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Game Design: Step by Step

Character is what you are in the Dark

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

October 29, 1999


Those of you who recognize the title of this week's installment as a quote from the inestimable Doctor Emilio Lizardo may give yourselves one gold star. What did the good doctor mean? Stripped of everything else, all that remains is the character-the core of the being.

Too many games focus their attention upon character creation: the process of generating a character within the context of the rules. A far more interesting method is to focus on something that Lou Prosperi (former honcho of FASA's Earthdawn) drew my attention to recently: Character Definition. What goes into defining the characters? Or, more simply, who are the characters of this world, and what do they do there? Once you have defined the characters, creating them is much, much easier. Describing a character in terms of a game system is a simple thing. To define a character-explain what makes them tick, to give us the "why" as well as the "who".... Now that's difficult.

Early model games identified the primary considerations for character definition: who the characters are (race), and what the characters do (class). As games began to move away from the who/what dichotomy, they branched into the "how" method, defining a character by what they are capable of (skill/power systems). The 90s have been marked by games that define characters through a simplified amalgam of all previous methods, the template. Template games offer you the who, the what and the how in a single choice-whether that choice is called a template, a clan, a school, or a tribe. Your choice of template gives you your social identity (who), your functional identity (what), and a spread of abilities (how) that may be individualized within the parameters of that template.

A nice, simple system, to be sure-but offering less option in some ways, than the old "race/class" systems that are viewed by some as outdated. I mean, in the end, there's precious little difference between Brujah, for example...or Lion Clan samurai, or Get of Fenris, or Rebel Pilots.

For UnderWorld, it is my intention to return to the "who/what" dichotomy-defining characters by combining who they are with what they do. The "how"-the abilities of the characters, will be arrived at by a combination of the other two factors, and then through individualization. That last process, individualizing the results, is necessary. Combining finite options yields finite results. Characters should be infinite.

In UnderWorld, the "who" of a character-the character's race, if you will-will be referred to as the character's Breed. (Yes, the "Cabal" inspiration rears its head here). The Breed will give the character those things that come innately to them just because of who they are-innate abilities (seeing in the dark, resistance to magic, that sort of thing).

The "what" of a character-the class, or occupation-will be referred to as the character's Guild. The Guild will determine what abilities the character has by virtue of his chosen profession. The society of the UnderWorld will organize along these lines, with like occupations gathering in Guilds, for training and education. A character will have learned his trade from others of his Guild, and will have membership in that Guild, which will carry with it certain benefits. Note that it will be possible to have an un-Guilded character (a "normal" from our world, for example, wouldn't have any Guild training), but this will be, for obvious reasons, a rarity.

The combination of a character's Breed and Guild will give you a basic definition of the character, which is then customized to suit the player's concept.

Now, on to the meat: the specific Breeds and Guilds that will feature in UnderWorld. I will give only a brief overview here (after all, I have to save something for the rulebook itself!).

The Breeds that will be detailed in the basic rulebook are: Homeless, Freaks, Junkmen, Mole People, The Lost, Normals, Legendaries, and Nomads.

The Homeless are the rank-and-file members of the UnderWorld society. They make up the largest portion of the population in the tunnels, and have the ability to cross back and forth between the UnderWorld and the UpWord (our world) at will. Their close association with the UpWorld gives them a number of benefits not shared by the other Breeds, most important of which is that UpWorld technology will always work for them (normally, modern tech starts to fail as it goes further into the UnderWorld).

The Freaks are monsters. Whether they are the products of mutation, or of experimentation, or of natural evolution, it doesn't matter-they're all Freaks. Freaks must live in the UnderWorld, for they would be hunted and destroyed in our world. Each Freak is unique in appearance-some are animalistic, others hideously deformed. None may show their faces in the UpWorld. A Freak has innate abilities based upon their appearance (claws, wings, tentacles, etc.).

In another time and place, Junkmen might have been called Golems. A Junkman is an automaton created from discarded materials (the Salvage Tech that I mentioned in the last installment), that has been infused with the spirit of a ghost. A Junkman has abilities based on the tech incorporated into his form, as well as some abilities based upon the memories of his past life.

Mole People were once human, long ago. But after generation after generation of breeding and living in a subterranean world, they adapted to their environment. They are small, lithe creatures, with their senses attune to the realities of the UnderWorld. They cannot come to the surface, however-light harms them. Tales of "little people" living under hills were probably references to this Breed.

The Lost are normal humans who have wandered into the UnderWorld from another time, and are now unable to return. Many of the Lost wander into the UpWorld, where they are usually committed to institutions, diagnosed as psychotics. A few choose to remain in the UnderWorld, and eke out a life amongst the tunnels. As beings out of time, the Lost have, as a result, developed another sense, one that deals with the passage of time-some can even manipulate time to some small degree...but never enough to open the way home.

Normals are just that. Normal, everyday people from the UpWorld who somehow find themselves now entangled in the intrigues and adventures of the UnderWorld. Obviously, this the Breed that should be chosen for anyone who is playing a "discovery" campaign-portraying characters who are encountering this world for the first time.

Legendaries are the after-effects of continuous magical use. The magical properties of the UnderWorld create something akin to a magical background radiation. It is this property that messes with modern technology in the UnderWorld, for example. Sometimes, this energy coalesces, and spontaneously shapes itself into a being. Often, these become the monsters that inhabit the deepest tunnels-but sometimes, the spark of awareness is created, and a new lifeform is the result. Legendaries often take the form of archetypal ideas (think Candyman, as in the Clive Barker film)-the result of drawing their awareness from the collective unconscious of the millions of surrounding people.

Lastly, we have the Nomads. Nomads are people who were drawn to the UnderWorld in search of Immortality. Throughout the centuries, legends of subterranean locations have been tied to the quest for immortality. K'un L'un with its magical peaches. The Fountain of Youth. Fairyland. Nomads have found the object of their quest. They are, indeed, immortal-unaging. However, they have also lost all memory of the time before their bestowed immortality. They now wander, searching the UnderWorld for anything that will trigger the memory of who they once were.

There are other possibilities, of course, but these will be the basic Breeds covered in the main rulebook. Other supplements may perhaps detail others.

So, now we've examined the "who" of the character. Next week, we will examine the "what"-the Guilds that will be presented in the main rules.

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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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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