Sunday, December 29, 2013

Obsolete Simulations Roundup: SPI's Universe RPG




Universe
The Role-Playing Game of the Future.
A Comprehensive Presentation of the State-of-the-Art Science Fiction Role-Playing System.

(It says so right on the cover...)



As a game, Universe is most well-known for the large poster-map of the near stars. That map is still amazingly cool. It gives the spectral class, X/Y/Z coordinates, and a master table of distances between major star systems. This was as close to a 'real' star map as anyone had ever done for a Sci-Fi RPG. It evoked a sense of 3-D volume in a way that the hex-mapping in Traveller never really quite captured. It remains one of my personal, all-time favorite maps from an RPG. It's a really great map.



"It is the 24th Century. Mankind, searching for its destiny, has begun to explore and colonize the Milky Way. The stars themselves are now man's playground; they are also the seat of his greed."


From the Introduction

SPI, (Simulations Publications Inc.) brought out the Universe RPG in 1981. This was to be SPI's answer to the Traveller rpg. It was a full-blown science fiction role-playing game that came in two books (and one poster-map), in either a box set or a no-frills Zip-Bag set. I own the first edition Zip-Bag set of two books and the map. I picked up my copy from The Little Tin Soldier shop on University Avenue in St. Paul in 1985. The zip-bag set had gotten stuck behind some other stuff and consequently had been overlooked. My copy of this game has sat on my bookshelf for a long, long time. Every now and then I dig it out and read through it until my eyes glaze over and I put it back on the shelf. The content is generally fairly decent, for the most part, but the presentation is not particularly friendly; everything is laid-out in three columns of very small (10-point?) serif-type (justified), and without any illustrations, except for the planetary map samples in the back of the Adventure Guide. These are some densely-packed rules; nearly collapsium-level in their compressed and condensed presentation. The decimal notation can also scare off non-wargamers, but that's far less of an issue compared to the teeny-tiny type.

In some respects, Universe is a Sci-Fi heartbreaker. It was designed in reaction to Traveller, and while it does address some things that other games have tended to ignore or gloss over, it can go overboard in other areas, and it fails miserably in terms of providing enough details for the setting to become more than a very generic place-holder...


The setting is quickly sketched out in the one page introduction. There are psionic powers. Psionics provide the teleportation/hyperjump capability that allows for faster than light travel. Most of the habitable planets within 10-20 lightyears of Earth have been settled by ethnically-concentrated groups originally sent off by one of the old national powers. In the meantime, Earth itself was unified under a one world government, the Federation of Planets, and most of the current population and industry of Earth now occupies orbital space habitats. The Federation controls interplanetary trade, but generally tries to keep out of local affairs. Each planetary society runs things pretty much as it likes, on its own soil. Usually. The primary form of currency is the Tran, which is short for 'Transfer,' and not the usual, generic 'credit.' Robots are commonplace. Alien creatures are a major inter-planetary commodity, but so far there has been no contact with intelligent aliens. So far...

It's not a bad start...but there are not too many more details provided. In some respects Universe feels like a system in search of a setting. What little is offered in the Gamemaster's Guide feels extremely generic and woefully inadequate. Perhaps it would have worked better for SPI to have made the game a generic space opera rpg tool-kit. Maybe. But that's second-guessing decades after the fact. You could perhaps try to find out a bit more about the 'official' setting by taking a look at SPI's Star Trader and Delta Vee board games, or you could track down old, out-of-print back-issues of the original Ares magazine, or the Ares Section in some of the old  back issues of Dragon magazine. Or you could just drop the already minimal setting details and use the system to build your own galactic empire or whatever. If you like the system...


The System is very methodical and is backed-up with a bunch of charts, tables and log-sheets. You will need all those tables, charts and log sheets. And scratch paper. And probably a calculator. It might also help to develop a few planets first, then let players build characters based on the characteristics of those planets, since the character generation process takes into account the character's heritage and environmental background. The combat system is a nightmare, but then a lot of old rpgs have terrible, clunky, non-intuitive combat systems. The section on how to manage encounters is a deal-breaker in most instances. It was the final straw for my group, and the main reason the game has remained on the shelf, and not at the table, all these years. But aside from that...

