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Game Design: Step by Step

The Mechanics of Mechanics

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

January 26, 2000


Welcome back--as promised, this week we get back into the swing of things with (*gasp*) actual design content!

Artificers are mad scientists.  Through profound leaps of logic only accessible to someone who is....well, to put it kindly, a nut-job, they warp the laws of the universe and create inventions that wouldn't work anywhere outside of the influence of the Radiance.  Some are powerful enough to invent devices that can operate in the UpWorld, but even then the effects are (to quote Doctor Benson Honeydew) sadly temporary.  Simple fact:  outside of the range of the Radiance, Salvage Tech breaks down.

From a game-design standpoint, I have to tread carefully here.  One, I have to make sure that the creation of Salvage Tech devices isn't over-balancing to the game world.  Two (and this only recently occurred to me due to a personal campaign that my gaming group has just begun) the idea of mad scientists whose devices tap into magical energies is similar in concept to an idea presented in Pinnacle Entertainment Group's excellent RPG, Deadlands.  So, the challenge is to remain faithful to my original idea, while at the same time not mirroring the Deadlands stuff, and preventing the whole thing from turning the game into a subterranean arms race.

In short, a real pain in the ass.

I think that the best way to handle creation in the game is to provide a list of example inventions to pick from if you're stumped for ideas, and then provide guidelines for assigning values to inventions developed entirely by the players.  The guidelines are going to have to be intentionally rules-light--which is going to bug a lot of folks, I'm sure--but realistically, it's the only way to cover the vast possibilities covered by this topic without going into such minute detail as to make the system look like the Manhattan Yellow Pages.

The inventions will be defined by what they do (obviously), and their power.  By power, I don't mean that you have to specify that X is powered by electricity, or by Radiance, or by belt-fed cans of Ready-Whip dessert topping (although the Artificer should include such information in the description--it's part of the concept, after all), but rather by how much power it contains--i.e. how many charges it has, how long it can be used before being refueled, etc.  Obviously, the more powerful the device is, the harder it will be to construct. (Not that it is inherently harder to deal with greater power--just that it is more difficult to contain that power and use it in manageable doses without the thing blowing up in your face!)

Defining a device by what it does is somewhat easier--largely because you can use the same Operants that we're using to describe Magic.  For those of you who've forgotten (and hey, I forgive ya--it's been a while), Operants are the "verbs" of magic.  Using those same "verbs", we can describe the device in detail.  Think of it like this--a piece of Salvage Tech is basically a mechanical spell.  In some ways, it is better than a spell--you only have to "cast" it once (when building it), and then use it over and over again; you can combine multiple Operants into its construction (which is WAY more difficult with spells), and (some of you are gonna LOVE this), you don't have to worry about that "As above, so below" magical balance crap.

That's right--Salvage Tech is inherently unbalanced.  Unlike spells, which shape the Radiance into effects (and hence, need to be balanced), Salvage Tech basically syphons off some of the Radiance and burns it up.  Poof.  Gone.  It uses it to allow the wacko assumptions of the Artificer to actually work.  Some folks say this is part of the reason that Artificers get crazier and crazier as they get better and better at inventing this stuff--proponents of the balance of Magic say that the insanity is a form of the balance, taking its due.  Artificers say "balance schmalance--I've got nifty toys."  Or something like that (sometimes they just curse at the other folks, and throw garbage at them--Artificers are like that).

So, from a game-mechanics perspective, Artificers come up with a device, translate its functions into Operant terms, figure out the power needs of those Operants, and then, once the player has the Operants and Power figured, they attempt the Invention using a Head Count.  That's it.  Pretty simple, all in all.

*                    *                    *

Starting this week, I'm going to devote a little bit of the column now and again to the non-design parts of getting this game out there--production and publication.  I had a number of requests from some of you for a little bit of insight into that side of things, and, despite the fact that this is a design column, I think it might be helpful to you to see some of the other stuff that goes on behind-the-scenes.

John Wick recently wrote in his Gaming Outpost column that he's thinking of selling his latest project, Orkworld, direct (i.e. from him to the customer, no middle man), instead of using the distribution system.  This is an interesting idea, for a number of reasons (which he covers in his column, so I won't go into them here).  He's got me thinking about distribution of UnderWorld when we release it.  Do I want to go through the standard distribution channels, and make about 40 cents on every dollar, minus shipping, and have to constantly call them both to get them to re-order and to get them to pay me on time....or do I want to offer it direct--which would allow us to charge less, and still reach our core audience.  Definitely something to think about.  I'd love to hear your opinions on this (plus it would be fun to use the forums for something other than flaming for a change).

To bring you up to speed on where we're at, production-wise:  Some partners and I have formed Prodigal Publishing Group as a partnership (we thought about forming it as a corporation, but, honestly, partnership was cheaper, and right now, cheap is good).  We registered a domain, and put up a placeholder on our website--which will soon be home to more than just a title screen for UnderWorld (I'll let you know when that happens).  We've got some artists who've expressed interest, and have started the necessary (but still unpleasant) task of amassing funds for the production.  Through my contacts at Lightning Print (a print-to-order house), we've gotten a package of information on production costs--and we're good to go.

There.  You're up to speed, now.

Next week, we'll talk a little bit more about production (including the steps that have been taken towards the first support release for UnderWorld--a soundtrack CD)--but the main focus of the article will be about my favorite of all the Breeds:  The Junkmen.

See ya in 7.

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 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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