More Details on Story Elements

Genre:

A category of literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content

Genre is often one of the first choices that will be made in a game of Universalis. Universalis is truly a universal game, games can be about anything. Genre will help to define the style, form, and content of the game world. It will be the first indicator of what is or is not appropriate to create and do in the game. Genre conventions are those aspects of a genre that are recognizable characteristics of that particular genre. They may either be definable or too subtle for definition, but they are what make one genre feel different from another. As an example compare the detectives Sherlock Holmes and Poirot with Rick and AJ Simon and Thomas Magnum. Obviously there is a noticeable difference in feel between the adventures of Holmes and Poirot and those of Simon and Simon and Magnum PI. These differences are in the genre conventions.

At the macro level, genre encompasses major literary divisions of the type of categories you might find in a bookstore. Romance, is separate from fantasy which is separate from westerns which are separate from science fiction. When someone in a game of Universalis declares “tonight we are playing a Murder Mystery”, he is setting the genre of the game. Other common genres might include: cyberpunk, horror, anime, spy thriller, kung fu action, Hollywood action, or something else more exotic.

At the sub level, genre can be broken down further. Fantasy, for instance might be more specifically defined as “Swords and Sorcery” (ala Howard and Liebler), “High Fantasy” (ala Tolkein and Jordan), Dark Fantasy (ala Moorcock), or even “Historical Fantasy”. Science Fiction might be based on near future hard science, or it might be a sweeping space opera. Westerns might be about cavalry and Indians, or cowboys, or pioneers, or prospectors or gunslingers.

We suggest that when a player first introduces a genre he specify only the macro level genre leaving the sub genre to be specified on a later turn or by another player.

Theme:

An implicit or recurrent idea. What a piece of writing or artistic work is about

Themes are useful tools to ascribe to a game of Universalis. They don’t so much determine plot as they suggest what the purpose of the over all plot should be. Themes can generally be summed in just a sentence or two. A game’s theme might be about “the struggle against tyranny”, “the search for redemption”, “vengeance”, “vindication”, “survival”, “the struggle to maintain tradition in the face of change”, “the decent of greatness into decadence”, “the corrupting influence of power”, “the loss of innocence”. These are just samples, but hopefully they’ve sparked some ideas of your own. Players are encouraged to frame scenes and Originate Complications (explained in Chapter 6) which serve to illustrate the story’s theme. This will help give focus to the story and help keep if from being simply a collection of events happening to a group of characters.

Universalis is a game about telling stories. Theme can be thought of as the reason you are telling this particular story. Besides the entertainment value, what message might you try to convey, what avenues of the psyche might be explored. What hidden moral might be pursued. What commentary are you making about the nature of life. Plot is a tool through which you will explore theme. Theme is the reason you are taking the journey.

Premise:

 A proposition antecedently supposed or proved; a basis of argument.
A proposition stated or assumed as leading to a conclusion

In his seminal work, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri introduced the world of theatre to the idea of premise. Premise is very similar to theme but to Egri it is much more powerful, decisive and less open to misinterpretation. The goal of any good play must be to prove its premise and all aspects of the play must be focused on leading the audience to that conclusion. Offered as examples are premises such as: “great love defies even death”, “Blind trust leads to destruction, “Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love”.

To Egri, premise trumps both situation and emotion. “No idea, and no [unusual] situation was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise”. “No emotion ever made, or ever will make, a good [story] if we do not know what kind of forces set emotion going”. Both situation and emotion are necessary but a story only becomes great if these are both focused on proving a premise.

The idea of premise must go through some alterations if it is to be applied to role-playing. In the theatre, the playwright is separate from the audience. The playwright must be convinced of the truth of his premise and must do all in his power to prove that premise to the audience. Role playing games are far more interactive, and in games like Universalis the players are both playwright and audience.

The Forge has been the leading proponent of adapting and applying the concept of premise to Narrativist RPGs. The adaptation takes the form of altering the idea of premise as a truth to be proven to one of a truth to be uncovered and discovered through play. In other words, in a role playing game, the premise is not a statement of fact but rather a question or inquiry. The answer to the question is explored through the game and the results of game play.

For role playing purposes then, the above example premises might be restated in the following manner: “Can great love survive in the face of great opposition and even death?”; “Can anyone, even family, ever be trusted completely and without question?”; or “At what point does strong desire stop being a motivator and start being self destructive?” The answers, rather than being decided by the playwright (GM) and proved to the audience (players), are instead unknown until the players decide for themselves based on the results of their role-playing experience what lesson is to be learned.

