Review of Universalis

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

June 16, 2003

by: Jonathan Walton

Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

While the game itself may seem best suited to one-shot sessions with little character immersion, Universalis is nothing less than a prophecy of what progressive gaming might become. Sliced bread better watch its back. Here's why.

Jonathan Walton has written 4 reviews, with average style of 4.00 and average substance of 3.50 The reviewer's previous review was of kill puppies for satan (an unfunny roleplaying game).

This review has been read 10747 times.

Product Summary
Name: Universalis
Publisher: Ramshead Publishing
Author: Ralph Mazza, Mike Holmes
Category: RPG

Cost: $9.95
Pages: 86
Year: 2002

Review of Universalis

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This is going to be a non-standard review. While I will discuss Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes game, Universalis, in and of itself, my main purpose is to illuminate the new style of play it demonstrates and what this may mean for the future of roleplaying.

Let me forego the usual bluster and get right to the point: Universalis, in a manner similar to Rebecca Sean Borgstrom's Nobilis, represents a revolution not so much in ideas as achievement. For years, designers and theorists postulated that diceless, resource-distribution-based roleplaying was not merely possible, but could be built into a complex rule system, without resorting to freeform play. But nobody actually sat down and did it (at least, in the US)... until Nobilis. Similarly, for years, designers and theorists have postulated that GM-less play could also be supported by a system specifically designed for it (see Ian Millington's Ergo, an early advocate for GM-less, "collaborative" roleplaying). But again, nobody stepped up to the plate to design such a system, though games like Soap, Baron Munchausen, and Once Upon a Time skirted that territory.

Until Universalis.

In speaking of Nobilis, Ken Hite said he wouldn't be surprised if similar resource-distribution mechanics started springing up all over the place. Check out the new Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game to see what he meant. Likewise, I'm personally predicting that Universalis-style mechanics will soon be incorporated into all kinds of games. But, while Universalis recently won "Most Innovative Game" in the 2002 Indie Game Awards, the things it contains are neither completely new or revolutionary. What's revolutionary is that Ralph and Mike actually published the game and got it out there for everyone to play, digest, and rework into new games.


If you want a detailed description of the game itself, simply search the RPGnet reviews for "Universalis." There are many detailed offerings on this site that can explain the game in more detail. Here's a basic summery:

Universalis is a GM-less game where the various players use a game currency called "coins" to build or control story components. These components can include scenes, characters, objects, traits, tenants of play, rules modifications, dialogue, events, complications, and extra dice to roll during complications. The rules are very simple: 1 coin = 1 die = 1 trait or 1 thing. Complex characters and situations can be created with a handful of coins. Even player control of the various created components is decided by coins. You pay coins to be able to move the protagonist around and make them talk. There are no components that, by default, belong to a specific player, so it's possible that everyone will get a chance to play everything. "Complications," the term used for conflicts, are resolved by rolling dice equal to the number of coins involved (either coins that were spent in creation of the components or new coins spent specifically on the conflict). Complications also provide coins to involved players (depending on the dice roll), which gives players an incentive to cause conflict (regaining coins). And that's the basics.

If you want more, check the other reviews. Or buy the game.


Lest I be declared to be too one-sided in my praise of Universalis, let me first talk about the limitations of the system that Ralph and Mike developed.

To be honest, I've never actually played a straight-up game of Universalis, though I've played heavily modified versions of the system. This shouldn't be too surprising, because few gamers are likely to approach a game exactly as it is written. The "universal" nature of possible play (from whence the game derives it's name), and the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant formalization of "Rule Gimmicks" (which allow the players, within the structure of the game itself, to make alterations to the rules) mean that it's easy to modify Universalis to support the type of play that you want. Sure, everyone modifies games all the time, but, like Fudge, Universalis opens itself to that process, encouraging you to mess around with it.

However, my main problem with Universalis is that the game it too traditionally-minded.

