Telling Straight Stories

A common experience with Universalis is for play to wind up silly, or bizarre, or a strange mishmash of competing genres. This is perfectly normal for initial games. Folks confronting Universalis for the first time often require a bit of a “shake-down cruise” to grow comfortable; comfortable both with the rules and with opening ones own creativity up to the judgment and appreciation of ones peers. It can be a daunting task to realize that you aren’t there “to be entertained” but instead to actually participate in the entertainment.  Often times the safest play is to retreat into silliness so that any criticism can be shrugged off.

Eventually, however, new players realize that the friends they’re playing with (if they’re worth playing with at all) aren’t there to be critical and judgmental but to enjoy the experience of co-authoring a story. They learn that Its ok to to delve into drama and tragedy and try to create stories of poignancy and beauty. And they especially learn that its ok to fail at creating such stories, because the experience of the shared creative journey is its own reward. That and when you do finally hit on one of those special moments when every one leans back a little stunned and speechless it will be all worthwhile.

But what can you do to help the process along? What advice is there for people who want to tell a “serious” story using Universalis?

First:  play a couple of games of Uni completely open without any expectation of getting to a story that is even marginally good literature. As noted above it can  take a few games for players to get their feet under them, figure out the flexibility of the system, and get comfortable with the the level of ownership and responsibility they have.  Early games have a tendency towards farce because its easier to generate low humor than high drama and less embarrassing when one “screws up”.  Once players get over the fear of “screwing up” I’ve found them much more prone to generating good meaty stories.

Second: pay especial attention to the Tenets being established. If one wants serious play its necessary to first identify what specifically makes a story “serious” to you, and then ensure that those things get created as Tenets.  Emulating an example from literature is a good basic start.  There is nothing wrong with a Tenet like: “This story will be like Wuthering Heights”, or “Its set in Dickensonian London”.

Even better is to identify what it is about Wuthering Heights or Dickensonian London you find most appealing and make the Tenets about that.  The more specific and actionable, the better.  Pick your Tenets with an eye towards leading to similar situations in the game.

Something like “All true love affairs must end tragically”, “Every character must have a romantic interest in another character as a Trait”, “Every character who is married must have a trait that expresses dissatisfaction with their spouse”, “Every character must identify another character as their confident whom they’ll tell everything to as a Trait”.

Gimmicks are a great way of introducing some specific genre flavor into the game.  Imagine a Gimmick where the protagonists own conscience is Created as a separate character.  How perfect for a character like Hamlet.

Third: Traits, Traits, Traits. Choose Traits that evoke the genre you’re trying to achieve. If you’re playing in Dickens’ London, create Traits that could come right from the pages of a Dickens novel.


Flora (1 Coin)
Pick Pocket (1 Coin)
Heart of Gold (1 Coin)
Mother (1 Coin) is dying of Tuberculosis (1 Coin)

But don’t limit yourself to just a static list of attributes.  What role is Flora meant to play. Sure we know she’s a pickpocket, but so what.  Traits that express relationships with other characters are especially powerful and especially effective at keeping stories from veering off into the space.  When no one has any clear idea of what to do next, people start brainstorming, and raw brainstorming can lead to silliness.  Creating a tangled web of relationships with Traits means players will always have a notion of what to do next, simply advance those relationships.  This will cut down on those groundless flights of fancy in a hurry.

Consider the effect of adding a Trait like “Has a romantic interest in Flora” to the school teacher.  Consider how this will likely play out much differently than adding “Believes the school teacher is sweet on me” as a Trait to Flora.  All’s you have to do is throw Flora’s friend Jane (who is “Jealous” and “has a crush on the school teacher) into the mix along with the teacher’s wife and peers and every player at the table will be instantly chock full of possibilities for the next scene.  Possibilities that are entirely in keeping with the desired genre because the selected Traits are all pointing the way.

And don’t stop there.  Give some thought beyond characterization to why you, as an author, even want this character in the story to begin with.   What is Flora’s purpose?  Is she there to be the exemplar of innocence in stark contrast with the corruption of the other characters?  Is she there to provide light comic relief?  Is she there to be the one sympathetic character whose tragic story tugs at the heart strings?

Any of these can make splendid Traits.  Not only will they serve as guideposts to the other players as to how Flora should be used but they’ll give you the weight of Fact to back up any use that doesn’t conform.

Consider the difference between adding “Perpetually sweet and Innocent” and “Her happiness is always fleeting” as Traits. Consider the effect of adding both.

Once players are ready to take their Universalis play beyond superficial pastiches of assorted genre tropes effective use of Tenets and Traits will pave the way for stories of startling power and depth. Not every time, to be sure. It would be unreasonable to expect works the caliber of Bronte or Dickens every time you sit around the table with friends. But I bet you’ll wind up with stories of much greater caliber than you imagine.

—-Ralph Mazza


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