Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Retrospective: Universe

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.


  1. "As a younger person, I was looking for some guidance about sources of conflict and tension, the kind of stuff that would inspire adventures. "

    Yes, I think that hits the nail on the head for me regarding most of the 1980s RPGs I encountered.

  2. I've never been one who had a problem thinking up sources of conflict for a game - it's probably why I typically ran more games than I played in. I can run a game of intrigue and violence set in Utopia.

    The failing for Universe in my books was the arcane complexity of the rules that many of the wargamer-published RPGs had. It wasn't so much that the rules were horribly complex when compared to say D&D3.x (which while complex is still easy), it's the way they are assembled and presented as you said James, in that hard-to-read case-system organization.

  3. I alwyas found the case-system organization of rules to be easier to understand than just going by chapters. But I suppose that's just because of my hex-and-counter wargaming background. I was playing SPI wargames before I had ever heard of role-playing games...

  4. I'm with Joseph on the case system rules. They were easy to use when well written; they were distressingly hard to write well. Thus, we got a lot of badly-written case rules, and they tarred all case rules with same evil brush. Without case rules, I suspect that games like Universe (and Wellington's Victory, and Operation Typhoon) would have been even less understandable than they were.

  5. @James and Zornhau- Its so funny to me to read that. That's how I felt about D&D as a kid. After explored a dungeon and killed a Dragon, what is there to do? I had no idea at the age of 8 what 'medieval' was.

    Sci-Fi on the other hand was easy and Sci-Fi RPGs came easily to my friends and I. I mean, who hadn't seen Star Trek, Star Wars, Lost in Space or Space:1999? Comic books were full of spaceships and aliens and ray guns. The Legion of Superheroes is set in the future. The comic book set in the past

    Universe, as I stated once before, was a game we could never find but if we had we'd probably have tried to play it. Its complexity would probably have turned us off but if it was SF we would definitely have given it our best shot.

  6. An awful lot of the Universe universe was developed in the SF boardgames that SPI produced. Whether it was overt, as in the case of Star Traders, or incidental, as in the game The Wreck/Voyage of the BSM Pandora, many of the SPI boardgames contributed to the universe of Universe. In fact you could quite easily play the Pandora series of games with Universe.

    It is interesting that many of the proposed adventures, such as Castaways on Pollux and The Moons of Vega 5, seemed to use the same paragraph system as many of the later SPI SF boardgames (as typified by Voyage). Which is interesting in that unless the gamemaster was willing to sit down and analyse the adventure they would probably be clueless as to the actual events of it. [This may have something to do with the fact that according to the feedback SPI received from Ares and Strategy & Tactics a great many of their wargames were actually played solitaire.]

    Unfortunately, as a game it came too late, and any future supplements (the first of which was First Contact, which was to feature the first three alien races), was, like Arcane Wisdom (for Dragonquest), swallowed by the demise of the company and trapped in the printer's vaults.

  7. I have to admit I really like the case system which SPI created. Once you get the hang of the fractal nature of it, it really does make a lot of sense, because it is designed to be used as a reference rather than a text.

    Done properly (and in most cases it was done properly by SPI), it allowed you to quickly and easily find the rule you were looking for, without the need to have memorised the entire rules. Each section had a brief paragraph explaining what it pertained to. Each subsection gave the procedure for implementing the rules (in turn, summarised by the first sentence of the subsection), with the important summary sentence often being bolded, so it was navigable by scanning the bold statements. The details of exactly how to resolve that stated situation then followed. [Other companies using the case system still tended to treat it as a linear expression of point by point discussion. But then SPI was way ahead of the curve when it came to effective graphic and layout design, thanks to Redmond Simonsen.]

    Not to mention the utility of knowing where something is, in a hobby where compaies take perverse pride in producing books with "pg XX."

    I think it is something that could be used today for many electronically produced sets of rules, rather than simply duplicating the linear layout of a PDF or traditional book. However one can use the active nature of a computer to hide the deeper details until they were expanded at need (instead of requiring the reader to manual skip the fine details).


  9. @James and Zornhau- Its so funny to me to read that. That's how I felt about D&D as a kid. After explored a dungeon and killed a Dragon, what is there to do? I had no idea at the age of 8 what 'medieval' was.

    Well, for me, the issue was that Universe didn't quite map on to any of the SF with which I was familiar. It wasn't like Star Trek or Star Wars, nor did it feature larger-than-life situations like the space operas I'd read, so what was it? I guess my issue was that the game didn't have inspirations as clear as those in Traveller or Star Frontiers, even though it had some kind of specific inspiration. I just didn't know what it was.

  10. I started out with Traveller, but the games poor combat system killed it (and the entire party) after a few sessions. UNIVERSE was my second try and led to a campaign that ran for nine years. (Used the Traveller background, Universe character creation and some of its subsystems, and a hybrid of both for game systems initially).

    What was great about UNIVERSE for me was that the game provided ready-to-use GM aides:

    (a) A booklet with NPCs each of whom came with a short short mini-adventure nugget.

    (b) Alien creatures each with a cool description and a little bit of plot, but coupled to a modular alien power system.

    The creatures the NPCs weren't named but (unlike Traveller) were described, so they formed a great impromptu GM aid.

    I also liked the "modular" system of robot bodies and systems to snap into. Players had great fun customizing them.

    The easy to use planetary "circular" region maps I could draw terrain on were more fun than the more realistic hex maps GDW sometimes used.

  11. I also have a fondness for Universe, especially since the Ares-inserted board game Star Trader was supposed to be set in the same "universe"