I can imagine many people with puzzled expressions on their faces. Universalis too traditional? GM-less play? Rule modification? Collaborative and competitive world-building? Manipulating story elements? This doesn't sound like a very traditional game. On the contrary, it sounds very progressive. Allow me to explain what I mean.

Universal Universalis?

First, let's face it, so-called "universal" systems are probably the second-oldest tradition in roleplaying, after hack-and-slash, party-system, treasure-stealing, dungeon-diving fantasy games. Once people had this idea that maybe not everyone enjoyed dungeon diving, they started making systems that were open to different genres of play. And, from there, it was an easy step to create systems that were supposedly open to all genres of play. GURPS is probably the most famous example, but there are thousands of these things out there. The Free RPG Database even has a separate listing for "universal" systems.

But, the idea of a "universal" system is fundamentally flawed. System does matter. One rule set does not equally support all styles of play. Can you imagine using GURPS to run a Nobilis game? Hell no. Specific systems lend themselves particularly well to certain styles of play.

This also applies to Universalis. As many playtesters have found, playing Universalis gives one the sense of being a puppetmaster, moving story components around without ever really feeling immersed in a character or situation. You have a GM's-eye-view of the game and it's hard to simply enter into it as you would as a normal player. Additionally, the default method of constructing stories, where each player takes turns offering a few "Story Elements" that will shape the narrative, means that there may not be a real cohesive feel to the story. The players may have competing visions of what the story should be, creating a "too many cooks" phenomena that leads to a less-than-satisfactory outcome.

To help minimize these kinds of conflicts, Universalis has an extensive pre-game system for get all the players on the same page. Quoting from Chapter Two: Game Preparation:

This is a pretty unique approach to a "universal" game, getting all the players, right before they start playing, to collectively tailor the rules, story guidelines, and their own social contract. This means that Universalis stops being universal before play ever starts. However, this kind of modification would obviously be limited by the player's patience and how well the group was at deciding they were ready to play. No group, in my mind, is going to take the time to reinvent the system from the ground up. The foundation of the game is already laid in the Universalis rule book, and modifying it to support a completely different style of play would take too long and require more cooperation that even the best groups are capable of. The best that can be hoped for is tweaking existing guidelines to support different genres or to fix issues that emerged during previous games. It does not, in actually, mean that Universalis is capable of universally supporting all play styles. There are definitely people who will enjoy Universalis more than others, and people who will enjoy Universalis more at certain times, because it offers a distinct brand of play that stays pretty consistent even after pre-game modifications have been made.

On this issue, Mike Holmes says: "We've been over that a lot. I'd like to see a more specified "Universalis-like" game to see what comes about. But Universalis is what it is. It definitely only supports only a few play styles. Despite it's name... Universalis is far from universal. It's "generic," meaning that it can be used for any genre. But it can't support many (even most, from a certain POV) styles of play. That's something we accepted before we started."

What does Universalis lend itself best to? It's difficult to say exactly, and I've been wracking my brain ever since I started planning to write this review. The best I can come up with is that Universalis feels like a freeform game that has been given rules to keep it from dissolving into "he said -- she said." As in freeform, players can conceivably do anything they want, assuming they have enough coins or can gain the support of the majority. If this scares you, it's possible to set up stricter guidelines during pre-game, giving players an advantage when challenging things that break the genre or tone of the game. However, the feeling of freeform tends to remain, even though the rules structure makes it a very different creature.


Another issue is immersion. This term is often used to describe what it feels like to be in-character, what it feels like to "be" someone else. Put simply, it's the experience of playing a role, something that would seem to be a critical feature of roleplaying. However, because of the manipulative nature of Universalis play, with the players switching control of characters, controlling whole swaths of the narrative landscape, and basically acting like a group of GMs, character immersion in most Universalis games is minimal.

