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Game Design: Step by Step

Concepts Continued

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

October 28, 1999


This week we continue with an examination of the concepts that I hope to include in UnderWorld. Last week we took a look at the basic rules mechanic (the use of Tokens in what has now been termed the "Head Count", thanks to the suggestion of Richard Ranallo). This week, I'll get a little more abstract and discuss more of the concepts behind the game, rather than the hard mechanics that go into it (although don't worry-the mechanics discussions will be forthcoming. Remember that I promised to cover every aspect of the design process).

My inspirations for UnderWorld, as I stated in the first column, are varied. Obviously, Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is a big influence, and, if you haven't yet read it, or have not yet seen the wonderful BBC miniseries, then I heartily recommend you do so. However, I intend UnderWorld to be more than merely an unlicensed Neverwhere RPG (there's one of those already, available on the net).

I draw inspiration from Lisa Goldstein's great novel, Dark Cities Underground, which works from the conceit that all children's' literature that deals with secret fantasy worlds (Never Land, Wonderland, Narnia, etc.) are in fact differing accounts taken from children's' actual encounters with a world beneath our own, populated by archetypes ranging from Egyptian gods to the Fisher King. This concept of archetypes that exist, hidden from our world and yet influencing it, also is the cornerstone of Tim Powers' novel, The Last Call. I'm not sure yet, but I think that I might want to use the concept of archetypes and sympathetic magic when I get down to designing a magic system for UnderWorld. I haven't really thought of much specifics regarding magic yet-all I know is that I want to be as far from the standard "mutter-mutter, wave-wave, *BOOM*" style of RPG magic with which we're all too familiar.

Hidden, underground societies, and the laws that govern them, also feature strongly in both the mid-eighties television series Beauty & the Beast, and in Clive Barker's novella, "Cabal" (filmed as Nightbreed). The idea of "that which is below, remains below" is something that I wish to infuse into this game. The action will take place in a separate place, near to our world, but forever apart from it. Even the romantic elements of Beauty & the Beast, which has caused some flak to be thrown my way when I mention it as an inspiration for this project, has a place in this game. Romance is very much a part of adventure literature, and to date has been largely ignored in RPGs (with exceptions such as the brilliant Pendragon from Green Knight Publishing). I see no reason why I should not touch upon it in this game.

Other influences creep in from everything else that interests me. I am a huge fan of the steampunk genre, especially in the bizarre, anachronistic technology of it: huge brass cogs, hissing steam valves, etc. I want to have an element of that in UnderWorld as well, in the form of what I have termed Salvage Tech-strange inventions made from the discarded and cast-off detritus of our society. I see characters speeding through tunnels on carriages, made from shopping carts and bits of loose plumbing, powered by electricity siphoned from the third rail...

I am also a fan of bizarreness in general-shows like Twin Peaks, Sapphire & Steel, and Doctor Who, films such as Brazil, City of Lost Children, and Dark City, that sort of thing. So, I know that when I sit down to flesh out the world beneath New York, I will have to throw some curves at the reader. Things that come to me when I'm just about to fall asleep. Things which are paradigm-shifting, convention-shattering WEIRD, with a capital W. Hell-New York City is strange enough, and that's just when you look at it in the real world! Add some bizarre fantasy to the mix, and *pow!*--instant wierdification, which, as a designer, I view as A Good Thing. More on this when I start detailing the world below.

What sort of characters would adventure in this world? This question is one of the first hurdles in game design. A great setting can be for nought if the types of characters that players have to choose from aren't in the least bit interesting. From the beginning I realized that the overwhelming majority of the stories that inspired this game featured a normal, everyday person pulled into this strange underworld, allowing the reader (or the viewer, or what have you) to explore this nifty setting through they eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. However, I also realized that a game where everyone is playing a "normal" could get boring very quickly, especially after the initial exploration of the setting was through.

So, I need to allow for both "normals" from the world above, coming into the UnderWorld for the first time, as well as "natives"-characters from the society of the UnderWorld itself. This will allow for a wide variety of campaign types, depending on the desires of the players and gamemaster (who will be known in this game as the "Conductor", thanks to a great suggestion by Jared Sorensen).

The natives of the UnderWorld will be varied, naturally. There will be homeless who drifted down from the streets above, who make up the "rank and file" of the society. The inspiration of the creatures in Nightbreed and Vincent from Beauty & the Beast can be encompassed by a category I will term "Freaks", using one of the slang terms I find in a non-fiction book about New York's underground homeless, entitled Mole People. The Freaks will be a catch-all for all of those who cannot live above ground due to their appearance-they are the monsters of the tunnels.

Hell, why not use the "Mole People" themselves as a type of character? Native to the environment, and adapted to it-able to see in the dark, limber as all get-out (good for scampering through tight spaces), but unable to tolerate light, these people live in the deepest levels of the UnderWorld, far from the surface.

As an example of the weirdness factor, another possible character type just came to me. What if there are portals deep in the UnderWorld, that connect to other times? What if these portals open only one way-into the UnderWorld? This could lead to another type of character-the Lost: folks who stumbled their way into the tunnels from some other time, and are now trapped there, unable to return to their home time. Visions of a unit of Redcoats from the 1770's, now setting up their own little colony in a cavern beneath Central Park comes quickly to mind, before I file it away with a barely suppressed grin.

There are more possibilities, of course-but, since we're beginning to encroach upon the early stages of character creation, I'll stop here for now. Next week we'll start covering character creation in detail. Same bat-time, same bat-channel. I'll see you then.

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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