The mere mortal’s guide to learning Universalis

Universalis is renowned as a breakthrough and a touchstone for modern story gamers. A generic, GMless game that still injects urgency and flavor into the proceedings, without a lot of rule-handling time, is something a lot of groups have been waiting for. Unfortunately, when some of those groups get their hands on it, they find that the rulebook is written in a style that isn’t quite congenial to them. The pure-reference style works for some, but when a book is ordered by concept, rather than by what you’re likely to need in a first game, that first game becomes difficult to start.

This post is an attempt at a guide to finding the quick-start manual hidden within the Revised Edition of Universalis. It’s not as chopped-and-screwed as it could be, but I think it offers a good balance between clarity and awareness of options. It’s a mere seven steps:

1. Get the Universalis Revised Edition rulebook. No getting around this one, cheapskates. It belongs in every gamer’s library anyway.

2. Read Chapter 1, “The Basic Concept.” For this bit I’ll just say that I’ve never heard of a Uni group actually having somebody write down all events of play the way that’s suggested here. Nor do I think lots of groups actually spend a coin on every little thing they want to be established as factual – our group would do this retroactively if it ever became an issue, but I don’t think it ever will. I bet you’d end up doing it with major plot points only, at most.

3. Read Chapter 2, “Establishing Tenets.” This chapter isn’t too rough and is really key to your group’s enjoyment of the game.

4. Read Chapter 3, “Scene Framing and Game Flow,” but understand that this chapter’s content is the content most often drifted toward simplification almost immediately by play groups (as Roy Pernod notes in his Rules Gimmick on page 35). If your attention starts to wane, you could skip forward once you hit the Mini Scenes section on page 32, but be aware of the existence of the Challenges and Fines section a page flip away. If you think your group might hit a dispute over how previously established facts influence a later scene, Challenges are worth knowing about.

5. The salient bit in Chapter 4, “Narrating the Scene,” is the Control section that starts on page 49. Read from there to the start of the Dialog section on page 52. I recommend taking the Rules Gimmick on this page as gospel, as well as the Free Dialog gimmick on the spread that follows. In the same spirit, the Events section that we skipped is in my view best considered as a needless elaboration of Facts: if you say something happens, people generally either accept it or make a stink that leads to a Challenge or Complication anyway.

6. You may safely skip much of Chapter 5, “Creating Components,” but there are some things to know about it. First, you’ll need to know the simple version, so do read the first section. Role and Proper Name are useful but overwritten; you can probably save knowing about Group Traits for later, and from there you can definitely skip forward to Injuring, Damaging, and Eliminating Components on page 78. (The intervening stuff has literally never come up in play for my group, and Master and Sub Components are particularly fiddly. The others you might glance at in case someone protests over things costing too much to establish in those situations, but that’s it.) Read up through the last section, Using Traits as Constraints on Play – it’s backgroundy, but it’s great.

7. Read the first section of Chapter 6, “Complications,” the one headed Complication Basics. The steps here are likely all you’ll need, but the whole section gives useful background. From there, you may want to skim the Aligning Components section on page 93, but what really matters is Draw Upon Traits on page 99. The headings on that page are probably all you’re going to need, but skim the section to be sure. Then take a gander at the beginnings of the remaining sections so you know what to do on the tail end of a Complication, but in general, feel free to skim to the end of the book.

Reading this back over, it may be that it’s more of a Uni variant than a quick-start game. Me, I think that’s okay; everyone who plays Uni ends up drifting it anyway – it’s built right in to the game – so you may as well benefit from the advance work of others. Give it a try, and let us know how it works for you.


  1. Although Uni isn’t that hard to teach – and, worst case, someone can tell you what they want to do with the story and you can then tell them how many coins that will cost – I have been hankering for a sort of “Basic Universalis” for “fluency play.”

    I think the lack of fluency (whenever I play Uni there’s always someone, often many people, who are new to it) might be what keeps it from bringing the awesome for me in the same way that Fiasco or Geiger Counter have…

    So…how much could you strip from Uni and have it still be Uni? I think you could ditch Facts (once it’s in the fiction it’s in the fiction, whether it’s written down or not); Events (again, just narrate, a la Fiasco/Geiger Counter/PTA and lots of other more recent games); Social Contract; Gimmicks (except for these); Bidding for scenes (go clockwise); Fade to Black; Fines; Master & Sub Components (useful sure, but one could live without them); and Buying Dice for Complications (really, the smart thing to do is buy traits anyhow); and Mini Scenes (though I’m not sure about that – more than once I’ve seen first time players want a flashback or quick cut away)…

    When events are free, everything’s much cheaper – we’ve been using d8’s for complications instead of d10’s, and only refreshing once we completely go around the circle. (Can’t go down to d6 because then there’s almost no profit in complication unless you’re using established traits.)

    So then the only stuff you have to teach before the game starts is the tenet phase with story elements; and components & traits & importance. Then once tenet phase is over you teach scene framing, complications (when I’m facilitating I like to start a complication ASAP so the other players understand it.); and challenges.

    Then once you’re fluent with that you could turn gimmicks back on, and say it counts as a gimmick to reintroduce rules from standard Universalis…

  2. Hey Jamie. I love Joel and Willem’s fluency stuff, but I kind of feel like the tenets phase blows it for Uni. The fluency tradition is all about jumping in with a fresh mind, whereas tenets are about planning and making sure. I think I might save them for when people ask for them, and start a first game for new players with a fairly detailed, well-understood milieu (either from an existing game or a TV show or something).

    I like this a lot.

  3. Hmm. I wonder if one of the reasons my Uni games aren’t quite bringing the awesome is because people aren’t challenging in the tenets phase.

    Something I’ve yet to have the balls to do is try to use the following for tenets or PTA-type pitch sessions (or even “what game should we play tonight?”)

    Check out p. 126-127; it’s a consensus building technique that tries to make sure there aren’t too many people who “aren’t feeling it.”

    (The rest of the book is garbage.)

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