Again, Mike Holmes: "This is the thing that I've been calling recently SpecSimIm (for Special Simulationist Immersion). It basically means that as soon as you can feel yourself controlling things in a manner that a single indivisual in the world could not, you fail to be able to 'project' yourself into the world. Which is what SpecSimIm is all about. Only an issue for a few who hold it as a dear goal. I, myself, can take it or leave it. That is, sometimes I like playing Universalis. Other times I'd rather play almost anything else. It's just very different from other RPGs."

This isn't to say, however, that immersion doesn't occur at all. If players are into it, they can certainly project themselves into different characters at different times. However, because you're not consistently projecting yourself into the same character or looking at the game from a single character's point-of-view, any immersion is likely to be ephemeral and fleeting.

The One-Shot Syndrome

Because of these limitations, Universalis often has the tendency to be run in single doses. Players come together for a single session that tells a complete story and then move on to another game or a different Universalis story. Very few people seem to be interested in Universalis for long-term campaigns. From the authors:

Ralph Mazza: "I'm not willing to give up on the idea of an extended multiple session 'campaign' or series of linked scenarios for the game quite yet, though those have been much more rare than I'd hoped. I think the game makes it very EASY to have a complete story told in a single session, and so it tends to get used like that. But I do think that it should work just as well for a serial / episodic style campaign."

Mike Holmes: "...Universalis only supports telling some form of story. If that story is chosen, consciously or subconsciously, to be a 'short story' (which happens a lot), that's what will tend to be produced. But we've got many games going right now that have the goal of being more epic length stories, and the system seems to support that just as well. In fact, in some ways, there are inherent superiorities over other RPGs for length. For example, failure of attendance means very little... The only thing about that is that, given the attendance advantage, Universalis often becomes a backup game to other stuff. It's often the game that gets played if nothing else works out. Not that it's a last resort. But given it's flexibility, it seems to make sense to leave it for play when other stuff isn't working out. Weird, but that''s what's happened with it in three groups that I've seen that play it long term."

Don't think I can say it better than that. The Universalis system has characteristics that seem to encourage single-session games, though that's not necessarily what the authors intended.


Honestly, the most exciting part of Universalis, for me, is imaging the games that will come after it. The "problems" that I've pointed out above are not insurmountable, given careful thought and good game design. Mike's comment that "I'd like to see a more specified 'Universalis-like' game to see what comes about," is a serious understatement, in my opinion. I think that second-generation games who draw inspiration from Universalis, Ergo, Baron Munchausen, and similar games are going to kick gaming's collective ass. Of course, in the land where d20 reigns supreme, it might not be immediately obvious, but, for those who are open to innovative and experimental styles of play, Universalis has already helped kick a few doors open. At the Forge (the birthplace and foster home of Universalis), you can see signs of this in projects such as Rob Mosley's The Million Worlds, deadpanbob's Incarnate, Jay Turner's Better Days, Chris Edwards' Cradlethorn, Silent Entropy's Apotheosis, my own Ever-After, and a host of others (and these are only the projects I'm familiar with, on a single website). Whether any of these will ultimately succeed as commercial games is still to be seen, but with so many people jumping headfirst into this new roleplaying territory, I think the odds are pretty likely that someone will eventually make it.

So how did Universalis destroy some preconceptions and open up this new territory?

1.) Pre-Game

Though the pre-game doesn't have the capability to turn Universalis into something it's not, that's a completely unfair expectation. As it stands, the pre-game preparation required by Universalis is unbelievably beneficial. Consider simply tacking it onto the beginning of each of your normal game session, either formally or informally. It gives players an opportunity to discuss the way the story is evolving, any social issues they have, and potential problems with the rules. Even more, it gives them the opportunity to make suggestions and enact change that will make the game more enjoyable for them. As a group-building strategy for improving communication and interaction, it holds immense promise.

