Universe was a science fiction roleplaying game published in 1982 by the well-known wargame company SPI, in partnership with the mass-market paperback house Bantam Books. That meant the game got fairly wide distribution in bookstores rather than just the hobby shop ghetto. Despite that, I don't think it sold many copies.
The game itself was a 108-page perfect-bound large-format softcover, and included a really spiffy poster-sized three-dimensional map of all the stars within 30 light-years of the Sun. That map was my primary reason for buying the game. Back in 1982 we didn't have Web sites like SolStation or Project Rho. In fact we didn't have Web sites at all. If you wanted to map out the nearby stars you had to get a copy of Burnham's Celestial Handbook and work out coordinates via trigonometry. I was already trying my amateurish hand at science fiction writing, and so $10.95 for a copy of Universe was worth it just for the map.
I have no idea where that map is nowadays. I hope I still have it.
SPI avoided the "cheesy early roleplaying game art" problem by including absolutely no interior art at all. The only illustrations are two pages of planet maps and the cover painting by John Pierard (almost buried under enormous amounts of come-on text). The rest of the book is nothing but dense-packed 10-point type and lots and lots of tables. Approximately 40 of the game's 108 pages are tables or photocopiable record sheets.
There's a brief introduction — What Is Role-Playing? — and a one-page outline of the future world the game takes place in. It's pretty generic. Scientific study of psionics makes psi-powered faster-than-light travel possible, humans colonize other planets, there's a Federation, there are robots, nobody's found any alien civilizations, now go play.
We begin with character generation, and in the process we begin to understand why Universe is an obscure piece of game history trivia rather than a beloved classic. Since SPI used the "case-style" rules format beloved of wargame publishers, I'll just go through the Character Generation Sequence. Bold text are headings and subheadings from the game, italics are my own drastic simplifications of what you do.
A. Character Heritage
- Determine 4 Potential Multipliers
Roll a die four times and consult the Character Heritage Table.
- Calculate the number of Study Points the character receives
Add up the numbers you just generated, then consult the Character Heritage Table again.
- Determine the character's natural habitat
Roll on the Habitat Table to determine what kind of environment you grew up in. Then, calculate skill modifiers for every other kind of environment, based on how different they are from your place of origin. Also, figure out your home planet's surface gravity and temperature.
- Determine the character's social standing
Roll on the Social Standing Table to figure out how much education and wealth your character has, based on family background.
B. Character Development
5. Choose fields of study for the character
6. Choose initial skills for the character
Buy some skills.
7. Determine the character's 9 Characteristic Ratings
Determine your NINE character attributes by rolling on the Characteristic Generation Table and consulting the Characteristic Modifier Chart. Each one requires three steps.
C. Character Professions
8. Choose a Profession for the character
Make sure you fit the prerequisites for the career, otherwise you'll have to start over!
- Declare how many years the character will practice his profession
Cross-reference on the Employment Table to determine the actual number of years served.
- Determine the effects of age on the character
Using the actual number of years, roll on the Effects of Age Table.
- Calculate the number of Skill Points the character receives
Roll a die and apply the Skill Point Modifier from the Profession description to determine how many Skill Points the character gains.
- Choose skills for the character
Buy some more skills.
- Determine benefits the character receives from his profession
Roll a die and add the Actual Years of employment to determine what benefits the character gains — typically some money and gear.
So after 18 die rolls, consulting 10 tables, and looking up careers and skills, you've got a character.
Meanwhile the gamemaster has presumably been spending his time generating star systems, using the cool poster map and (mostly) accurate data on real stars. Using (inevitably) more tables and a really nifty Star System Log sheet, the gamemaster generates planets and determines what kind of surface environments they might have. He also figures out temperature, resources, and whether or not the planet has been colonized. Fairly straightforward.
Now you have random encounters.
Seriously, that's the only thing the game provides for characters to do. Figure out what kind of environment the characters are in, consult the Terrain Effects Chart for modifiers, and then roll an encounter on the Encounter Table. You can meet hostile extraterrestrial creatures, deal with a malfunctioning robot, or outwit an Art Dealer, or avoid a Disease Carrier. In effect, the entire game is a "hex crawl."
You can also travel in space and have encounters there, but space combat is an entirely separate game, DeltaVee, NOT INCLUDED. (Boo, hiss!) Spaceships consist of a basic hull, which can be customized by tacking on various special-purpose modules. I actually liked that method better than Traveller's "stuff the hull" system, but the details in the Universe book were very sketchy.
One can see a lot of Traveller in Universe's DNA: the character generation system which builds characters as the product of their randomly-generated background. The laissez-faire interstellar government which lets planetary societies develop on their own. Much of the equipment. The inevitable psionics.
There were some nice bits in Universe. The wonderful star map, obviously. The star system record sheets were useful; I used them in my Traveller game so that systems could hold more than one planet. I also used the resources and trade goods chart. And there were a couple of gadgets in the game's list of equipment which were worth poaching.
But overall . . . a combination of "meh" and "huh?" Where Universe wasn't overly-complex it was vague and poorly-described. Most crucially, there was no sense of what the characters were supposed to do. Given the emphasis on environments and encounters, I guess the designers envisioned a Star Trek style game of exploration. A giant hex crawl. But the vagueness meant one never had a sense of why the characters were going to be exploring.
I don't know if anyone ever played Universe. I've never seen any adventure scenarios written for it, and I've never heard anyone's Universe game table war stories. Has anyone actually played a session of this game? If so, I'd love to hear about it. What did you do?
If you want to see some things characters can do in a science fiction setting, check out my ebook Outlaws and Aliens!