Freeform Universal works really well just the way it is, but today I am going to share with you two changes I have been working on – tags and trademarks. The first is a pretty simple adjustment to the language we use to describe functions in the game, while the second provides additional depth to characters and play.


In FU a character’s most important features, and the most noteworthy elements of everything else in the fictional game world are currently called descriptors. As I have played, tweaked and developed FU however, I have taken to calling these features tags. It really is semantics, but the word “tag” brings with it a bunch of meaning and association that fits with their purpose in the game. A tag is something “attached” to an object or item, it provides information (such as a price or description), notes boundaries and is commonly used in blogging, websites and information collation to group like things and identify conceptual ideas. To tag something is to label it, give it significance and/or draw attention to it, in the same way you might tag someone in a Facebook post, play a game of tag, or even tag a wall with graffiti (not something I have done, but some it is is quite impressive!).

Long-story-short, as I write more articles about FU you will see me making reference to tags. They are exactly the same thing as descriptors in the current version of FU. A useful or beneficial tag will provide a character with some advantage, while hindering or negative tags will apply a disadvantage to the character’s actions.


Characters in FU are defined by a series of words or short descriptive phrases that define what special qualities they have. They range from physical traits to mental attributes to amazing skills or powers. Each of these is a tag that can provide a bonus or penalty to rolls depending on how helpful they are to the action being attempted. Long-time players of FU will recognise these as the Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw that are used to describe the character. Trademarks take these character tags a step further by being more explicit about exactly what / how / when they might apply. They might also provide an additional advantage depending on the specifics of the situation.

Why introduce trademarks?

Trademarks address two key problems that have been identified by players of FU. The first is the question of how to handle character “concepts” or other broad, over-arching descriptive traits that could conceivably function as character tags with a greater scope than regular tags. The second problem trademarks address is one of advancement and balance, specifically how to add “skills” or abilities as a character grows in experience, without making them so powerful that rolling becomes irrelevant.

How trademarks work

A trademark describes an important or noteworthy feature of a character. It might define some important background detail, a physical or mental trait, affiliation with a political group, or some training they have had. Trademarks are broad statements about a specific element of their character’s background, personality or capabilities.

Example trademarks

  • Backgrounds: Dwarf clansman, Nobleman of House Hawkwind, Last Adept of the Star Guild, Werewolf
  • Physical / Mental traits: Mighty thewed, PhD in Psychology, Contortionist, Keen senses
  • Affiliations: Retired NYC cop, Card-carrying Whovian, Protected by the Assassin’s League, Devout Catholic
  • Training / Abilities: Bare-knuckled brawling, Weather Magic, Gunfighter, Silent like the night

For all intents and purposes, a trademark is a tag. If it is helpful in a situation it will provide a bonus to the die roll, while if it is a disadvantage it will provide a penalty. Where trademarks differ from other tags is players must define the scope of each. Exactly what does each trademark allow a character to do? What actions, activities or lucky breaks is the character likely to take advantage of because they have this particular trademark?

When a player creates a trademark they also write down one or more abilities, actions or skills associated with it. Each of these is a “sub tag” that we call a meta-tag. Think of each meta-tag as sitting “under” or “inside” the governing trademark. Meta-tags are a convenient way for players to understand what the trademark is all about. If a question arises about whether your trademark applies in a situation, take a quick look at the meta-tags and see.

Example meta-tags

  • Dwarf clansman: Dark vision, Drinking, Resist the effects of poison
  • Mighty thewed: Bend bars, Lift massive things, Intimidate by flexing muscles, Carry heavy loads
  • Retired NYC cop: Law enforcement, Know my beat, Knows a snitch, Old
  • Bare-knuckled brawling: Fists of steel, Quick reflexes, Low blows, Can take a hit

As well as defining the scope of the trademark, meta-tags can become “bonus” tags, allowing the character to specialise in a particular action. At the start of play the meta-tags are purely a tool to guide decisions, but through the spending of experience points a player might “unlock” the meta-tags.

An unlocked meta-tag will provide an additional bonus to die rolls in very specific situations. If you use a trademark and an unlocked meta-tag is also relevant to the situation, you receive an additional bonus to the roll. The meta-tag modifier can only be applied if the trademark is being used in the action. If more than one meta-tag is applicable, each relevant one may provides a bonus.

