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275647 Posts in 27717 Topics by 4285 Members Latest Member: - Jason DAngelo Most online today: 220 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: [Universalis] Unholy Alliance  (Read 2335 times)

Posts: 8

« on: October 01, 2007, 11:33:05 AM »

My friend Alex (alejandro on the board) and I played our first game of Universalis this past Saturday.  I sent the following email in response to an absent friend's inquiry about how the game went, and would like to share it as AP.  We played the rules pretty loose, but still had a lot of fun and it wasn't in any way chaotic.  I would like to reread the rules though, and play the game again.  We used a rules gimmick that no character should be named, but we treated the role of a chacter like their proper name and allowed that the free d10 if the character had 2 or more traits.  As we only had 8 or 9 characters, this worked out well and didn't feel hokey at all.  Also, keep in mind that at times I say "we framed" because I don't remember which of us started the scene.  We understood and kept to the rules that a specific player frames a scene.

So here goes...

Universalis uses both tokens and dice.  The tokens are used for buying control of a scene, bringing in a character, adding a trait to a character (or prop/location/whatever; the game calls them Components), buying dice in Complications (conflicts, essentially), performing an important action, and a host of other things.  In Complications, you build dice pools by invoking traits freely (i.e. a wall fell on a character and he's trying to escape; he has the trait of being strong), or buying dice with coins and justifying the purchase (maybe the wall was constructed with some cheap, lighter than average materials), then roll off the two pools against each other.  You can read more about it at http://www.indie-rpgs.com/ramshead/

One of the things I think is nearly unique about the game is there is no character ownership.  There's pros and cons to it.  I think Alex and I felt less attached to individual characters, which we missed a little.  But the big plus I think is that we focused more on bringing the parts together more.  We used index cards for tracking each individual character and would hand them off back and forth when we wanted to take control of a character.  While there is no character ownership, there is character control per scene.  So if Alex started a scene and brought in the Minister by paying a coin, only he can control, speak for, and modify that character for the rest of the scene unless I bid for him with a coin.  When the scene ends (there can be multiple turns in a scene) all character control resets entirely.

As for the amazing-ness to the game we played, much of it was that the story felt tight.  It reminded me of our garden game in that there was an undefined horror that we developed from nothing in-game, but I think we played this story less gonzo and kept trying to connect the dots back together.  The end result had very few (maybe only 1, in fact) noticeable hanging threads.  The story was set in 1891 New York.  A minister had summoned an Egyptian demon to teach him secrets of life & death magic.  He'd made an unholy pact with the demon, and subsequently, the mother of a little girl that had been killed.  So the demon was murdering people in town for body parts to try and make a flesh host for itself, while the girl was running about town killing children (ripping out their throats and taking their "breath of life" to be exact).  As the story progressed, the demon possessed the undead girl's mother (during a blood/sex ritual with the minister, no less), then the girl killed her, took its powers, and had a final showdown with the minister.  The demon killed the minister in his own church, using its powers to bind him with tapestries and carpet, ultimately tearing him in pieces.  There's many cool elements in between I'm leaving out.

One fun and challenging aspect as to how we played the game was that we told it out of chronological order.  We framed many scenes as flashbacks, and set the scenes over a period of about 3-4 months.  To me, the penultimate coolest part of this involved the death of the little girl.  I framed a scene in the past set immediately after the funeral of the girl.   The minister pulled the grieving mother aside, and told her how he knew of a way to bring the girl back.  The mother freaked out and demanded to know why the minister would risk doing something so unholy, to which he replied that, he felt so guilty having been present at the little girl's death, not being able to do more to save her.  We left what exactly that meant to be detailed subsequently.

So in the next scene, we framed a revival meeting days before the funeral.   The minister was up on stage preaching hellfire and brimstone.  I started heading towards having his furor agitate the horses of a nearby carriage so that they'd run down the little girl, when Alex interrupted (not rudely; it's a game mechanic) to take a turn.   He had the minister inserting unnoticed magic commands into his preaching which _caused_ the horses to run down the little girl and a host of other kids.  At that point, I exclaimed (out of character) "oh shit, he was totally lying to the mother about feeling guilty!".  It was great moment, and as it turned out, one that Alex had hatched in his head the prior scene.

Yet another memorable element to our game was that it turned out really grim, as we intended.  I didn't mention this to Alex that night, but about 2/3 of the way through the game, I started thinking to myself, "It's too bright in here, I want more lights off."  We really nailed the tone.

The last bit I'll add about the game that was great was that the "fruitful void" was in full gear.  Alex had created the character of a detective, who we thought might be a major player.  But it turned out his wife and daughter were far more important to the story.   The way that unanticipated importance unrolled was really interesting.   I don't think that's unique to Universalis (we've seen it in unWritten, too), but, the game is really good in that regard.

