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Game Design: Step by Step

The Fever for the Flavor

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

May 10, 2000

 

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, we're so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside....
                                                                        --Emerson, Lake and Palmer, "Karn Evil 9 first impression."

Sorry for the delay in getting you this installment of the column.  For any of you who enjoy voyeuristic peeks into the personal lives of others, I'll share with you the reason for the delay:  Three children.  Mine, in fact.  My kids--Allie (10), Maggie (6), and Ian (5)--are out from their Mom's place in Colorado to stay with me for the month of May.  I spent last weekend (when I tend to write the column) flying out to Denver on Saturday, picking them up, and flying back on Sunday.  Since then, I've been basking in Daddy-land.  So, you'll forgive me for being a little bit late.

This week's discussion takes us again into the "feel" of a game, and how a designer can successfully manage to communicate that to prospective players.  I discussed previously how the rules mechanics themselves can be set up in such a way as to reinforce a particular mood or style of play, and, obviously, this applies to the trappings of the setting as well.

The write-up of the setting is the primary method that the designer has at his or her disposal.  The "feel" of UnderWorld for example, is a juxtaposition of the gritty realism of urban settings and the fanciful otherworldliness of fairy tales.  It doesn't stop there, however.  Like Emeril Legasse on a word-processor, I must also throw in a dash of steampunk, a pinch of horror, and a cup of symbolism.  It's quite a handful...but really my own fault, for attempting such a hodge-podge of genres.  The information on the setting is my main tool, which I will augment with a bibliography of inspirational works (well, not really a true "bibliography", since it will also contain film, television, comic book, and musical inspirations), and flavor text.

Flavor text can be a mixed blessing.  Sometimes, if it's done well, it can be invaluable to conveying not only the feel of the setting, but also can manage to give a good idea of what sort of adventures are possible.  That's if anyone reads it.  Too often, flavor text is so badly written--overblown, lurid prose rivalling the worst excesses of the pulp era--that a lot of gamers simply skim it, to get to "the good stuff."

(As a side note, there's an interesting little tidbit regarding tie-in fiction for games.  Fiction anthologies, novels, etc., produced by a game company for their product line, don't sell all that well to the hobby trade (comics and games stores), but actually outsell the games themselves in the book trade (shipment to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc).  Given this, I can pretty much guarantee that there will be tie-in fiction for UnderWorld.  The book trade is simply too large to ignore.)

The UnderWorld rulebook will contain flavor text.  Those of you who checked out the old website saw some of it--the piece written by T.S. Luikart (and, while I'm on the subject, a new website is currently under construction, bringing the site in line with the new release information, and a bunch of other cool stuff...more news here when it happens).  Trust me when I say that I'll do my best to make sure that it doesn't stray into the realm of purple prose.

The most obvious way to convey the "feel" of the game to prospective players doesn't come from the designer at all...it comes from the art director, who chooses the artwork for the publication.  Like it or not, no matter how good the writing is on a game, if the art doesn't get the gamer to look at the book in the first place, it does little good.  In this industry (as in many others), image is as important as content.  Luckily enough, in addition to designing UnderWorld, I have the good fortune of also being the Line Developer, which means that I get to tell the Art Director what I'm looking for in terms of artwork.

Speaking of which...this thought just occurred to me:  if any of you out there are artists, and would like to get your feet wet in the gaming industry, you should contact Synister Creative System's Freelance Liaison, Laura Hanson.  Give her the URL for any on-line samples you may have, or send a couple of samples (please scan them with a virus checker before sending...we don't want to suffer the same fate as Wick here)..  We're looking for black and white interior artwork for UnderWorld , traditional, digital or mixed.  The deadlines are pretty tight, though--after receiving assignment, final art must be in by the first week in June.  Pay rates will be individually negotiated and based upon experience, and amount of work assigned.

Give it a shot.   As the slogan for the NY State Lottery says:  "Hey, ya never know."

*                                                            *                                                            *

Throughout the forums recently, there has been some consternation caused by my statements regarding the effect of the Radiance on symbols of the modern age, such as guns.  A lot of the more critical comments--specifically the ones that claimed that this was an indication that the rules where somehow "broken",  struck me as particularly unwarranted, given that I haven't really shown you any of the rules in question (of course, some of the other commentary would have you believe that I am some sort of Neo-Luddite Antichrist....no comment there).

So, I figured that I'd give you a little look at exactly how that whole thing works, mechanically speaking.

Every level of the UnderWorld has what we'll call a Radiance Count (RadCount?  Hmmmm.  Maybe....).  The deeper you go, the higher the number gets.  On the surface (the UpWorld), the Count is zero.  In the Subways themselves (the stations and train tunnels), you start getting just a little bit "other-worldly", and so the Count is 1.  The further away you get from the "real world", the more the Count climbs...2, 3, 4, 5....and so on.  All of the areas described in the setting section of the rulebook (and in any supplements) will be given a Count number.

Every piece of equipment will have a Radiance Rating, which will be given in the equipment lists.  These ratings will be provided for you, so that the Conductor doesn't necessarily have to have a deep understanding of symbolism and sympathetic magic (which the system is based upon) to determine the ratings.  Those Conductors who do "get it" while find it very easy to extrapolate based upon the examples cited, and the examples will be broad enough to allow for extrapolation by those who only are familiar with the equipment list, and nothing else.  In general, the more an object is associated with modern reality, the lower that object's Radiance Rating will be.

From there, it's pretty simple:  When using an object in an area where the Count is higher than the object's Rating, the player receives a penalty to the coin toss equal to the difference.  For example:  let's say that your character is trying to use a Laptop (Radiance Rating 0) in a cavern with a Count of 3.  Any attempt to use that Laptop would receive a 3 coin penalty...probably enough to prevent it from working at all.

That's it.  Nothing too nefarious.  Contrary to popular belief, I'm not saying you can't use guns in this game.  However, with Radiance Ratings of 0 to 1 at best, they're going to be less and less reliable the deeper you travel.

Hopefully that clears it up for you.

On a related topic, characters will have Radiance Ratings as well, but they work in the opposite way.  Some character types (Legendaries and Junkmen, for example) literally depend upon the presence of the Radiance.  If they venture into areas with lower Radiance than they need, they're weaker...and if they go out into the UpWorld, where there is no Radiance at all (Count zero), they run the risk of ceasing to exist all together.  Like a fish out of water, they die.

So, there you have it.  A brief look at the mechanics behind the Radiance.  Next week, I want to show you a little bit more from the Conductor's bag of tricks, and maybe some stuff for Players as well.

See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka
gms@synistercreative.com

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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