[Universalis] Questions for Players of this Game

edited October 2011 in Story Games

Hi,

I've just read through the new Universalis PDF. I'm no stranger to storytelling games so I for the most part get it. However, reading the rules has gotten me thinking. I've got some questions for regular players of the game, and I'm hoping that you might have some answers:

  1. It seems that the game's design will result in stories that are initially very chaotic and large but that eventually resolve themselves into something more focused. How long does a typical game last? I suspect that it will span multiple sessions. Am I right? Or do you usually run an entire multi-month campaign based on one initial set of Tenets? Is it possible to run a satisfying Universalis game in a 4-hour convention slot? Does it require special Rules Gimmicks to make the game work over such a short time span?

  2. It seems like a very tough job for the Recorder. Virtually every sentence narrated is being written down as one or more Facts. How do you handle this in actual play? Do you need a laptop and a fast typist? Do you narrate a lot of Colour that doesn't need to be written down? Does it mean a lot of pausing and waiting while the Recorder writes?

  3. Is it easy to get confused about who controls a Component at any given time? Does using one index card per Component help?

  4. It seems that the coin economy results in very rapid spending. There are an incredible number of things to spend coins on. You can: create a Tenet, create/remove a Rules Gimmick, bid for the right to frame the scene, change the scene location, move the scene forward or backward in time, create Components (people/places/things), Remove (killing/destroying) Components, add/remove Traits to Components, increase/decrease the importance of a Trait, describe Events (action happening in the story), take control of a Component, add/remove a Component from a scene, dialogue (speak for a character), Interrupt (steal the current narrator's turn), Originate a Complication (start an in-story conflict), create a Master Component template, create a Sub-Component based on a template, and bid in Challenges (to resolve arguments between players). During Complications (in-story conflicts) coins can now be used to add dice to your side, and during Complication resolution coins can be spent to remove coins from the loser's earnings. Yikes! Does this get confusing in actual play? Is it overwhelming? Are there lots of arguments over how much a particular narration should cost? How long does it take to get used to the coin rules?

  5. What do people think of Fines? It allows players to punish one another by fining them a small number of coins. Do you ever use these rules? I've noticed that Fines are not mentioned in the Universalis Reference sheet.

So, any takers?

--Jonathan

Comments

  • Posted By: DemiurgeIt seems that the game's design will result in stories that are initially very chaotic and large but that eventually resolve themselves into something more focused.
    It can. However, the focus can come VERY fast. "It is Chicago in 1921." is a very brief statement that will focus the game enormously, immediately (if accepted.)
    Posted By: DemiurgeHow long does a typical game last? I suspect that it will span multiple sessions. Am I right?
    Universalis' economy really doesn't take off unless you play multiple sessions. Long term play is both possible and advisable.
    Posted By: DemiurgeIt seems like a very tough job for the Recorder. Virtually every sentence narrated is being written down as one or more Facts. How do you handle this in actual play? Do you need a laptop and a fast typist? Do you narrate a lot of Colour that doesn't need to be written down? Does it mean a lot of pausing and waiting while the Recorder writes?
    Actually, as the game gets going, the Facts become fewer and farther between. If I come charging in to the Burwood Tap and yell "Luciano, you're a dirty dog", the Recorder doesn't write that down, or the gunfight, or anything at that level of detail, they write down "Nov. 21, Burwood Tap, JDC picks a fight with Luciano, who murders him."
    Posted By: DemiurgeYikes! Does this get confusing in actual play? Is it overwhelming? Are there lots of arguments over how much a particular narration should cost? How long does it take to get used to the coin rules?
    It absolutely benefits from a cheat sheet/player mat with the rules summarized.
  • 1. Can be chaotic, but the magic in the game comes from when the order rises out of that chaos. I love each time that happens. I have no idea what a "typical" game looks like. Most of the couple dozen games that I've played were 3-6 hour one-shots. It works just dandy in that time. I've only played out to three sessions (I think) and it worked fine for that too, though coin pools seem to become unbalanced over time. But yeah, I've facilitated really fantastic games in con-slots. I suspect you're more likely to require special rules-gimmicks to make a campaign keep going.

    2. When I've played, everyone writes up the components they create on post-its or index cards and sometimes someone (or a rotating someone) will take notes. The facts that don't go to a component are pretty quick to short-hand. And yeah, anything people narrate that doesn't have a coin spent on it doesn't need to be recorded.

