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Subject: Here's a story... about a lovely game. rss

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Neil Sorenson
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I stumbled across a mention of Universalis while browsing through gaming articles and being a fan of Once Upon a Time (and having created my own Lovecraftian-themed version of the game) decided that I'd like to check out Universalis.

The bits that I read on various gaming sites was quite intriguing (if not a little baffling) and the notion of structured, open-ended theme-free storytelling seemed pretty interesting. After ordering a copy of the book and strongarming my board gaming group into trying it out, I was sold on the system.

Without going deeply into the mechanics, the way the game structures the act of storytelling is by creating a "game economy" which restricts (to some extent) just what each player can do when it is their turn or in order to complicate the turn of the current player. Each round, or "scene" of the story begins with players collecting a set number of tokens (coins, beads, precious gemstones, etc.) and spending these coins to introduce characters, objects, narrative actions, etc.

By spending more coins, generic characters can have traits associated with them that give them more importance to the story and the ability to survive messy complications that might arise later in the tale. By spending more and more tokens on a character or object or location or concept, it sets a value to that element that must be paid for by an opposing element in order to be killed/destroyed/removed from the story.

What occurs is a back-and-forth of players spending tokens to add traits like "no-nonsense" and "crack-shot" and "tough guy" to the private dick character whose story is being told while other players are spending coins to inroduce hazards and plot complications.

I should stress that it is not a system where any one player "wins" by having "their" characters prevail. Since any character or creation can be taken over by any player and have traits added or removed at any time, there is an "open-source" nature to the story. All of the players are working together to fit their own pieces into a bigger story and the conflict of the game arises when one players thinks he has a better idea where to take things than the others.

The system is quite abstract when first encountered (which makes it VERY difficult to easily sum up in a single page review) but gradually begins to gel by the second or third session. At that point, players begin to mutually agree upon ways to modify the game system on the fly to cater to their own particular style of play. Increasing intra-player conflict, or controlling the chaos, or whatever modifications are desired by the gaming group.

For roleplayers, it's an opportunity to participate in a game that rather than being "GM-less" is more of a situation where all of the players are taking very fluid shifts at being temporary GMs. The upshot being that there are many more surprises than in the typical rpg session since any single player of the group might introduce utterly unexpected elements and complications for the group to work out.

I have not played the game with less than 5 people and imagine that 3 would be the absolute minimum to get enough cross-polination to create a decent story but that seems a reasonable feat. The end result is a story that has as much or as little "roleplaying" as each player feels comfortable with and a chance to participate in crafting a story on the fly that can be quite satisfying.

The game takes some time to fully digest and to feel comfortable with the rules but it's certainly worth the effort.
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S. Deniz Bucak
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My books are forgeries. Nobody wrote them. - Philip K. Dick
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You might also check out Capes, which is similar but tailored to superhero role playing. I have both games, but, unfortunately, have been unable to persuade my group to try them yet. Also try Pantheon, which is kind of an ancestor of Universalis, but is a much lighter system. I have played Pantheon several times and recommend it highly.
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Neil Sorenson
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Pantheon eh? Don't know that one... I'll have to research it a bit.

Thanks!
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Ralph Mazza
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Hey, this is neat. I didn't expect to find a review for my RPG on the Geek, but thanks.

Anyone who has any questions about the game fee free to check out our discussion forum: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?board=21.0

Ralph Mazza
Ramshead Publishing
www.ramshead.indie-rpgs.com
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I thought my RPG days were long over. But my bbf and I have been using ideas from Universalis for IM storytelling ... and we are having scintillating fun. (We use Universalis as a supplement to a PBeM epistolary system of our own invention.) Right now we are both abducted countesses trying to escape our evil, but ever so sexy, captors during the Franco-Prussian War. If you are at all interested in cooperative (or antagonistic) narrative construction, this is the system for you.

Amusing sidenote: When I was an undergraduate, I had two male roommates that played their own version of "Cowboys and Indians". They called it "Kirk and Spock". Unfortunately, after about ten minutes into most of their games they would reach a point where one would say something like "Spock, we need to beam down to the surface," and the other would say, "No, Captain, we need to stay on the ship." Then they would shout "Beam," "Stay", "Beam," "Stay," until they got mad and quit. Those guys really could have used a system like Universalis.
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Sam Capasso
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I played my first game of Universalis last night and was amazed! I've been in multiple gaming groups and have played a variety of RPGs (mostly D&D, but dabbled in others like Mage) and I can't remember the last time I had so much fun. At times I would be at a loss of what to do with the story but then someone would say something and spark my imagination. By far my favorite part was trying to name and describe creatures as the story progressed. After only an hour into the game, we had created a world like none-other. The main characters were part of a species of externally souled, four-gendered techno-mages living beneath the surface of some sunless planet. Man was it crazy! I highly recommend this game for people who like to let their imaginations out for a run around the block.
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Ralph Mazza
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Excellent Sam, I'm glad to hear it!

If you want to write up a play report, I'd be happy to put it up on my site.

Ralph
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Jay Little
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Odd to find this on the 'Geek, but I heartily endorse and recommend Universalis... I find it a wonderful exercise to explain the Social Contract and mutually accepted ground rules. A great, great read, even if you never actually get it to the table.
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