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Independent Game Forums => Universalis => Topic started by: hix on October 21, 2003, 01:54:07 PM

Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
Post by: hix on October 21, 2003, 01:54:07 PM
We recently played a five session game of Universalis. Fun, competitive behaviour, stretching the rules, despair, elation and more fun.

I experimented with a bunch of different strategies throughout the story and found out a lot of stuff about what works and doesn’t – for me. YMMV. Two of us had played Universalis before. Three hadn’t. This’ll be a report on setting tenets and the first session.

    1. Involves ghosts.
    2. One of the characters has the power to destroy the world.
    3. But it’s a comedy.

    7. Set in Russia

    10. Cats know all secrets.
    11. Wolves know all the hidden places.
    12. In school you can learn to speak to animals.

    15. No space travel.

    18.  Dialogue whenever we want at no cost.[/list:u]
    After a bit of briefing, we started setting Tenets. I got the second one – and once again I found that there’s a lot of responsibility in that position. It can really start to lock down your options. After my turn the mood of the group was quite sombre – which is why (3) was enthusiastically adopted.

    Tenet (7) was our first major disagreement. The original suggestion was that the story (which was now a fairytale) be set in the West Indies. This was from the same player who’d suggested we go for comedy – and many of us thought it was tipping things in too quirky a direction. After discussing exactly what we wanted the location to achieve – which was to have an extensive source of myth and history to draw off – we moved through Africa before finally settling on Russia.

    I've mentioned Tenets (10), (11) and (12) because they're fairly important to understand the story that follows. Tenet (15) – I swear - was provided by someone who hadn’t read the Universalis rules. Odd synchronicity.

    The dialogue gimmick (18) came into play at the start of our third session – after some dissatisfaction at how the previous session had gone.

    Tenet setting dragged out a bit, with one player dropping out of bidding early on and conserving his coins. This meant he was able to set up all the details of the second scene (the expositional flashback) pretty much unchallenged.

    Chapter One – In Which Things Come to a Head[/list:u][/b]
Once upon a time, SERGEI, a kind simple boy and his younger selfish sister PETRA lived in a Large Country House. One day a French nobleman, THIERRY and his black cat, SOLSTICE forced their way inside, claiming to be pursued by wolves.
Two midnights earlier in a Forgotten Graveyard, we also meet RAFFIELLA, a ghost pining for her lost love, VANYA the cynical wolf and GRIMALKIN the grey house cat. Grimalkin reported that, “A man is coming who is not a man, a cat who is not a cat. The man wears a wolf inside his skin, and the cat wears inside his skin the end of everything.”
   -  Rafiella, who is Sergei’s great-grandmother, was able to accompany the wolf and cat due to Vanya obtaining a silver locket that belonged to Raffiella.
   -  A teenage ghost, PETER PETERVICH watched them leave.

Whilst at school, Petra learned from Sergei that Solstice had hired Thierry to be his bodyguard.

In the lounge of the Country House, Solstice and Thierry recover from having been chased all night. From the kitchen comes the sound of pots and pans spilling to the ground. This is Grimalkin’s ploy to draw Solstice away from his bodyguard.
     -  It doesn’t work – although Thierry is distracted by a picture of a woman who wears his father’s silver locket! Thierry draws his pistol and removes his cloak. He wears the uniform of a religious fanatic. And in the light of the fire, we see the crosses on the uniform have caused the black cat’s shadow to stretch and become like a winged humanoid.
   -  Outside, the ground rumbles. Petra and Sergei trudge through the snow because the Country House has magically called them back. Their SCHOOLTEACHER follows them, demanding they return to class.
   -  Raffiella sticks her head through the ceiling and sees that Theirry has the face of her lost love.
   -  Petra and Sergei walk enter their house.

    My aim going into this game was to remain as flexible as possible – to let other people generate the ideas and just add into them. Really I saw this as a demo of GMless playing, and I wanted to actively decentralise myself from any suggestion of a GM role. This worked brilliantly. I had a great time and the comedy flowed really smoothly. As others have pointed out, as owner of the rulebook I did become the arbitrator of most discussions throughout the five sessions.

    I found it impressive how quickly characters became distinctive individuals. Maintaining these traits when components were taken over by different players was a little trickier. Between sessions, even more so. Next story we tell, I think I’ll photocopy of a list of components with the traits that add to their personality at the top of the list.

