Thinking About Universal Games

Hi all.  Now that the site is back up and running I can report a little on what I was doing to manage my stress levels during that period of time that I could not post.  Largely it was read!  I finished the Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space 50th Edition rulebook (which I will do a separate review for in the future), I have been reading the FATE Core add on book Ehdrigohr (which I hope to do a play test report on in the future) and I finished the Cypher System Rulebook that was offered to us as a review copy.  Cameron Corniuk did a great review of that game here that suggests if you did not like Numenera or the Strange that you probably won’t like it and then goes on to show why it is a really brilliant system.  So I have looked at some Native gaming, some space gaming and some Universal gaming.  Throughout all of that I was thinking about offering up another game to play regularly (I have – I am running Dungeon Crawl Classics), and part of that process was an interest in running Traveller but using FATE Core.  Then the Cypher System landed in my inbox and I began to wonder, which system would I use?


I have played a fair bit of FATE Core in one form or another over the past couple of years and I had a conversation with a person online recently who was asking what game would be good to play with kids.  I mentioned Michtim and FATE.  Then another person got involved telling me all of the reasons why FATE was “too abstract” and not good for kids.  I actually believe that its abstract nature is good for kid games BUT I do see his point.  Much of the games I have played in tend to boil down to conversations like “So are you trying to make an advantage or do something else?” or “What would you call the aspect?” enter ten minutes of discussion about cool ways to name the aspect.  It is a great story game but the mechanics can get in the way unless you have someone super on the ball as a GM.

I have had players that used to play in Traveller offer up a move to FATE when they realised the cheesy 70’s style RPG is not what I was going for.  I was after a more modern game with the Classic Traveller (CT) interface and for a while I almost took them up on it.  Faced with the soon to be end of my Reign of Winter Pathfinder game I am not certain if I will run Pathfinder again but possibly will run a space game.  It could be Stars Without Number but I did want to look at a universal system also.  Last night as I finished off the Cypher System Rulebook I considered, could this be the game I need?

I am not going to go over a lot of what Cameron already has but I want to say a few things to this system that may have fallen into the cracks of that review.  I like the idea of this system as a Universal option.  To be fair, most of the book is taken up with descriptors trying to make it as universally acceptable as possible, and that is fine – because they are great, but there are things in this game called flavors that I wanted to talk to.  There are four classes that are in the game; warrior; speaker; explorer; and adept.  Each of these apply generally to a setting and they have abilities that apply to them as you advance your character from Tier 1 through to 6.  A flavor is something that can be used by a player that can overlap the Tier in a way that if you say want to be a Warrior who is a pilot like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, then perhaps at Tier 2 the “Pilot Flavor” that the GM has offered you allows for a sixth sense ability that helps you pick up on ambushes prior to them being triggered.  These flavors do not take over the entire class but they offer really nice customisation that I never saw in Numenera and that would fit perfectly with my idea of a game of Traveller.

Cover of Little Black Book 1 from Classic Traveller

The idea that there is a less abstract rule system here also suggests that the Cypher System will offer less game stoppages over wording of particular aspects and the one mechanic that is at the heart of the system is really simple that it does offer up a huge array of story based options.  FATE puts the story in the character though.  From the very get go it gives the player the power to make the character exactly what they want it to be by creating its aspects as practically everything that matters about the character (disregarding skills).  When we look at other universal systems like GURPS and the Master Blackbook of the nineties this is a new bread that really suggests less number crunching and more story to guide the characters.  Of course there are other universal games out there such as PowerFrame RPG and Krendel that I am yet to read that are both new to the genre and may have different attitudes.  I will be reading and reviewing those two products in the future hopefully.

But if I had to make the choice at this stage I think that I would actually go with the Cypher system over FATE for a Traveller style game.  There are reasons for this that are not just FATE is too abstract.  The first of these is actually trying to play to my audience.  I have run Traveller before and the type of person that this game attracts are men (I would really have loved some women but this is my experience) roughly of my age (40’s plus) that remember playing Traveller when they were young.  They knew the deadliness of the system and the ease of learning it.  Many of these guys play FATE but I am not sure that Traveller would feel like Traveller in FATE as there is such an ease of manipulating damage and situations with FATE points and consequences that does not really translate that original experience.

I may be completely wrong.  Some of those that played did so just because they wanted to experience it.  Perhaps I am reading too much into the Traveller appeal.  To me part of the appeal that the game had was its deadliness.  You NEVER get in a fight unless you are prepared to die.  Heck, you can die in character generation which all of us grognards remember fondly!  Cypher offers up, perhaps not a deadly system, a system that allows for some direct comparability and understanding of a core mechanic that FATE does not.  It offers the idea that you can use experience (XP) to help yourself in game which I find most people rebel at (think Shadowrun!).  Traveller, your character advances very slowly with no experience, only time, and so I think Traveller players would find using XP to gain rerolls and bonuses a natural thing to do.


The open equipment list and fluid costing of Cypher is similar to FATE and in this regard you could simply take the versions of the Traveller game that you want and use what you want out of them.  Same ships to give the same style and the same types of armour, robots and pistols etc.  The only thing that I can see NOT translating well would be a trader based game, which is the style of game I tend to like.  Because the money systems are so fluid in both FATE and Cypher this style game may be hard to manage, though there are ways to emulate this.

There are other styles that may be hard to achieve.  Many people say that FATE is difficult to run horror in because the weight and ability of players to chew through FATE points tends to make players more up for just running directly at things.  Think the Nostromo and when Kane (John Hurt) has the face hugger leap on his mask from the egg, a couple of FATE points later it misses and it is dead.  He gets out of there and they get back on their ship and leave.  One scary jump moment.  That is there too in the Cypher system by being able to burn effort but your character becomes noticeably less able when they do this.  Perhaps he then goes to get out of there but fails because his speed pool is too low and more eggs peel back.  That offers horror.  I am not going to suggest that this is necessarily the truth either.  I ran the AWESOME Demolished Ones written by the exceptionally talented Brian Engard and put out by Rite Publishing.  It is made for FATE and it delivers horror.  I simply illustrat what I have above as a possibly valid viewpoint of many of the gaming community.

I love both of the systems I have been comparing here.  I love the mechanic and the strength of FATE as a player driven story environment and it is why I can not wait to get my copy of Ehdrigohr which is winging its way to me as I type.  I have people lining up to play that game and I can see why.  It is story based and player oriented.  FATE is perfect for it.  I do think that FATE does universal weird really well and that Cypher is going to do Universal really well.  There is not a lot of material on building settings in the core Cypher book unless the setting is Modern, Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi or Supers.  If you want a game about Time Travelling slugs in search of the juices of space worms to convert into fairies then FATE is where you should look.  These are just a few of my thoughts on the matter anyway.  Keep rolling!


  1. Are you familiar with the Barbarians of Lemuria sword & sorcery RPG? There’s a free variant floating around on the web called Barbarians of the Void that I think may scratch your “classic Traveller but more heroic/survivable” itch. The game uses a core mechanic similar to CT (2d6 +/- mods vs. target number). Characters are defined by Attributes, Combat Abilities, and Careers, which are essentially skill packages (Pilot, Merchant, Engineer, Marine, etc.) Hero Points are used to dodge death, re-roll bad rolls, and other heroic things. Did I mention it’s free? The Barbarians of the Void rules are here:


    1. Thanks for the pointer gnombient, will download them and have a look!


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