For this game I got to demo Universalis for John Wick, designer of such games as Legend of the Five Rings, 7th Sea, and Orkworld. As I own and have played the heck out of all of these, this was really quite a thrill. An even greater thrill was when he came back the next day to play in another demo with Mike Holmes, and brought friends with him, including Tom Denmark, artist of Orkworld and designer/artist of Dungeoneer.
Enough fan boy gushing. John started off the game by announcing that this session was to be a Fantasy story. We later learned that there’d be Orcs and an Orc Cult which worshipped Pain. At this point John saw I was writing Orc with a “C” and immediately implemented a fact that in this game Orc would be spelled with a “K”. After laughing about the joke, I immediately was forced to rewrite everything as “Ork”.
We then established there were Hobbits. At this point I assigned Hobbits a few Traits including: “Hobbits are for Eating”, “1 Hobbit can feed 3 Orks”, “Hobbits are Fat and Lazy”, and they are “Weakling Cowards”.
The Ork Army meanwhile was “Unruly”, “a Horde x2”, and armed with “Nasty Rusty Swords”. John Challenged me on that and wanted to have the Orks armed with spears, but I declared that these weren’t no pansy spear wielding Orks and won the Challenge. Nothing quite like sharing Orkworld jokes with the designer of the game. The Ork Leader, “Zrograr” was “Buff x2”, and “Clever”.
The Hobbit Army was inferior in numbers and armed with “Slings” (of course). They did hold a solid “Ambush position” and had several rapid firing boulder throwing engines.
At this point a unit of elven sharpshooters were added. They were “Hiding in the woods” and “aiming at the Ork Leader, Zrograr”. They were led by Elf Leader who “Hates Orks”, because his “Lover was Killed by Orks”. The Elf Leader was given a name of so many syllables that it was recorded simply as “Really Long Name”. He was armed with a “Magic Blood Bow” whose arrows had been “Dipped in the Blood of his Slain Lover”.
The battle started off with the elven archers opening fire on Zrograr. With all of Mr. Long Name’s Traits added in, Zrograr was in trouble. Until the Enchantress Enscalla revealed herself. She of the “Stunning Green Hair” had “Arcane Powers x3”, and an “Aura of Protection on Zrograr”. The Ork Leader barely won the Complication. The elven arrows struck Zrograr repeatedly but were mostly thwarted by the arcane shield. Zrograr was left with a “flesh wound” and became “enraged x2”. The flare of the magic shield shot back along the path the arrows had come revealing the elves hidden position and deleting their “Hiding in Woods” Trait. Enscalla, however, was put into a magical sleep by her exertions.
At this point the Ork Bugler equipped with a “Ramshorn” sounded the advance against the Elven Position. A “Treacherous” Hobbit Spy named “Bob” had warned Zrograr of the Hobbit Ambush, and so a unit of “Warg Riders” was sent to “Sweep behind the Hobbit Position”.
In the ensueing conflict between the Orks and the Elfves, the Elves won. The Elf player used all of his Coins to slay Zrograr and send the Ork army into chaotic “Disarray”. But not before the Loser used his Coins slay all of the elven sharpshooters and cause the Leader to flee. The loser also had the Ork Lieutenant who was “Faithful” take command and erase the “Disarray” Trait.
The second scene was framed into the future, following the abject slaughter of the pathetic hobbits and the feasting on their fat lazy corpses. The location of the scene was a nearby shrine where the Apprentices of the Sorceress Enscalla had taken her sleeping body to revive her. The elf leader, fleeing the recent battle “Filled with Remorse” from his defeat, stumbled upon the shrine and determined to slay the evil Sorceress.
Unfortunately that ended our demo. Jake Norwood needed the table to run a demo of The Riddle of Steel (one of the all time best Fantasy RPGs) and so we had to call it. The demo was a success, copies were sold, and Jake sold 4 copies to each of his 4 demo participants so I can’t hold a grudge for him bumping me. But it would have been fun to find out what happened to the elf with the “Really Long Name”.
Featured Element, Combat Tactics
One of our design goals with Universalis was to create a game where the level of gritty detail was completely customizable by play group. For some groups I’ve played with entire stories were told with characters who were rarely given more than 1 or 2 broad Traits. The above combat could have been narrated completely quickly “And the Hobbits were wiped out and eaten”. Instead we took a more detailed approach where some individual units (like Elven sharpshooters and Orkan Warg riders) were independently detailed. Tactics like ambushes, and arrow volleys, and flanking maneuvers, and charges were used to add Traits and dice and flavor to the overall battle scene.
If desired we could have gotten even more detailed. We could have made several units with several Traits each that would have taken many Coins (and several Complication rolls) to defeat. We could have made even more use of descriptive “Tactics” that provided dice to the pools and made rules gimmicks that limited how many such “tactic dice” could be added to a pool based on the quality of the troops and leader. We could have used index cards to represent the units and made rules gimmicks about moving them around the table like a quick and dirty miniatures game with a gimmick that stated that a Complication occurs whenever cards move into “base to base” contact with rules for adding dice for such factors as “frontage” and “flanking attacks” and “unit depth” and such.
In short we could have used written an entire little wargame to play out our Ork and Hobbit encounter, either on the fly, or using a standard set of Add-on rules that we return to for such situations. Instead we chose the middle ground on relying mostly on flavorful descriptions to give our battle character. Regardless of whether we took a simple narration, flavorful description in multiple Complications, or a miniature war game approach the battle would have been played out in Universalis terms, customized to the level of detail the group desires.