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Game Design: Step by Step

The Iron Forestries of Hell

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

February 16, 2000


The title for this weeks column comes from a line in Alan Tate's poem The Subway (last mentioned in the 12th installment of this column).  I've been thinking quite a bit about the setting of UnderWorld recently, and this phrase has always struck me as one of the most evocative.

First, an explanation of my absence last week.  Despite Sandy's good-intentioned "covering" for me, but claiming I was bumped by Meera's humour column, the fact of the matter is that I dropped the ball.  I just didn't get a column in last week.  Bad Gareth.  No biscuit.

The reason? Broken ribs, sadly enough.

As some of you might know, the northeast (which includes my digs here in NYC) got hit a couple of weeks back with a long-overdue humdinger of a snowstorm.  This, combined with bitterly cold temperatures, resulted in nice, slick, and nigh-invisible patches of ice all over the place, including the sidewalk in front of my apartment.

Long story short:  Ass over elbows, whizz-crash-boom, broken ribs on my right side.  No fun at all.

But, now I'm back.

Lots of stuff going on in the world of UW, and all of it has been reflected on the website.  First of all, we've added a fiction page, to showcase stories, some of which will appear in the rulebook when published, some of which will be web-only.  Kicking off this part of the website is a fun little piece, entitled "Downbelow" by contributing author T.S. Luikart.  A lotta fun, that one.  Here's hoping that we'll see some more of his work.

Second, the initial samples of the soundtrack pieces have arrived, and I've put two of them up on the new Soundtrack Sample page.  Even though these MP3s are only "rough drafts" (the finals will be further mixed, with additional material and other nifties), I can't tell you how pleased I am.  Check them out.  I think you'll like them.  Kudos to <Anvil.Chorus> for his excellent work.

One of the side effects of my hearing this music and reading this story has been a massive re-kindling of my thoughts about the setting--and so, this week, I figured I'd chuck another tidbit out there--more will follow, assuredly.

*                        *                        *

The Late Train is a danger to all who ride the rails--whether they are from the UnderWorld or our own.  It is the result of the experimentations of a mad Artificer known as Faustus.  Faustus looked for a way to immortality.  He interrogated Nomads--but found their frustrating amnesia blocked any clues of their discoveries of the secret to eternal life.  So, he turned his attention to the Junkmen.  He began to theorize on the construction of a Junkman body that would channel his own soul at the moment of death--allowing him to "leap" from his failing mortal form into a permanent shell of metal.

Late one night, Faustus set up the experiment that would transfer his soul.  Powered directly by the Radiance running along the magical geometries of the Subway tracks, the experiment required that Faustus and his new body be aligned on the track, allowing the Radiance to flow.  Unfortunately, that very night, a late-running 7 train, one of the old-fashioned "redbirds", its red livery faded by age to the color of a bloodstain, came hurtling unexpectedly along the same track chosen by Faustus for his experiment.  The train obliterated the Junkman body and killed Faustus instantly.

However, his soul and certain, arcane aspects of the Junkman construct fused with the inner workings of the Train.  His experiment worked, after a fashion.  Faustus was gone--his mind shattered by the experience.  What was left of his maniacal intelligence became the driving force behind The Late Train: a sentient subway train, bestowed with awful power from the accident.

The Late Train prowls the tracks, always arriving unannounced into stations late at night.  Anyone boarding the train is never seen again--for it is said that the train is powered not by electricity, or by Radiance, but by souls.  It is said that the Late Train eats its riders.

However, the Train can be bargained with.  It is a dangerous proposition, to be sure, and more than one group has been lost in their attempt to cajole the serpentine juggernaut, but if you are incredibly clever, not to mention possessed of unbelievable luck, an agreement can be reached.  The Late Train's wants are as unpredictable as its schedule, but if they are met, it can be of value to an enterprising group.  The Late Train can travel anywhere in the system, with a speed beyond reckoning (it is said that it has knowledge of certain dimensional shortcuts, and that all subway systems are open to it), and its knowledge on many subjects rivals the greatest of Librarians (it has travelled farther than any can know...and remembers all that it has seen).  The price is high, however, and the risks far too great for the faint of heart (and some would say, for the sound of mind).  The Late Train is not to be taken lightly.

*                        *                        *

Brrrrr---creepy.  Well, there's definitely more where that came from.  Until next week, take a look at the updates on the website.  Read the story, listen to the music...and be careful of what trains you take.

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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