The story is to be a mystery in the age of cave-men. One person proposed that dinosaurs should be included as well, (as a sort of land-of-the-lost adventure). But, this was challenged by those players that wanted to exclude dinosaurs from the game. After conflict resolution, the “no dinosaurs” decision prevailed.
Next, it was decided that the mystery involved figuring out why the buffalo had not appeared this year. It was established that our meat stores are running low (and that we’re tired of eating prairie-dog meat).
Further, we established that the story is to take place on the prairie and that our clan’s totem is the buffalo and that of our enemy is the crow. There is a river between the lands of the Buffalo clan and the Crow clan. And, the Crow clan built an enclosure to trap the buffalo. It was decided that the fact that the crow clan actually had trapped the buffalo had not been established (since that would prematurely solve the mystery), only that they had constructed this enclosure to do so.
It was established that there was a Shaman named “Infinel” who had recently and unsuccessfully called the buffalo. She has mystical powers, but is currently missing some key herbs to perform the rites properly. She has an apprentice named “Jama” that has only been living with her for 3 weeks. Jama has a brother named “Koda” who is considered to be the Buffalo clan’s best hunter.
A Master Component of “Shaman” was created and it was established that all Shaman are women and that they must be celibate.
At this point some twists were introduced. Infinel has had sex with Koda (Jama’s brother) and believes Jama to be her daughter (but through negotiation it was agreed that the fact that Jama actually was her daughter had not been established – nor had it been established that Infinel considered Jama to be her biological daughter, she might just believe Jama to be her daughter in a spiritual (i.e. mentor to pupil) sense).
Some more Master Components were created: hunters and toolmakers. Hunters are stealthy and use spears. Nothing was really attributed to the toolmakers yet, which seemed odd to me, but that’s what happened.
More characters were introduced at this point. There is a toolmaker named Talvas in the crow clan that had raped Infinel years ago.
At this point, everyone was satisfied with the background and the bidding for the first scene began.
The winner started the first scene in a cave. Infinel and Jama were present and Jama’s brother Koda runs frantically into the cave. He approaches Infinel and tells her that there is a fire on the other side of the river, in the land of the Crow. The three exit the cave and look to the east to see a column of smoke rising. It is established that the river dividing the lands of the Buffalo clan and Crow clan runs north-south. The Buffalo clan is on the west side of the river. At this point a new character is introduced. Tor, the Buffalo clan leader approaches followed by “Group of five hunters of Buffalo Clan”. Tor consults the shaman and it is decided that a group needs to be sent to investigate the fire. Scene I ends.
The second scene initially started on the Buffalo side of the river with Infinel, Jama, Koda, and “Group of Five Hunters”. Nothing much happened and so the scenery shifted to the nearby location of the fire on the other side of the river, where the whole group was hiding in the bushes. They initially saw that there were a group of Crow dancing around a bonfire, but this was quickly changed to a “Group of Crow” who were “running frantically around a burning building”. Infinel lets out a short *gasp* as she spots the Crow toolmaker (Talvas) that raped her years ago. He is exiting the burning building carrying a bundle and looking back and forth as if making sure nobody sees him. Talvas exits the scene into a nearby clump of trees beside the river and Infinel decides to follow him. Scene II ends.
The third scene is set a short time later in the nearby clump of trees. Talvas is inspecting the contents of his bundle and Infinel recognizes it as the sacred White Buffalo totem stolen from her clan years ago. It is carved from ivory. At this point “Group of Five Hunters” enters the scene, crawling up behind Infinel. They spotted her leaving the previous scene and decided to follow her. Infinel explains that the man in the trees holds the stolen White Buffalo totem. Consequently, “Group of Five Hunters” come out from hiding and demand Talvas hand over the totem. At this point, Talvas is given the attributes of “Runner” and “Very fast runner”. He grabs the totem and takes off. The “Group of Five Hunters” is given the trait “Accurate with throwing spears”. During the conflict resolution it was determined that the ground is soft and muddy, being near the river and that five spears against one target is allowed a bonus of one die. On the other hand, Talvas is very familiar with the territory and has the cover of the surrounding trees. The dice are rolled and it is determined that Talvas is hit with a spear. Talvas is given the new trait “wound in butt”. Talvas falls to the ground and looks back at the approaching hunters in terror. Fade to black. Scene III ends.
The time was late and the session ended at this point.
Featured Element, Changing Players
I should point out that one of the players showed up late (actually, didn’t know we were playing until she showed up). And, one of the players dropped out after the first scene because she thought things were dragging a bit. As far as that is concerned, the first scene we played did drag, but that was mainly due to the fact that we didn’t fully understand the rules and we hadn’t gotten into the “flow” of the game yet. The second and third scenes went much smoother. All total, we had 6 players.
All agreed that we had a fun time and that it sure was different from what we were used to. Even the player that dropped out agreed that setting up the background was fun, it was just that one scene that dragged. So, I wouldn’t consider that any kind of testament to the playability of Universalis, only our inexperience with it. Some of the players stated that they wished that control of one character per player could be permanent. In that regard, they really like traditional role-play. It didn’t occur to any of us that we could probably have set up some kind of a Rule Gimmick to cover this.
[Ralph] There is a bit of a learning curve to Universalis. While we tried to keep the rules as intuitive as possible play can be radically different from what players of traditional RPGs are used to. In fact the initial desire for a more traditional player character is a frequent response. Its been my experience, however, that most of this is a result of “reaching for a life preserver” so to speak. A desire to add something more familiar in the midst of unfamiliar territory. Most groups I’ve heard this from have gone on to continue to play Universalis without any desire for PCs, but for those who prefer the more traditional PC situation, several Player Character Rules Gimmicks have been proposed.
What I found especially interesting in this play example is that right here in John’s first session one of the key design goals of Universalis is placed front and center. Players joined and left, not just mid campaign, but mid session and this had virtually no impact on play. In fact in one of our 2003 GenCon demos we had the demoer and 2 players. Over the course of that demo, the demoer changed, 1 of the players had to leave for an event. Another player took that players place and a then a third player joined us. The two new players were quickly brought up to speed and play continued without a hiccup.