    Also weird was how Petra and Sergei’s house expanded throughout the session. At first I think we all assumed they were peasants living in a small hut. As the game went on it became a multi-roomed, multi-storied estate with its own spirit guardian that the children were psychically attached too.

    The question of who our main characters were wasn’t entirely settled yet – but my best guess at this point was that Petra and Sergei were our heroes and Solstice was the villain of the piece.

    A couple of days after this session, I realised that the Petra and Sergei conversation in the school could’ve been played as a complication. It would still have had all the humour it did, but we would’ve gotten coins for it too. My greed glands kicked in and my aim going into Session 2 became “to generate as many complications as possible”, to learn what worked and what didn’t. This would end up getting me (and our story) into a lot of trouble . . .

    Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
    Post by: Valamir on October 22, 2003, 05:11:04 PM
    great write up, I look forward to the rest.

    Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
    Post by: hix on November 04, 2003, 03:29:01 PM
      Chapter Two – In Which All Secrets are Revealed and Events get Complicated[/list:u][/b]
    Thierry and Solstice decide to escape. They are thwarted by: Vanya, who reveals that wolves know how to use shotguns; Petra, who reveals she’s a felinaphiliac; and Grimalkin who reveals himself as the Spirit Of The House. Using his powers, Grimalkin stretches the front door far far away the nobleman and the cat (and incidentally drives off the School Teacher with a dump of snow).

    Growing weary of the standoff, they all retire to the lounge. Solstice (now being petted by Petra) demands to know what ‘this thing’ is inside him. Grimalkin pompously explains . . .

    Once upon a time in St Petersberg - beyond the Bridge of Foolishness, past THE OLDEST MOST DANGEROUS BEGGAR IN THE WORLD – there was The Highest Tower in the city. THE ASTRONOMER who lived in the Tower saw an angel through the lens of his magic telescope. And by looking at it, the angel was captured inside the telescope – which the Astronomer then decided to present to his true love.

    Petra listens as she ties ribbons onto Solstice. The black cat calls her, “a very silly girl. Now scratch me on the upper shoulder blades.” Grimalkin overlooks the interruption and continues his massive burst of exposition ...

    By coincidences too numerous to elaborate, the Astronomer escaped St Petersberg pursued by the Tzarina’s household guards. Carrying the telescope, he met with an ambiguous accident at which point Raffiella nursed him to health and – carried away by her passion – inadvertantly becoming pregnant. Believing she was his true love, Raffiella took the telescope.

    So, Petra and Sergei are the great-niece and nephew of Thierry. Ignoring this, Solstice insists on knowing what this has to do with what’s inside him. Grimalkin casually notes that the skull of Thierry’s father is in this very house before going on . . .

    Raffiella was forced to give the telescope to the Oldest Most Dangerous Beggar in the world. And then it was stolen from him by the 7th son of a 7th son, who used it in a daring robbery of Solstice’s house. At which point Solstice looked into it – releasing the Angel into him. And from there his life as an important investor in the city knowing all the secrets of wealth was never the same.

    Solstice demands to know how to get this thing out of him. Grimalkin yawns. It’s time for his nap. He pads out of the lounge. Solstice goes mad with frustration. Flicking the ribbons at Petra and biting her, he escapes – intent on cornering Grimalkin for answers.

    Peter Petervich - the teenage ghost from the cemetery and also the 7th son of a 7th son that raided Solstice’s house – uses the tumult to quietly possesses Sergei.

    Thierry has been distracted by retrieving the skull (and therefore, the ghost) of his father. Rafiella nearly swoons at seeing her two beautiful men together. Vanya interrupts her posing and says, “We’re doing this on your word. What do we do now?”

    “Find the cat,” says Raffiella. “And kill it.”

      Comments[/list:u][/b]In this session I wanted to start as many complications as possible. In my previous games of Uni I’d been finding I’d backed the losing side of a complication – and I wanted to figure out . . . well, basically how to win.
      The pace of the game slowed enormously (both in terms of the scenes started and the flow of conversation and ideas). Everybody else came in with complications as well and as you’ll see in this thread:

    there was lots of countering each other’s results.

    There seemed to be a lot less natural comedy. Possibly this was a result of working through the mechanics of lots of complications – but also we had one of the original players missing, there was a focus on 'combat' and . . . well, you'll get to the paragraph below. Other people did good jobs of contributing funny dialogue but the slightly off-kilter scene dynamics and comedic motivations from Session One were lacking. At the end of the session we discussed gimmicking in a reward for contributing comedy to scenes.  Despite my wariness, we used this in our final session and it worked fine – basically a coin every time someone told a joke we all laughed at.

