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Game Design: Step by Step

Head Count

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

November 2, 1999


    Well, now that we've gotten settled here at RPGnet, and you've had a chance to peruse the earlier columns, we can continue with the design-in-process.

    As I promised in the 6th installment, this time around we're going to take a closer look at the system that underpins the game.  If you recall, way back in the 2nd installment, I talked about the fact that this game is intended to be played either via tabletop or Live-Action, using the same rules either way.  This was a coin-toss method, where you total the number of heads, and compare them to the number of successes required.  This is the Head Count.

    Here is a breakdown of the basic mechanic.  What I was going for here is simplicity.  I realize that this will not appeal to those gamers who prefer more solid, detailed rules systems, but that's not the type of gamer that I am--and besides, folks who want a more detailed system will probably just port the whole setting over to GURPS, anyway.

    When faced with a task, every character in UnderWorld gets one coin to toss as a default.  The character gets an additional coin if they have a Trait that comes into play in this circumstance (for example, the Trait "Incredibly Strong" would be very helpful in attempting a feat of strength).  Another coin can be garnered if a Breed ability or a magical technique is being used.  In the case of skills, the player receives an additional 2 coins to throw if a Guild-bestowed skill is being used.  If the skill is not one from your Guild, but one of another Guild's skills that the character picked up as one of their secondary skills, then only 1 additional coin is gained.  This results in a player tossing at least 1, and possibly as many as 5 or more coins to attempt a single action.

    After the coins are tossed, the total number of "heads" results are tallied.  This result is the number of successes.  The Conductor will determine the number of successes needed by the following rough guideline:

1 Success Needed:  Average--any schmoe should be able to do it.
2 Successes Needed:  Moderate--a moderately skilled person can do it.
3 Successes Needed:  Hard--a professional is needed.
4 Successes Needed:  Daunting--difficult even for professionals
5 Successes or more:  Epic--the stuff of legends.


    For those of you interested in the percentage breakdowns, Here's how it works out:

Coins Tossed
# of Possible Results
1 Success
2 Successes
3 Successes
4 Successes

    And there you have it, folks--the most math that you're ever going to see coming out of this writer. ('Course, I'll have to triple- and quadruple-check those figures before publication--math is absolutely not my strong suite)

    So, the average person, possessing no special trait, and only a secondary skill in the area in question, will only have a 25% chance of pulling off something with a moderate difficulty.  However, if they have a Trait that applies, their chances go up to 50%.  If they happen to be a professional (i.e. have a Guild-related skill in the area), they clock in at 68.75%.  Simple as that.  (Of course, when you start tossing in Breed Abilities, magic, and other situational nifties, the number values start to get really exciting....)

    The point is this:  There's probably not going to be a great deal of coin-tossing going on.  Most of the time, the Conductor will make a reasonable judgement based on the character's ability, the difficulty of the task, and, perhaps most importantly, the needs of the story.  The only time that the Head Count will come into play is when the outcome is really dramatically important.  I don't see Conductors asking for Head Counts to see if characters can climb a rock face, for example--unless there is a giant albino sewer gator nipping at their heels, or something else that makes the action crucial.

    So, what does this mean for Combat?

    Guess what:  Combat is crucial.


    So much so, that I think we're going to have to wait until next week to go into it in detail.  It really deserves its own installment.  I mean, after all, what with two seperate combat systems...

    (Waitaminute.  Did he say two combat systems?)

    Yes, he did.  But more on that next week.

    On Sandy's suggestion, below I have provided a list of books that are providing inspiration for UnderWorld.  Through my affiliate agreement with Amazon.com, you can follow the links to purchase copies.  If you're interested in taking a closer look at the inspirations behind UnderWorld, while at the same time offering your support to this column, purchase the books through the links.  Thanks.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Dark Cities Underground by Lisa Goldstein

The Mole People by Jennifer Toth

Cabal by Clive Barker

King Rat by China Mieville

Last Call by Tim Powers

I will post more as they occur to me, or as they are suggested by readers on the forum.  In the meantime, check out those books--you won't be disappointed.

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 1999 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

Gareth-Michael Skarka

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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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