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Game Design: Step by Step

Big News, and Magic

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

March 12, 2000


Before I get into the specifics of how magic has changed in UnderWorld, I have to share with you some great news regarding the game:  For those of you who regularly read the forums, this is old information...feel free to skip down.

For Immediate Release


April 10, 2000--Nutley, NJ

Synister Creative Systems has announced that this August, their premiere release will be UnderWorld, a role-playing game of subterranean urban fantasy, designed by Gareth-Michael Skarka.  UnderWorld has been the subject of a weekly column at RPGnet (www.rpg.net), which has allowed readers to observe the development of the game step by step, an industry first.

"The interest that this game has generated, even in its present, column-only format, was a big factor in our decision to go ahead with it," says Sean Jaffe, president of SCS.  "The game has a ready-made fan base who will be excited to see it available as a commercial release."

"I'm very happy with this arrangement," says Skarka, the game's designer, and author of the weekly column.  "This move allows me to not have to worry about splitting my attentions between my recent appointment as Synister's Operations Manager, and getting UnderWorld out to the market."

UnderWorld is a game of urban fantasy, set in a magical world that exists below the streets of New York City.  Players can choose to take the roles of normal people who find themselves drawn into this strange world, or the fantastic denizens of the UnderWorld itself.  The game utilizes a simplified rules mechanic of multiple coin tosses known as the Head Count, and the main rulebook can be used for either table-top or live-action play.

Further information regarding UnderWorld can be found in the weekly columns at RPGnet (www.rpg.net/news+reviews/design.html).

The Advance Edition of the game will be available at GenCon in Milwaukee, WI in August, followed by a two-month period where it will be available solely through mail-order from Synister Creative Systems.  The Wide Release Edition of the game will ship to distributors in November 2000.

For further information please contact Synister Creative Systems, 800 Bloomfield Avenue, Nutley, NJ 07110 Via phone at (973) 661-3300 or on the web at www.lastexodus.com

So, there you have it.  The game will be released this year.  For those of you who will be attending GenCon, you'll be able to get it there.  If you're unable to make it to the show, fear not....the game will be published in an "advance edition", which will be made available via mail-order direct from Synister Creative Systems.  This way, those of you who have been following the development of this game from the beginning will have the opportunity to get the game well before it finally ships to stores in November.  I wanted there to be some acknowledgement of the fact that you have been with me since the beginning...a way for me to say thank you.

In other words,   "WOO-HOO!"

*                                    *                                    *

Now...on to magic.

As I mentioned in my inflammatory and forum-traffic-generating installment last week, I really haven't been too happy with how magic in the game turned out.  I found that it was too structured, and didn't feel right for the mood that I was trying to get the setting to convey.

What type of magic would fit the setting?  I mulled this over, and, after a lengthy discussion with one of my co-developers, Laura Hanson, the answer came:  Fairy tales.

The magic in fairy and folk tales isn't structured.  It's big, mysterious and filled will wonder.  That's exactly what I'm shooting for here.  The first thing that I realized is that fairy tale magic makes it impossible to have a magic system that is anything like the ones that I normally design.  I'm a big fan of modular, build-your-own spell systems.  In Age of Empire (my Victorian Fantasy game, published in 96), I used a system of Operants (much like what I had originally planned for UnderWorld).  In Hong Kong Action Theatre!, the magic was a construction system based on the I Ching.  However, I realized that when you provide a system that shows you the nuts-and-bolts of building spells, you automatically take away some of the...magical-ness, if you will.  It becomes no more wondrous than building a starship in Traveller...sure it's cool, but if you know how everything works, it doesn't have the "gee-whiz" factor that I want.

So, UnderWorld's magic system will NOT allow for players to build their own spells.  Not that people won't do it anyway...that's one of the great things about this hobby.  I fully expect that players and conductors will come up with a myriad of home-rule spells...which is just fine.  All I'm saying is that the rules will not make that part of the design of the system itself.  If you don't provide rules for spell construction, you're left with only one other option...that of "spell lists".  This is fine for UnderWorld, a setting where these spells will be taught within your Guild, passed down from teacher to student.  A list of known magical powers works well under that kind of structure.

Basically, magic in UnderWorld (which will be called Lore) will come in two varieties, which echo the sort of magic that you find in fairy tales.  The most basic and common form of Lore will be Charms.  Charms will be simple sympathetic magic, like carrying a rabbits foot, or a lucky coin, etc.  Each Guild will have their own charms, but there also will be a more general group of them as well...as befits common magic.  Mechanically, charms will operate very simply: bestowing or removing a number of coins from a Head Count toss.

The more rare and powerful form of Lore will be known as Rites.  Rites are the sweeping, major effect magic that often form the core of the plots of fairy tales:  a curse that turns a group of brothers into Swans....a spell that puts a Princess to sleep until woken by a kiss...a spell that permanently removes a small village from the world, only to return once every century...that sort of thing.  There are NO general Rites...these secrets are jealously guarded.  The Guilds have their own Rites, which they NEVER share with each other, and there are other, non-Guild Rites that have been lost to eternity...but might be found in the arsenal of a villain, or perhaps as a treasure discovered by some intrepid adventurers....

Mechanically, Rites are much more complex than Charms (as it should be, right?  Nobody wants it to be easy to cover a kingdom in thick, impassable thorns...well, OK, maybe some people want it to be easy.  Especially if its not their kingdom....but it's not going to be easy, OK?).  Rites will use a system similar to the abstract combat system...a number of coins (the number will depend upon the severity of the Rite), all of which must turn up Heads, with the ability to flip coins over to more favorable results based upon situational factors.  Each Rite will also have a way to dispell it's effects...as is standard for the fairy tale genre.  In fact, the research and discovery of a counter to a Rite can form the basis for an evening's adventure...or even an entire campaign.

So, there you have it (in brief).  Magic like I wanted it.  Of course, this magic system no longer meshes with the Salvage Tech system as much as the old one did...but that's OK.  The Salvage Tech system will still use the Operants, as I previously described.  Technology (no matter how whacked-out and bizarre) should have that level of structure to it.

Next week, among other things, we're finally going to talk about weapons.

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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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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