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Game Design: Step by Step

Next Stop, Rune Station

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

November 16, 1999


This week, we turn our discussion to the magic of UnderWorld.  Now, to be completely honest, I still haven't quite worked out exactly what I want for the system.  I've already established two different mechanics that I could use--the basic Head Count mechanic, or some adaptation of the abstract combat system mechanic that I introduced last week.  At this point, I'm not sure which way I'm leaning.  But, hey--that's what a design column is for, right?  So, I'll start working out some of the details of magic within the universe of the game, and as I go, my options should become clearer.

That's basically how I approach design:  come up with a logical, internally consistent universe, and the rules mechanics to fit it will become clear the further you go.  This comes from my philosophy that a game's mechanics should be emulative--they should evoke the feel of the game itself.  If a game's rules don't mesh with the feel of the genre or the universe of the game's setting, it is jarring to me, and ruins my immersion in the game--my suspension of disbelief that allows me to fully participate.  That's the main reason why I'm not a big fan of generic systems--to me, they feel to much like an artificial construct simply slapped on to whatever setting you're playing.  On the other hand, mechanics such as Castle Falkenstein's card play--that feels so much a part of the feel of the Victorian world in which the game is set (after all, gentlemen and ladies would never touch dice)--offer me an additional level of immersion into the world in which we play.

Now--on to the subject of Magic.

First of all, I have a real interest in the subject of magic--over the years, I have amassed a considerable library on the subject of magic, myth, folklore and the occult.  Its been an area in which I have done extensive research.  The one thing that has always bugged me about magic as it appears in RPGs is that it bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to magic as practiced in the real world (I will, for the time being, leave off any discussion as to the veracity of whether or not magic in our world is "real" or not, for that is not the purpose of this column--suffice to say, just last night, local news in New York City reported the discovery of severed calf's tongues with padlocks through the tips nailed seven feet up on tree-trunks in a Bronx park, alongside a relatively busy road.  I leave the meaning of this event to your own fevered imaginations).

Magic in RPGs is almost universally of the overt, special-effects-filled variety (glowing missles and such)--a simple substitute for high technology.  It almost always lacks the subtlety, eerieness, and yes, even grandeur of the way magic has been practiced in our world.  Bluntly--it just doesn't feel magical at all.  That is what I want to overcome with the magical design of UnderWorld.  I want a system that feels like magic--that has a sense of wonder to it.

I have already established that within the UnderWorld, there is a pervasive magical background radiation of sorts--something that the locals refer to as The Radiance.  The Radiance used to permeate the entire world, but has slowly faded as time has passed, and mankind "advanced".  Magic began to seep out of the world like blood seeping out of an unstaunched wound.  Like blood, however, it pooled in some places--the UnderWorld.  The UnderWorld is one of the last vestiges of The Radiance left on Earth.  The deeper you go into the UnderWorld, the stronger the surrounding Radiance.  At the upper levels of the UnderWorld, though--the subway stations and passageways carved by man--The Radiance leaks away, like heat being lost.

The worst part of it is:  magic is not a renewable resource.

In fact, the loss rate of The Radiance, which grew exponentially during the 18th and 19th centuries (as the industrial revolution sand-blasted the magic from the face of the Earth), should have resulted in a complete depletion by now...but it hasn't.  Why?

The subways.

During the latter part of the 19th century, construction began on the subway systems of the world's larger cities.  Some person or group (no-one really knows for sure, although there are more theories regarding this than there are stars in the forgotten sky) subtly influenced that construction--changing a route here, moving a track there.  Unbenknowst to almost anyone, the subways were layed out in ancient patterns--similar to runes, mandalas, or the spirit-paths walked by Shamans.  But instead of a single sorcerer walking the path dictated by the arcane geometry and thereby generating a small amount of magical energy--the paths of the subways are followed by many people, unwittingly, every day.  Each rider gives up the smallest, most miniscule fraction of their essence for the generation of a magical charge.  With millions of people unknowingly participating in this ritual daily, enough power was generated to replenish The Radiance--to slow its arterial dispersal at first, but as the 20th century plowed ever onward, and more and more people plugged themselves in to the hidden magical generator that is the modern subway system, the rate of loss reached equilibrium.  At this point, the turn of the 21st century, The Radiance is being replenished at a rate equal to what it looses daily to the world above.

Some within the UnderWorld speak in hushed tones of the mysterious architects of this plan--wondering if they set this generator in motion for their own purposes, and what will happen when the subways start to provide a surplus of magical energy into The Radiance.  But perhaps it's best not to speak of such things.  After all, they say that when you think of the Devil, the Devil thinks of you.

It is this power--maintained by the largest mass of moving human flesh and blood (second only to the entire planet Earth)--that powers Salvage Tech, gives life to the Legendaries and Junkmen, and gives all within the UnderWorld the gifts of magic.

Each Guild will have access to a particular path of magic that they teach their members.  In addition, there are other paths which are more general in nature.  Each Guild listing will have a number of these secondary paths that are available to members. Normally, a character will have access to two of these secondary paths (the player will choose which ones from the lists of their character's Guild)--although there may be some Traits that allow characters to have access to more than the usual three paths (its a fair trade off, since it effectively means that the player is sacrificing one of their three Traits to get additional magical ability).

Next week, we'll take a look at the Guild-specific magical paths, and, space permitting, we'll get into the secondary paths as well.  See ya in 7.

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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