Character Generation is very detailed, and is covered in 13 steps that take you from 4 Potential Modifiers (Physique, Coordination, Intellect, and Social Background), to Study Points, to determining the character's natural habitat/home environment (including skill levels in all environs, gravities, your character's preferred temperature range, and skill level in urban areas), to social standing (which affects family history, initial wealth, and skill points).  Then you spend those study points, choose initial skills, and determine the character's 9 Characteristic Ratings. After that, you choose a profession, decide how many years you practiced this profession, deal with aging effects, calculate skill points, choose the skills, then figure out what benefits you get. The Character Generation rules are parallel to Traveller in many respects, only the cashing-out phase of your pre-adventuring career is determined by one die roll on one table, which could probably have been handled better. It looks complicated, because, well, it is. But some of that detail is actually kind of cool. What other game has you determine how your character handles various environs (terrain-types), gravities and temperature ranges on a handy little graph right on the character sheet? The range of skills is pretty comprehensive and is not that different from other, more modern games that like to load things down with comprehensive laundry lists of skills. The tables really help make this go a lot more smoothly than it might, though an example or two might have helped a lot more. There are a lot of choices to make, and it is amazing just how much detail is packed into so few pages. Some of these ideas are really quite good, very well thought out. Making things like the gravity of your character's homeworld have a direct impact on their characteristics is a great idea.

The Solar System and World Creation rules are interesting. Very streamlined and relatively simple, compared to other games. Universe uses a set of circular maps that are more abstract than the usual approach, but then uses a variation on the tried-and-true hex mapping approach for the regions of a planet actually visited by the players. The circular planetary maps represent the world, moon or asteroid as seen from the poles. Each ring is a different temperature range and environmental type. There are examples of how to use the World Logs in the Adventure Guide, for the initial adventure Lost on Laidley. This is very different from the icosohedral and other approaches used to map out planets. It feels very arbitrary as well as slightly awkward, to orient everything from the poles, when most maps are oriented looking at the Equator, but it does map-out the variations in temperature, so it does have some merit. It just never really captured my fancy, so to speak. Apparently it didn't exactly spark a new mapping fad back in the day, either.

The Alien Creature rules are set up as a series of four increasingly detailed descriptions that are provided to the players when certain conditions are met. Each creature listing could easily fit onto a 3x5 index card with room to spare, and while that is kind of neat, this is a fairly weak part of the rules. This approach cranks out a lot of improvisation-fodder in a small space, but in the end these are all one-shot/gonzo monsters, not functioning members of a working ecology. The creatures are pretty silly in some cases, but how they are described to the players in-game is a very good idea that is well worth porting over to other systems. That might just be the one really cool thing I like most about this game. Next to the map.

The Robot Rules are based on a chassis that modular units are then mounted on. It works, but could be expanded a bit. There's a pretty good robot-building system in here, especially considering this was produced in the early Eighties. The idea of building a robot based off of a chassis, using modular parts, is a great idea. This approach could also be adapted for Automatons, Golems, Animated Statues, and so on in a fantasy context. Another good idea to borrow...

The Starship Rules were based on a set of 17 standard Hulls that you mix-and-match with various 'Pods' in order to customize the ship into whatever configuration you want. It reminded me somewhat of the General Products hulls from Larry Niven's Known Space stories. The modular rules for Starships in Universe may have inspired a similar system used in the Bughunters campaign from The Amazing Engine, according to one source. It is an interesting approach and is well worth looking at for some inspiration for how to make a modular approach to starship design really work, in terms of rules mechanics. This modular approach is another idea worth borrowing...

The Verdict...
Overall, the Universe RPG packs a lot of crunchy-detail into a small space, and there are some very good ideas in this game that could be ported over to other games. Some of the tables could be lifted and plopped down into another game with little to no effort. But as far as the game itself, it just doesn't feel complete. The setting is extremely sketchy, to the point that it could easily be jettisoned, allowing the rules to be used as an engine for an entirely new setting. But the rules are still somewhat clunky in spots, and the Encounters and Combat sections are a dire mess and need to be replaced. The psionics system is really weak, compared to the initial set-up in the Introduction. There are absolutely no rules in the core game for handling intelligent aliens, though there was supposed to be a supplement dealing with aliens in the works. The Creatures rules are woefully inadequate; there's no provision for domesticated beasts, pets, nor any sort of genetic engineering. The incompleteness of some sections invites tinkering, while the overly complicated sections invite revision and editing, if not total overhauling. But the lack of a setting on top of these things makes one wonder what's the point? Is there any point in adopting, adapting and revising a dead old sci-fi rpg? I'm not sure...


