Saturday, January 22, 2011

Did a Game Lurk in Judges Guild Universal System?

When you have insomnia you become accustomed to having strange ideas pop into your addled brain in the wee hours. Rereading one of Judges Guild's lesser products, Shield Maidens of Sea Rune, last night at 3 a.m. in a (failing) attempt to bore myself back into slumber, I had an odd thought--only reinforced by a thought-provoking conversation earlier yesterday.

Shield Maidens, like many of JG's products in its middle period, is statted out with the peculiar notations of the company's Universal System. As many readers (who devote entirely too much of their brain cells to such arcane trivia) these numbers were a thinly-veiled code for playing with the alpha dog of that period, first edition AD&D. Remember JG had lost its D&D license in 1982, but not its need to tailor many of its products to that big trough of a market.

The Universal System projected the dress of an in-house fantasy rpg, but we all knew it just to be a slightly-annoying, stand-in set of numbers to be reconverted back to the one proper game. The three-letter alignment system, for instance, would typically show something like “LGN” or “NEX” and your mind would just file off that last offending bit. As such, every time I looked at such numbers in their products I paid about zero-percent attention to the supposed system itself.

Last night like a made-over Ally Sheedy in “Breakfast Club”, I saw something in that ugly duckling born of necessity: the skeletal outline of an interesting D&D variant. (Or more likely, some interesting house rules to be played around with.)

Let's take a look there and see what we can find.

The system “rules” start with a list of what can be found in a stat block with a few sentences explaining each. The six-attribute usual suspects are there, but are given a three-digit number, the first two numbers being the ones you would readily decode as the familiar 3-18 range.

But lo and behold that third number actually meant something: “the third is the number of times per day that the characteristic can be tested without checking for stress damage.” Interesting, a nice and simple mechanism to model fatigue—and add another resource management question to the game. I'll take it.

But wait there are six more attributes listed here that my eyes used to just wander right over: Personal Social Level, Endurance, Agility, Leadership, Luck, and Psionic Ability. OK truthfully three of these are completely useless repetitions of the others, so chuck them out.

Now let's consider the other three.

Personal Social Level: “ index of the social standing. The first two digits indicate the level in the area in which the character resides and the third number indicates the level of notoriety within a twenty mile radius.” I like the idea of modeling both social standing and geographic reputation. The dude you iced might be a pissant third-level fighter, but looks like he was well-regarded due to his well-connected family throughout the Satrapy. Time to put on my Evil DM hat. This one is in.

Psionic Ability, self-explanatory, if I had an easy, old-school way to model this, it would be in--otherwise out. Luck is out; sweet Crom, this is what you do with the dice.

Done with the attributes, now what about the rest of this durn stat block.

How about back to alignment? Again a surprise: that third letter actually meant something. “The third letter indicates only a suppressed desire.” Only? Actually, that's a very interesting nuance to explore. The High Priest-Poobah is “LGN”? A cleric who outwardly trumpets the 319 tenets of the “lawful” and “good” doctrine of the Ever-Illuminous Path of Kom Wha Mai, while inside he's a self-serving hypocrite that sure loves his silk plushies, pomade, and powdered ivory balm. Check. (By the way, the “X” notation indicated “none” under-the-surface alignment.)

What about the three-digits noting character class?

Again all the usual AD&D classes are there, but a closer look teases about a veritable Arduin of yummy new classes. Ok admittedly, some are immediately chuckable--Child class, oh come on. Others would take some serious conceptual work to work: the Beggar, Buffoon, Demon, and Valkyrie can please stand up. Some of them would take some work not to be non-adventuring NPC types (and thus useless in my book): the Armorer, Alchemist, Animal Trainer, and Sage. But the Amazon, Berserker, Samurai, Viking, and Witch; now there are some straight shots. At any rate, a fun, quirky list to work with.

Enough for today, I think you get the drift behind my indulgent Saturday morning musings. Now back to writing reportbacks for the Domain Game.

Any thoughts from the peanut gallery?


  1. Yeah I guess my own brain trip right over those stat blocks too come to think. Not sure if I ever read the part detailing the system.

    That is some cool stuff. Anything else in there to plunder???

  2. Cool find multi-classing would be fun with that list. I would totally play a Buffoon-Viking or a Samurai-Alchemist.

  3. Thanks for posting this. Very interesting...

  4. I'm pretty sure there were write-ups of Buffoons, Beggars and Valkyries in Pegasus or elsewhere in JG publications.

  5. You spurred me to grab a JG product (Witches Court Marshes, for those playing along at home) and take a look. Note the armor type reduces gamage by one-tenth the armor value (calculated by totalling each piece of armor modified by the material it's made from). Speaking of armor, it comes in twenty-six(!) flavors, from adamantite to zircon, including rock and paper. Sorry, scissors aren't one of the weapons listed :-)

  6. @Kenneth
    Samurai-Alchemist sounds like an old John Belushi SNL skit.

    Now that's really interesting. I would love to see those. Does anyone have any idea about whether or not JG actually intended on making a full-blown game out of this?

    @Desert Scribe
    Yeah, I ran out of steam before writing about the quirky armor and weapons rules. I like having armor deduct damage rather than making it harder "to hit". Though I can generally live with that abstraction in D&D combat, if it means eschewing the less-than-fun complexities of something like Runequest. Maybe there is a happy medium here?

  7. How is Personal Social Level initially determined and adjusted over play? This reminds me of the Reputation class features used by the Elven Carouser:

    Local Reputation (Single Bar): Once the carouser has come away triumphant from his first party (see Requirements above) he starts to become known in his local area. He gains a +2 circumstance bonus on any Diplomacy or Intimidate checks made while in a single (named) local bar.

  8. This is so groovy. I always ignored all that stuff... now I will have to take a much closer look. Your idea for using the 'alignment' code is genius!

  9. The Field Guide to Encounters Was a so-so attempt to make a complete game system out of their Universal System stats.

  10. @Randall
    A-ha, thanks for pointing this out. Toggled my memory about a review that Jeff Rients did a while back on this:

    Rereading Jeff's review though it sounds like a different system. It does sound like it has some gonzo appeal to it all the same.

  11. Love this, hate the FGE. While someone brave could soup it up as a super-gonzo variant on the Universal Format, that person is not me. The FGE stat block is its own ungodly blend of 3d6 and percentile stats, with some quasi-derived oddballs like TRA(cking) and LYC(anthropy). And there's no alignment block on the record sheet, which is actually kind of interesting.

    Even as late in the game as Tarantis and Wondrous Weapons the most detailed version of Universal they ever published seems to have been the two-page boilerplate that everyone knows and ignores. Actually, I'd actually pay money to see a "clone" reimagination of Universal. Too bad James Mishler's not around.

    Significantly, it doesn't appear to have ever been "universally" enforced. Bryan Hinnen's books all look he submitted relatively "normal" AD&D stats -- everyone is single classed and has at least one X in their alignment, and he doesn't even use the WIT class in WCM -- while Tarantis is completely out there with the "A" alignment descriptor, people running around with alignments we would consider impossible like "NEG" and what looks like a full d10 on the third characteristic stat. But Tarantis doesn't use the Universal Combat System armor/weapon classifiers.

    @Jesse, PSL was handled most clearly in the cities -- everyone had its own pecking order tables for who fits into what PSL -- but unless theres a rule buried in CSIO that I'm forgetting, I don't think initial determination for PCs was ever laid out.

    @JDJ Beggars are definitely in CSIO. I think BUF are in there too as part of the "witty rejoinder" minigame. Not sure where VAL ever showed up. I think ALC were detailed in Modron; that place was crawling with those guys.