Universalis (2006)

In the early 2000s, indie RPG designers embraced narrative-focused games in a big, experimental way. Universalis is in many way a foundational modern narrative RPG ruleset.  

Originally released in 2002 by Ramshead Publishing, Universalis throws out 90% of your preconceived notions about what a tabletop RPG is. There is no pre-created setting: everyone at the table creates it together. There is no game master: everyone has a measure of control over the story. There is no ownership of characters: a player may introduce one, but control and development is the job of the group.

Coins are used for just about everything. Every players starts with 25 and spends them to establish facts about the world. Every fact costs a coin, so establishing a scene in which a warrior breaks his sword fighting a foe on a wintery plain and is left defenseless would cost six coins (warrior, foe, fight, plain, broken sword, defenseless). Coins can also be spent to take control of a character, alter the scene or even remove a character or item from the game (the more facts attached to a thing, the more coins it takes to remove it, so in a weird but kind of awesome twist, the more injured a character – each injury is a fact – the less likely it is they will be permanently removed from the game). Conflicts are resolved with 10-sided dice matching the number of facts involved, with the highest number of successes determining the victor – coins are rewarded in large number to the winner.

Universalis is kind of mind-blowing. It is a simple system that emphasizes creative collaboration that is versatile enough to handle literally any kind of story its players can dream up. That is quite the accomplishment for a little RPG book.

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