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Design: Step by Step


byGareth-Michael Skarka

December 1, 1999


  Well, I've been covering the subject of magic for a couple of weeks now, and to be completely honest, I'm ready to move on to other topics--settling on one thing for too long kinda burns me out a little bit--which is dangerous when designing a new game. The last thing that I want is to loose interest in the middle of the process.

    I've given the background of magic, and the Guild specific magical paths.  At this point, rather than go into detail on what generic paths exists, I thought that I'd give a quick overview on how the system works, and then move on to other things...things that have been bouncing around my head for a few days now.  If I've learned anything during my tenure as a designer, its this: if your brain is coming up with cool stuff while you're still working on something else, then stop, get those new concepts down before you loose them, and then come back to the other stuff later.

    So--take it as read that there are a number of generic paths.  Nothing spectacular--things that everyone in UnderWorld is familiar with--basic manipulations of the Radiance.  I'll save the details of these paths for the main rulebook (I've got to hold some stuff back, ya know!).  They will work along the same lines as the Guild-specific ones, just not as far-reaching.  (Think of the generic paths as minor magic, and the Guild paths as major). So, how do these things actually work?

    Magic in the game is defined by a set of Operants.  Simply put, Operants are the "verbs" of Magic--what magic does.  The difficulty of a magical action is dependant upon how many things its trying to do (or, more simply, how many Operants it employs), adjusted by other factors, such as magical balance.  All things in magic, optimally, must be balanced.  As Hermes Thrice-Blessed said: "As Above, So Below"--a phrase which resounds especially in the UnderWorld.  Sympathetic magic is an attempt to strive for this balance, making the action easier to accomplish. Some things, however, are nearly impossible to balance (for example, harming another sentient being--which would require that the caster harms himself in order to be balanced--and we all know that's not going to happen, right?)--these actions are not impossible, merely harder to accomplish (and hence, a higher difficulty).

    So, if all Magic is defined by Operants, then what the hell's going on with all of these paths?  Glad you asked.  The paths give bonuses to a character using some Operants, and penalties to using others.  They offer a set of built in "balances" that make some actions easier, while in some cases preventing some types of actions alltogether.  It depends entirely upon the path in question.

   So, after tallying up your difficulty, the result of the action is determined by a simple Head Count.  Like combat, there can also be opposed Head Counts (in those situations where two or more characters are attempting to use magic against one another), but all of the systems use the same throw of the coins and tallying up of the heads results that underlies all action in UnderWorld.  I was attempting to figure out a way to come up with a method of using something like the abstract combat system to apply towards Magic as well, but so far the details are eluding me, and so I will shelve that concept for now, and move on to where my brain is taking me.

    Recently, in the forums, it has been brought to my attention that there is some confusion regarding the role of the Guilds within the society of the UnderWorld.  Some folks have mistakenly assumed that the Guilds are the only structure down below, and hence act as some sort of occupation-based nation-states.  This is not the case, as I will now discuss.

    Contrary to what you might assume, the UnderWorld is not unstructured.  Certainly there are sections of it that are as wild as any frontier, but the population centers of the UnderWorld, are, to a large extent, even more structured than the world above.  There is a good reason for this. The population of the UnderWorld knows that they depend upon one another for survival--and they know that to try to go it alone, with everyone vieing for themselves (which seems, to the denizens of the UnderWorld, to be the case in our world), would result in no-one surviving, in the end.  So, the various groups in the UnderWorld come together for mutual survival and preservation of resources such as food, supplies, and territory (such as Radiance pools).

    The basic structure of UnderWorld society is feudal.  Individuals swearing allegiance to those more powerful, and so on up the chain until you reach a supreme ruler (who, despite a wide variation of actual titles we will refer to as a Lord).  There are a large number of Lords in the UnderWorld, whose territories range from large holdings encompassing hundreds of miles of tunnels, caverns and chambers, to those with but a single location to their name. (These singular locales usually fall into two categories: Freeholds, which are relatively open to all, and Fastnesses which are fortified and heavily defended--and usually closed to strangers).

    The Guilds fit into this structure in a similar way to the Guild Structure of the Renaissance.    Some Guilds are more powerful in some holdings (especially in those where the Lord (often a member of a particular guild himself) acts as a patron of that Guild--giving them privilege over the others).  In general, though, the most important thing to remember is that the Guilds bestow upon their members the sole right to practice that particular occupation.  For example, any violence done within the UnderWorld by someone who is not a recognized member of the Bravos Guild will not only brand the perpetrator as an outlaw (and yes, there will be rules for running outlaw characters) but will draw the wrath of the Guild itself.  (Go ahead--try to exist in the UnderWorld with every Bravo out for your head.  Nice knowing you.)

    As I've said before--just because you're not a Bravo doesn't mean you're not the best fighter.  It just means that a Bravo could (for example) kill someone and, when the guards arrive, simply hand over his contract (or his Guild indentification, if he's under obligation to keep his employer secret). It was a sanctioned kill, and, in the rare event that a particular Lord still opts to throw the Bravo into an Oubliette or just execute him outright, the Guild will come down on that Lord hard--no further business for example (especially problematic when the Lord's Guards are all Bravos themselves).  A non-sanctioned attack, however, from a non-Bravo, confers no legal protection upon the perpetrator.  The Lord is free to do whatever he wants to the offender, assuming the Bravos don't attempt to rectify the situation themselves.

    The same thing goes for other Guilds--The Navigators Guild operates "port authorities" and tolls to ensure that all traffic is being handled by Navigators.  Traders will cease dealing with anyone(and thereby cut off a valuable life-line of supply) if they discover that person has done business with non-Guild members bringing in goods.  The list goes on.  The short answer:  Only the Guilds have the power to perform the tasks governed by their organizations.  To use outlaw practitioners invites the wrath of the Guild in question, and in the case of those holdings where that Guild is the most powerful, perhaps the other Guilds as well (since the "alpha" Guild in any given settlement has the political weight to engineer a boycott from all of the Guilds in that settlement).

    More on this, and on some of the specific "Nations" of the UnderWorld, as we continue.  You got a long installment last week, so its a shorter one this week (still recovering from my Turkey Coma).  See you next week.

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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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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