Over the Thanksgiving holiday I had the opportunity to play a game of Universalis with Ron Edwards of Adept Press, Jake Norwood of Driftwood Publishing and Jake’s wife Earta. Unfortunately, the game took place fairly late at night after a very busy day and we were all a little off form, but even so we produced one of the best stories I’ve had the pleasure to play in.
The game started with the usual Preparation Phase. Earta was to set the tone for the whole game with just two simple Coins.
Jake: “This game will involve swords somehow” [yeah, we gave him a bit of ribbing about that one]
Earta: “And it will involve the pope.” [bomb #1]
Ron: “And there will be a heresy trial.”
Me: And here on my first turn would be the first of several challenges in this game. I had wanted to set the game in the near future involving the successor to our current pope, but everyone else was less than enthused about that. But I was determined to not use a general medieval setting, so instead I went with the New World in the 16th century.
Jake: “I’m creating the character of Rodrigo, a Jesuit Priest”.
Earta: “The pope…is pregnant”. [With that second bombshell the fabric of the entire game was shaped. As an interesting rules commentary we ruled that just as “Jack is Jill’s brother” gives an automatic corollary Fact of “Jill is Jack’s sister” that “the pope is pregnant” gives the automatic corollary of “the pope is a woman”.]
The preparation phase continued for a bit and we established a few more features: The actual story would take place in Cartagena. The character of Cardinal Immanuel was Created. Immanuel had been, and Rodrigo was, the pope’s lover. And that out of jealousy at being replaced, Immanuel had sent Rodrigo to the new world as a missionary to convert the natives. We also established that the Cardinal was a skilled swordsman who was in possession of an heirloom sword stolen from Rodrigo’s family. Jake added an interesting twist in that the entire story would be told from the perspective of the pope’s loyal personal bodyguard.
In the first scene Ron created a very cool rules gimmick. In order to meet Jake’s Tenet about the bodyguard, Ron ruled that all scenes would open with a narrative by the bodyguard. The “audience” would see a much older bodyguard writing a letter in a small room at a Spanish mission in California in which he was describing the events of the story. This cost him 1 for the gimmick, but it also counted as a flash forward since it established that the bodyguard would definitely have to survive the story, and so he had to pay each of us 1 Coin. The most fascinating thing about this gimmick, is that it wound up being used in two very different ways. First it proved to be a fantastic way to deliver a good bit of important factual exposition quickly without needing an actual scene which would have been rather boring (exactly why this technique is used in movies). But second it became almost like an Inspectres Confessional. Not wanting to give too much away about the scene (and thus have to pay for the flash forward) several scenes opened with a vague sort of commentary. Like the cryptic comments of a Confessional then, the players would be motivated to work towards including this element into the scene in some fashion. I’ll try to paraphrase these opening narratives as best as I can remember them.
I write these words by my own hand from the mission at San Pablo Capistrano in Spanish California. They are a true and accurate record of my time as bodyguard to Pope Ignatius III. When we were safely ensconced in our apartments in Cartagena and the pope had removed her outer garments I could see that she was starting to show and would not long be able to conceal her pregnancy. Yes, Pope Ignatius was actually a woman named Anna Marie and she was with child. But I get ahead of myself…
The first scene opened with the pope and her bodyguard traveling incognito disguised as a merchant and his servant disembarking a ship having managed to slip out of Rome secretly. She had traveled to the new world seeking Rodrigo her lover. When they arrived, they found a city in turmoil with soldiers and civilians rushing around, some panicked and some with purpose. After asking around they learned that a great chief of the native people named Umanhotep was arriving with an armed delegation demanding to speak with the governor. The audience had been granted and people were either fleeing from the savages or crowding in to witness the event. Anna Marie and her bodyguard were swept along with the crowd to the plaza outside the governor’s mansion.
