Getting Started With Universalis

Universalis is not a difficult game to play, but it can appear rather daunting at first. If you’re a veteran role player you’ll notice right away that most of the familiar places to begin (like character creation or how to make a skill roll) don’t exist in Universalis. If you’ve never played a role playing game before you’ll notice that the rules and game play aren’t very similar to the traditional card and board games you may be most familiar with.

When it comes time to actually play the game for the first time and introduce a bunch of friends to it, it can be hard to know where to start. For this chapter I’ll describe the method I’ve used over the last two years to introduce new players into the game. My method is to break the game up into stages, describe the basic core of each stage, but leave the more advanced or tangential parts for later. I’ll structure this chapter kind of like a script. It’s the sort of things I say at the table when teaching the game.

Where to begin? I start with what the game is about.

“Universalis is a game about creating stories. Every story needs a setting, characters, and plot. We’ll be developing those as we play. Each of you count out 25 Coins from the Bank, there. Coins are the resource that gives you control over the story. Every character you create and everything you have those characters do will cost Coins. setting element or character you create, everything you have those characters do, and every place you have them go will cost Coins. The Coins are a way of regulating how much of the story any one person can tell at a time. Basically, every statement you make that establishes some fact about the story will cost 1 Coin.

“When you run low on Coins you’re actually running low on the ability to influence the story, at least until you acquire more Coins. Everyone will get a few additional Coins periodically during the game but the best way to replenish a low supply is to introduce plot conflicts, obstacles, and complications into the story (usually on another player’s turn). We’ll get into that later.”

Then I talk about the game preparation phase and facts.

“First we need to decide what kind of story we’re going to be telling. Is it going to be an action adventure story, a romance, a mystery, a psychological thriller? Is the mood going to be dark and gritty, a light comedy, outrageously absurd humor? How strictly are we expecting the other players to abide by the conventions of the genre we’re playing in? What’s the setting? Is it going to be a science fiction story featuring space ships, or will it be set on an alien planet, or is it a future version of earth? Is it going to be fantasy, based in actual history, a western…?” I go on like this using examples of movies or TV shows until its apparent everyone gets what we’re talking about. Usually it just takes a couple.

“To do this we’re going to go around the table and everyone is going to spend 1 Coin to add one element about the type of story we’re going to tell. As I mentioned, anytime you make a statement about something in the game it costs 1 Coin. Once you spend a Coin on something it becomes Fact. Facts are important when there is a disagreement among players about a statement someone made. Basically, anything anyone says about anything related to the story is subject to being challenged by one of the other players who doesn’t like it or thinks they have a better idea. But once something is established as Fact its more difficult to challenge it later.

“When a disagreement arises you discuss what you don’t like and offer suggestions. If you can come to an agreement, great, play goes on. If you can’t agree, then a full Challenge occurs where everybody spends Coins voting for the outcome they prefer. We’ll talk more about that if it ever comes up, for now just be aware you can do that.” Often this has been all I’ve ever said about Challenges for the whole game. Players just worked it out amongst themselves with Negotiation and never felt the need to call for the full bidding process.

“Ok, so, let’s start collecting the elements of our story. I’ll start and we’ll go around clockwise how ever many times we need to. Once everyone feels they have a good idea what kind of story we’ll be telling we’ll move to the next part of the game. As we go along start thinking of a good opening scene, like the opening scene of a movie, something that will get our attention and give the story something to build on. Usually, once you get an idea for a good opening scene you have enough to work with and its time move on to actual play and get that scene started. Ok, here’s my Coin, tonight we’ll play a game that involves…”

Usually I try to keep my opening Tenets pretty basic for a first game so that there is a familiar genre or story style for players to latch on to. While Universalis can be used to do a story like Memento or Pulp Fiction, such play is best left for experienced players. For first time play I stick to convention and cliché (although depending on the group I may make a point to mention that this is for teaching purposes only).

If play has gone around a few times and after a little prompting no one seems like they’re really getting an opening scene idea I’ll grab one (again relying on cliché or scenes stolen right out of a movie) and bring this phase to a close. There are 3 keys to keep in mind during this phase.

1.) If the other players are struggling with it you need to kill the prep quickly and get to the fun parts before they get discouraged and lose interest.

2) If the other players get into it full bore right away you want to try to avoid starting to actually play scenes in the middle of prep. If that’s happening, they’ve obviously got it, so kill the prep and get right to the scene bidding.

3) I really prefer that one of the new players come up with the opening scene unless it just gets obvious that isn’t going to happen. The reason is that, if I do the opening scene, it can get players thinking that I’m running the show and am in charge of how the story is supposed to go. Its best is when one of the players immediately grabs the opening scene and runs with it…shattering that expectation right from the start.

Setting up the Scene

“Ok, now we’re going to get into scene by scene play. The whole game is played in scenes just like the scenes of a movie or TV show. All scenes in the game start by being framed, which just means establishing what’s initially going on so the other players can visualize what’s happening. All scenes have a beginning and end. Before each new scene begins three things happen: 1) everyone gets 5 new Coins. 2) We bid for the privilege of framing the new scene, and 3) the scene gets framed. Ok everyone take 5 Coins.

“Bidding for the scene works like this. Everyone, secretly take a number of Coins into your fist as your bid. If you have a really great idea for what to do with the next scene bid a lot of Coins. If you don’t, bid few or none. Keep in mind that a big part of the overall direction of the story will come from what scenes are played so being the framer is a fairly influential thing. Since this is your first game I’d keep your bids to less than 8-10 Coins but I’ve seen players bid more than that once they got the hang of things.

