Thursday, December 2, 2010

An Appreciation of Rough Edges

I recently had the good fortune to acquire a copy of the SPI science fiction RPG, Universe. I never played the game much back in the day, but, like DragonQuest, it exercised a strange fascination over me. I long ago gave away my copies of both of them -- how foolish I feel now! -- but, in recent years, I've thought of them often with fondness.

They're both far more complex than they needed to be, making it highly unlikely I'd ever consider running either of them again, but I have to admit that their complexity is likely a big part of their charm. To give you an example of what I mean, take a look at the way that a character's chance of success with a given skill is calculated:
2. One of the character's Characteristics Ratings (specified in the skill description) is added to the square of his Skill Level, and the total is added to the base chance listed for the task. In some instances, the Skill Level may be increased (before squaring) by a piece of equipment or decreased if the task is especially difficult. The base chance may be further modified by the task description or at the GM's discretion (in some cases, he may apply a modifier secretly).
Perhaps I'm crazy but I find something quite delightful in the passage quoted above. I'm on record as seeing a lot of value in idiosyncratic game systems and any system that requires to square a number goes down in my book as idiosyncratic. Of course, the argument could be made that, in a science fiction RPG, having to perform a calculation like that lends a certain flavor to the game, but I'm not sure such an argument is even necessary. So long as the system, no matter how quirky, does its intended job, I'm OK with it.

I'm unconvinced that there's such a thing as a single, ideal approach to game design anyway, so I don't have a problem with something like Universe's skill system, even if it's not necessarily what I would have designed. What I do appreciate about a game like Universe, though, is that it was clearly designed by a human being. It's got "rough edges" and I like rough edges in my RPGs, because they grate. That is, they make me aware of them. Now, sometimes, being aware of them, I realize I don't like them and move on. That's the danger with rough edges. Of course, not everyone deems the same thing rough edges, so one man's unnecessarily complex ruleset is just right for another -- as it should be.


  1. I found my copy of Universe on a discount cart in New Hampshire sometime in the 80's. Never played it, but I read it until it literally fell apart. Something about the unillustrated assortment of (unnamed) creatures, equipment, vehicles fascinated me utterly. I shamelessly restated things for my D&D game (which, like all good D&D games by nine year olds, had cyborgs, lasers, spaceships, dragons, swords and wizards) all the time. I would love to have that book again.

  2. Not a bad game, esp. when combined with the Delta Vee rules set for space combat.

    Tech was a bit weird; I find it hard to believe that flintlock muskets will be found outside the purview of die hard collectors in the 25th century, but there were some neat ideas, too.

    The StarMap was the best part. It was very beautful.

    Note that there were a number of articles published in Ares magazine for this game, including one that detailed a new, spacefaring, alien species for the game, and another with additional combat scenarios for Delta Vee.

    Definitely not a bad system overall, but a bit complex in places.

  3. The flaws or blemishes of a system can be the source of its identity amidst the flotsm of RPGs.

  4. The incredible star map was the most important and best part of the whole game.

  5. I found this game, weirdly, at a public library in Maryland in the early 80s. Sort of perplexed me as I had mostly just seen TSR products at that point. I checked it out & took it on Boy Scout trip, but never played it. I still wonder who ordered it for the library. It's not like they had a lot of RPG games, usually just a few TSR hardbacks (I first encountered the DDG with Cthulhu in the same library system).

  6. I think my favourite Universe supplement was the game Startrader (from Ares #12 IIRC). The nice thing about the universe of Universe is that is that SPI kept going back to it and developing it in their boardgames (their spaceship design sequence goes back to Vector 3 (1979) for example (and then were further developed in the two BSM Pandora games). I found the proposed supplements and future games (contained in the Feedback column of Ares made very interesting reading, indicating the directions they were thinking of going.

    I'm always saddened by the loss of SPI. They were always willing to experiment with new ideas and methodologies, especially with their fantasy and science-fiction games (some of which worked and some of it didn't).