It seems Rodrigo fancied himself more of a soldier of God than a diplomat and had begun his conversion of the natives by marching soldiers into nearby villages and forcibly baptizing the children. Umanhotep was demanding that this practice cease. As the governor and Rodrigo addressed the chief from the balcony of the manse, Rodrigo received a small token from a servant which he was told had come from the servant of a merchant in the crowd seeking audience. Rodrigo immediately recognized the token as coming from the pope and completely lost his composure. He abandoned the summit and rushed to meet the merchant and see him safely and secretly ensconced in private apartments in the mansion. The chief left furious and the governor was horrified at the prospect of hordes of screaming savages descending on Cartagena.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, but soon to shape the destiny of us all, Cardinal Immanuel had also come to Cartagena. Alone in Rome he knew where the pope had gone and had followed us here to ensure his own plans.
The second scene opened with a silver caravan trudging from the mines through jungle trails to Cartagena to be shipped to Spain. Cardinal Immanuel and two of his special guards had ridden out to the caravan where he had a secret meeting with Chief Umanhotep in the jungle. The Cardinal was prepared to pay the chief in silver if the chief would attack Cartagena and kidnap Rodrigo and the woman Anna Marie. He would arrange things so the warrior could gain entrance to the fort with ease. The Cardinal had two plans. First, he hoped that if he could get Rodrigo out of the way once and for all that he could convince Anna Marie to return to Rome as Pope and return to him as lover and together they would be the most powerful force in Europe. Failing that, however, he could not allow the Pope to be revealed as a woman, for it had been him who had cast the deciding vote for her papacy. He would be ruined. Getting her out of the city, and into a jungle filled with savages should make her more amenable to his plan, or at least more easily disposed of. The chief was to do anything he liked with Rodrigo, but he was not to harm the woman. Umanhotep had other ideas, however. He had a penchant for white women, and any woman that such a powerful man was willing to pay so much silver for had to be something truly special. He intended to kidnap her as planned, but then keep her for himself. Rodrigo he would enjoy killing slow. He and his warriors hated the Jesuit for casting the water spell of his god on their children. Nothing would keep him from getting his vengeance on him.
The scene closed with the two men in agreement and the Cardinal saying “take your payment then”. At that, a screaming horde of native warriors burst upon the caravan from out of the jungle and slaughtered the Spanish soldiers guarding it. In resolving the complication it was determined that one soldier survived the encounter and even managed to scar the chief with his sword. It is a mark of our tired condition that this poor soldier was forgotten and we never returned to him.
Rodrigo’s handling of the native savages had been incomprehensible. We should probably have not attempted to contact him at that time, but I had never known him to act so foolishly. When they finally met, my lady would not be pleased. I was beginning to see that coming to Cartagena was going to be an even bigger mistake than I had expected.
The third scene was back at the pope’s apartments where Rodrigo had finally come to meet the merchant who had brought word of his lover. This was handled using the dialog rules. He was stunned to learn that it was not a merchant at all but the pope herself come all the way from Rome to see him. He was even more stunned to learned that she was with child. But what truly sent him over the edge was learning that Anna Marie had decided that she had had enough of being the pope, wanted instead to be a woman and a mother, and expected Rodrigo to leave the church and become her husband..
Meanwhile, the Cardinal had returned to Cartagena and sought audience with the governor. His first act was to demand control of the fort’s garrison in order to organize action against the natives. This would enable him to make arrangements that would ensure the success of Umanhotep’s attack. His second act was inform the governor that Rodrigo’s actions towards the natives had diminished the sanctity of the sacrament of baptism and defied church doctrine and that he intended to have the Jesuit arrested and charged with heresy. The timid governor, who had visions of half naked savages swarming the streets of the city was only too happy to have the trouble making Rodrigo removed and acquiesced to both demands. They went in search of the rogue priest.
In the apartment, Anna Marie had grown furious with Rodrigo’s less than enthusiastic response. He had no desire to leave the church whatsoever. And that was when the Cardinal, Governor and guards burst in. Rodrigo was placed under arrest, and when he referred to this woman as the Pope, the governor knew the priest was totally insane. A female pope was too outrageous to even comprehend. The Cardinal, of course, knew exactly who she was. Everything was proceeding according to his plan.