    3. I've only played where each component was on a piece of card or paper and we'd just keep the components in the middle of the table until they were owned and then reach out and move them close to us when we bought control -- passing them around as needed. No confusion whatever.

    4. My problem is building up coins too fast. Complications are serious gold-mines especially starting in the third or fourth scene and going until the end of the game. You can end up getting 30 coins out for putting ten in if you're savvy about it. And then things can get unbalanced if you don't use them up. Like many games, the details can get confusing at first but it's all smooth sailing half-way through your first session for the rest of your life. In my experience, there aren't lots of arguments about how to bill narration. Occasionally I'll ask someone if they're spending a coin on that particular thing and that highlights to them and the table that if they don't, we can all ignore it.

    5. I've never once seen a fine happen.
  • Sweet questions!

    1) I think the order from chaos bit is the killer app of the game. Early play often sees an explosion of characters, unrelated scenes, unexplained connections and the like...how much depends highly on how tight and compact you make the tenets. But the economy rewards reincorporation so heavily that you pretty quickly wind up with a subset that sees regular use. The moment when someone has that epiphany of how this mess actually makes total sense and starts to frame scenes for the purpose of establishing and illustrating that is my favorite part. When you get multiple players having differing epiphanies and starting to maneuver to see which version or combination of versions becomes reality...that's when you know you hit on a really compelling set up. The best sessions get me jonesing to see what happens next in much the same way as the twists and turns of a good thriller.

    I love multiple session Universalis, even multiple sessions in the form of distinct sequels rather than direct reincorporation. I suspect most play winds up being one shots, perhaps because early play was heavily con focused, but it was originally designed with multiple sessions in mind.


    2) I've done the index card thing...actually I've found it easiest to just grab a plain old spiral notebook. My preference these days is to have one person be the full time recorder (passing it off when it's their turn) and just jot bullet points. Write a heading for a component, leave space underneath to list future traits, write a heading for another component, etc. Then on a separate page do an abbreviated scene chronology that just summarizes what happened. I've found theirs little practical need to religiously record each of the Event traits because people generally have a good collective memory for that sort of thing, so I just record memory jogs. Once the game really gets moving there's more listing off what traits are available, crossing off those that are lost and adding new ones to existing components as they arise then their is furious scribbling trying to get it all down. But yeah, it gets easier with habit.

    3) I think the level of confusion will abate once the concept becomes more habitual. It's kind of like gamer dice...no matter how mixed up they get most people have a good feel for which ones were theirs. Having Control all reset to 0 in the new scene and start fresh based on who introduces the component was my attempt to minimize the need to track. Very long involved scenes with lots of take overs and mini scenes is a bit of an advanced technique in that regard.

    4) There are a bunch of things to spend Coins on, but most of them are really the same thing or variations of the same thing. What's a Trait, what's an Event, what's a Rules Gimmick are really all just flavors of "identify a thing". Originating a Complication is really just an application of an Event and buying dice during a Complication is really just buying Traits when needed. In practice the universal principal of "spend a coin to do a thing" is more important than precisely identifying which thing you just did. Consistent application of a standard is key. The game is pretty forgiving of where you set that standard.

    Each group will tend to hit it's own standards for what to spend and when. My own standards have changed since the game came out. I rarely build components as robustly as the example of the Shock Trooper in the rules these days.

    There can be an issue with too many Coins in play as Christopher notes, especially if the standard moves towards one where more is done with color and less paying of actual facts is required. Also if you tend to keep your co loners really lean it can be really cheap to eliminate them. Also, the reverse can happen where you have a Ton of Traits that are similar enough they all get applied in a Complication leading to huge dice pools and thus huge rewards.

    A couple of techniques / gimmicks for that:
    If you find a lot of stuff is being said but very little is being paid for, have the player hold a fist full of coins over the pot and drop them one by one as they talk, that will tend establish a higher level of Coin expenditure.
    If you find your dice pools are too huge and generating too many coins, you can cap the number of traits any one Component can deliver at a time as a gimmick or require the winner to buy off half of the losers coins as a way to bleed coins out.
    If theres still too much there's nothing that says you can make the Refresh negative or turn it into a progressive tax.

    Since there's such a wide range of how intricate players will get on how they spend there isn't really a single solution for that. I've found it tends to hit a nice equilibrium...but then thats not surprising given I based it on our play :-)

    5). Challenges are hugely important, the threat or possibility of them even more so then the actual use of them. Fines...not so much. If I were to do a new edition I'd probably relegate that to a gimmick.
  • Thanks everyone for your perspectives. It has definitely helped me understand the game. Universalis really seems to be a game that molds itself to your play style over time thanks to Rules Gimmicks, since some of the answers to my questions seem quite different from each other depending on the author.