Narrative Premise is an exceedingly sophisticated role-playing technique. It is not one that will be mastered easily. It is also certainly not required for a role-playing game to be enjoyable. But it is a technique that can turn an enjoyable experience into a truly powerful and moving one. Egri indicates that it is not necessary to establish the premise first, that it is possible to have the sketch of a story in mind, and from that derive a suitable premise. Likewise in Universalis, premise may be left until a suitable one shows itself in the story before being introduced as a Game Structure element. For maximum effectiveness, however, if it is to be used at all, it should be introduced early on and all players should endeavor to stay focused on it thereafter.

Situation:

The relative position or combination of circumstances at a certain moment in time.
A critical, problematic, or unusual state of affairs.
A particular or important complex of affairs at a given point in the action of a narrative

If theme or premise is the driving factor behind the meaning and importance of plot, then situations are the specific facts leading up to it. Situation is what gets the story going. It provides the starting place from which players can begin to narrate. Most episodes of The Twilight Zone began with an introduction something like: “Picture this, a small town. A town, like any other town in middle America; and a day like any other day. Until today…” These opening remarks defined the situation that was going to be explored in that episode.

Traditionally, situation has been the focus (often the exclusive focus) of RPGs. Many a game campaign begins simply by the GM framing a situation and the players deciding how to react to it. Similarly, games of Universalis must have a situation. There must be some starting point to focus players’ attention and act as a catalyst for the rest of the action. Universalis can also be played exclusively as focused on situation created by one player and responded to by another. Hopefully some of this section will have offered ideas on how to incorporate other story elements into the game as well..

Situations may simply be a jumping off point from which the players begin before taking the story in any direction desired. This is often a fun and enjoyable means of playing. However, situation can also be used to provide an overreaching story arc to the campaign. The direction of the entire game might be established by the resolution of a specific initial situation.

Setting:

the time, place, and circumstances in which something occurs or develops.

Setting is often closely tied to Genre and Situation. Setting does not refer to a specific location but more to the period, style, and color of the story that will pervade all of the locations. For example the setting might be that the story takes place on a stark, harsh prison planet, or in a fairly tale kingdom amidst the clouds, or in 17th century France, or in Texas right after the fall of the Alamo.

If a player has a specific location in mind that he wants to create during the Game Preparation Phase (see Chapter Two), he can do so, but only after a setting has been accepted.

Note that it is entirely possible for players to use an established and well known setting for their game of Universalis. They may model the setting after a favorite movie, a series of novels, or the setting of another RPG. If this is done, many of the genre convention and mood choices will already be made. There are three basic ways of using a pre existing setting in Universalis.

The first is the “Inspired by” method. This method most closely resembles a standard game of Universalis in that the game starts with no Components (see Chapter Four) being predefined. Rather the players play as they would any Universalis game but take their cues from the established setting. Locations and characters and organizations and such can be created when needed and loosely based on the inspirational setting.

The second method is “full conversion”. In this case a selection of key locations, characters, and other important features of an existing world are taken and defined in terms of Universalis Traits and Facts before game play actually begins. Play begins with a substantial number of Components already in existence and already defined according to their actual capabilities in the converted setting.

The third way is actually highly encouraged, and that is to use a previous session of Universalis as the existing setting. In other words each game can continue to build on the world created and defined before. Players may wish to move to a slightly different geographical location, fast forward to different point in history, or even use the events of the previous game as part of the legends and mythology of the new one. In this way playgroups can write their own trilogies and decologies of stories.

Mood:

A conscious state of mind or predominant feeling. A distinctive atmosphere or context

Mood very well may be the most pervasive story element in Universalis. Players who select and agree to a mood (especially if the Social Contract calls for it to be strictly enforced) are influencing virtually every scene and Complication that will take place during the game. This even includes creating the elements of the world itself, as visual imagery and the appearance of those elements goes a long way towards establishing mood.

Mood is often closely tied to genre. In fact, mood may well be part of the conventions of a particular genre. Mood is what sets a police drama like Hill Street Blues apart from a show like CHiPs. Mood is what made Miami Vice a sensation. It is the dark and brooding angst ridden mood of neo-gothism that made Vampire: The Masquerade one of the most widely played RPGs of all time.

