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Game Design: Step by Step

Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog...

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

April 19, 2000


In the deservedly-Oscar-winning movie, Shakespeare in Love, we are told that the audience doesn't want to be challenged. Through the character of Henslowe, we are told the following: "Comedy, love, and a bit with a dog.  That's what they want!"

Sometimes, it seems the same thing happens with roleplaying games.

I don't know how many times I have seen the coolest game, with the most lovingly created, intricate setting, reduced to a table-top version of "Quake III Arena" by players who are more interested in blowing shit up than playing a character.  It's one of the most frustrating things for a game designer to have to deal with.  There's no way to get around it, and, honestly, we shouldn't try---after all, it's the player's game, and if they want to re-enact the tea-house scene from Hard Boiled in a Vampire Prince's court, then far be it from me to tell them that they're doing it wrong, and that they don't "get it."....

But damn it, they're doing it wrong....and they don't get it. (Mind you, I think that White Wolf pretty much asked for it...I can't tell you how my heart sank when I opened up the first edition of the Vampire players guide, way back when, and saw the weapons-fetishist listings of various types of guns and ammunition available to the creatures of the Night....but that's a whole 'nother rant, there.)

So, given that the game that I'm designing here depends heavily on mood and atmosphere...how do I handle weapons?  More importantly, how do I handle them so that the game doesn't turn into "The-Colonial-Marines-from-Aliens-do-a-sweep-and-clear-on-the-NYC-subway-system"?

The answer is in the Radiance.

I simply established the fact that the deeper you go into the tunnels, the more the Radiance messes with your ability to use modern technology. Now, I know that this will raise the inevitable cry "but guns aren't modern....they've been around since the Renaissance...blah blah blah blah"....yeah, I know that.  But it's the spirit of the thing.  The gun is a modern tool, and as such, will break down or otherwise simply not work as you enter the deeper tunnels.  Same goes for flashlights, laptops, cellphones, and digital watches.

There are three ways around this, of course.  The first is to make sure that you stay in the upper tunnels.  Sure enough, guns will work there just fine, thank you very much.  The second is the fact that the special ability of the Homeless Breed is that modern tech will ALWAYS work for them, no matter how deep they take it...it's their advantage.  So, if you want to be a gun bunny, play a Homeless guy.  Of course, the Homeless don't have the big spectacular special abilities that other Breeds have, so aside from the ability to use technology at any depth, there's not much there to attract the true ravening combat-monster.

The third way is to ignore "real world" guns and instead pack some Salvage Tech heat.  A weapon built by an Artificer (or, for that matter, built into a Junkman) will be able to be used at any depth...of course, they're a lot more bizarre than your average run-of-the-mill gun...and, of course, there might be some unusual side effects (depending upon the skill of the Artificer....).  You're a lot less likely to indiscriminately throw shots if you're using a gun that hurls bolts of electricity and you're standing in ankle-deep puddles.....

The other factor to consider is that the society of the UnderWorld frowns on the use of guns for one, BIG reason.  Guns make a lot of noise, especially when they're fired in damp, echo-causing stone and cement tunnels and caverns....and noise attracts attention.  The last thing that the UnderWorlders need is a NYPD task force coming down there to investigate the sounds of a firefight.  So, the Lords tend to keep a tight reign on guns within their borders.  Some go as far as to confiscate them...others just make it a capital offense to fire one within their realm.  They don't want to have to deal with the trouble that could be caused, or the attention.

Keep in mind also that the game is set in NYC.  Sure, you can buy a gun pretty easily, especially if you know the right street corners to check...but those guns require cash...which is something that the UnderWorlders do not use.  Makes it kinda hard to buy a gun from an UpWorlder when you live in a barter-based economy...

And, lastly, and perhaps the biggest factor involved, is that down in the UnderWorld, you're never sure if what you're firing at can even be affected by bullets.  There's a lot of unnatural stuff in the tunnels...and the Radiance spits out more every day.  Personally, I'd rather not discover that I had hung all of my hopes for survival on a firearm when the beastie that I'm shooting at shrugs the bullets off like a pesky rainstorm.

So, given all of these factors, it shouldn't come as any real surprise that the most common weapons found in the UnderWorld are blades.  Knives are the most common, since they're easy to conceal, and you can carry a bunch if you want.  They can be used hand-to-hand, and can be thrown as well.  Swords are also present, but less common...harder to come by, for one thing, and also harder to swing around in confining tunnels.  Some Lords arm their Bravos with spears (which sometimes can be as simple as a knife tied to a stick), but those are for use when you want to stick a blade in someone or something from a reasonably safe distance away...good for use against monsters, for example.

The biggest category of weapons in UnderWorld are the improvised or converted weapons.  A gardening tool has a deadly blade, if you sharpen it.  A length of chain makes a convenient weapon with several methods of use.  More exotic weapons can be fashioned from items such as sharpened bicycle sprockets, or a length of razor wire...and let's not forget simple everyday implements like the hammer, or the conveniently placed chunk of cinderblock.  The denizens of the UnderWorld do not lack options.

I guess what I'm trying to go for here is an effort to make players be a little more creative when it comes to their character's choice of weapon.  Guns are generic, and they really don't mesh that well with the Urban Fantasy genre.   The character's weapon should be as individual as the character itself.  After all, we associate legendary beings with the weapons they carried...they're part of the legend, too.  Robin Hood had his longbow, Arthur had Excalibur, Thor has his hammer.  For those of you who've read the UnderWorld short story by T.S. Luikart, the character of Ithio is a great example..a pair of twined knives, one flint, and one steel...that's killer stuff, that.

Make your character's weapon a part of his or her legend.  After all:  saying that your character wields a sharpened railroad spike, taken from the first track laid in the entire subway system....that has a lot more nifty-ness to it than saying "he's got a gun.  A big, big gun.".

In fact (and just to let you in on another secret of the system), there will be a rules mechanic in UnderWorld that will allow players to appoint a signature weapon, which will grow in power as the character grows.  As more and more people in the UnderWorld hear the tale of Ithio's knives, for example, the more dangerous those knives become.  Maybe it's a side effect of exposure to the Radiance....or maybe it's just a rules mechanic that encourages the style of play that I enjoy.  You choose.

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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