:
- group

and for bigger groups:
- group (x2) (or more)

So we  never encounterred that problem.

David Artman

And those Soldiers, in turn, have no Traits to speak of: no "Guns," no "Coordination," no "Rucksacks," nothing. Put another way, they are indistinguishable, mechanically, from "Flowers -Bouquet" or "Logs -Stack" or "Puppies -Pack x2"; their  "Soldierness" is mere Color. As long as they get introduced in a conflict, they get 1 die (though, yeah, it might be hard to go unChallenged if you narrate Puppies into a firefight to get their die).

Anyhow, whatever works for your group. But Master classes aren't "cheating" or "munchkinly" or whatever you might be fearing of them. They're an option for creating Components without breaking the bank during "mere" scene framing.

Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages


Yeah, on the other hand, I've played many a game where we never needed to use Masters and Subs, so its in no way mandatory.

Where you might find it helpful is after some extended play where  Frank has been used a ton and accumulated a bunch of Traits over time...some of the other key characters might also have a ton of Traits...the Inquisitor, Mr. Adams, etc.  At that point "Soldiers x2" won't be much of a threat to Frank.

But Soldiers x2 as a subcomponent of:

Military Training
Assault Rifle
Personal Communications System
Rucksack full of Gear
Hand Grenades

have a better chance of throwing down some serious dice.

In play, it rarely makes sense to use a Master Component for soldiers that are only going to appear once.  But it can make things alot quicker if you're going to have soldiers in nearly every scene.

You can also do groups as a Master Component, thusly:

Squad of Soldiers
Military Training
Assault Rifle
Personal Communications System
Rucksack full of Gear
Hand Grenades
Machine Gun Team
Can Call in the Artillery x3


I will consider the idea. So far we didn't need it, but I'll definitely try it out. I can then see, if this will be a problem or not. I suspect not, because in the end, everyone can do it, and thus: same chances for everyone :D

David Artman

It's always and only an option (every rule is an option, with Gimmicks, after all).

I suspect, however, that you've got some semi-gamist habits you're having trouble breaking. I read some of your talk about Master Comps and it almost seems (to me) that you're worried or afraid of someone (who?) "winning" (how?) "too easily" (why?). You are not the characters; their dice are not yours (outside of conflict); and Trait accumulation is merely the means by which elements of story are given "weight" or "durability." As Ralph says above, if your players really start digging these character AND want them to have solid opposition or challenges that aren't trivially destroyed BUT don't want to hemorrhage Coins to introduce every Villain-Of-The-Moment... you're gonna turn to master Comps.
Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages


You may be right - after all Universalis is my first venture beyond the "normal" ways of roleplaying. You may be right, but not neccessarily. I think my primary worry is, that with this kind of components everyone can easily gain Coins. So the single Coin is worth less, since your stack is usually greater. There's more "money" in the game, which can lead to something like inflation. Coins are more easily spent even on minor details and thus it all serves only to distract from the focus of the story.
We might find workarounds/rules gimmicks to deal with that, IF it happens. I can only theorize here, because I did not yet experience it.

You see there might be worries beyond simple "gamist" issues, that are to be considered here. I do have some gamist issues, too, but, when I think further about them, they are more about an imbalance in storytelling, and... when everyone learns to use Complications the right way, everyone can overcome those problems. I still have to embrace this realization. Might take me some time. :)

David Artman

I am concerned you might see my last post as accusative; it was not meant to be. I don't judge any play style (or agenda), I just reached for a (poor) adjective, to try to explain that you are worrying about what seems to me to be a non-issue.

What is "too many Coins," anyway? Inflation self-corrects: for every player trying to lock-down plot or component elements with a fistful of Coins, there's two or more others with fistfuls to Challenge. Evoke a stack of Traits to get a stack of Coins at the end of the Complication? No big deal: recall that those Coins are going to end up draining away to narrate the outcome (and there's always a rules Gimmick you could use which limits the percentage of post-Challenge Coins which can be kept by their recipient). If your group starts to feel like there are too many Coins and what should be (or had been) mere Color is now getting the weight of Importance, then just go a bit more granular in what you permit as a Fact--see the rules which describe how "he shoots the bird" could cost from 1 to 4 Coins, depending upon the group's sense of "worth" for a Coin versus a Fact. And don't forget about adjusting the refresh rate, if your group gets super-savvy about milking Complications for heaping mounds of Coins. Or not (let the economy self-correct).

Designer - GLASS, Icehouse Games
Editor - Perfect, Passages