2.) No Preparation

Universalis can start as soon as everybody has a fair grasp of the rules. No prep time is involved as far as the story goes. Players throw out ideas and you're off, heading wherever inspiration takes you. Comparisons with traditional games are necessary here. There could never be any pre-written scenarios for Universalis. One would never have to spend hours preparing encounters or thinking out what directions the narrative could move in. The most that could happen would be creating a sample set of Tenants for a specific genre/mode of play, which you could then take to the group for approval. For busy players who have other commitments in their life, this is something that can be a great advantage (though it's also the reason that Universalis has become a "back-up" game). Many would-be next generation games have begun to jump on this bandwagon, made to be run "straight out of the box."

3.) On-Going Creation

Character creation isn't merely a one-time deal. It's continual. Characters are created not only at the beginning of the game, but at the middle and even the very end. Things are brought into being mostly on an as-needed basis. Nothing is created without purpose and so there is no waste. Characters aren't going to have a large number of traits that never get used. Story elements don't have to be defined in a predetermined way that ignores whatever purpose they may have (giving HP to a magic ring). You create elements to fit a specific role in the narrative. And while this may seem a little arbitrary and all-too-coincidental on some occasions ("Oh look! A helicopter! Good thing I've been taking piloting lessons for years!"), it puts the needs of the story first, above any choices that were made before play began (which, most likely, were ignorant and just as arbitrary).

4.) Scene Framing

I can't tell you how many recent game designs I've seen that have adopted Universalis-style scene framing. Now, granted, there were a few games that were doing things almost like this before Universalis, but scene framing was never really one of the central mechanics of play. The idea of breaking down sessions into bite-sized chucks of narrative is very intuitive, thanks to television, theater, and movies. The camera cuts away, the characters walk offstage, the screen fades to black, all signaling a break in the story. When things start again, you may have new characters, a new situation, a new location, whatever. Basically, scene framing is very close to being a miniature version of pre-game prep. The players all bid coins to see who gets to determine what this chunk of the story is going to be about. It makes everyone own the story, not just as a whole, but as individual bits of plot and interaction. As far as GM-less play goes, it's a serious breakthrough in responsibility distribution. I wouldn't be surprised if this sticks around for a while, in some form or other, until others systems are more fully realized.

5.) Cooperative Antagonism

Universalis is driven by players not getting along. In fact, if they get along too well, the mechanics won't really do what they're supposed to do: balance narrative control and redistribute coins. Again, Ralph Mazza: "Challenges are sometimes a problem because some people interpret the term as being antagonistic and something to avoid in the spirit of cooperation, but in reality the negotiation phase of the Challenge mechanic is one of the more cooperation-enhancing elements of the game and something that can be employed frequently as a way of signaling to other players what is important to you. That's something I've noticed some players don't pick up right away." Players are supposed to disagree for the same reason that players in Diplomacy are supposed to backstab and lie to each other, because that's how the game is played, that's what makes it fun and interesting. It's not enough that everybody's happy with narrative elements that "I can live with," you need to fight for ideas that excite you, because that will add energy and risk of failure to the game, as you challenge the other players. Whereas, in traditional games, cooperative antagonism is how players interact with the GM, in Universalis this is how the entire group interacts, which can take a while for "can't-we-all-just-get-along" players to get used to. However, if the group can adapt, it creates a much more dynamic narrative style, one that has the potential to fulfill diverse player desires more fully than a traditional format.

6.) Collaborative Creation

Cooperative antagonism is the engine for collaborative narrative creation. A mouthful, but that's about as simple as I can say it. Players fighting it out for the ideas they like best creates a kind of Darwinian environment for the story to live in, where "bad" story ideas (those that a majority of the players or a majority of what's already been created disagrees with) get pruned pretty effortlessly as soon as they are introduced. The only concepts that survive are those that have passed through the gauntlet. However, as Ralph hints above, the gauntlet isn't something that concepts (or the players putting them forward) should be scared of. More often, it doesn't reject ideas, but makes them stronger through the collective input of all the players. Other people consider angles that hadn't occurred to you, the idea gets revised, and the entire game benefits. Even more important, the entire group has a feeling of ownership when everyone's input is considered. At the end of the day, nobody talks about "my game;" it's clearly "our game." There are only a few other games that I can think of which encourage players to create things collectively, and most simply offer a point system and tell you that everyone should reach consensus about what they spend points on. Good luck. And Communism worked really well in practice, right? Universalis trusts in free market economics and Adam Smith's invisible hand.

