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Game Design: Step by Step

Lords of the UnderWorld

byGareth-Michael Skarka

December 8, 1999


    Welcome to the 12th installment of our experiment in the design process.  We've been cranking along for a little over 3 months now, and so far, I'm pleased with the results.  The 3rd month in a design is usually when I take a look at what I've come up with, and make a decision regarding whether or not I'm on the right track, and whether or not I will continue.  Most times, I'm sad to say, I don't continue--which, more often than not, is due more to my losing interest in the project than in any huge design flaw (although that occasionally has happened as well).  I've got a cabinet at home that is filled with notes and materials for some dozen or so games that may never see the light of day for this very reason.

    However, I have found in this case that the regular deadlines of the column, coupled with the feedback that I've been getting from the readers, has sustained and even increased my interest in the project so far.  So, I think this one will continue.

    I've been reading a great book:  Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Art, Technology and War by Benson Bobrick.  It was suggested to me by Ken Hite (and for those of you who haven't read his column "Suppressed Transmissions" on Pyramid, allow me to say that it is worth the price of subscription all by itself).  The book is out of print, which had me hunting for it (and thereby increased its value to me when I finally found a copy), and so far, it is well worth it.  Lots of nifty nuggets of information, some of which will definately work their way into UnderWorld, at least through inspiration.

    If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it.

    Now--on to the subject heralded by the title of this week's installment: The Lords of the UnderWorld.

    As I said last week, the "Nations" of the UnderWorld are feudal--and varying in size.  My intention here is to provide players with a wide variety of settings within the UnderWorld itself.  If the game degenerates to a series of caverns filled with homeless folks, with little differentiation between them, it will loose its flavor quicker than week-old gum.

    The variations in size also allow for me to include political superpowers, client states, alliances, spying, intrigue and wars.  All of which provides an excellent background for adventure.

    So, how about some specifics?

    The first nation that came to mind for UnderWorld began as a non-sequitor.  When I was brainstorming on the original idea, I was writing some stuff down, and one of the things I wrote was the following:

    "Being in part a recounting of the many and varied adventures of Goodfella Robin, Knight of the Lesser Boulevards"

    I thought about this phrase (which I had originally just scribbled down as a lark) througout the design.  Goodfella Robin became one of the ideas that led to the creation of the Legendaries (I envision him as a "New Yawk-ified" version of Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck).  As a Knight, I guess he'd be a Bravo, in the service of some Lord.  Which led me to the Lesser Boulevards (a phrase which I had first heard in the presskit from the 1984 film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai--it was used in the write-up of Perfect Tommy).

    I thought about what this might mean.  It didn't take me long to decide that the "Lesser Boulevards" could be a name for all of the little streets down in Lower Manhattan, where the regular grid of Streets and Avenues breaks down and follows the chaotic paths of the original settlement's roads.  If you've every been down there, you'll find that it feels so different from the rest of the city--the streets are narrower, the numbering system gives way to little thoroughfares with names (Rector, Courtland, Wall, etc.)--the whole place feels older (well, duh--'cause it is).  It was once the sole center of the city, but its power has given way to the relative newcomer that is Midtown (well, not entirely given way--Wall Street and City Hall maintained their power-grip, and are now being joined by the internet start-ups of "Silicon Alley").

    This gives me the idea for a domain beneath it in the UnderWorld that was once much more powerful, but is waning somewhat (although still vital), ruled by a Lord powerful enough to hold on to his territories, but weak enough to be losing some of his influence.  The domain is filled with some of the oldest places in the UnderWorld (forgotten cellars of Dutch New Amsterdam houses, some of the earliest Subway stations--including the gorgeous, cathedral-like City Hall Station, now abandoned).  Combine this with the secret bomb shelters built beneath the NY Stock Exchange, and you've got a pretty good territory.

    I'll riff from the top of my head now (some of the best stuff comes from this practice)--the Lord of this domain is a Nomad, immortal and amnesiac.  He was once a Librarian by Guild, and his Library is filled with the remnants of his efforts to discover his own lost identity as well as the forgotten source of his immortality, a quest which occasionally still draws his attention from matters of state (hence the waning power).  He calls himself Rector, after the subway station where he awoke with no memory in the early years of this century.  To others, he is Lord of the Lesser Boulevards.

    The Lesser Boulevards can offer players a base of operations for starting characters--an entry point into the larger UnderWorld.  As one of the larger domains, it can serve the same function as a city does in standard fantasy campaigns--a place to equip, regroup, rest, find employment, or hear those ever-important rumors that lead to adventures elsewhere.

    What of another fantasy archetype--the Bad Place?  For this, I take a page from reality.  In her book, The Mole People, Jennifer Toth talks briefly of The Dark Angel--a man who lives many levels beneath Grand Central Station, who, according to some of the area homeless, is the devil himself.  The tales that some share with her, along with her own encounter with The Dark Angel is certainly disturbing, leading her to conclude that at the very least, this man is a dangerous psychotic who exudes an almost palpable aura of evil.

    Since this guy is real, he's too perfect not to include in UnderWorld.  Except here, where magic works and monsters dwell, the Dark Angel is the devil...or at least a reflection of him.  He is a Legendary, created from the Radiance and shaped by the fears of millions.  A distillation of every evil impulse the City generates, he lives in a lair beneath Grand Central, his influence spreading arounding him like the strands of a web.  He rules this single location absolutely, but has no subjects--no one else lives there.  Still, denizens of the UnderWorld can encounter his disciples--those who wish to share his power...and characters may even travel to the Dark Angel's lair looking for some sort of information that only he possesses, like the witches in the wilderness of the fairy tales.

    There are many, many more, of course--and most will be detailed in the book (but not all--you have to leave room for the Conductor's own creations, after all).  I'll delve into some more of them in the course of the column, naturally.  Perhaps next week.  Of course, I also want to eventually talk about Salvage Tech, Artifacts, Adventure Ideas, and more.  What am I going to talk about next?  I'm not sure.  But I guarantee that I'll know by next week.  For this week, though, let me leave you with a poem which Bobrick quotes in his book:

Dark accurate plunger down the successive knell
Of arch on arch, where ogives burst a red
Reverberance of hail upon the dead
Thunder like an exploding crucible!
Harshly articulate, musical steel shell
Of angry worship, hurled religiously
Upon your business of humility
Into the iron forestries of hell...

        --Allen Tate, The Subway

    ...and if that isn't perfectly representative of the mood of UnderWorld, I don't know what else could be.  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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