Game: Pocket Universe
Series: Pocket Universe
Review Dated: 3rd, June 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
The advent of the PDF RPG industry has led to a healthy rush of quality lite games. By “lite game” I’m thinking of the traditional combination of a catchy campaign idea; a Western, occupied Earth, ghost story, etc along with a set of quick but functional rules. Pocket Universe is a quality lite game but it doesn’t follow those rules. There’s no campaign idea and there aren’t any token game mechanics either. Pocket Universe provides quick but thorough rules so that you’ll be able to apply them to almost any campaign setting of your own imagination.
The concepts of quick and thorough sound as if they should be mutually exclusive but author Jeff Dee does well to make it possible Jeff Dee is one of those horrible people who can write, draw and who worked for TSR as well.
At the minute, the blurb for Pocket Universe on it’s RPGNow shelf says ‘Remember when RPGs were all about the game and the characters? When facing down a vicious basilisk meant worrying about being turned to stone more than whether or not you were entering or leaving a “zone of whatever”?’ I was rather surprised to discover that in the Pocket Universe there is a zone of control. If opponents try and pass too close to your miniature then you get a chance to block them. Pocket Universe is also the first roleplaying game I’ve read to say up front that, “combat is resolved using miniature figures on a scale map…” I think you’ll get away with not using minis despite that assertion.
I don’t normally dive into the combat mechanics like that. I don’t normally mention the combat mechanics at all. In this case, though, I think it’s a fair way to illustrate the Pocket Universe style. The game mechanics are quick and easy. Just roll 2d10 and aim to get below your target number. There are less than a half dozen attributes and a single column, page long, attribute modified skill list. Character generation is the simple matter of spending eight points on the four attributes, optional advantages and disadvantages and a handful of skill points as determined by your Intellect attribute. It’s quick and easy. You’ll be up and running in 10 minutes, 5 minutes if you’ve had practise.
More complex situations, such as combat and damage, involve checking a table. Wow. Gosh. A table of values in a 21st century roleplaying game, you’d never have expected it. Pocket Universe manages to work everything off a single four-column table. Your score gives you a modifier, a value and then a roll. The roll column is three-slashed, that’s to say entries in it come in the form of 0/1/1. The typical use of this three-slashed figure is for low, medium and high values. Roll 1d10, 1-2 means the first value is used, 3-8 means the second value is used, 9-10 means the last one is used. Simply put, it inserts a crude but effective degree of success into a “roll lower than” mechanic.
It’s a quick set of mechanics. It achieves thoroughness by spending the bulk of the 33 pages of the PDF looking at specific uses of the system. Combat, healing and skill use are the obvious ones. You’d expect to find them in other >35 paged PDFs. Pocket Universe has, for example, rules for disarming, defensive fighting, combat stances, two-weaponed fighting, called shots, desperation, unarmed combat, multiple actions and, as already mentioned, zone of control for melee situations. Very little of this is bundled together. You can fight without worrying about death blows or called shots if you want.
If the mechanics are short on anything then it’s the integration of magic, psionics or even cybernetics into the game. If you want a spell point system or a spell slot system then you’ll really have to make it work yourself.
There’s a short but extremely useful GM chapter at the end of the PDF. I think it begins with the single most important issue for a product like Pocket Universe; game balance. After all, if you’re running your own campaign world and have bought in generic rules to make sure everything runs smoothly then you’ll want everything to continue to run smoothly. The thing to note about Pocket Universe and it’s quick but thorough mechanics is that even an additional point in an attribute will have a considerable game effect. Characters who get too many EPs will quickly become very powerful and characters who face opponents with just a few more points than them are in serious trouble. This same chapter discusses suitable amounts of EPs for characters to be awarded. On a slightly surreal note, there are stats for a crocodile in here.
The game balance warning is worth keeping in mind if you’re working to introduce your own extras to the game, namely the magic, psionics or cybernetics that scenarios may want but Pocket Universe doesn’t include. A cybernetic arm that increases the physique score by one is a powerful cybernetic arm indeed.
I’m not a fan of crunchy systems – and I think that’s why I like the mechanics of the Pocket Universe. There’s no denying that the download is almost entirely about crunch, mechanics, dice and numbers but it never seems to labour on any of it. There’s no puffing and panting, there’s no math lesson, there are just easy to consume, bite sized paragraphs that answer typical RPG queries.
It’s a fairly slick product too, benefiting from being created by an artist author. There’s no side bar but every page is enclosed in a frame. Every frame is decorated by a unicorn chess piece on the bottom right and that’s where you’ll find the page number. This isn’t one of those budget PDFs that are light on the artwork, there are plenty of illustrations here. Pocket Universe uses dark blue to ensure the section headings stand out but aside from that it’s a black and white product and should be easy enough to print off. The PDF doesn’t have any bookmarks of its own which is a shame because it’s carefully indexed and complete with internal page references.
The fundamental problem with Pocket Universe and any other product like it is that it wants you to pay for the least important part of the game. At least, I think mechanics are the least important part of the game, I’m happy to toss a coin or roll a random dice if a dispute needs to be solved. It’s a personal preference thing. In Pocket Universe’s case I think it plays both side of the argument very well; if you’re a rules light person then there are reasons to buy the PDF, if rules are important to you then there are reasons to buy the PDF. Quick and thorough; they’re not mutually exclusive after all.