Universalis is not the first game to push the envelope of what role-playing games are. In fact, elements of the Universalis can be seen in games like Story Engine, Once Upon a Time and Baron Munchausen. Even so, it is quite different from any of those and vastly different from any traditional RPG. Many aspects of Universalis are so different that it has led some to question whether it is even a role-playing game at all. We think there is great opportunity for role-playing within Universalis, but it all depends on how you use it. More than anything, Universalis is a tool kit for the creation of stories. With it, you can create entire worlds and civilizations to whatever level of detail you desire. You can populate those worlds with a cast of characters limited only by your imagination and the needs of the story; and you can concentrate on defining only those aspects of the world that are important to that story.
The plot of the game is entirely created and motivated by the players. Other games in the past have used various mechanisms to give players a degree of control over the story. “Hero Points” as a way of cheating death, or “Drama Points” used to achieve some cinematic effect, are examples of granting limited power of this kind to players. Other games use “Plot Points” to give players a great deal of dramatic control over the course of a game’s events. Some even empower players to describe the entire resolution of a conflict in whatever manner they choose. Universalis goes further and puts the entire story in the hands of the players. Not only what the characters want to achieve and how they will achieve it, but also what their enemies are doing and what obstacles they’ll have to overcome along the way as well. All of it (including everything normally reserved for the Game Master only) is player created, player developed, and player driven.
There is no pre-established setting. While many games are designed to be generic in that they can be used with a variety of different settings, Universalis can be played literally without defining any setting at all in advance. While it is possible to play Universalis using already published settings for inspiration, or predefining a few features; the game is at its most revolutionary when players sit around a table for the first time with no characters and no clear idea of even what sort of game is about to be played. Everything in Universalis is under your control as a player: the setting, the genre, various genre conventions; even the theme, mood, situation, and plot are all decided upon and moved forward by player interaction, collaboration, and even competition. Every mountain range, every city, every NPC, every monster, every mission, every powerful evil empire is totally invented by you and your friends as you are playing. Even the characters in the story will be created “on the fly” as play progresses. Universalis’s rules are designed to promote the creation of a good story, and a good story can be told about any place and any situation.
There is also no Game Master. Almost all traditional RPGs, and even most non-traditional ones, rely on a Game Master. The Game Master is the one who does not play an individual character himself but rather controls the game world and everyone else in it. In Universalis the GM’s powers aren’t just shared with the players, they’re totally ceded. Player’s have all of the control, all of the power, and do all of the decision making. As players, you will decide where the characters of the story are going and what manner of obstacles they will find when they get there. You will decide the nature of the adventure, who the enemies are, and what those enemies are plotting. You will decide the reward for success and the price of failure. You alone have absolute power. Essentially, every player is a Game Master and Coins are a measure of your authority.
But don’t be fooled into thinking there is no game to be played, that with absolute power there will be no suspense and no challenge. Indeed the opposite is true. For while it is true that you have enormous power to influence the world and everything in it, so do each of the other players. Each of them will have their own ideas of what to do, and where to go, and what should be found there. Instead of several players trying to unravel the twists and turns of a single GM’s story you have several players trying to unravel the twists and turns of several GM’s stories. You can’t do everything your way. You can try, but then you’ll quickly run out of Coins and hence out of power. The collaboration, competition, and even subterfuge of play provides its own very powerful form of suspense and challenge.
But don’t take our word for it. Head on over to the Play Examples page and see for yourself the kind of stories that have been told using Universalis.