“Bids will be revealed simultaneously and whoever wins will frame the first scene. Losers will get to take their Coins back. Winners will spend their Coins during the scene” I don’t get into ties and all that stuff unless it happens. Usually this part goes pretty easy and if you’re really lucky you have 2 players both bidding high, which means at least 2 people have some really good ideas for what to do and you can sit back and watch them go. I always bid 0 or 1 at this point unless I’m convinced I’m with a group that really requires additional hand holding before they’ll try it themselves.

“Now that you’ve won the bid you have to frame the scene. You’ll spend the Coins you just bid to do this (plus any others you want). Your job as scene framer is to set the stage for us. Tell us where the action is taking place, when its taking place, and who’s there. At this point, assuming the player doesn’t require additional prompting, I generally will let them riff for about a paragraph or so. Then I’ll stop them and say, “Ok, hold up a second and let me tell you how much all of that costs.”

At that point I’ll pick up the pencil and summarize what the player said, writing down statements he made that I can identify as Components and Traits. I indicate what specifically I’m writing down and the rough hierarchy I’m placing them in to give a sense of how the game stats are organized. “Congratulations, you just created your first game Components. The location you just named and the characters you just introduced are now officially part of the story. They exist and can be used and manipulated by any of the other players throughout the game. Those descriptive phrases you added about each of the characters are now Traits of those characters and cost 1 Coin apiece.

“Anything can be a Trait. Even the character’s name (if they’re important enough to bother giving them one) is a Trait. Think of how you’d describe a person you know or a place you like to hang out to another friend. Just about any phrase you’d use can be treated like a Trait in the game. For a person this can include how smart they are, what they look like or even what their goals are, what the own, and who are their friends. If a Trait is supposed to be particularly important it can be purchased more than once.

“Any time one of these people, places, or things is brought into the story from now on, all of their Traits come with them and are considered Facts of the game. Note that you don’t have to pay a Coin for every single detail. If its just a minor descriptive feature that adds a bit of color but isn’t really important its free. But if you didn’t pay for it, it doesn’t get written down and it isn’t considered a Fact.

“Ok, now go ahead and begin to describe what happens. Give us a little bit about what’s going on and what the characters are doing. When you think you’ve done enough, pass your turn and the next player will continue with the scene with those same characters.” After another paragraph or so I’ll stop them and repeat the pricing routine, this time referring to Events instead of Components. Most players at this point are a little tentative and are fairly quick to pass. If the player seems like he’s heading down the road of trying to tell the whole story in a single scene I’ll point out how many Coins he’s spending relative to how few Coins he got at the beginning of the scene; and suggest he let some of the other players help pay.

When it’s the second player’s turn to go, I introduce the concept of Control. “Great, before you get started let me tell you a little something about Control. Right now, everything in the scene belongs to <player 1>, not because he created them, but because he brought them into the scene. It never matters who created what, only who introduced it into the scene. You can’t do anything with those Components, because you don’t Control them. So here’s what you can do: you can either introduce your own characters and other things into the scene and have them do their own thing, or attempt to have them do something to his characters…or you can pay 1 Coin and simply take Control of one of his characters so it becomes yours.”

At this point one can bring in the Dialog rules or Complication rules as needed. I will typically wait until it seems like people are grasping the nature of Control and the “paying Coins to do stuff” routine before bringing up the ability to start interrupting each other…especially if it looks like there are 1 or more shy or reserved players at the table. I definitely want them to get at least 1 turn in before other more vocal players start interrupting them. Also, unless someone specifically asks, I don’t mention how to bring a scene to an end until it gets back to the first player and everyone’s taken a stab at scene one.

For my own turn, the first time around I do one of two things. I either take the lead and create some interesting characters who have obvious sources of conflict (or create conflict for existing characters); or, if it seems like the players are getting the hang of it themselves, I try to hang back and let them go without much interference. As I’m taking my turn I’ll take a handful of my own Coins and drop one in the bank every time there’s something worth paying for. This gets the players into the habit of counting out the Coins as they’re talking rather than stopping the narrative to do accounting, and also clues me in as recorder what they think is important enough to pay for. Once they get in the habit of that I’ll interject just enough to keep everybody at about the same scale of what they’re getting for 1 Coin.

Other Stuff

From there the game starts to take care of itself. All of the other subsystems of the game are brought up only when a player starts to do something for which those rules might apply, or if they express puzzlement about how to “do” certain things. The first one that usually arises is the Group Trait. Another early one tends to be Importance, depending on how eager the players are to start offing the characters. Using Traits to represent negative features like “He’s been shot” or giving the car a “Flat Tire” is often an epiphany moment for many players. I’ll often make a point to do this one myself as an illustration if no one else has thought of it.

Once things get going and its clear that players are grasping the basics I’ll start to introduce other elements, usually by doing them myself as an illustration or pointing out when they’d be appropriate for someone else. These include things like Rules Gimmicks, Framing Scenes into the past or into the future, Mini Scenes, Fines, Fading to Black, cutting back to a previous scene. Any thing to highlight the flexibility the players have and to get them thinking of how to use the rules creatively.

More advanced techniques like Master and Sub Components or nesting complications I usually save until later unless the players seem in the mood to dive right into the deep end.

Universalis is actually pretty easy to play once the basics are grasped and we tried to draw on familiar concepts like scenes and spending Coins to make play pretty intuitive. This chapter provides a few tips I’ve picked up over 2 years of running demo games for new players. If you use any of these successfully, or develop a few of your own, we’d love to hear about it on our discussion forum at

—-Ralph Mazza


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