    JDCorley wrote:

    It can [be very chaotic]. However, the focus can come VERY fast. "It is Chicago in 1921." is a very brief statement that will focus the game enormously, immediately (if accepted.)

    Right. I understand how this kind of Tenet can help focus the game a lot. However, I was thinking of chaos especially in the sense of the elements that come together to make a story. Every good story has certain elements in common, in particular:

    • A community of motivated characters (i.e. characters that have relationships with each other and that have goals)
    • Scenes (interesting places for the action to take place)
    • A threat that forces the characters to seek their goals or otherwise prevents the status quo from being maintained
    • Plot (interesting events and conflicts)
    • Theme (the moral of the story)
    • Description (what turns a story from being a plot outline into a living story)

    There's nothing in the setup phase of Universalis that requires the players to address any of these things. For example, you could create a huge community of motivated characters and all sorts of interesting places, but neglect to create a threat to push them into action. It might then take a long time for any of the characters to actually start moving toward their goals (for example).

    When I was developing my own storytelling game (Muse), it initially worked very much like Universalis in this sense. There was no initial structure to a game session other than a simple Story Seed (basically the equivalent of 1-3 Tenets in Universalis). From there the players would jump into telling the story. About 50% of the time the stories would be very wacky and off-the-wall, and just generally take a really long time to get anywhere. I actually liked it this way, and I think that this is the way the Universalis authors prefer it as well. The risk of wackiness is offset by the payoff of having a really neat story emerge out of the chaos.

    But my friend and co-designer Paul strongly pushed me toward front-loading the game with more structure to guarantee both a faster pace to the game and to limit the wackiness. I eventually agreed with him and introduced a Story Sheet ruleset to the game that addresses most of the bullet points I wrote above. Now Muse sessions are much more focused, with a play time that rarely goes above 3 hours.

    I'm not saying that this is better, just different. I think I do like the greater focus more, personally, though. Particularly since I don't have much time for gaming and often run Muse at conventions.

  • Posted By: DemiurgeThere's nothing in the setup phase of Universalis thatrequiresthe players to address any of these things. For example, you could create a huge community of motivated characters and all sorts of interesting places, but neglect to create a threat to push them into action. It might then take a long time for any of the characters to actually start moving toward their goals (for example).
    Right. This is a feature. If you are not a story person, Universalis still has something to offer as a setting/situation creation engine. There is no need for a story at all with Universalis - I've even played in such a session. It was interesting, we felt like academics describing something we studied rather than participants.
  • Valamir wrote:

    5). Challenges are hugely important, the threat or possibility of them even more so then the actual use of them. Fines...not so much. If I were to do a new edition I'd probably relegate that to a gimmick.

    I have to admit that the Fines seemed a bit strange to me. Mind you, if you make them a Rules Gimmick then players can Challenge that Gimmick when you try to introduce it--and I imagine the kind of player you'd want to Fine would be the one objecting most strongly! ;-)

    I find Challenges interesting because they require the policing players to pay coins to stop an objectionable element from being added to the game. In a sense players are paying for the privilege of preventing other players from narrating something they don't like, but at the same time players policing the game in good faith are essentially being penalized. At the same time a player could be obnoxious and narrate objectionable things to purposefully drain the other players of coins. Is this possibly where Fines would come into play? Have you ever found that players didn't want to challenge because they didn't have enough coins?

    As a basis for comparison, in Muse the same sort of policing is potentially free. The way it works is that when someone narrates something objectionable, another player calls a Time Out and then all the players collectively decide how things should go. My feeling when writing the rules was that I didn't want players to ever be unable to object to someone breaking the rules, or narrating something truly objectionable (e.g. a graphic sex scene when the players already agreed they didn't want this in the game). For simple disagreements about how the story is going there's a separate mechanic that players do have to pay for called Jumping In (similar to Interruptions).

    One last question: since Muse and Universalis were developed in isolation from each other, and they both largely attempt to serve the same niche, I'm curious if you'd object to me writing up a "Muse vs. Universalis" comparison? I'd try to keep it as neutral as possible. I just find the similarities and differences between the games really interesting, like a sort of convergent evolution.

