Universalis Playtest Review by Lael Buchanan on 27/08/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
This game is all about Shared Storytelling. And it accomplishes its goal with style.
Author: Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes
Company/Publisher: Ramshead Publishing
Page count: 86
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Lael Buchanan on 27/08/02
Genre tags: Generic Other
Disclaimer: Just so you know where my bias lies… When I first heard about the concept behind Universalis, I was very intrigued. I did a little research and found that they were looking for playtesters and I applied. I was accepted as a playtester, but due to time constraints with my group at the time, I wasn’t able to contribute as much as I would have liked to the development of the game. This is the extent of my relationship with the Authors of Universalis. I have been given a pre-publication version of the final rules and that is what I have used for this playtest review. The game is currently available for sale at the Universalis website. (http://universalis.actionroll.com/)
This is also my first, ever, RPG.net review, so take it easy on me, please.
And now for something completely different…
Universalis (pronounced like “Universe Alice”) is not your typical role-playing game. In fact there are those that say it is not a role-playing game at all. There is certainly room in Universalis to allow the players to play out the characters in the game, however, so let’s just say “this ain’t your daddy’s RPG”, and go from there. I will begin with a general overview of the game and then go into the chapters of the book one at a time for some more detail.
Universalis is primarily a game engine to tell stories. Unlike a “traditional” role-playing game, all of the players in Universalis act primarily as Game Masters. While this may sound like it would lead to a lot of confusion and discord, the fact is that the rules are set up to structure the interaction between the players to facilitate the creation of the story. It does this through the use of Coins. Coins equal Story Power. The more Coins you are willing to spend on something, the more importance it will probably have to the story.
When the players sit down to start a game for the first time, they go through a series of turns where they are creating the framework for the story, this primarily consists of the basic questions of Who, What, When, Where, and Why. One player proposes a Fantasy setting, the next proposes that it takes place in a mountainous region, the next proposes that the main race is a race of sentient Arachnids, then you get into what is happening in the region, maybe a power struggle between two females from competing web-towns for the dominance of the males in the territory, etc. This process continues until such time as one of the players feels that there is enough to work with to frame the first scene.
After a scene has been framed, basically after the player currently in control has setup the scene, any other player has the option of getting involved in the scene, either by taking over a character within the scene or adding some complication to the scene. If no one chooses to interact with the current player’s scene, then the current player can simply narrate the actions and events, paying Coins for each object or person created or brought into the scene or for any actions taken by those components.
In this way, play proceeds. It is a surprisingly workable and ordered system, even though at first glance it may not appear to be so. There is a simple dice mechanic used to resolve complications, but unless a complication is specifically initiated by a player other than the controlling player, there is no need for the dice. If the controlling player is the only one influencing the action in a given scene, then the only limit to what he can do is the amount of Coins that he has and how much the other players will let him get away with. It is important to remember that the players will all act more like GMs than like players. They may certainly take on the roles of any of the characters present in a scene and play out the dialog involved in a scene, but most of the action takes place between the players rather than the characters.
Now, for a Chapter-by-Chapter review
Chapter 1 – The Basic Concept
As the title indicates this chapter covers the fundamentals of the game; Coins (and how to get more), Facts (and what to do with them), how to tell who has control when, etc. It is a well-written primer of the very basic components of the game system.
Chapter 2 – Game Preparation
This chapter deals with the opening moves, so to speak, of most Universalis games. This covers the initial rounds of the game where Tenets are proposed by the players. Tenets include Game Setting elements (Location, Time period, Genre, etc), Social Contract issues (establishing a penalty for telling Monty Python jokes, etc.), and Rules Gimmicks (how to handle a specific situation not specifically covered by the rules, loaning Coins between players for example.)
It is in this chapter that the detailed play examples begin. Through out the book, the play examples help to illustrate the mechanics and the flow of the game. The play examples throughout the book follow a single story and the way that the rules worked to bring that story to life. When I finished reading the rules, I found myself wishing that I had been involved in that game, because it just sounded like so much fun.
Chapter 3 – Turn Order and Game Flow
Now we start getting to the meat of how to play this game. Bidding on a new scene, Framing that scene, Ending the scene, Interrupting scenes, and all of the various other things that you need to know to get the game going. There is quite a lot of information in this chapter and it is the second largest chapter in the book. It ends with a convenient chart that gives you a quick break down of what you can do and when, along with a general idea of How many Coins it will cost you to do it.
The examples continue in this chapter as they do throughout the book, highlighting the rules and telling an interesting story at the same time.
Chapter 4 – Creating Components
Components can be anything from a building, to a pack of wolves, or even The Sword Excalibur. Each component is given Traits, such as “Constructed of Steel”, “Rabid”, or even “Sword of Power”. These traits can then be called upon, especially in the context of a Complication, to provide impact to the story. The number of traits a given component has determines how many Coins it costs to introduce for the first time and also to determine how difficult it is to completely remove it from the story.
Once a component has been created for the story, introducing them into the story at a later time is very simple and requires only one Coin. That component can then bring it’s traits to bear on the current scene. This means that the more Coins are spent into a given component, the more often it will likely be used since it becomes much cheaper, in terms of Coins, to use an existing component than it is to create an entirely new component.
Chapter 5 – Narrating the Scene
Once a scene has been framed, there are a great many things that you can do within a scene. This is the chapter that helps new players through that process. It clearly indicates just how much each kind of action costs in terms of Coins (usually one Coin for any given basic action). This chapter also covers some “tricks” that can be done within scenes, like flashbacks and setting the scene at some point in the future.
Chapter 6 – Complications
Complications are the main source of conflict within this game. A complication is initiated between two players. One player is the original framer of the current scene, while the other is someone that has taken control of one or more of the components in the scene so as to initiate the conflict. Once a Complication has started, the various players draw on the traits of the components and even their own supply of Coins to add dice to either of the “sides” of the complication. Players can also propose their own desired outcome independent of the others and start their own “side” within the complication.
Once all players have spent the Coins they are willing to risk on the complication and activated the Traits that they feel were relevant to the conflict, the dice pools are rolled and compared. The side with the most successes wins the complication and the right to be the first to narrate the outcome of the complication. Each person that participates in a complication also gains a reward of Coins for their participation, and these Coins can either be used to narrate elements of the outcome of the Complication or they can be kept for later use in the story.
I know that many of the reviews on RPG.net include some mention of the artwork in the book. I have never really paid too much attention to the artwork in most of the books, unless it was an outstanding piece of work. But I did take a look at the artwork in this one since I knew that I was going to review it here. The artwork is a little sparse, with only 11 pieces in the 86 pages of the book. About half of those were depictions of pieces of the Examples that appear throughout the book with the other half depicting some kind of robotic pirates in a sci-fi setting. The artwork is fairly good with a couple of pieces standing out as being very good.
Overall, having played the game once or twice and had pretty good results with it, I must say that I really enjoy this game. It’s not for everyone, that’s certain, and if most of the group in not in a creative groove that night, it could be a rough game. I recommend taking a look at their web page (http://universalis.actionroll.com/) and especially looking in the Resources section for the Other Uses for Universalis. Even if this game does not do it for you, it could certainly be a very interesting play aid for any number of other games and play styles.