7.) Story-Significance

Another trend in progressive game design, which is not completely indebted to Universalis, is having story elements (characters, locations, events, objects, etc.) rated by their significance to the overall narrative. In Universalis this serves as a way to keep people from easily destroying things that are critical to the story, since you have to pay coins equal to an element's cost in order to destroy it. Of course, Universalis assumes that the most important elements will have the most detail, and will therefore have a ton of coins tied up into them. This isn't necessarily going to be true, especially if the protagonist is an Everyman or iconic in their simplicity ("Jack the Giant-Killer"), but, for Universalis' purposes, serves as a good guideline. Other recent designs have used "narrative importance" to serve as a measure of a character's power over other story elements or to serve other mechanical purposes. It'll be interesting to see what other games pick this concept up next.

8.) Double Removal

My final point is a little subtle and may take some time to explain. Some designers have, wittingly or not, capitalized on a concept that Universalis hints at: a roleplaying game within a roleplaying game, similar to the story-within-a-story evident in Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet) or Scheherazade (1000 Nights & a Night). Imagine, if you will, what is actually controlling all the characters, events, and objects in our imaginary game world. While the players could be viewed as manipulating things directly, another perspective would create a kind of player-avatar, possessing various story-elements and manipulating them. It simply depends on what kind of metaphor your game is preaching.

Universalis has two levels of play that are both explicitly critical to the game experience. The first is the interaction of various story elements (which traditional games also aspire to), but the second is the OOC interactions between players, fighting for bits of the narrative, which occasionally happens in traditional games ("Hey, you can't do that!") but is generally overlooked. More accurately, OOC interaction happens in all games, but it's not made a part of the game the same way it is in Universalis.

Additionally, recent designs that have capitalized on this concept by putting a face and identity on this player-avatar and the OOC interaction between players. The first example that comes to mind is imagining the players are classical gods, each of whom controls some aspect of the game landscape. So, I might have Thor as my meta-character. However, whenever it becomes necessary for there to be storms in the game, Thor takes control of the storm and possesses it, effectively becoming the storm for a certain amount of time. So, I, the player, would be playing Thor playing the storm. This is the "double removal" I meant in the title, the roleplaying of a roleplayer. As Thor, I could interact with the other gods, but I could also become part of the landscape and interact with other parts of the landscape. This double layer of roleplaying has a whole host of advantages and disadvantages, which would fill up an entirely separate article, so I think I'll just wait until a reviewing a game that more explicitly uses this.


This is where I'm supposed to come up with some kick-ass conclusion, but I don't know that I really have one. How's this? Buy Universalis. Read it. Play it. But, most importantly, digest it and make it a part of your roleplaying and game design vocabulary. Become fluent in it. Because once you familiarize yourself with a new way of doing things, you can push things even further, coming up with new variations and improvements of your own. Universalis is not the be-all and end-all. As corny as it sounds, it's just the beginning. The tip of the iceberg. It'll be a long time before it's able to sink the Titanic of traditionally-minded gamers and designers, and that's not even a desirable goal. I'm still astoundingly traditional sometimes, and find myself falling into the same old patterns (even when I know I don't like the same old patterns). Advancement only comes through collective education and awareness. It doesn't matter how innovative something is if most people "don't get it." So strive to continually educate yourself about the wide range of games that are out there, because you never know what will get your wheels turning or make a significant difference in the quality of your play. Universalis did it for me, so I'm trying to share some of that experience with you. Even if it doesn't sound like your type of game, go out there and find something else that is. New things are happening all the time. You just have to look.

There that's my spiel. Hope it did something for ya.

Jonathan Walton
1001 Designs - "Art you can BE."

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