Game Design: Step by Step
Comin' wit da Nifties
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!"
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;
Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 1999 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.