So that's my follow-up.  Hopefully we'll get to play again if anybody is interested.  I ordered the revised edition which is supposed to be a _real_ revised edition with added clarity to the rules and play examples.

Posts: 8

« Reply #1 on: October 01, 2007, 12:08:47 PM »

I'd also like to point out, one of the things I enjoyed about using Components was how modular they felt and allowed for making some rules on the fly.  During gameplay, I vaguely remembered some rules about owning posessions as well as master/sub-components, but not well enough to pull off as written.   By the time the demonic posessions started, we were so into the game I really didn't want to crack the rulebook.  So instead, we used rules gimmicks to address combining the traits and importance of two previously separate Components.   In the last posession, I paid to destroy the demon as an individual Component (importance 10), and paid for a transfer rule for appropriate powers over as the girl absorbed them.  That felt really elegant and allowed us to keep the story flowing as we wanted, but keep playing the game as well.

Posts: 25

I'm seeking playtesters for my game, unWritten

« Reply #2 on: October 01, 2007, 02:02:45 PM »

This was a great game. I had my initial reservations, but playing cleared any misgivings right away. I'll be getting Universalis with my next paycheck. Promise!

The only issue was the fact that the die mechanic didn't seem necessary. I felt like we forced complications, but they weren't really required by the story. It developed quite organically. In fact, the "coin/bead/resource" portion of the game seemed like a great pacing mechanic that was dulled by the die mechanic.

What are other's (Brendon?) thoughts are on the die mechanic.

What the main differences are between the old and the new versions.


Posts: 5574

« Reply #3 on: October 01, 2007, 07:21:16 PM »

Hey guys, thanks for the AP.  Sounds like a pretty great game.  I like the way you immediately hit on Gimmicks to make things work.  You may not have gotten all the rules precisely right, but it sounds like you got the spirit down and intuited the rest as needed.  I especially like the no names gimmick.  That probably contributed to the lack of attachment you felt to the characters, but really amped the mood.

There aren't any significant rules changes in the Revised rules...the only actual change is the quirky rule for Edge dies for ties which nobody (including myself) ever remembered anyway, so I simplified it.  But about 80% of the text is brand new.  I tried to use my several years of experience on teaching the game to new players to rewrite the text to make it easier to learn.  That's why its "Revised" but not "2nd Edition".

Complications are really pretty central.  Give it another game or two.  They should arise without being forced.  If you control a character that is doing something to a character someone else is in control of...that's a complication.  If a character you control tries to blow up a building I control, that's a complication. 

Mechanically what they do is 1) give you a way to earn more Coins than the refresh mechanic ever would thus motivating you to use them.  2) become especially cost effective ways of getting more Coins if you reuse existing Components in a manner consistant with their Traits, thus encouraging characters and other elements be developed and returned to over time.  3) give you a way to earn enough Coins to Eliminate those really big Components with a ton of Traits that would bankrupt you otherwise.

But conceptually what they add to the game is they keep it from being just an exercise in "pass the conch".  If one person controls all the characters in a scene and just narrates everything that happens until someone interrupts and then they just narrate what happens...then basically the game become just regular old FreeForm roll playing with a resource mechanic tacked on.  Instead, in order to tell the story you like to tell, you need Coins.  And the best way to get Coins is through Complications.  And the best way to get Complications is to interact with the other player while they're narrating the action. In otherwords, when they're narrating character A doing something to character B...you grab Control of character B.  Now, they aren't just narrating things the way they wanted, they have to work with you interactively through the Complication to determine what happens to character B...which will likely be something different, and presumeably much more interesting thanks to your involvement.

Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters

Posts: 10459

« Reply #4 on: October 02, 2007, 05:36:32 AM »

I dunno... sounds like they may have gotten the mechanics well... almost too well. If they're doing more complications than seem to be warranted, then they might want to dial back a bit on the incentives. 

One gimmick you can use for this is to use D6s instead of D10s, with only 1-3 as successes. What this does is to reduce the return for the winner of a complication to 1 Coin per die rolled on average... which means that many times the roller will actually get back less Coins than dice they rolled. They may still profit overall, if using traits obtained for free with control of previously established Components, even if they roll this low. But, generally, it'll make one think twice about running a Complication, as there is a much more substantial chance of Coin loss for the winner. The player really has to be invested in gaining the outcome he's looking for.

For those who are really into pressure... try the D4 pool option where successes are only on 1-2. That means the average return is less than 1 per die, and it's actually more profitable to lose the complication... meaning that players will really, really have to want their outcome to go for a win in a complication. This one is also really good for players who are encountering the "I feel like I have to spend every Coin on every complication" syndrome.

With either option, you may or may not want to fiddle with raising the refresh rate.


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