Rodrigo’s trial was a foregone conclusion. No real evidence was presented, no blasphemous activities were exposed, for Rodrigo was nothing if not fanatically devout. But it didn’t matter. He had crossed both the church and the state and the governor and Cardinal both wanted him dead, so guilty he would be. My lady perchance may have saved him. She had the vestments and articles of her authority with her and as pope could have demanded his release. But, perhaps in fear that she would be exposed here, far away from her power base; or perhaps to teach the lover who had scorned her a lesson, she did nothing.
In the fourth scene we used the opening narration to largely skip having an actual trial scene. Rodrigo was escorted off to a cell and Immanuel went to the pope’s apartments to outline his plans for them. After a great deal of dialog between the pope and cardinal we learned that while Anna Marie respected and admired the Cardinal, she did truly love Rodrigo. Throughout this, the Cardinal was becoming more and more upset, and when she revealed she was pregnant he became fully enraged. Even though she realized her mistake and tried to pretend it wasn’t Rodrigo’s baby Immanuel knew it was. He decided then and there to have his way with his former lover one last time before the savages (who even then were infiltrating the fort) came and took her to her fate.
The loyal bodyguard, of course, had other ideas. A complication ensued with me Controlling the dastardly Cardinal and Jake Controlling the bodyguard. We learn that the bodyguard was a veteran of many wars and is something of a romantic. He has a Don Quixote like belief that he is a gallant knight of old serving his noble and gracious queen. We also learn that the Cardinal fights dirty and wields a poisoned dagger in his off hand. I turn the tables on Jake’s added “veteran” Trait by using it as justification for the Trait of “Blind in one eye” which I added to the bodyguard to reduce his pool by one. I win the Complication by a large margin but am prohibited from actually killing the bodyguard by Ron’s flash forward in the first scene. So the duel is “to the pain”. Brought to near paralysis by the poison dagger, the bodyguard is sliced a dozen times by the masterful sword work of the cruel Cardinal. However, during the fighting, Anna Marie slipped away. She has realized how much she loves Rodrigo and has run off to rescue him. Cardinal Immanuel, of course, knows exactly where she went.
During this scene we had another significant Challenge. Earta wanted the Indians to burst in on the duel and attack the Cardinal. I thought the duel with the bodyguard was too important to interrupt, and for the first time in the game I was beginning to have a good idea of where I wanted the story to end up, and it didn’t involve the Cardinal being killed just yet. Up until now I had added only bits and pieces to the story allowing the other players to push it along. I had put the pope and her bodyguard in disguise arriving in port, but Earta and Jake had come up with the governor’s meeting with the chief and the token. I had set up the silver caravan in the Jungle, but it had been Jake who brought in the Cardinal to plot with the Umanhotep. Jake had run the trial and Ron had made sure that the Cardinal had taken control and confronted the pope. So at this point I had saved up a fairly dominant number of Coins. Negotiation could not bring the Earta’s Challenge to an acceptable compromise so I simply told her to spend as many Coins as she wanted and I’d spend 1 more and win. In the end, she saved her Coins and winning the Challenge cost me only 1. This was a perfect example of the balance between story power now vs. story power saved for the future. Earta, Jake, and Ron had assembled a story dramatically different from where I would have taken it, but now I was in the driver’s seat bringing it to a close.
Even though I was not there to see it, it would be a very bloody night.
The fifth scene had us in the prison outside of Rodrigo’s cell. Anna Marie had been unable to find the key to set him free and was frantically grasping him through the bars. “Are you looking for this key?” the Cardinal asked as he caught up to her at last, holding Rodrigo’s family sword, still covered with the bodyguard’s blood. Filled with hate, the Cardinal cast the pope aside and opened the cell, striding in to kill Rodrigo. At that, Earta brought in her Indians. Jake had the debilitated but fanatically loyal bodyguard stagger after his “queen”. He managed to kill one Indian before falling unconscious. The dieing Indian stumbled down the stairs, falling at the gates of the cell with the bodyguard’s sword still in him.
