Every RPG has its system of rewards. What kind of activity in the game earns a player a reward? What form does that reward take? What can that reward be used for? In many traditional fantasy RPGs for example, characters are rewarded for defeating monsters. The reward takes the form of experience points and treasure. Experience points are used to make the character tougher by increasing his skills or level; and treasure is used to make the character tougher by giving him powerful items or the gold to buy powerful items. The effect is to render the character better able to defeat more monsters and thus earn more experience and treasure.
This circular system of rewards functions as the game’s currency, or money. In the real world people pursue different ways of earning money, and then spend that money on the various products and services that are available. While playing the game, players will pursue various ways of earning game rewards, and then spend that reward in whatever manner the game makes available. The game’s flavor text may say that the game is “about” something. But it is the system of rewards provided that determines how it will really be played.
The core mechanic of Universalis is its system of rewards. Beginning with the thought that these rewards function like a game’s currency, Universalis uses Coins as its primary resource. They are spent to gain dramatic control over the story and all aspects of the game world itself. The entire game world is available for player creation and manipulation: geography, economics, politics, religion, and the people and creatures who populate it. Likewise the plot will be written, developed, and negotiated by the players through the mechanism of Coins.
The spending of Coins creates an entire Coin based economy to the game. As a player, you will notice that your play is different you are “wealthy” than when you are “strapped for cash”. You will learn to keep a close eye on the “money supply” of the game and who is currently rich and who is currently poor. This economy is the driving factor behind the entire game. All game mechanics are essentially 1) a means of spending Coins, 2) a means of acquiring Coins, or 3) a means of settling disputes (in the absence of a Game Master) about how Coins are spent or acquired.
It is important to understand what Coins represent in Universalis, which may be most easily explained by what they are not. Coins are not a literal measure of in game character wealth, nor are they “Hero Points” which allow characters to achieve extraordinary feats. They are not a measure of Action Points, or who is more powerful. In fact, they are not associated with individual characters in any way.
What they are is very simply clout. Players as a group have ultimate authority over every single aspect of the game. Coins are a measure of how that authority is currently distributed among those players. You achieve control over the world and story by spending Coins. Your current Wealth is your store of potential authority for the future. This has great impact on play. If you spend a lot of Coins in a brief amount of time you’ll have had tremendous impact over events and the scope of the world. However, your impact in the future will be more limited because you will now have fewer Coins relative to your fellows. Horde Coins in order to have decisive control in the future (enough to win Challenges or Complications with ease) and you’ll find a large part of the story has already been told, and a large part of the world defined without you. Balancing this dynamic is a key to play.
Universalis can be compared to a team of scriptwriters working on a TV show episode. Everyone has ideas of what they’d like to see in the show or how a scene should play out and many ideas are tried and discarded and batted around for commentary. What Universalis does is superimpose a game structure on this collaborative process, using Coins to measure each player’s ability to contribute.