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Game Design: Step by Step

Comin' wit da Nifties

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

October 27, 1999


As promised, in this second installment, I will talk about the development of the concepts and features that will drive Underworld forward. I'll be honest--when I sit down to design a game, I look to include what I have in the past jokingly referred to as "nifties"-innovations, or clever gimmicks (depending on one's point of view) that will make the game stand out.

Most of the games that I consider to be among the best ever designed have nifties--the card mechanics and journal-records of Castle Falkenstein, the mooks of Feng Shui, and, well, the entire design of Baron Munchausen. For a game to be really successful, in my opinion, it needs something that, when even just described to a prospective player, will make them say "Cool!"

The problem with this, from a designer's perspective, is that trying to come up with a nifty is a little bit like someone putting a blank piece of paper and a pencil in front of you, and saying: "OK, now Innovate!"

Kinda daunting.

For Underworld, I sort of started with one nifty already in mind, though (or at least, I considered it nifty). I wanted to design a game that could be played either tabletop or as a LARP, while using the exact same rules. I want the game to be able to support both types of play, without the necessity of altering the rules, or buying a supplement. Both types of play, one rulebook, one purchase.

The first thing that I realized was that this meant one thing, first and foremost: No Dice. Nothing would impede the transition between tabletop and live-action play than having to carry around a handful of dice, and rolling them whenever you wanted to do anything. This was a mistake made in the ill-fated Star Wars Live-Action Adventures.

(I should add a note here. Given the topic of Underworld (post-modern epic fantasy in an urban setting, specifically the network of tunnels beneath New York City), I realize that any discussion of the game as a LARP will have to be accompanied by disclaimers in large block letters about three feet high, proclaiming that I don't in any way recommend actually travelling into the tunnels, either here in NYC, or the steam tunnels beneath a university, or anywhere else. The last thing I need is some idiot getting hurt or killed.)

(Actually, while I'm in a note-giving mood, I should also add a bit about my philosophy when it comes to rules mechanics: Less is better. This philosophy will aid in the transitions between LARP and tabletop, since there won't be any huge tables of probabilities, etc., that need to be carried over. I'm a rules-light kinda guy, and I design for folks with similar tastes. I figure folks who enjoy more structured rules can just take the setting and play it using GURPS, or HERO, or whatever. And they usually do.)

So, no dice. I don't really want to go full-on diceless, however. (This may seem odd at first, but what I mean is that I don't want the system to be without a random element. I don't plan on using dice, but I do want some sort of resolution mechanic) I start to think about possible resolution methods. Cards have been done a bit too much recently, and plus, carrying around a 52-card deck could be just as problematic as dealing with dice. Then, standing on the uptown platform of the 50th Street E station, I put my hands in my pockets, and hit upon my randomizer.

In my pocket was the usual assortment of commuter detritus: A Metrocard, a receipt or two from various lunches, and a handful of coins and subway tokens. The idea of using tokens in a game set in the tunnels seemed to be perfectly suited to the feel of the game. Now, I obviously couldn't expect everyone to have access to subway tokens, so I expand my idea to include the various coins in my hand. Everyone has access to coinage.

On the ride home, I develop the basic mechanic of the game. The randomizers will be referred to as Tokens, and they can be coins, chips, subway or bus tokens-anything that has a differing design on its two sides. The name Tokens could also indicate some magical properties as well...ideas surrounding sympathetic magic use tokens as well. I push that to the back of my mind-I'll return to that when I start thinking along magical lines.

The basic mechanic of Underground will be a toss of three different Tokens. During the ride home I try this with three differently sized coins. The player totals the number of heads (positive) results, to arrive at his or her success number. Difficult of unopposed actions, set by the gamemaster (I momentarily dwell over the idea of coming up with a unique, game-specific name for the GM, perhaps "the Engineer" or somesuch) will indicate whether one, two, or three successes are needed. Perhaps tests occurring over time will allow players to accumulate successes from multiple throws, with tails (negative) results taking away from the accumulated total.

Characters who possess traits that are applicable to the task at hand will get extra Tokens to throw, increasing the likely number of successes. However, actions which would require an expert's handling might also require more than 3 successes, making them impossible to attempt for all except those with the appropriate trait (and hence the extra Tokens needed).

Opposed throws, like you would find in combat, for example, involve the player matching his throw against another (whether player or NPC). In this case, you can use your positive results to either count towards your total number of successes, or to remove one of your opponent's successes. Certain traits may also allow a player to take one (or perhaps more) of his opponent's negative results as a positive for his own throw.

This type of system, being very rules-light, will require a good deal of interpretation on the part of the GM, and so I will have to make sure that the gamemaster's section of the rulebook includes enough guidelines so as not to make it too difficult.

The system will require a character defined by descriptive, rather than numeric, traits. Each trait will allow the character a specific benefit (expertise, knowledge, even physical, mental and spiritual traits)...although the possibility of negative traits (while being a bit reminiscent of min-maxing)also occurs to me, allowing for more detailed characters.

Which brings us to the end of this week's entry. Describing the Token system kinda got away from me, and so next week I'll go into more detail regarding the other nifties that I hope to include, and perhaps beginning to tackle the subject of character creation.

While I still have your attention, however, I also want to add that if any of you have questions or comments about any of the contents of these columns, feel free to email me. My mailbox is open.

Until 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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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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