Universalis: The Game of Unlimited Stories
By Ralph Mazza and Mike Holms
Universalis is a different kind of roleplaying game. In Universalis, the players may each direct the actions of any of the story components, introduce new story elements, frame scenes as they like, and generally take turns writing the story. They can even restructure the way the game is played by introducing Rules Gimmicks that alter the basic rules. It is produced as a digest-sized perfect-bound softcover, 86 page book, and sold directly from the Ramshead Publishing website at http://universalis.actionroll.com/ for $18 including shipping or through a few retailers or from RPGMall.com.
In Universalis the ability of the player to manipulate the setting and story are measured with a currency of Coins. The more Coins you have the more able you are to: introduce Facts to the game, to Challenge Facts entered by other players, Interrupt the play of the other players to interject your thoughts into the story, and influence the outcomes of Complications. Every player starts the game with the same number of these Coins and receives the same number as refreshment each time a Scene ends. Further, Complications -- the grittier method of resolving player disputes, award Coins to the participants -- usually more to the winner(s) than to the loser(s).
The game begins with a phase in which the players proceed in turn order, stating Tenets of the current game. These can simply be setting info: “the skies in this game are pale green, instead of blue.” Or, they can dictate future setting decisions: “all scenes will be framed on the decks of sailing ships.” Tenets can even take the flavor of Rules Gimmicks: “scenes involving cetaceans refresh seven instead of five Coins” or “Traits assigned to named character Components must thematically reflect something about the current setting when the trait is introduced.” Once everyone around the table has consecutively passed, this phase is done and the story-telling proper begins.
When it’s time to start a new Scene, the players prepare an “in the fist” bid of some number of Coins which they are agreeing to spend on narration of that Scene. Whoever has bid the most starts by framing the new Scene. This includes specifying the location and time and introducing Components. Once framed, that player can continue to narrate, or pass. Further, any other player can drop a Coin to Interrupt and being narrating. When anyone who is currently narrating stops and passes, play proceeds to the next person. Only the framing player may end the Scene, triggering the Coin refresh. As the Scene is narrated, the current player can choose to pay a Coin for any narrated aspect of the Scene. Paying a Coin is the only way to make something a Fact. The narrator can include any amount of unpaid-for text, but it does not limit where the story goes in the future. Facts that are paid for are persistent. They affect the future. A common understanding of which things merit Coinage is “if it’s worth writing down, pay a Coin.”
During narration, Components that are introduced by the narrator are controlled by that player. Any player can seize control of any Component for a Coin. Control lasts until the Scene is ended or until someone else takes the Component over.
At any time, a Fact can be Challenged by another player who pays a Coin. Initially, the players can negotiate an outcome and if they come to satisfactory terms, everything is copacetic. If their difference of opinion on where the story goes is irreconcilable then the expenditure of Coins will determine which vision is etched in the stone of the story. The conflicting players (and any other players) take turns chipping in Coins to see one or the other version come to be. These Coins are all spent regardless of who wins in the end. When one side of the Challenge is no longer willing to pay to support their version, the other side wins and their telling becomes Fact. The player who was narrating then continues. During these Challenges, if the Fact in question is counter to previously established Fact(s), the side defending the integrity of the previous Fact does so at half price -- each Coin they spend counts as two.
The other form of conflict in Universalis is the Complication. This can happen when any kind of challenge faces the character components in the game or when one player attempts to do something to a character that is currently controlled by another player. Once a Complication is declared, the players continue to narrate the situation leading up to the Complication, but nothing that limits the outcome. During this time, dice-pools (of ten sided dice) are generated for the various sides and players by declaring Components and Traits to be on their side for purposes of this resolution. These declarations, like anything else, can be Challenged. Once the pools are established, the dice are rolled. All the dice on a given side (regardless of who ‘owns’ them) are pooled for purposes of Complication resolution. All the rolls with 1-5 as a result count as one success. The number of successes on each side is added up and whichever has more, wins the right to narrate the outcome first. The dice on that side provide Coins to the owner of that die equal to the face value (1-5) of each victorious die. The dice on the losing side provide one Coin each, for all the dice rolled on their side. These Coins can be spent to limit the Coins of the other side, to narrate the outcome of the complication, or kept as future Wealth.
Universalis is a story-telling engine more than a real role-playing game. Some groups play with Rules Gimmicks that enable the traditional player-characters as components who do not shift ownership around. But the normal default play method is a novel midpoint between role-playing and simple “pass the shell” story creation. The combination of rules and freedom and especially the flexibility to shape the game itself, work synergistically to create a pretty cool play experience.
I seriously recommend it.
Hogshead Publishing - http://universalis.actionroll.com/
The Universalis forum at The Forge - http://indie-rpgs.com/viewforum.php?f=21
A downloadable Universalis glossary – http://universalis.actionroll.com/Files/UniversalisGlossary.xls