    Sincerely,

    --Jonathan

  • Jon,

    I should note that many of the mechanics I developed for Muse (including many that we never really ended up using) were inspired by Universalis.

    (I use the word "inspired" carefully, because they were based on rumours I'd heard about the game: I've never read or played Universalis, for the same reason you hadn't until now.)
  • Hmm, partial isolation then.

  • edited October 2011
    Yes that's exactly the situation that fines are for. Moving them to a gimmick isn't because they didn't work but because actually ever getting to a point where they're needed is pretty highly unlikely.

    Challenges aren't so much for "policing"...policing implies another player is playing wrong and needs to reigned in. They're more like votes between equivalently good but incompatible ideas. You pay for your votes with coins because voting for free is largely meaningless. If you don't care enough to sacrifice something...then you really don't care enough to complain about it. It may seem then that the vote goes to the richest player...and it can...but since coin wealth comes as a result of engaging the Complication mechanic successfully its really rewarding the player who is moving things forward with conflicts. Further the x2 bonus for Facts is the key that makes it work. If you're coin poor because you just established a network of facts supporting your ideas then challenges are going to start heavily weighted in your favor...a challenge then becomes potentially very expensive (which also helps soak out some excess Coins). This is especially true if there is one key Coin leader who tries to ramrod things alone...a small number of coins each from the other players can really pull the rich player back to the pack...but if they're willing to pay it...well the game accepts that as caring more about it then the other players.

    Of course if you can get to a point where you are both the coin leader AND the one with the network of facts on your side...then you really ARE in the driver's seat. The game has several ways to rubber band players back together, but at least for a time you're in position to call the shots and defeat most Challenges. And that's also by design. On the one hand that's a just reward for player skill but it's also the prime driver of the killer app mentioned above. Most often it's a person in such a position who begins to tie up lose ends, make necessary connections and really start to bring order to the chaos.

    Essentially the game gives you the ability to jump back and forth between the benefits of communal brain storming and the benefits of single vision story telling. Ideally taking the best of both worlds.

    The policing functions of challenges comes more from the fact that they exist, thereby encouraging players to play responsibly backed by the awareness that there is a community signaling mechanism that can be brought into play if needed.


    Sure I'd love to see a comparison. Feel free to hit me up with questions or philosophical angles.
  • Hi Ralph,

    Thank you for the great post.

    Ralph wrote:

    Challenges aren't so much for "policing"...policing implies another player is playing wrong and needs to reigned in. They're more like votes between equivalently good but incompatible ideas.

    Ok, I think I get it. Thanks.

    Essentially the game gives you the ability to jump back and forth between the benefits of communal brain storming and the benefits of single vision story telling. Ideally taking the best of both worlds.

    It's really neat that you were able to balance the coin economy to accomplish this.

    Sure I'd love to see a comparison. Feel free to hit me up with questions or philosophical angles.

    Great! I'll follow up with that comparison soonish. Since I love storytelling games I will very likely come back to you with more questions in the future. :-)

    Sincerely,

    --Jonathan

  • Hey all,

    A few last questions:

    1. What would you say is the sweet spot for Universalis in terms of the number of players at the table? If not an exact number, what's the range? 2-4 players? 5-8 players? etc.

    2. How long does a typical session last (assuming there's a typical session since the game is very flexible)? Christopher said 3-6 hours, does that sound about right?

    Thanks,

    --Jonathan

  • 1) I'd say four players. I have played in sessions with three to six players, but I find that four gives the best balance between speaking and listening.

    2) I'd say four hours. I've mostly been playing in con-like situations. Maybe everyone has kept an eye at the watch during play, trying to pace the game accordingly, but still, I can facilitate Universalis in a four hour con slot, and feel reasonably secure that we'll end in the right time.
  • I've never played it without 4-5 players, works okay there.

    I think the turn structure makes it very natural to make sessions as long as you want to. I tend to find 1 hour is the shortest amount of time I can focus, think, create, play, and decompress and accomplish much of anything. I've never played it at a con, fuck cons. I mean, uh, cons are really different? Don't play like you're at a con unless you really have to.
  • Thank you both for your answers.

    JDCorley wrote:

    I've never played it at a con, fuck cons. I mean, uh, cons are really different?

    Every convention I have been to limits your session to 4 hours, so that multiple games can be scheduled back-to-back. Also, convention games are usually one-shots with pre-generated PCs unless the chargen is very fast. You can sometimes go overtime, but players often have signed up for other stuff and don't necessarily appreciate it.

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