Examples of trademarks and meta-tags in action

Dave is playing Drake, a tough private eye with the trademark Bare-knuckled brawling (Fists of steel, Quick reflexes, Low blows and Can take a hit). Quick reflexes is the only meta-tag that has been unlocked. Drake get’s into a disagreement with a thug and uses his fists to do the talking. When he takes a swing to try knock the thug out he gets a bonus to the roll for the trademark. When Drake tries to avoid being hit by the thug he once again gets the bonus for Bare-knuckled brawling and another bonus for his unlocked Quick reflexes! Later in the game a gangster shoots at Drake, and he tries to duck out of the way. Dave asks if he gets a bonus to dodge because the PI has Quick reflexes. Unfortunately, as Drake is not engaged in a fist-fight he can’t take advantage of the meta-tag.

In a swashbuckling adventure game Vicki is playing Constance, a daring rogue with the trademark Flashy acrobatics (Swing from stuff, Tumble out of the way and Impressive leaps). During a tavern brawl Constance leaps from a balcony to swing from the chandelier and drop onto the opposite landing. She gets a bonus for doing some Flashy acrobatics, another bonus for her unlocked Swing from stuff, and yet another bonus because the action required an Impressive leap! Then, Constance runs down the stairs just as another patron picks up a barrel and hurls it at her. She rolls across the floor to avoid the attack, receiving a bonus for more Flashy acrobatics, but does not get a bonus for Tumble out of the way as it is not yet unlocked.

Stacking trademarks and meta-tags

A player may “stack” bonuses from multiple trademarks and/or unlocked meta-tags. So long as it makes sense for the story / situation there is no reason not to do this. In fact, in many instances it is the most logical thing to do. If a Dwarf clansman is fighting in the dark (against someone who doesn’t have dark vision) and also has a relevant fighting trademark (Battle-axe Master!), both trademarks are totally appropriate. If there are relevant unlocked meta-tags, the dwarves warrior will also get to add those, too.

Negative trademarks and meta-tags

It is worth noting that trademarks are rarely outright “flaws” in the way that a flaw descriptor is. More often than not trademarks provide distinct advantages for the character. We can, however, encourage players to look for the drawbacks in their trademarks. When a trademark causes a situation to be much more difficult (creating a penalty to the die roll) the player earns a FU point. This is a simple solution that puts the player in control of their character’s fate (though a game master is encouraged to point out when trademarks might be a disadvantage).

Notice the example trademark Retired NYC cop has a meta-tag “old”? While their are a variety of situations where the character’s age might be an advantage, this is also a clear message to the player and game master about a potential disadvantage.

Why meta-tags?

Meta-tags work as a shorthand so that everyone at the table understands the character concept and the world in which their story is taking place. When the player with the “Elf Ranger” writes “Nimble, Excellent vision and Detect secret doors” everyone knows exactly what kind of elves inhabit your world.

Meta-tags also let a player be more explicit with their character concept while reducing the risk of “breaking” the game with too many tags that can be applied to every situation – an unlocked meta-tag can only provide a modifier if the governing trademark is being used. A Mighty thewed barbarian can only gain a bonus for intimidating an enemy if they are able to flex their muscles or make some other show of strength.

Are trademarks aspects?

Trademarks do look and act a lot like aspects from Fate, but FU descriptors always have. The major difference is that trademarks are always “on” and do not cost points to activate. In this respect they are far more like skills or feats in other games. Trademarks are also more structured than aspects, providing a clear scope of affect. The intention is to provide “flags” for when the trademark might be used, while limiting any potential abuse (it’s too strong a word, but we’ll leave it) by being shoehorned into every situation.

Introducing trademarks into your games of FU

Using trademarks in your games couldn’t be easier. I recommend you replace the traditional descriptors of Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw with four trademarks. If you are currently playing, you might instead have the players expand their descriptors with a short list of meta-tags.

If starting new I would not use Body, Mind, Edge and Flaw. My preference would be to use the four categories described above: Background, Physical and/or Mental trait, Affiliation and Ability. If Affiliation doesn’t work for your game, then both a physical and mental trait might be appropriate.

To be honest, though, an experienced player could create four trademarks of any kind that satisfactorily describes their character. This could end up any combination of backgrounds, traits, affiliations and/or abilities.

Players should note 1-4 meta-tags for each trademark they create. Four is more than enough to begin with and too many meta-tags might make the trademark too broad. Each meta-tag should clearly evoke a situation or action in which the trademark might be used.

With trademarks and meta-tags defined, players should share their characters and ask questions of each other. Clarify what is meant by each trademark and make sure the meta-tags are effectively evoking this idea.

In play, as characters develop and grow, they may unlock meta-tags, add new meta-tags or even add whole new trademarks. The exact process of how this might be done, however, is best left for its own article.

So, that’s trademarks and meta-tags. What do you think? How might you use them in your games of FU?

This article was first published on June 16, 2016

This article originally appeared on a website dedicated to Freeform Universal. I have consolidated that material here in order to bring everything into one easy-to-find location.