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Game Design: Step by Step

Lucky 13

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

December 15, 1999


    Welcome to the 13th installment of Game Design: Step by Step.  For some, the number 13 is bad news--one of the re-heated left-overs of our superstitious past. Most buildings here in the US have no 13th floor, for example--they go right from 12 to 14.  Friday the 13th is a "Bad Luck Day". Oddly enough, I happen to have been born on a Friday the 13th (of June, 1969, if you're at all curious--you're not? OK, then we'll be moving on...)--and 13 has actually been a lucky number for me throughout my life.

    What does this have to do with UnderWorld?  Nothing, when you get right down to it.  However, the topic of superstition brings me in mind of the Legendaries, that Breed created through the effects of the Radiance mixing with the collective unconscious of  the population.  We know that the Legendaries are a possible Breed for player-characters--but what other possibilities exist for Legendaries?  I gave it some thought--spurred on by a suggestion by reader T.S. Luikart.  If Legendaries can be people, then why not places and things as well?

    Legendary places are easy enough to envision in the UnderWorld.  In fact, it could be argued that the entire UnderWorld itself is a legendary place. More specifically, though, within the caverns and passageways of the UnderWorld are places where the Radiance has generated a locale rather than an individual.  These locales, rich in magical energy, are highly sought after, and make powerful sites from which to rule.  Several Lords (see last week) have such places as the center of their domain.

    These places may have their own physical laws, different from the rest of the surrounding UnderWorld.  Anything goes, really.  Like the line says in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, "don't dream it, be it".  When designing these types of locations, the Conductor is free to let his "wierd-shit-o-meter" go off the hook.

    For example: in Central Park, on the East Side, there is a large, bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland.  It is a popular site in the Park, where residents and tourists alike gather to climb upon the giant mushrooms (great fun in winter, since the metal of the sculpture traps a small amount of the heat generated by sitting all day in direct sunlight).  This site has focused this goodwill into the Radiance that has pooled many feet below the surface of this part of the park...and generated a Legendary place--called "Wonderland" by the denizens of the UnderWorld.  A cavern bathed it sunlight, despite there being no sun present, and filled with a pleasant, rolling field of grass, spotted here and there with giant mushrooms, and a few trees as well.  The mushrooms are edible, and quite delicious, although not many people get the chance to taste them, since the entire cavern is claimed by a group of late-18th century British Soldiers, lost in time.  Unable to return to the 1770s, and unsuited for life above, the Redcoats have constructed a frontier fort in Wonderland, which has become the center of a domain ruled by the the British commanding officer, Major Sir Charles Worthington.  Worthington (and truthfully, many of his men) has been unhinged by his bizarre experience, and he maintains his troops, constantly drilling and keeping up discipline, waiting for what he's sure will be the imminent arrival of "the Relief"--a search party sent by the British Army to retrieve them.

    Of course, that Relief is never coming.

    When the Radiance creates an object, rather than a place, the result is an Artifact.  Artifacts are the "magic items" of UnderWorld, more so than the Salvage Tech items (which are much more common), and much more powerful, as well.  They are the physical embodiment of a legend.  No masses of identical "+1 Swords" here--each Artifact is unique.  Naturally, such items of power are highly sought after.

    An example of an artifact is the fabled Key to the City.  This oversized golden key is the distillation of the power of the City itself--and its wielder becomes part of the very fabric of the City, both UpWorld and UnderWorld.  The holder of the Key becomes "tied to the land" in the same way that Arthur was tied to Britain.  As the Key bearer thrives, so thrives the City, and as the bearer falters, the City falters with him.  No door in the City is barred to one who holds the Key, and it is rumored that the Radiance generated by the Subways (and perhaps even the Subway itself) moves in accordance with the Bearer's wishes.  The Key is the most powerful Artifact in the UnderWorld--and the most sought after...for its location remains a mystery.  No one knows who currently wields the Key--but it is assumed that it has no current owner:  After all, if someone had the Key, they would be the undisputed ruler of the entire UnderWorld.

    Naturally, a quest for the Key to City could form the basis for an extended campaign in UnderWorld.  The present location of the Key would have to be found, and then a journey to retrieve it, all the while in conflict with others who seek it for their own ends.

    Another example of an Artifact?  The Silence Knife.

    On March 19th, 1964, 28-year-old Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was stabbed to death in front of her apartment in Queens.  There were thirty-eight witnesses, but not one intervened.  The police eventually caught up with the killer, Winston Moseley, and he is now serving a life sentence in prison--but that murder entered into the City's collective unconscious, a towering example of shame and our fear of getting involved. The Silence Knife is the result of that fear.  No one knows if it is the same knife that killed Genovese--it probably isn't.  Rather, it is the archetype, created by the Radiance from the mental images of several million people, outraged at the crime, but more ashamed of the behavior of the witnesses.  The Silence Knife is a wickedly sharp blade with a deadly magical effect.  No-one who witnesses the knife in use is able to lift a finger to intervene.  Worse, the knife prevents them from ever being able to communicate to anyone what they saw.  The wielder of the knife is free to use it without fear of being stopped or testified against.  It is the distillation of our worst fears of urban violence, and our inability (and shameful unwillingness) to do anything about it.

    Even with the presence of Legendary locations and artifacts, the most common form of Legendary encountered by characters in UnderWorld will be the Breed of the same name.  The process of the creation of a Legendary, as I mentioned when they were introduced back in Column 4, often results in the monsters that inhabit the lowest levels of the UnderWorld.  In fact, the monsters are more commonly created than those Legendaries with the spark of intelligence.  These creatures, evolved from magical essence and collective fears, can be terrifying: Giant albino alligators swim through underground rivers. Cockroaches the size of a small pony infest caverns that even the hardiest Bravos avoid.  Great white worms, hundreds of feet long, blindly tunnel through the deep Manhattan bedrock, creating new passageways in their wake.
    Next week, the 22nd, we'll have a special "Holiday Edition" of the Game Design column.

    What the hell do I mean by that?

    Check back in 7 to find out.

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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