The Indians were there to kidnap Rodrigo and the woman exactly as they had planned. In one of those continuity issues that creep into such stories, I later wondered how they knew where Rodrigo and Anna Marie would be found. We were too tired at this point in the game to have picked up on the slight plot hole, but had we been more alert it would have been a simple matter to describe how it had all been arranged that Rodrigo would be in this particular cell and the woman here to visit him at this particular time. Earta helped my desired ending by having the Indians nab and make off with Anna Marie. Ron, however, decided that at this point the Cardinal was so full of hate that he had determined to forgo his original plan and kill Rodrigo himself. He thus found himself fighting off 4 Indians to keep them away from Rodrigo. At last he was disarmed and overpowered, but before they killed him, Rodrigo scooped up his family’s sword and saved Immanuel. Immanuel then recovered the bodyguard’s sword from the body of the first dead Indian and together they drove back the remaining “savages” and went off in pursuit of the captured pope. Immanuel had acquired a desperate desire for Anna Marie in the last scene and couldn’t go through with his second plan to just let the Indian’s dispose of her for him. Since Immanuel and Rodrigo were the only characters still in the scene, a single Coin was enough to change the location and bring the two along in their chase.
After I had ensured that Umanhotep had escaped with his prize, Earta had Rodrigo kill Immanuel, by stabbing him in the back with the sword Immanuel had stolen from him long ago. It was after midnight at this point and this part of the scene fell a little flat. However, I imagine that if it had been earlier it would have included dialog between Rodrigo and Immanuel in which Immanuel, desiring to rescue Anna Marie, would have revealed that he knew exactly where the Indians were going, and in so doing would have revealed that he had been behind the entire attack. When they discovered that Umanhotep had double crossed him and the pope was lost, it would have been then, overcome with grief and rage, that Rodrigo would have struck the Cardinal down. As it was, we had begun to rush the game a bit because we were all well past exhausted.
To start the sixth and final scene I proffered a rules gimmick which altered Ron’s initial gimmick such that the narrative by the bodyguard would be at the end of this scene instead of the beginning. I had at this point a clear idea of how I wanted to end the story tragically. It didn’t go quite as I had planned, despite my still having the most Coins; but Earta’s and Jake’s additions would prove to make it much better.
Months had passed, and Rodrigo had finally managed to track down where the savages were. He had tracked them to their new village but was captured at the outskirts. To celebrate the capture of their hated enemy, the Jesuit priest, Umanhotep held a great feast. Rodrigo was to be the main course. Anna Marie had been living as the chief’s kept concubine, and she was forced to watch as her lover, and the father of her child was slow roasted on a spit and then devoured by Umanhotep and his warriors. After months of ill treatment, this sent her over the edge.
We then learn that the loyal bodyguard, mostly recovered from his injuries had secretly followed Rodrigo to the village, but had done a better job at remaining unseen. He watched the feast in hiding and that night, when the chief took Anna Marie to his tent he slipped in to rescue her. Anna Marie had concealed a dagger from the feast, and the bodyguard arrived just in time to see her plunge it into Umanhotep in the midst of his passion. She stabbed him over and over, long after he was dead, until the bodyguard moved to stop her. It was then that he saw into her eyes. The months of mistreatment, the horrible death of Rodrigo, the committing of violent murder. It had been too much for her. The queen that he loved and cherished was gone, replaced only with madness. He knew what he had to do. Drawing his knife across her throat, he put her out of her misery. Anna Marie, Pope Ignatius III was dead.
It was then he heard the crying. It was a baby. Umanhotep had intended to kill the white baby when it was born, but instead decided it would provide added leverage and control over his favorite concubine. The bodyguard discovered that baby and took it to raise as his own.
In exhaustion we ended the story there, and I never did give the closing narrative for the scene. If I had, it would have revealed that the letter the bodyguard (who was intentionally never named in the story) was writing years later, was to that boy, who himself had joined the priesthood, explaining to him his true parentage, and why he’d been raised hidden away in a mission in California.