Reviving the Universe RPG?
Universe may be an orphan product/abandoned property. SPI was acquired by TSR back in the Eighties. Then TSR was acquired by Wizards of the Coast. Part of the TSR catalog was sold-off to Decision Games. In the course of all this, Universe may have fallen through the cracks. James P. Goltz has a note regarding the Copyright Status of Universe at Sourceforge. The Trademark was allowed to expire and does not appear to have been renewed. The full text of the game (and quite a bit of the SPI-produced supplemental material) is available for download, for free, online. For example...

The Gamemaster's Guide, Adventure Guide, and some other things like the Delta-Vee tactical space combat game are available for download at the Universe RPG project pages at Sourceforge.

There's a pretty detailed and well thought-out Review of the Second Edition (1982) at RPG.net.
The entry for Universe at RPG Geek is fairly light, but might be of interest.
Wikipedia has a very detailed page devoted to Universe.
The venerable Grognardia did a retrospective on Universe back in 2010.
There is a Yahoo Group. John Rauchert maintains a webpage detailing a bunch of resources for Universe. There's also an archive of one brave soul's efforts to meld Universe with GURPS.

It also looks like there is an effort to revive Ares Magazine, with a kickstarter set to launch in January 2014. You can read more about it at the One Small Step Games blog.

Maybe there's some life left in the Universe rpg after all...maybe...I don't know. Even after all these years, Universe leaves me ambivalent. I really do still like the map though...



The Obsolete Simulations Roundup blog-hop is being hosted by The Savage Afterworld blog. Thanks for setting this into motion!


19 comments:

  1. I was unaware of this classic RPG from SPI, though I'm very familiar with the company's chit-and-map games. Sounds like Universe was like a lot of early RPGs -- lots of math-crunch, but light on setting and concepts for gameplay. Even still, there seems to be a lot of good stuff lurking within. Thanks for choosing it and thank you for participating in the Roundup!

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    1. SPI produced a lot of interesting war games, many of which remain quite playable. Universe has a lot of interesting ideas in it, so it is worth looking at. Thanks for hosting the blog-hop.

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  2. I was pretty amused by your frank review! I have the all-in-one-book second edition. It has always impressed me in much the same way as you describe above for the first edition. Playable? Not too sure about that. Interesting features, like modular robots and ships? For sure! I'm not calling it a heartbreaker, but that's just because my heart is so damn hard to begin with - and I have a soft spot for SPI. It does make me wonder if things like Universe ever really got playtested...

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    1. Just call it like I see it. There's a ton of potential in Universe, most of it never got realized. Partly that is because it never had the time to capture an audience before it got buried, part of it is because the game really needed some internal revision/reworking, as with the combat section. But other games with equally clunky combat mechanics did reasonably well...so who knows. If it could have hung on long enough for a comprehensive second edition...that might ahve been interesting. Heck, now that it's abandoned, maybe someone will do a thoroughly revised and revamped second edition. It would be nice to see an open source game engine arise from the ashes of this game...maybe...

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  3. I've a fair amount of SPI bags and boxes in the basement, but don't remember this one. Of course,my college group was playing Traveler for our sci-fi games in the early '80's. And by '85 we had almost all gotten our commissions and been stationed on the East Coast, but the shout out for the Little Tin sure brought me back.Thanks for writing it up.

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    1. Several of the old-timers I knew back in the day used Universe as a supplement for their Traveller games. They used the map, and adopted the robot rules, with some slight revision. Little Tin Soldier was a great place. We have The Source now, but I still miss the old shop(s)...

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  4. Given the psionic teleportation spaceships, it sounds like they set it in the same universe as their Star Force/Star Soldier/Outreach trilogy of boardgames. So that is a place to go to expand the background if you actually consider playing it.

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    1. I think you are right. I haven't had a chance to check out Star Force, etc. yet. I'll keep my eye out for those board games. SPI did a lot of good stuff before they got swallowed up by TSR. As for actually playing it...I did try a few times, but it never worked out. My friends were all interested in Traveller or Gamma World or the usual dungeoncrawling stuff. Have you had a chance to play Universe?

