In a game with no Game Master, one might wonder who decides what is appropriate and what isn’t? Who decides, amongst many players competing to put forth their own view of how the story should progress, which vision gets realized? Who decides when a player’s “creative interpretations” of the rules is spoiling the gaming experience for others? In Universalis that’s where the Challenge mechanic comes in.
First it should be noted that the Challenge mechanic goes hand in hand with the Social Contract and the selection of appropriate Story Elements in the Game Preparation Phase. If those things are complete, then most players should already be on the same page about what to expect and what is considered appropriate. If these steps are skipped, then everyone will be running off in their own directions and may not understand or appreciate the directions of others. While this sort of totally free form and chaotic game play can be fun (and can also result in some of the most powerfully creative and bizarre games you can imagine), it too is best established in advance that this is how the group intends to play. Giving some thought to Social Contract issues and complete set of Story Elements will go a long way to avoiding unnecessary Challenges because your players will already have a good idea about what is likely to be Challenged and what isn’t.
The importance of the Negotiation phase of a Challenge can not be stressed enough. By far, the majority of Challenges in the game should never make it to the bidding stage. Most Challenges are the result of a player taking a dislike to something another player is doing, or thinking they can do a better job themselves. Often times, the acting player will be willing to make adjustments to what they are doing to enhance the enjoyment of their fellow players. They may actually agree that the other player’s idea is a better one then their own and will welcome the suggestion. They may just be willing to compromise for no other reason than the expectation of similar consideration in the future. Sometimes they may even convince the Challenging player to drop the Challenge because their way is better. If any of these are true, no bidding ever needs to occur.
Since Challenges do not require an Interruption of a player’s turn, most of them can be quite informal. In fact, many playgroups already engage in some degree of kibitzing and friendly suggestions to other players in all of their games. They may not even realize that this sort of activity is part of a formal Challenge mechanic in Universalis.
Only if absolutely no accord can be reached do you have to resort to bidding, and even then a quick straw poll may be enough to estimate who the likely winner of such bidding would be, causing one side to concede. Using Coins for the bidding is a way of causing you to put your money where your mouth is. If your opinion on a Challenge item isn’t strong enough to be worth paying for, it isn’t worth delaying the game for either. Allowing all players to participate in the bidding ensures that the preferences of the entire audience are represented.
While the most basic use of the Challenge mechanic is to prevent players from violating the rules or agreed upon Story Elements, it should not be thought of as purely confrontational. In fact, the Challenge is a powerful collaborative tool enabling all players to ring in on how they’d like to see a particular Component or plot point developed. Negotiation backed by bidding is designed to allow the players to achieve consensus even if they don’t all agree on every detail.
Fines should not be overlooked as tool either. It is a tool of last resort, but one that fills a very important function in the game. Unlike Challenges it does not employ Coins so there is no bias in favor of the rich. The Fine mechanic gives every player equal voice as an audience member to vote their displeasure (or lack of displeasure) with a player’s behavior.
The actual penalty is a modest one. The primary use of Fines is as a gauge of player sentiment. If a player repeatedly engages in play behavior that other players find dissatisfying, the first step should be Negotiations, moving on to full bidding Challenges if necessary. If neither of these has the desired effect, a Fine, especially one universally levied by all other players, can serve as clear and unmistakable notice that the behavior is not appreciated. Conversely, if there is a behavior that you find intolerable, but when you calls for a Fine the other players do not vote in favor of it, you now clearly realize that your distaste is not shared by the rest of the group and it is a behavior you’ll have to live with if you’re to continue playing. What the Fine mechanic does is serve as a formal adjustment to a players expectations. A player who expected to play a certain way is told in no uncertain terms that the other players have different expectations. A Fine that is not supported by the other players informs the initiating player that the activity is acceptable to them and that he is the one who must adjust his expectations.
Through the Challenge and Fine mechanic, Social Contract items can be recognized, addressed, and ruled upon during game play until all players are familiar with the expectations of the group.