Game: The Centre of the Universe
Publisher: Timeless Games
Series: The Centre of the Universe
Review Dated: 3rd, April 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 24
Average Score: 8.00
This review is a two-in-one deal. I’m looking at Timeless Games’ The Centre of the Universe which is available as a PDF from RPGNow. This review is not based of the standard PDF though. I have the 230 (ish) page manual in “real book” form in front of me. I’m taking advantage of the new RPGNow and Lulu deal. You can pay to have PDFs sent to you in book form. It’s print on demand.
My first opinion on Print on Demand was a shameless assumption. I just imagined someone with a big colour printer sticking pages into a document binder. This wouldn’t be a real book. This would be something I’d do for a report at work. Assumptions are typically wrong (not that you can assume that, though) and I was. This paper copy of The Centre of the Universe looks like any other paper back RPG I have on my shelves. Actually, this book is one of the /best/ quality paper backs in my collection. Lulu uses thick and clean paper for the content pages and good card for the cover. The book made it from Lulu’s printers all the way to Scotland in fine shape. There’s even a layer of foam in the packaging.
The layout, formatting and presentation of The Centre of the Universe is a really tough challenge for Lulu’s printers. This is a heavily decorated book. Very rarely is text simply printed onto a plain white back and in those cases there are always a wide and decorative boarder. In some cases the page decoration dominates the text and we have paragraphs which appear to be nothing more than small snippets of comment within a tableau. There’s even one page where the text is at an angle, printed on a background which in itself suggests a torn page resting on top of schematic design.
For the purposes of doing a fair and accurate review I had to go and buy the original PDF product as well. I was beginning to doubt that any Print on Demand service could do so well for such a demanding PDF and beginning to wonder that perhaps this multitude of background decoration was perhaps a template from Lulu. But no; this armada of background images is exactly how the PDF is presented. In fact, the PDF is a large 10MBs and my laptop takes a second to bring each PDF page into focus. I do wonder whether Timeless Games have gone overboard with the presentation. If you like clean, scientific and even mechanical presentations then the hurly burly of styles here may well put you off. It unsettles me a little, I do think the book is a little too distracting. In addition the lower case “c” and lower case “e” can be hard to distinguish. This is not due to the Print on Demand service but the font used in The Centre of the Universe and is an issue in the PDF too.
The Centre of the Universe is a fantasy RPG. It’s a high magic and high technology fantasy RPG. We have Gunslingers fending off Unravellers, “wizards” from the World of the Black Sun and who seek to unravel reality itself. We have Dream Crafters who might ride on an airship powered by a perpetual motion machine and fly from one floating island to another.
The Centre of the Universe really is set in the centre of the universe. We’re encouraged by the RPG to think of the Universe as a sphere or in one Shrek reference to think of it as an onion. The Centre of the Universe is a sphere in the middle. The Centre of the Universe is a shiny ball. The outside is a huge labyrinth, a gigantic labyrinth where the guardians are still active but the caretakers are long since dead. The guardians, the Sentinels, are another possible player character. On the other side of the labyrinth there’s a vast area inhabited by floating islands – known as marques. Each marque is different. It has a different culture, different people and differing aptitudes with technology, democracy, economy and sociology. This is ideal for roleplaying as the game can hop about between settings. There’s the city at the centre of the universe itself, a giant place in local terms but there are barely 12,000 people in the Collegium Metropolis. That’s small by real life standards but big enough to keep GM/Directors and players/Actors busy.
The nemesis in the game is the Unmaker. When the Universe was created so to was a thread of pain. This thread of pain finally found home in an Architect. An Architect, a player character option, uses their Will and Thought to form constructs from reality. The pain corrupted son of this Architect who inherited the thread of pain and who ripped himself from the very being of reality to escape it only to discover it was part of his very essence who became the Unmaker. The Unmaker desires to unmake everything the Maker has created. The Unmaker passionately seeks the total destruction of the Universe.
The Unmaker has his minions and monsters. Our characters, heroes by fate, have been picked by the Universe itself to defend reality. The special nature of the characters is represented mechanically by their ability to spend banked experience points as luck points.
