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Game Design: Step by Step

It's All 'Bout Da Merlins

byGareth-Michael Skarka

November 24, 1999


    This week we're going to go into the specific magical paths belonging to each Guild of the UnderWorld.

    First, a little bit more development on the actual system involved.  I noticed that in my discussion of the Head Count, I stated that the player can throw an addition coin if they possess a magical technique appropriate to the action at hand.  Does this mean that every time the character wants to gain this benefit, they have to cast a spell of some sort?  No--that seems too complicated to me.  It would slow the action too much.  Spells have their place, sure, but what about quick magical effects that can assist actions?  This has lead me to the idea of there being basically two different types of magical action.  One is the full, involved, spell--where the character invokes the power to accomplish a specific goal.  This will be referred to within the game as a Rite.  Rites will be the classical magical ritual--and we'll go into more detail on them when I spell out the system a bit further (please excuse the horrible pun).

    Quick magical effects--the sort that will give a bonus coin on a basic Head Count--will be referred to as Charms, because, most often, that's what they will be--a charm, a totem, an amulet, a fetish--what have you-- that will direct small amounts of magic into whatever type of action is governed by the Charm.  In real-world terms, a rabbit's foot would be a Charm that would give you 1 extra coin in matters where luck is a factor.  I like this, because it opens up the possibility of trade in Charms--allowing charms to be made by those Guilds with a particular kind of magic (making a Charm is, naturally, a Rite), to be traded or sold to those who don't normally have access.  For example, a member of the Bravos Guild making an amulet of protection for a Librarian.

    So, what are the Guild-specific magical paths?  Glad you asked.

    Bravos, the fighters of the UnderWorld, should obviously have some sort of combat-related magic.  It's their job, after all.  But, thinking about it, I don't really like the idea of Bravos chucking around the "heavy artillery" of offensive battle magic.  Reaching out and touching someone should be a physical, not magical, exercise.  So, the Battle Magic practiced by Bravos will be internal--it will affect the user, rather than any target.  This allows for magic that focuses on protection (which fits with their role as Bodyguards), and the increase of their own skills as well.  The magic they use will be the magic of the warrior preparing for battle: Wards against weapons, "charging" their own weapon to do magical damage, that sort of thing.  Want to be un-killable?  Try one of the most difficult Rites known to the Bravos--remove your heart, and store it someplace safe. As long as your heart is safe, you cannot be killed....(well, not permanently, at least).

    The magic of the Artificers is the easiest to define.  They use magic to power their Salvage-Tech inventions.  (Note that Artificers are perfectly capable of creating Salvage Tech without the use of their magic--it would have to run on conventional power sources, though).  We'll go into more detail on the process of creating Salvage Tech in a later column.  I'm not quite sure how this type of magic could be used in Charms--I'll have to give that some more thought.  Obviously, the Rites would be part of the Invention process, infusing the new piece of Tech with a "magical battery" of sorts (difficulties would range based upon whether or not the battery needs to be recharged from time to time, or if it is a permanent generator).  The highest levels of difficulty would allow for the creation of Junkmen.

    Monks give me a little bit of difficulty.  Given that their primary role is one of healer, the obvious choice here would be to give them some form of healing magic.  However, this just smacks too much of the D&D Cleric for my tastes.  Plus, I'm not sure I want to lessen the danger of being wounded in this world by having some "magical medics" wandering around.  The threat level of being hurt in this world should be very high--I don't want to hear UnderWorld players yelling "Cleric!" when they get hit.  So, what to do with the monk, then?  Good question.

    A quick discussion with Lou Prosperi gives me another angle from which to approach the Monk--this guild is charged with the wellbeing of the denizens of the UnderWorld...and that means their health, food, water, light, etc.  So what if the Monks have a path of magic that incorporates some form of Biomanipulation?  A Monk could purify food and water by biologically neutralizing the harmful elements (it wouldn't taste any better, but it wouldn't kill you, and that's a plus).  A Monk could aid in healing by increasing your body's natural processes (For that matter, a monk could bestow temporary traits, such as boosted strength, on someone by the same manipulation of their body).  A Monk could even provide light in underground caverns by boosting the bioluminosity of certain mosses (along with their reproduction rate, so that there's enough of them to shed light).  The downside of this path is that it could also be used to deliver serious injury as well--which is why the Monks Guild is such a rigid, belief-driven structure.  Hmmm.  I like it.

