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Game Design: Step by Step

A Run Through Dark Places

Gareth-Michael Skarka
March 25, 2000

"Take me down, six underground...the ground beneath your feet...."
                --The Sneaker Pimps, "Six Underground"

Last week, I had the joy of running some of the staff of Synister Creative Systems (the company that will be releasing UnderWorld this summer) through their first full game session.  It was a perfect night for it:  northern New Jersey was being hit by a huge line of thunderstorms, and we had all come to the home of Sean Jaffe, Synister President, to ride out the storm, and game a bit.

I decided to take them through character creation, allowing them to see how quickly a character can be designed.  This task would've been greatly improved had I not soon discovered that the majority of the manuscript for the game was not on the hard drive of my iBook, as I had thought, but in fact on the drive of my system at the office, a couple of dozen miles away, through a dark and stormy night.  Undaunted, I decided to run them through it anyway, using what notes I did have, plus my memory.  The ease with which these people, novices to the system, came up with characters, even while lacking some of the critical information, gave me confirmation that I had managed to craft a system that was accessable to newcomers.

The characters that they came up with formed a good example of an archetypal UnderWorld playing group.  Sean played Gomer, the Pobble Who Had Lost His Toes (a Legendary, based on a children's book--he picked Navigator as his Guild).  Josh played Tect, a Freak Tagger, looking something like a cross between a man and a bug with a metal endoskeleton.  Nikki played Mina, a Freak Bravo...Bat-wings, whip-like tail, and attitude.  Laura played Nefrit, a Librarian who is one of the Lost (from Ancient Egypt). Neil played a Legendary Bravo who was basically Thor the Thunder God as a Black man.  Lastly, Frank came up with the group's sole Junkman, a Trader by the name of LugNutt.  (He decided to play against type...normally, Junkmen are not Traders, since they cannot travel to the World Above, where most Traders get their supplies.  Frank theorized that LugNutt is a purely subterranean Trader, dealing only in materials found in the World Below.)

An interesting thing happened when the players where picking their Defining Traits.  As those of you who have been reading this column since the beginning already know, every character in UnderWorld is defined by three traits.  They choose one from a list of available traits given by their Guild, one from the list given by their Breed, and one from anywhere (the wildcard, individualizing factor).  Well, since I didn't have the complete lists with me, the players came up with a few Defining Traits of their own creation.  This was great---I had intended to put a paragraph or two encouraging just this sort of continuing design in the main book, and here it was being used in practice.  For example, Nikki decided that one of Mina's Traits should be "BadAss" (and when you think of Defining Traits as something which gives you an additional coin to toss in Head Counts where the Trait is a factor, it opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities).  The best, though, was Sean's Pobble, Gomer.  Only one of his Traits was actually from the provided lists:  "Resourceful".  For his other two Traits, Sean chose "Annoying" and "Sma" (Think "small" as pronounced by Eric Cartman from "South Park").  Initially I balked at this...but damned if the "annoying" Trait didn't come in handy during the session!

The Tale began with the characters travelling through a tunnel thoroughfare in Gomer and Mina's vehicle, the Little Red Car (a centipede-like chain of connected, red VW Bugs, each with its own accessories [drills, pontoons, etc]...the cars flip themselves around to place the needed car in the front of the line).  Gomer and Mina were partners, who run the Little Red Car as a charter business...and the other characters had booked passage with them to travel to Wonderland (the spot under the East Side of Central Park), where a Grand Market was being held (a great place to find work, new equipment, adventure hooks (*ahem*), etc.).

While en route, the Little Red Car was travelling through a tunnel that passes near to the domain known as the Washington Depths, located below (as you might have guessed), the area of New York City known as Washington Heights.  The Depths, or "Wash Deep" as they're sometimes called, are run by a Lord named Mordecai.  Mordecai is a nasty sort...acquistive, ambitious, short, a good villain.  Suddenly, to the character's surprise, they arrive at a road block, set across the tunnel, and manned by two Homeless Bravos, wearing the colors of Wash Deep.  The Bravos inform them that Mordecai has annexed this territory into the domain of Wash Deep, and this tunnel is now a toll road.

Gomer is outraged by this.  "This tunnel is a public thoroughfare!" he intones in a voice which sets the players off on a 10 minute jag of making impressions of Penfold from "Danger Mouse"  ("Crumbs!" "Oo 'eck!").  The Bravos clearly have larceny in mind, so Gomer, after several attempts to dissuade them from their current course of action (some involving the use of his "annoying" Trait, and one involving the promise of sexual favors from Mina...) re-configures the Little Red Car without warning (jostling and spilling the other occupants out of their seats), putting the drill bit up foreward.  Gunning the engine, Gomer revs the vehicle up to a mighty 40 miles an hour, and, drill bit spinning, plows through the barricade.  The Wash Deep Bravos fire guns at the car as it trundles away (yes, they were Homeless, hence the guns worked just fine....see?  Told ya I wasn't dissallowing them....).

Having made good their escape, the characters are dismayed some time later when the Little Red Car conks out and coasts to a stop.  Gomer can't seem to find the problem, and so LugNutt offers to help, such as he can.  (The ghost at the center of the Junkman used to be a plumber, and in fact, part of the Junkman's body is made up of plumbing...sure,he's not a mechanic, but at least it's technical....)  Together, they discover that the gunfire from the Bravos knocked the fuel line loose (thank god it didn't run on Gasoline).  Using a beer bottle and some duct tape from the Junkman's body, they repair the line, and power returns to the Little Red Car...

Just in time for the headlights to illuminate a group of around a dozen Wash Deep Bravos converging upon them.

Mina struts forward, announcing "I'll handle this."  Hefting a Kusari-gama (nasty martial arts weapon....sort of a scythe with a weighted chain attached...yeouch.), she strides confidently towards the 12 Bravos.  Since the Bravos were rank-and-file thugs (or Mooks, as they would be called in Feng Shui), we decided to use the abstract combat system that I detailed back in Column 8.   The totals of the advantages were figured, the coins were tossed, and the flipping began.  The only real advantage that the Bravos had was the fact that they seriously outnumbered Mina.  Comparitively, she was full of advantages...she had natural weapons, she can fly, she's a BadAss....well, let's just say that it was over quickly, and it wasn't pretty.

Mina sauntered back to the Little Red Car, gingerly stepping over the wreckage of what used to be a dozen living, breathing Bravos.  To the accompaniment of a few low whistles of astonishment from her fellow travellers, she took her seat back in the Car....and with that, the Little Red Car, and the characters, continued on their way.

After that, the game sort of broke down....largely due to my inability to continue (cracked molar causing me extreme pain...later found out that I needed a Root Canal...everything is copacetic now, though).  But everyone had a good time, and really took to both their characters and the system.

Next week, we'll take a look at the production side of things...with an examination of what was decided would be included in the main book, and what sort of support is being talked about...and maybe a look at some of the artwork that has been coming in.

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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