Author: Ramshead Publishing (Ralph Mazza and Mike Holmes)
Reviewed by: J B Bell, 2002-12-16
Universalis is not a role-playing game in the usual sense. You do not play any one character, there is no GM, and it doesn't require the same players to show up each session in order to have continuity. It's available only through its website, http://universalis.actionroll.com/, which also includes examples of play, theory articles, and Add-On rules variants.
However, it's definitely the kind of game that role-players generally like, and it allows for a lot of tweaking to make it more like a traditional one-player, one-PC RPG. I've tended to call it simply a "story game" because it most resembles the old writers' game of the "exquisite corpse" where each writer contributes a chunk of story in turn. What makes Universalis unique, and worth your 15 bucks, is the very clever way it moderates who gets to say what and when in the flow of the emerging story.
Universalis as a Book
The book isn't very big at 86 pages, but it really packs it in. The language is a little dry, but quite clear, with an excellent and amusing running example of play set in a fanciful world of mouse-sized humans and their chip-controlled animal servants and companions. The layout is very well done, with shaded boxes that summarize pertinent rules, attractive, no-nonsense fonts, and an excellent glossary and index. As a bonus for those who want to play with kids, the text is pretty much G-rated.
Fairly simple line-art adorns the text here and there--none of it is really stunning, but it's relevant, competent, and eye-catching.
On the downside, editing is lacking, with a lot of typos, including the sort that should have been caught with a spell-check with any modern word processor. Fortunately it's not the kind of bad editing that harms the sense of anything, but it is annoying. This is forgiveable given the otherwise well-done presentation.
Universalis as a Set of Rules
Those who appreciate clever design will get a thrill just from reading the rules. What Universalis does as a game is to give a group of players a way to agree and disagree about the elements of a story: theme, characters, setting, situation, color, and action, among other things. All these elements are purchased with generic "Coins", which you can represent with poker chips, the ever-popular glass beads, M&Ms, or whatever floats your boat. Fundamentally, one statement of fact, or one change in the situation, costs one Coin. So, for example, saying "Bob the Army Sargeant is Strong and Smart" would cost 4 Coins: one for the character's being named "Bob" (having a name makes a character more significant; "extras" are indicated only by their role), one for Bob's being an Army Sargeant, and one each for his being Strong and Smart.
That's not very exciting as far as it goes. Where the rules shine is in how the Coins flow back and forth and how you handle disagreements between players. To keep a story from going wildly off track (or to make sure it goes off track in a consensual way), players first establish Tenets--a set of agreements entered into before play proper begins. These regulate what the world played in is like, the limits of what its inhabitants can do, and even social issues, like the example in the text of "No Monty Python jokes." If a player tries to do something that disagrees with a Tenet, or with a fact that's already been established, another player may issue a "Challenge"--then they try to work it out just by discussion, and if that doesn't work, the Challenge goes into a bidding stage. Here players put their money where there respective mouths are, voting for one interpretation or the other. The winner's version of reality is the one that is "the truth" as far as the story goes. Players may also call for a fine (in case someone makes a Monty Python joke or whatever), which is quickly resolved--everyone votes thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and if the player calling for the fine wins, the loser must pay--but otherwise, the one trying to levy the fine must pay the same amount!
Challenges actually don't often get to the bidding stage. What you do see, however, is Complications. This is where you get to roll dice. When player A tries to do something to player B's character, a Complication ensues. Everyone may then "activate Traits"--for example, Bob's player might get a die for his being an Army Sargeant if it were a situation where he's trying to order someone else around, or fight, or whatever else seems relevant. Players can also spend Coins to introduce new elements (that make sense) into the Complication. This process goes around the table until everyone has put up dice (the system uses 10-siders) enough that they're satisfied. The dice are then rolled, and the winner is the die pool with the most successes (a 1-5 is a success, and a 6-10 isn't). The winner gets the value of the succeeding dice back in Coins, and the loser gets Coins equal to the number of dice they rolled. These Coins are then either spent to describe what happened, by adding appropriate Traits to a character, or reducing Traits (which can kill off a character, if all their Traits are removed). Coins can also simply be kept for later use. There's a clever system to resolve ties that actually increases the tension of the Complication.
Keep in mind that "player A's character" is a somewhat arbitrary notion--if you create a character and put it in a scene, it is Controlled by you, but someone else can grab it away for one Coin. At which point you can grab it back, getting into a bidding war . . .
Play is broken up into "Scenes", reasonably enough, which can be about any length. After the Tenets are worked out, as mentioned above, players bid to establish the scene. The winner uses the Coins they bid to set up a time, a place, and any characters they want to introduce. From there, play passes to the left, or a player can pay a coin to Interrupt and pick up the story. The scene is over when the person who started the scene decides to close it. Then everyone gets five Coins' refreshment, and a new round of bidding for a new scene begins.
Overall, the rules might be intimidating to a completely new player, but they are not difficult to master after a session or two. The heart of the game, "one fact, one Coin", has many nuances, and the core rules address them well. Finally, players may introduce new rules, called "Rules Gimmicks" in the text, to handle any variations they like. Formalized Gimmicks, called "Add-Ons", can be added as whole packages for one Coin, and several of these are published on the game's website.
Universalis in Actual Play
The above sketch of the rules doesn't do justice to the system. And reading the rules will not transport you mentally to some other land, as many flavor-heavy tomes try to do. But actually playing Universalis can be truly revelatory. Many people worry that the game would be total chaos, yet this just doesn't seem to happen. Because Challenges keep things on an even keel, play of any significant length will usually quickly pick up a focus, without being anything like predictable. It is easier to do relatively action-filled, four-color play with Universalis, but moody set pieces and intense drama are definitely doable. I've played the game a few times, face-to-face and via IRC, and it's ranged from savage jungle adventure in a Conan-meets-Doc-Smith vein to a Gothic 1920s San Francisco with an alien from another dimension's hybrid baby to a totally weird world of genetically modified animals ruled over by a corrupt, post-apocalyptic Roman Catholic Church. Universalis enjoys unusually good adaptation to online play with minor rules tweaks (mainly around how to note Coin accounting and "clockwise" in chat environments), and the IRC play I've had has actually been what I've enjoyed the most so far. The game also lends itself to uses beyond just having a fun game--it's been used as a writing exercise, as a way to re-vitalize a flagging D&D game, a way to generate meta-plot, and probably other things I haven't seen yet.
I found the game reasonably easy to explain to total newbies, and veteran RPGers handled it with ease. In general I would expect overworked GMs (like me) to really enjoy the game, while those who prefer an intensely immersive experience of getting inside their PC's head will probably be turned off by Universalis, since it's much more like collaborative script-writing, which requires a certain distance from the characters (not that they don't become well-loved in play!), than it is like most RPGs. That said, Add-Ons are being continually developed to give the game a more traditional feel.
Universalis in Sum
If you're interested in a no-GM game that creates new and interesting stories in any genre, playable in a single session of a couple of hours or over many sessions (without the headaches of what to do when someone doesn't show, or is late), and you don't mind having a "GM perspective" on your characters, Universalis is a powerful, compact motor to drive making stories. It's been well worth the $15 for me, and I had to pay in teensy little Canadian dollars. It's also worth a look if you just want a way to make a game world that all your players will want to play in, since they help to make it and its principal characters.