Reading Group: Unik

I had decided that I didn’t have time to do a reading group review this month – then I started reading the scenario, and decided I might not HAVE the time, but that I wanted to MAKE the time.

Because Unik is rather quite unlike any of the other scenarios we’ve looked at in the Reading Group. Locked Doors may have left the resolution of the game firmly in the hands of the players, and the Mirrored Reality may have been purposefully unspecific in its instructions to the GM – but both are firmly in the business of telling a story – a specific story concerning some specific characters in a specific location.

Unik is also in the storytelling business – but it doesn’t tell a specific story, it contains no set locations, and its characters are archetypes and functions within a greater, archetypical story: the story of lovers that meet, fall in love, only to fall apart and start the cycle all over again (there, I gave the ending away). All the specifics are invented by the players during play.

In fact,Unik reminds me more of a storytelling Indie game than a scenario – a story game with individual characters and a firm framework to govern collective storytelling (I imagine Polaris or maybe Shock or In A Wicked Age to work like this).

Oh, I’d better remember to say that Unik was written by Klaus Meier Olsen, and won the Jury Special Price at Fastaval in 2005.

Unique Toolbox

Superficially, Unik contains at last some of the trappings we expect from a scenario: a number of scenes in order and a group of characters. But the characters rotate and mutate, and the players set the scenes rather than the GM or even the gamewright. In many ways, the “scenario” is more like a tool box that will allow players and GM to create a story of a certain kind

Characters are divided up in two parts that are brought together to form a starting point for what you are going to play. On one hand, each player has an archetype, defining an approach to love and relationships: the Hunter, the Beast, the Ascetic and the Profet. On the other hand, there are four Positions that move from player to player from scene to scene. The Positions define what function or role you will have in the scene – either Lover, Beloved, Friend or Enemy.

So, do the specific characters you make follow the Positions or stay with the archetypes? Funny you should ask – because it is not clearly stated in the game text. Two things are stated explicitly: First of all, the Positions remember what has happened to them earlier. This would indicate that the character follows the position. On the other hand, the text mentions that changing environment from scene to scene is entirely possible, having one scene in revolutionary America and the next in Ancient Greece.

I think it is done this way to allow the players to make the story they want to make, instead of a rigid game getting in the way of good storytelling. It is like a good writing prompt: it will provide structure to fuel your imagination, and not get in the way of it.

Alongside the characters, there are 13 scenes. Together, they form the story arc of a particular kind of love story, going from the initial meeting to the break and potential reconciliation. Each scene has a title that should be written on the blackboard in order to remind everyone what we are doing at the moment, a section that should be read aloud, a “GM only” section concerning the purpose of this scene and, finally, a number of suggestions about how this scene could look.

Finally, the text contains a section on three tools the GM can use to keep the game under control – he can Ask the players questions about the game world (“What does it look like?” “What is he doing now?” and so on and so forth); he can Instruct the players, thus dictating how the players should play things; finally, he can Narrate, taking active part in the storytelling and potentially creating a Narrator as a fifth (rather peculiar) character in the game.

Scene before?

The game is a very easy read, and enjoyable as well. It is built around a simple idea, using a great number of literary concepts without any remorse to create a potentially powerful tool for storytelling. I am particularly fond of the way the game is fixed very firmly around a number of archetypes and archetypical story structures.

There are issues with it as well, however. The number of scenes seems rather large, and they are very fixed in their place in the structure, without giving good guidance to the GM about making the scene do what it’s supposed to do. Several scenes underline the importance of the Lover and Beloved not breaking up yet – why not let them, skipping scenes if this would serve the story better.

Also, the game seems to have a very fixed idea about what a relationship is, and how they develop. It is not for me to say how accurate that idea is – but what if the players do not agree with this idea? A gamewright should of course be allowed to tell the story they want to tell – just as a writer, a painter or a movie director. And if you write a very specific game with fleshed out story, characters and location, you can allow yourself great control over the development of the story. However, the more of the story you want the players to provide, the more space you should provide for the players to shape the story after their own mind. Now, I can see how each scene in Unik has a function in the story arc – but it might have been a good idea to allow for some flexibility, in case a story develops in a very different way from the standard layed out by the game.