    I did like that SPI used the same layout style that they used for their boardgame rules. It meant that the actual rules for each activity were complete, well indexed, and easily navigable. The conciseness of the rules turned many people off, but remember, these people were used to writing for wargamers (who have a distressing tendency to argue minutia and quibble over minor interpretations of the rules as a matter of course).

    [And actually I find taking the square of a rating as the percentage chance of success very useful and use it quite often (at least in some of the (wargame) space campaigns I moderate). I think it has to do with being a useful distribution that is easy to remember, together with the fact that many real-world physical systems have a log-linear response (as well as naturally applying the inverse-square law). There is an old engineering adage that happiness is a straight line on a log-log graph. <grin> YMWV.]

  7. Universe was one of my first big non-TSR purchases. Like Plunging Forward I read it until it fell apart.

    One thing I noticed there was a 100 year gap between the advent of practical space travel and the discovery of FTL drives. So I made up this century long sub-light colonization timeline. (I assumed they could get up to 25% of the speed of light safely. I wish I still had it.

  8. Very strangely, I ran a session of this last Friday...

  9. If you want to try complicated, though, have a look at the rules for determining battlefield awareness (28.2):

    The creature's Initiative Percentage is multiplied by the Terrain Value of the environ to determine the base awareness chance. The attributes of the party modify this chance as follows:

    * Subtract twice the highest Environ skill level in the party
    * Subtract the highest Battlefield Skill Level in the party (if the encounter is with an NPC, subtract the square of the highest Battlefield Skill Level)
    * Subtract ten if the party possesses an operating neuroscanner and the creature is protein-based or more terran-like
    * Subtract 20 if the party possesses a robot with a bio system and the creature is protein-based or more terran-like.
    * Subtract the square of the highest Life Sense skill level in the party
    * Subtract the square of the highest Mental Power rating in the party if the creature is intelligent
    * Add 20 if the party is resting without a watch
    * Add a variable amount if the party has exceeded the movement rate recommended in 26.4

    It's probably the most complex calculation in the game; it slows down the start of combat quite a bit (the second most complicated one would be the initiative calculation...)

    I still find Universe a fascinating system, enough so that I'll run another session next week with a self-generated adventure. :)

  10. I have to say that I was really surprised to see this blog entry, James, as Universe is one of my favourite sf rpgs of all-time. I ran a campaign of the game that lasted from 1980 until around 2002, with a couple of breaks to try other sf rpgs, but always came back to Universe.

    The timeline that I developed for the game campaign went from 1989 to until some time after 2350 AD,and I introduced and wrote up a whole series of alien races, in the same format as had been done with the Sh'k'tlp, and used elements from Asimov, Cherryh, Anderson, Blish, and a host of the other classic sf writers that I really enjoyed.

    I've still got my three extra binders of notes for the game, as well as all the Star Systems that I created, and I also added a whole series of material in terms of starship classes and designs, as well as a new FTL drive.

    Good memories. :) *sigh*

  11. When Universe came out, we decided to sample it by creating characters. Half an hour into the process, we were so exasperated with it that the session devolved into dramatic readings of the most byzantine portions of the rules, such as the section 28.2 quoted above. These were easy to find in abundance. We felt that we got more of our money's worth back out of the game in that sort of hilarity than we ever would have by trying to play it.

  12. Lawrence Schick reports in his "Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games" that John H. Butterfield, the designer of Universe, "admits he'd never played a role-playing game until the rules for (Universe) were almost finished." That admission might explain some of Universe's complexity.

  13. I am a great fan of Universe ! I desperately tried to find a copy until last year : a brand new box for a few bucks !
    I discovered the game within my teenager days 'cause a friend bought it and I was surprised the star map was exactly the same as SPI's Starforce I had already... so I consider Starforce and Universe could be used as equivalent games. I intent to try to play these again ( diff. to find time... ). They are great games , I love these by heart ( sorry for my spelling , I'm french ! )