I hesitate to call any roleplaying game that includes faster-than-light travel and psionics "realistic" and yet that's almost always the word that immediately comes to mind when I think of SPI's Universe. The other word is "unplayable," but, as we've hashed out on this blog many times before, I don't mean that seriously. I know very well that Universe is perfectly playable, but its rules, despite -- or perhaps because of -- the use of SPI's "case system" of organization (12.0, 12.1, etc.) always struck me as incomprehensible. And yet I kept returning to this game, again and again, trying to find some way to make it all cohere in my mind. I so wanted to understand and play Universe that I regularly inflicted it on my friends, even though I could never quite make it work.
Universe first appeared in 1981 in boxed form, although I never got the chance to see it till sometime after the release of the 1982 one-volume softcover edition, which I first saw at my local public library. The game was designed by John H. Butterfield, someone about whom I know nothing other than the fact that he maintains a website here. I have a vague recollection that Butterfield was associated with Victory Games, but I can't for the life of me recall a single game he designed other than Universe. Also listed in the credits for design are Edward J. Woods (again, unknown to me) and Gerard C. Klug, who'd go on to create James Bond 007, one of the best genre emulative RPGs ever written.
Universe presents itself as a "serious" science fiction RPG. Yes, it does include the aforementioned FTL travel and limited psionic abilities, but otherwise, it tries very hard to stick to known scientific principles -- firm, if not hard, science. This feeling is supported by the fact that the game uses a real star map depicting a 30-light year sphere centered on Earth. For my money, the world generation system is one of the best parts of the game. Starting from the stellar data depicted on the star map, the GM then creates an entire solar system with a series of dice rolls. Though extensive, the system is strangely easy to use, resulting in a very complete picture of what conditions are like on every world in a system. There's a similarly strangely easy to use system for mapping each world through the use of templates that even an esthetically challenged dolt like myself can employ. It's a fun little sub-system, perhaps my favorite world generation system in any RPG.
Alas, the rest of the game is not so surprisingly easy to use. Character generation is a complex process, in which factors such as a character's homeworld play a big part in determining his ability scores (called "potentials" in Universe). Characters then acquire skills in a couple of ways: through education and study and through professions. The professions are an odd bunch, covering such obvious careers as "colonist" and "merchant," but also including bizarrities like "handyman." Combat is quite complex, if only for its surprise and initiative rules alone, never mind the other factors that prevented my ever being able to run a single combat that bore any resemblance to the rules as written. On the other hand, I found the social interaction rules both interesting and intelligible, so I tended to focus my abortive attempts to play the game on diplomacy and intrigue.
Ultimately, though, Universe's biggest flaw was that it simply wasn't clear what characters did in the game setting. There was only one interstellar state, centered on Earth, and there were no intelligent alien species. Exploration and intra-human disputes would seem to be the primary source of adventures, but, if so, it would have been nice if the rulebooks had been more explicit about this. The sample adventure, "Lost on Laidley," involves the search for explorers lost on a world in the Orionis system, but how many times can that sort of scenario be played in a single campaign? As a younger person, I was looking for some guidance about sources of conflict and tension, the kind of stuff that would inspire adventures. Alas, there was little of that, which made Universe an even harder sell to my circle of friends than even its complex and convoluted rules already had.
Yet, I still have a great fondness for Universe. I think there's the core of a terrific SF RPG within it and I regularly think about trying to prune away all the complexity and flesh out its setting in order to get to that core. But that's a lot of work for a game I've never successfully played, especially when there are so many other alternatives that I can use more easily without that degree of kit bashing. So, for me, Universe will always be an also-ran science fiction roleplaying game, one that held (and continues to hold) my fascination, but that I don't think I'll ever attempt to play again. As inspiration for other games, though, I think it still has value and that ought to count for something.