Arrogance and schoolmasters

As much as I enjoyed reading the game, there are a couple of places that made me wince. The worst is this:

“Desværre er spillere ofte forbløffende inkompetente, så de kan sandsynligvis ikke håndtere det ansvar, scenariet giver dem”

[“Unfortunately, players are often astoundingly incompetent, and so, they probably can’t handle the responsibility the scenario gives them”]

Now, I shall freely admit that I have often had the urge to yell loudly at players, at Fastaval or otherwise. But equally often, I have raged against gamewrights who believe that their text is blatantly simplistic and self-explanatory and that all the GM’s reading their game will think (and GM) like they do, when their text is really an obscure mess, understandable only by themselves and the close circle of their friends who think like they do.

In any case, no matter your feeling towards the people (“cretins”) who is going to play (“ruin”) your scenario (“masterpiece”), expressing such arrogance is not going to win you any friends. And it is NOT going to help your scenario being run smoothly if you start out predisposing your GM against your players. In fact, with all the focus this game gives to making the GM a facilitator of player creating, it seems downright counterproductive.

On that note, I’ll turn to the other quote I want to mention here:

“Så vær ikke bange for at irettesætte dine spillere, hvis de ikke udfører deres funktion [som dikteret af deres Position]  godt nok. I sidste ende er det til alles bedste.”

[“So don’t be afraid to reprimand your players if they don’t perform their function [as dictated by their Position] well enough. In the end, it is the best for everybody”]

NO, NO, NO! This is probably one of the worst pieces of advice I have heard concerning how to get people to contribute and open up to common storytelling. Kids, don’t do this at home. If you start rebuking your players you risk them being a) mad at you for challenging their ability to play their character (in particular if they feel superior/equal to you), b) sulky and uncooperative (if they feel almost equal to you), or c) afraid to contribute to the story (if they feel inexperienced or insecure in their own abilities). None of these are desireable in a game – especially not when you can’t play around a noncooperative player, as in this game, where everybody will be playing a main character approximately two scenes out of four.

Now, I do admit that I am reading this advice like the devil reads the bible, and that it might be appropriate to point out if a player is not living up to the Position he’s playing – it is easy to being confused at the changing Positions, and start just playing your Archetype. My issue is simply with the tone of the advice – especially since some GM’s are blathering idiots who will take advice like that seriously.

Shall I compare thee to a Unik day

Arrogance aside, this game is, by the read of it, a gem. If nothing else, it’s worth reading through for inspiration, both for writers of Danish style scenarios and “Indie”-style gamewrights. Playing this would probably be a grand, if possibly a bit surreal, experience. It also exposes players to the important role played by archetypes and schematic stories in human thought.

It is also an interesting study in player-GM relationships, casting all the players as semi-GM’s, instead asking the GM to moderate this “GMs’ conference.” Not that it is unique – many other (newer) games, Indie games in particular, have a similar distribution of narrative power.

Unik may not be as unique as when it came out. But it is still solid craftsmanship, still well worth playing, or reading, for that matter. Besides, it is one of the relatively rare scenarios that can be replayed or even read, then played, without it taking anything away from the enjoyment

What can we learn?

  • Make sure the freedom of the players matches the expectations placed on the players.
  • Don’t predispose your GMs against their players – especially not when you need them to work together so closely.
  • Simplicity and brevity are no crimes, as long as you tell your players and GMs all they need.

Who should play this?

  • The players should not expect to be fed a great story. Rather, they should be keen on taking equal part in the storytelling, not being afraid to get in there and define the game we’re playing
  • As the players take more control over the story, so the GM retires. The GM who runs this should not be a control freak, yearning to perform and entertain the players. Rather, he should be content to oversee the players’ game, jumping in only when necessary.

Also read Morten’s, Johs,’ Thais’ and Simon’s reviews

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Simon James Pettitt on November 6, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    So what is the next scenario going to be?

    Reply

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