    Mentally, I felt less flexible this time. I had specific ideas about what I wanted to add and where I wanted to push the story. The idea of the telescope was something I’d come up with during the week. I wasn’t interrupted when I narrated it – but there was an odd effect where I wanted to keep the telescope in the city and another player wanted it in the country. This conflict was frustrating (to my preconceived ideas) but also funny – and I think made a richer backstory.
    Another idea I’d had during the week was for Thierry to be related to the kids. It felt very Russian to me, but it didn’t ‘take’ all that well. I mean, it wasn’t really used or referred to in subsequent sessions.

    I wanted the conflict between the different parties inside the house to be Bedroom Farce – lots of moving around just missing each other. But everybody came head to head right at the start of the session. This was an important lesson to me – if something doesn’t sit right, challenge it and then figure out why.

    On the other hand, we’d started to get an idea of what was appropriate to the story and what wasn’t. Someone suggested that the blue china platter on the mantelpiece contained Grimalkin’s soul. There was an immediate uproar of vetoing and the challenge was quickly resolved.
    At this point, I thought the story would either had to open up massively (and go on for a long time), or – more probably – it’d shut down, ending extremely claustrophobically within one or two more scenes. As to the Main Characters, it seemed to be a conflict between Solstice and Grimalkin now.

    My philosophy going into Session Three was to only start or contribute to complications when I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve from them. And in the same vein, to only add facts to the story that I was 100% certain I wanted to be in there.


    [Edited to give the correct URL. Another thread with relevance to this game is:]

    Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
    Post by: Mike Holmes on November 05, 2003, 09:39:02 AM
    Seems that you're learning some lessons that all have the same basis, which is that most times it's best to do things in a deliberate manner. That is, in making sure you Challenge when it's important, you're not allowing the story to slide out of control. In learning to only put in important Facts, you making sure that your Coins count to get the story where it needs to be.

    The problem with this lesson is that there's another contradictory lesson that's harder to learn. Which is that you also have to give up control. If you only have a fraction of the total Coins, then you only control a fraction of the story. So, instead of being deliberate constantly, you have to play to other players ideas. Try to see where they're going, and work with them. The more you fight to get the story you want, the less story there is.

    In the end the best Universalis play is where you deliberately try to collaborate. The big advantage to playing off of each other is that the story really takes on a life of it's own that nobody expects.

    Just some thoughts. The game sounds pretty cool. I think that you'll find that all these lessons come naturally over time. Deliberate doesn't mean overthinking. That's a problem that I often have. If you don't have a lot, add just the little you have at that point. The other players will cover for you. Hopefully. :-)


    Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
    Post by: hix on November 07, 2003, 01:17:11 PM
    Mike, thanks for the observations. I especially agree with your second point:

    Which is that you also have to give up control. . . . The more you fight to get the story you want, the less story there is.

    What I'm hoping is that once I've posted the last three sessions people will be able to track how I changed from the "Deliberate" extreme to the "Adaptable" side of the continuum. Cos' I definitely felt a qualitative shift in how much I enjoyed playing the game by the final session (#5).

    Also, it'll be good to have a record of it here (for me) because I feel like it's a mindset that'd it'd be easy for me to forget without having a reminder.

    I've tended to find that I enjoy Uni more when I focus on being collaborative rather than selfish. Actually I find that with most things, but Uni's mechanics seem to encourage that dynamic. At least partly because, as you say, each player controls a fraction of the story power. You can either use it to disagree - in which case nothing gets done - or you can join forces, in case you get 3 or 4 or 5 times more story (or 100 times, if synergy kicks in).



    Title: Actual Play: A Russian Fairytale
    Post by: Valamir on November 07, 2003, 01:55:19 PM
    Then its working as designed.  Thanks for posting Steve!

    If you haven't read it, check out the Pregnant Pope ( story on the website.

    Right at the beginning the other players started completely messing with my early preceptions on where I thought the story was going.  For much of the game, I had no real idea where we were headed so I let them run with it for the most part.  Then I found when it clicked for me I had some really cool things I wanted to do with the story they had largely created, so it was my turn to be in the drivers seat.  But even then, at the very end, my desired final ending was passed over for someone elses...which turned out to be even better then what I had planned.

    The story wouldn't have been anywhere near as good if I'd fought tooth and nail for everything.