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    2. Star Force was played on a hex-based precursor of Universe's "solar neighborhood" map, so it's worth getting just for that... Really just for that, since the game itself was pretty rudimentary and uninspiring -- ships, as I recall, were all identical, and "combat" consisted of psychically sending enemy ships on random hyperspace jumps, which might or might not inconvenience them. From the start, the map cried out for a better game.

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    3. I'll have to look for a copy of that game. I'm working on some star maps, so I'm always curious to see how others have handled this stuff. Thanks for dropping by and for the recommendation!

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  5. I used the modular spaceships, psionic FTL, and modular robots concepts in designing StarCluster, starting in 2002, latest edition 2011.

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  6. I used the modular spaceships, modular robots, and psionic FTL concepts in my StarCluster game.

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    1. I still have not located a copy of Star Force or Star Cluster, but I really like this modular idea a great deal and have been experimenting with it in Rogue Space. Modular spacecraft is kind of fun as it allows players to really customize their set-up in all sorts of ways. Modular robots are just a lot of fun to run, as it's a quick way to make them scale to the needs of the situation/power level of the party. The psionic FTL thing is vintage Seventies SciFi and could be the basis of all sorts of fun stuff...even a game unto itself...

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    2. If you want to play with spaceship ideas, you can download these two spreadsheet-based programs: ,one for civilian ships - http://www.rpgnow.com/product/105148/StarCluster-3-Ship-Design-Spreadsheet - and one for military ships - http://www.rpgnow.com/product/105147/In-Harms-Way-StarCluster-Ship-Design-Spreadsheet. StarCluster splits it's game books not between GM and player, but between civilian and military.

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    3. I'll take a look. I haven't had a lot of time for the SciFi end of things for a while now, but that might be shifting again as I finally get a few things done and out.

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  7. I ran a Universe campaign for several months. I found it an enjoyable but flawed game. I heavily modified the game and used the results for another year or so with reasonable success. The "pod-based" system in Delta V and Universe was one inspiration for the system I used in GURPS Spaceships.






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    1. Sounds like you found some significant inspiration in there--which I think is the real value of this mostly forgotten game. I think that a pod-based modular approach to ship design would also be a great add-on to White Star.

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  8. I don't fault Universe for its genericicity. The original Traveller box was very light on background too -- the stuff old-timers get nostalgic about was all added in expansion books and magazine articles.

    As for psionic FTL, that seemed to be SPI's house style. I think Universe was related to the StarForce Trilogy the way Heinlein juveniles seem to be; the similarities reflect the author's evolving thought patterns rather than any deliberate attempt at canon.

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    1. I do not mean to fault the game for the generic-ness, especially since I prefer a game to give me the tools to build my own setting and get out of my way. The modular ship design system is still very intriguing and I'd like to see such a thing adapted to other sci-fi rpgs. I am however somewhat dissatisfied with overly simplistic results of some of the tables, which is very much the same sort of thing you find in Traveller in the 3 Little Black Books. such an approach is fine for someone with a good vocabulary and some experience with biology or zoology...but it tends to leave a lot of gamers high and dry with not enough details provided to make thins stand out from the last three results. This is not a knock against Universe, nor Traveller, nor any other game that employs random tables...it's just something that has been nagging me as I work on some of my own projects and find myself unsatisfied with how random tables often produce pretty dry and repetitive results, which is obviously a direct result of a finite number of options arranged in a finite number of configurations, no matter how random one tries to make any of the elements. That special little something that comes only through the agency of a living GM taking those results and turning them into something meaningful within the context of the game...that's the really fascinating bit, and the one thing that tables can't provide.

      As to Psionic FTL, I think it has a ton of potential both in fiction and gaming that has not nearly been tapped thoroughly enough. It's all in how it is presented, and it can be a jarring feature for some who claim to dislike 'fantasy' elements in their sci-fi despite wanting light sabers and all that. I like your analogy to Heinlein's juveniles--that's an excellent way to look at the progression and makes a great deal of sense. You're making me reconsider some aspects of Universe all over again...

      Thanks for the excellent and thought provoking comment!

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