    Taggers, our scouting parties of graffiti artists, lend themselves immediately to Rune Magic.  They will know the secret geometry of runes, mandalas, sigils, etc.  The ability to trap magical essences in a scrawl, to be released under certain circumstances.  This path will give them not only their own magic to work with, but the ability to "hang" other forms of magic within the tag itself--to use one of their other paths in conjunction with the Rune Magic.  This will, among other things, make players very wary when they come upon graffiti sprayed on a wall--you never know if it contains a Rite just waiting to be triggered (this will also make the Taggers themselves very useful for "defusing" such "loaded" graffiti). This style of magic would also make them aces at providing charms for others, considering their ability to encode magical energy within artwork...

    Sappers' magic can be particularly devastating.  Going on the idea that magic, like electricity, can be "grounded", what better Guild to give this ability to than one that works within the ground?  This path allows the Sappers to divert, increase, or block the flow of Radiance into any area within the UnderWorld.  This makes them very, very powerful, for it is only the Sapper who can find (or create) concentrations of Radiance (which we will call Pools)--the centerpiece of any UnderWorld settlement.  This, combined with their Guild's speciality in digging and fortifying, makes them the architects of the UnderWorld--the ones whom the Lords turn to when they wish to construct a Fastness, Freehold or other settlement.  On a less grand scale, but perhaps much more dangerous, Sappers can also counter the magic of any other Guild, simply by altering (or removing) the flow of power to it.  (Not that this will be an automatic effect--obviously there will be opposition).  This power, given to a group that, at first glance, seemed like a "one-note wonder", gives them a depth and an importance that makes them a valuable asset to both the society of the UnderWorld, as well as any playing group.  (I can just hear it now--"You mean I can control the flow of magic?  Where do I sign up?")

    Librarians, as the information sources of the UnderWorld, seem best suited to some form of divination.  This would be the UnderWorld equivalent of a Tarot reading--the interpretation of Signs and Portents, made by reading bits of trash and other Urban elements. A scrap of newspaper, combined with a lost button, some pigeon scratchings and a rat-gnawed bit of bagel--these could point to the downfall of a powerful Lord, or the appearance of a long-forgotten artifact.

    Divination  is always a touchy subject in a roleplaying game, where future events are determined by a combination of player action and gamemaster planning.  So, this type of magic would result in a Conductor having to give some details of future events (how much they give away would be a result of two things--one, how successful the reading was, and two, how much the event depends upon the actions of the players). IntConning is a useful skill for Conductors to learn here.  Briefly: IntCon is short for INTuitive CONtinuity--the practice of coming up with last-minute plot devices or events that look as if they were intended all along!  There will be a discussion of IntConning in the Conductor's section of the UnderWorld rulebook, since it is a valuable skill that in my opinion too many games overlook.  With an IntConned game, instead of a gamemaster coming up with a plot and running a group of players like lab rats from plot point to plot point, the gamemaster comes up with a brief outline, which he then alters in reaction to what the players do. (I know, this may not make much sense here--I'll cover it in more depth later).  This can apply to divination as follows:  if the character performing the divination succeeds, the Conductor comes up with a "future prediction", based somewhat on his or her notes of where the story is going, but largely out of thin air.  Keeping this in mind, it then becomes the Conductors job to drop in little bits of plot that lead up to the event, making it seem as though it was pre-destined (but without railroading the players--this is the most important part.  NEVER railroad the players into a pre-determined plot).

    Navigators are simple--their lives are spent travelling.  What better magic for them to possess than one that deals in moving from one place to another?  Portals, doorways, secret paths--the Navigators are the ones who know the Shortcuts.  Shortcuts that can take you from Battery Park in lower Manhattan to the Cloisters at the northernmost tip in the blink of an eye.  The secret of stepping through subway posters, only to step out of an identical poster on another platform, miles away (and maybe even in another city...).  Think of the character of Door in Gaiman's Neverwhere, and you'll see what I'm getting at here.

    Traders are an unusual case.  They are the only Guild that does not have their own magical tradition.  They are the link between the UpWorld and the UnderWorld, and are responsible for the flow of technology from our world to the world below.  In return for their services, many Guilds have taught Traders the magical paths that are normally limited only to members of their own Guild...of course, a boon this large requires that at some point in the past (and possibly again in the future), the Trader had to have brought the Guild member in question something of tremendous value.  So, Traders are able to pick one of the other Guild-specific magical paths to use as their own, or to simply take a third general path.

   ...and there you have the Guild paths.  This column went a little longer than I expected it to, so we'll have to hold off discussion of the general magical paths, the ones that are open to all, until next week.  Space permitting, we'll also wrap up our discussion of magic by going into a little detail on just how all of this comes together and works.  See ya in 7.

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 1999 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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