Traits, Challenges and Enforcing Story Logic

Sometimes a game of Universalis can get somewhat chaotic.  Because the story is driven forward by the input of several different people things can from time to time start to look a bit piecemeal.  Different players can have different ideas about what the main character is like, or even who is the main character. As a result the story can start to drift to and fro as if buffeted by gale force winds every time a new player takes a turn.

Sometimes this can be a lot of fun.  Some of the most entertainingly bizarre games I’ve played have been when people just cut loose and go where ever the brainstorming madness takes them. However, other times this sort of play is inappropriate and may detract from some players’ enjoyment of the game.  Universalis provides many ways to bring focus and vision to the story, this essay is going to concentrate on one of the more subtle, and I’ve found, underused methods:  Traits.

Every player knows what effect Traits have in Complications.  They are a source of free dice to roll. They have a noticeable and measurable impact.  But what about outside of Complications?  Are they just words on a sheet meant to serve only as a storage place for dice?

In a recent thread on our discussion forum, veteran player Tony Irwin explained how to use Traits as a powerful tool for articulating your vision of a character and how to see that that vision is followed by the other players.

[equals notations by me to Tony’s original post]

Tony Irwin:
I’ve seen people use characters/components that were central to the story, in ways that were upsetting to others; either because they were using them purely to win coins (and the coins weren’t even being used to fund anything) or they were using them with disregard for the story logic that other players took for granted.

What we came up with was that Traits should be viewed not just as “situational modifiers” either giving or removing a dice, but that clever selection of Traits can be used to enforce story logic. For example:

I give Frankie the trait “loves Johnnie”

Now I get a die when Frankie is protecting Johnnie or I can probably remove a die from someone if they try to make Frankie attack Johnnie.

But what people forget is that any time someone uses one of these characters in a way that seems to defy that Trait, I can Challenge for it. I just say “Frankie loves Johnnie, so Frankie wouldn’t do that”. My coins are worth 2 for every 1 of theirs. People forget that I can Challenge the Complication before it ever gets as far as building dice pools.

[Players often forget that all Traits are automatically Facts]  You just declare a fact “Frankie loves Johnnie” or “Norgoth feels betrayed by the zombies” or even “Norgoth is slow to anger”, and now you have the option to enforce some story logic when people want to introduce Complications [or just narrate something contradictory]

The thing about facts is that they’re very obviously control mechanisms for your vision of the story. As soon as you introduce one, everyone (that I play with) starts thinking “How will this affect me and my interests”.

I’m going to share a really sneaky secret…

Bid ten coins to get to Frame the scene. Use however many coins you need to get some basic stuff in the scene. Then use the rest of those coins to create Facts that complement and supplement each other. No one can Interrupt while you’re framing the scene until you’ve initiated an Event. Another time to do this is after winning a Complication when you get your uninterrupted opportunity to spend the Coins you won.

Because your Facts supplement each other if someone later says “Here’s a coin to get rid of the Frankie loves Johnny fact” then you’ve still got 3 other Facts as a basis to challenge them doing that.
Frankie loves Johnny
He was her man
She paid 100 hundred dollars for Johnny’s new suit of clothes
She loves her man

[Now you’ve got a key relationship in the story sewn up tight, and can use the Challenge rule with the double Coin bonus if other players try to violate this relationship].  All that people can do is to Challenge your Facts one by one as you introduce them (if you can even slip the first one by them then you’ve pretty much ensured you’re in there to stay unless the whole table turns on you), or have a big vote to penalize you if they feel you’re “at it” and Fine you coins. (I’ve seen that happen).

Yeah people can, and will, still take Control of these characters [and use them in ways you didn’t expect] but at least now you can pressure them to make sure that their Complications [and narrations] are appropriate to what you envision for the characters and so aren’t disruptive to the game.

Once we discovered how to generate lots of Coins [with big Complications] we were very worried that we’d broken the system but soon we discovered ways to balance that (and balance it just by playing the rules as written – no Rules Gimmicks required).

Facts really changed the way I look at Complications. Previously I’d be going into a Complication thinking “How many Coins can I win and keep for my little bank”. Now I actually think in terms of “Exactly how many Coins do I need to win in this in order to get my Facts (and events and all the other stuff) into this game during the resolution”.

Same goes for framing scenes. I’ve played lots of games where no-one was bothered about who framed the scene. If you didn’t have anything you especially wanted do then the default bid was 0, because we figured “If I need to I can just take Control”. Now however, I and a couple of friends have twigged that framing a scene (and spending Coins when resolving a conflict) is actually the most powerful phase of the game.  Its important sometimes just to bid high to stop one of your buddies getting the chance to do something wicked!

Disclaimer: I know that all sounds terribly competitive as if we’re playing for money rather than trying to make a story! But actually all that stuff about using Facts to control the game, and also framing scenes is just a way of clarifying “This is what I want the story to be about, and as an equal partner in this game I’m willing to commit myself this much (in Coins) to seeing it go this way”. We do create great stories and have a wonderful time doing so! Honest!


What Tony had hit upon is a masterful use of Traits in the game. Traits provide the structure to the whole story. Build a network of relationships with your characters.  Who hates who and why. Who is loyal, who is subservient. Who leads, who follows. Give the characters a set of personality Traits that establishes behavior parameters.  Who is devious, who is honest, who is secretly jealous, who harbors an old resentment, who is gullible, who has trouble controlling their temper, who consults a psychic before making tough decisions.

Go a step further and actually record goals and objectives. What does the character want. What is the character willing or not willing to do to get it e.g. “More than anything Stacy wants money, she’s willing to betray her husband, lie to her family, cheat her employer, but she would never do anything to hurt her son”  Depending on your play group the above may be anywhere from 2 to 5 distinct Traits. You’ve not only solidified your vision of the character for the other players (who most often will be more than happy to work with your directorial cues, but you’ve also got a solid foundation for Challenging players who try to take the character somewhere you’d rather not go.

Broaden your thinking beyond the characters into the organizations or factions that make up the backdrop of the game.  Even locations can have Traits beyond simply the descriptive “dark and spooky”.  What about a Zen garden that enhances “Tranquility and Calm”.  A street corner where “anything can be had for a price”.  A bar that’s “prone to violent knifings”

If you find someone doing something with a character or other Component that seems radically different from what you had in mind, take a look at the list of Traits you gave it.  Did you provide enough Traits to give the other players a sense of what you’d been thinking?  Most of us aren’t mind readers after all.  When another player turns your dynamic femme fatale into a sad subservient doormat check the Traits.  Is there anything there that the other player’s description is contradicting that you can use to bolster a Challenge?  If not, there probably should have been.  Fortunately in Universalis its a relatively simple matter to invent a new character to be your heroine and make sure you fill the record sheet with Traits reflecting your vision.

If you haven’t spent Coin on it…it isn’t true.

—-Ralph Mazza


Comments are closed