Games can be full of in your face attitude, wit, or even silly. Despite similarities in genre, clearly the mood of Rush Hour is much different from that of The Dead Pool. The mood of Star Wars is much different from that of Blade Runner. Mood often evokes a particular emotional response: despair, humor, hardness, grit, hyperactivity, and silliness are just some examples. Stories told with a consistent mood throughout will be much more memorable and less disjointed than those whose mood fluctuates widely. A player expecting a game of serious soul searching will be greatly disappointed by a rampaging farce and vice versa.

 Realism:

Fidelity to nature, fact, and reality and to accurate representation without abstraction

The level of realism is another facet that players should agree upon. Few factors are as likely to cause disharmony among players than differing priorities regarding realism. Some players get a great amount of enjoyment from establishing the precise differences and effects on game play between a 9mm Beretta and a .45 Automatic. Some desire an exact accounting of the money that characters spend and the items they have on them at the time. Some want to know the acceleration limits of a sports car, and precisely what handling penalty is incurred for a wet road. Some players desire to establish how a suit of plate mail protects differently from a suit a chain mail when faced with a heavy bludgeoning weapon. It may become important to them to see these differences reflected in the actual Events and dice mechanics of the game.

Other players care little for the real world statistics of what, to them, are merely story props. A gun shoots until its dramatically interesting to run out of bullets, nobody dies unless there is a good story reason for them to do so. Travel times are based on the need to arrive in the nick of time not on encumbrance and terrain features. MacGyver really can make a bomb out of bubble gum and a paperclip, but only when it’s dramatic to do so. So what if Arnold walks calmly out in front of a dozen trained soldiers who all have automatic weapons and doesn’t suffer a scratch…hey he’s the star right?

The game of Universalis plays most smoothly with the latter sort of attitude towards realism than the former. However, given the level of authority players have over the game direction, it is within their power to ensure the choices and decisions they make adhere to whatever standard of realism they choose. Deliberate use of advantageous and disadvantageous Traits can be made to illustrate the performance differences between a Ferrari and a Corvette, or a grenade and a stick of TNT, or a masonry wall and a steel reinforced concrete barrier. Rules Gimmicks, (which are basically player decided customized house rules) allow for the establishment of effects like fire vs. concussion, impaling vs. slashing, or anything else players can imagine. It should be noted here, that while the core rules of Universalis do permit this sort of realism, they do not offer any details or guidance on how to accomplish it. It is assumed that players who prefer a high level of realism normally play games that provide a high degree of realism and thus already have experience with how things should or shouldn’t work in game terms. We leave it to those players to manipulate the rules of Universalis to create the effects they desire.

Role:

A part played or a character assumed with a socially expected pattern of behavior
determined by an individual’s status in the story.

All Components in Universalis have a role. Role is the first Trait that must be defined for any Component. For most Components Role is pretty self explanatory…a gun has a Role of “gun” (or perhaps some specific model of gun). This discussion will concentrate on the roles of characters in Universalis.

All stories involve characters and all characters have a role to play in the story. Role indicates (although it doesn’t restrict) much of what the character’s purpose in the story is. A role can indicate an occupation like “battle hardened ex-soldier” or simply carry story weight like “scrappy sidekick”. Roles can be virtually anything, but every character should have one. Example roles include: wizened old hermit, wise old mentor, hard-boiled hero, wise cracking assistant, or buddy partner. However, Universalis supports a wide range of less clichéd roles as well. A character may be the ghost of another character’s father, or even a favorite pet. In one of our play test sessions a character was given the role of a sentient starship. Villains, of course, also have roles to play. Even lesser characters have a role to play in the story, even if its only as “Thug # 3”

Role is always the first Trait to be assigned to a character. The reason for this is to define a narrative territory for a character that other players should act within when controlling that character. Since you will be manipulating the game world and story line primarily (although not exclusively) through characters and their Traits, a character’s place in that world and story will heavily influence the nature of those manipulations. The type of narrative you as a player will create while controlling the “Lantern jawed hero”, will be decidedly different from that which you create while controlling “Joey, the eager boy scout”. Roles are crucial to establishing what sort of story involvement the character should have. Players should use these when narrating the story as guidelines for what sort of activities they should be engaging in and how much “camera time” should be focused on each character. Side kicks, may periodically have the story focused on them (as is often done in television) but by and large the primary story should be being told about the protagonist.

If a player has an idea for a specific character at this point it can be Created now, but only after a Role has been established for him.

—-Ralph Mazza

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