Reality is far larger than The Centre of the Universe. The RPG details two other locations; The Invisible Kingdom and The Immediate Beyond. The Invisible Kingdom is the land of the fae and is the mystical shadow of the universe. As such the Invisible Kingdom helps bridge The Centre of the Universe with the outside world (whereas the Labyrinth separates the two in the visible kingdom). The Invisible Kingdom is actually ruled by a Queen. The fairy queen is an evil peace of works and the succession by murder monarchy system will ensure that the reigning queen is always cruel and wicked. If there was one portion of this fantasy RPG which could be ring-fenced and turned into an adult RPG then it’s this one. Politics, breeding, debauchery, trickery and wild parties are the norm. Although it’s quite an interesting setting (I’ll roleplay with nymphs any day) I’m not quite sure how the Invisible Kingdom fits into the game as a whole. It feels a bit like an awkward add-on. My supposition is that on some marques inside The Centre of the Universe there are portals to the Invisible Kingdom and Directors can lace encounters with pesky fae. The Invisible Kingdom might also be a route into The Centre of the Universe which helps bypass the Labyrinth though I’m not sure why the Unravellers don’t make more use of it, if so.
The Immediate Beyond is an easier fit with the RPG. We can focus on what’s inside The Centre of the Universe but characters, being as awkward as they are, will want to go outside. As a GM/Director I think it might be fun to run a game which involves getting to The Centre of the Universe. The Immediate Beyond is that area just outside the Labyrinth. Outside we still have our marques – those floating islands. As it happens there’s an Imperial collection of aligned marques just outside in the Immediate Beyond and this should help ensure a good culture shock for anyone travelling from inside to the outside.
The Centre of the Universe uses its own d6 system. For each and every roll the player calls odds or evens and only the dice which match the call are counted in the tally. If you call “odds” and roll 6, 4, 4 and 2 then that’s a roll of 0. Ouch.
The magic system is different to. There isn’t a spell list collection as The Centre of the Universe goes with on-the-fly player created spells. The player describes the magical effect they’re attempting (which will involve moulding reality) and then the Director decides how successful (assisted by die rolls, of course) the attempt is. The key to this ad hoc magic system (and casting on-the-fly isn’t unheard of) is a three word written rule. The player of the magically talented character writes down a three word description of the effect they’re trying to cast. Three words aren’t very much at all and so the player needs to be awfully vague in order to have any hope at describing the effect they’re after. It’s from these three words which the Director decides what actually happens if the spell isn’t entirely successful.
I found The Centre of the Universe quite hard to read. The plethora of background styles for the pages seems to suit the schizophrenic writing style. Sometimes the author, Richard Parkinson, uses short and punchy sentences. Other times the RPG is written in long, comma glued and almost purple prose sentences. There are even instances of a hybrid style bridging the two. My brain just stumbled whenever the writing style changed too. Its a sign of intelligence being able to write in more than one style but for the purpose of producing an easy to read RPG then its best to stick to a single one. I also think that The Centre of the Universe tries to do too much by being newbie friendly and finding room to describe the basics of RPGs and having to dumb down certain sections. The book frequently uses phrases like “Of course” and talks about the absence of spell lists which therefore assumes readers were expecting one. I think if the publishers pretty much expect their audience to be experienced gamers then that’s who the book should be written too.
Experienced gamers are likely to expect more spit and polish on their games than they get in The Centre of the Universe. This is a very raw game. It’s easy to tell that this is a concept which Parkinson and Timeless Games really care about and which they’ve poured heart and soul into. It’s also one of those gamers where I wish a complete git of an editor who knew nothing about the setting or concept could come onboard and be draconian in the editing, design and presentational changes.
As for summaries and recommendations I can say that based on this one book I can vouch for Lulu. If you’re not used to indie RPGs or are looking for an easy stepping stone into the type of original games produced on a smaller budget then Timeless Games’ The Centre of the Universe might still not be for you. If you know you’re comfortable with rawer and yet heartfelt RPGs which come out of the smaller but talented publishers then The Centre of the Universe really is worth a look at.