This was a three player game with myself Seth Ben-Ezra of Dark Omen Games and Seth’s wife Crystal. Since we only had a couple of hours we skipped through most of the story in the preparation phase and got right to the climax.
This was to be a story about the crew of the space galleon “Empty Bottle”. It was a space ship alright, but in a very Spell Jammer or Space 1889 kind of way. The ship was a wooden galleon, sailing between the stars on a sea of ether. The pirates were searching for buried treasure following a map that had been tattooed to the skin of a young girl. The treasure was said to be an Emerald the size of a man’s fist.
As they approached the small planet where the treasure was said to be buried they encountered an area of inky blackness. The dark nebulae was the home of a Arwen Demon Queen of Nightmares, a cross between a Cthulhu Old One, a Little Fears Closet Land King, and a Noble from Nobilis.
The nebulae was her domain, and within it, all of your worst fears gained substance. Crystal drew her inspiration directly from one of the islands in the Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Arwen killed the crew and the captain of the ship as they approached her home; but that was not the end of it. Trapped there in the dark, the pirates did not die and the “Empty Bottle” sailed on a ghost ship, crewed by the spirits of the dead sailors. All except the girl, who had hid below decks and was spared.
The ship sailed on, rescuing a woman who’s ship had been capsized by one of the frequent electrical storms of neon purple eldritch energy. Unknown to the crew, the woman was actually Arwen in disguise trying to discover why her efforts had not stopped the pirates completely.
When the ship arrived at a small planetoid where the treasure was said to be, they lowered the ships boats and began to row for shore. The captain made a copy of the map so the girl could be left safe on board with the rescued woman.
Before they reached the planet they were beset by one of the eldritch storms which lashed the boats furiously. Fortunately, having experienced these storms before, the boats had been equipped with lightning rods and they made it to land safely, though not without severe damage to the boats.
To stop them, Arwen teleported to land and summoned a pack of wild dream beasts to attack the crew. Each taking the form of whatever their victim feared most, the crew was hard pressed. Thanks to their electrified cutlasses, space muskets, and a small gatling laser cannon, the beasts were all slain, but their blood had stained the crew red, and as long as it lasted they would be shaken and afraid.
Moving inland they followed the map to a skull shaped mountain where the treasure was said to be. Arwen was desperate now to stop them, for the emerald housed her power. She returned to the ship, took the girl and teleported to Skull Mountain. There her powers kept the crew cowering and afraid.
The captain, Ivan Blackbeard (who made his crew drink vodka instead of rum) went on alone, following the map to a secret entrance. He knew that obtaining the emerald was the key to finally having the tormented spirits of he and his crew laid to rest and he was determined to get it.
Just inside the entrance he encountered a hallucination of the demon who tried to block his path, but he cut the illusion down with his sword and strode on to the treasure chamber. Taking the gem he returned to his men and led them to the beach.
But nothing happened. Finally the captain realized that it was not enough to have copied the map from the girl. She was the key to the emeralds powers and needed to be present in person…but she had been captured by the demon, who fortunately did not yet know about the girl’s destiny.
Just then the Queen appeared, with the girl and another pack of Dream Beasts. They attacked the ill prepared crew just as another eldritch storm struck. At first the pirates managed to fend off the beasts, but when a bolt of purple lighting destroyed the gatling cannon, the crew were overwhelmed, their souls devoured by the beasts.
The captain had engaged Arwen herself and managed to rescue the girl. Only then did the demon queen remember an ancient prophesy about the girl who would be the key to her demise. She lunged for the girl, but it was too late, Ivan’s sword pierced her through the heart.
Another flash of lightning struck the sword at that moment and blew the captain backwards. Pulling the blade painfully from her body, the queen swung once, and decapitated the girl.
Greatly weakened Arwen recovered the gem and returned to her lair. Without the girl, the Ivan Blackbeard was doomed to eternity as a wandering spirit unable to find final rest knowing that the souls of his faithful crew, having been devoured by the dream beasts, were spending that eternity in nightmarish torment.
Featured Element, Story and New Players
It occurred to me as I played this game, how differently the story progresses with players who are veterans of the game vs. new players. Both Seth and Crystal are long time role players, but this was their first time with Universalis.
When the game started, I had wanted a game of pirates: walking the plank, bottles of rum, chests of doubloons on the Spanish Main. Instead the story became a kind of bizarre conglomeration of different ideas. The story itself, wound up pretty cool. One of the strengths of the game, I think is the way it takes a mish mash of ideas and weaves them into a coherent narrative.
But what occurred to me was this. If I’d been playing with people who were already fans of the game, I would have taken a much more aggressive role with challenges and well placed complications and a lot of Facts to try and establish more of the game I wanted. In other words, I would have “fought” harder for the story. To put it another way, I would have made greater use of Negotiation to get the other players on board with my vision, and greater use of Scene Framing to make sure I built in the elements I wanted to see.
But since my purpose in the game was to introduce the rules and make sure the players were enjoying themselves I took a much less up front role. I let most of the mish mash of tenets stand without challenge (I drew the line at making it a “Romance”) and the majority of the scenes were framed by the newer players.
This leads, I think, to new players gaining a better understanding of the rules and the power they have at their disposal with their Coins. For me to take charge right off the bat, would limit the new players to being my audience since they would lack the familiarity with the rules to know what they could be doing. The other side to this is a story that tends to resemble a chimera of genre tropes and takes some bizarre twists and turns before finally settling on a direction.
With experienced players I’ve found the game to have a greater shared vision, the players tend to have an easier time getting and staying within the same imaginary space.
I’d love to read your comments on whether you’ve experienced a similar phenomenon on our discussion forum.