Featured Element, Story
I never cease to be amazed at the quality of the stories that Universalis produces. Despite all the twists and turns, the story had a clear introduction, build-up, climax, and denouement. It was driven on constantly with few sidetracks towards a distinct ending. However, it did so without the least bit of preparation or railroading. Its hard to imagine the above story being told in a traditional RPG without large parts of it having been plotted in advance by the GM. Its hard to imagine getting from a female pope arriving incognito in Cartagena to dieing at the hands of her own loyal body guard after months of being raped by a savage native chieftain without involving a tremendous amount of railroading or a GM with a near superhuman ability to manage games through Intuitive Continuity. Yet using Universalis we managed to create this story late at night, while exceedingly tired, with hardly any stress or strain besides a few awkward (but very brief) moments where none of us was clear what to do next.
We started the game knowing only that the pope was pregnant, that Rodrigo and Immanuel had been her lovers, that she was traveling incognito to Cartagena, and that at some point there had to be both a sword fight and a heresy trial. Other than that, we knew nothing about where the story was going. We didn’t know whether the baby was Rodrigo’s or Immanuel’s, or even some unknown third party. In fact, we briefly flirted with the idea of the baby being the bodyguard’s but quickly nixed it in the interest of time. We didn’t know who was going to be on trial for heresy. Early on, the obvious choice seemed to be the pope herself after having been revealed to be a woman. I myself actually toyed with the idea of making the trial be of Umanhotep, in a very different version of the game where he had agreed to be baptized to make peace, and then in anger uttered words that were considered blasphemous. The other players had their own ideas that ensured that the game never got anywhere near those events. We had no idea who would live or who (if anyone) would die (with the exception of the bodyguard who had to live in order to write the letter). In fact, right up to the last scene, Ron and Jake were discussing how they were going to manage to rescue the pope from the Indians.
I managed to convince them that a dark, somewhat twisted ending was best, but even my planned for ending didn’t happen the way I had envisioned. I had envisioned the pope never being found, living out her days as concubine to the chief, secretly raising her son to be the instrument of her vengeance in events to be detailed in some as yet unplanned for sequel. Ron, Earta, and Jake were unanimous in their opposition to that ending, although they did go along with ending it tragically. Earta insisted that any ending that didn’t involve Anna Marie killing Umanhotep was unsatisfactory to her, and Jake recognized that if the ending of the story was to be recorded as part of the narrative letter, that the bodyguard needed to be brought in as witness to it. He assured me that he had an ending in mind that would satisfy my desire for twisted depravity, and he didn’t disappoint. The scene where he described the bodyguard as realizing that the fairy tale was over and where he had him broken-heartedly slit the pope’s throat was the climactic highlight of the whole story.
Ron had visibly faded towards the end of the evening (it had been a very long day) but was instrumental early on in the story when we were flailing around not certain where to go next. He made sure, whenever the story started to stall, to throw in a new bang that we had no choice but to address. Ron introduced the concept of bangs in his game Sorcerer and they really are the key to “story now”. They are much more than simple hooks. They are situations that are impossible for players to avoid reacting to in some way. Yet they are open ended enough that while they force the players to act, they in no way tell them how to act. It was through how we chose to act regarding the various bangs we threw out that caused the initial story to take shape.
Watching the story unfold was almost like watching a pottery wheel. It started as this misshapen lump of clay and gradually began to look like something, but we didn’t know what. Then came the point when it became clear what it was we were making. For me, who spent most of the game clueless about where this thing was going, it came after Ron and Jake’s dialog as Cardinal and Pope in scene four. At that point, for the first time, the loose ends made sense to me and I could clearly see where the story needed to go. I also had enough Coins to take it there, but as I described above, even having an overwhelming number of Coins didn’t give me carte blanche to control everything.
This is how I’ve found most games of Universalis to go. The first part of the game involves adding stuff. Throwing in characters and plot elements and different branches and hooks until at some point, for some player at the table, it all clicks. That player then usually begins working to tie everything together and take the story in a specific direction. At this point the other players usually clue in, see where he’s going, and begin to help and add their own subtle variations until a definitive ending is reached.