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Game Design: Step by Step, Redux

Prometheus Whispered

by T.S. Luikart
Jun 28,2002

 

Game Design: Step by Step

Prometheus Whispered

By T.S. Luikart

The morning air is rent by a single cry that rouses him from deep slumber. His rocky bed no longer troubles sleep as it has been worn smooth by his back and the passage of time. His chains murmur as he shifts and turns his eyes towards Dawn’s lovely form. He will not watch this time, though his torturer is magnificent, after its fashion. Mighty wings buffet him as claws stronger than stone score the rock beside him, claws sharp enough to pierce a Titan. The eagle has come for his liver, as it has come every morning, since the birth of this Golden Age. He has known but one respite in all that time, when the son of Zeus sat beside him for three days and three nights, holding the raptor at bay.

There is no hero to save him this morning. No god will prevent his organ from regenerating in the night. This is his punishment for giving humanity the Secret of Fire. He made his choice, long ago. He endures and he will not regret. That, too, is part of his punishment.

There are lessons to be learned from this, but the one that concerns this column most is this: Secrets have value – be wary what you do with them. My name is T.S. Luikart, one of the writers of the original UnderWorld as well as one of Gareth’s partners in Adamant Entertainment. Gareth and I met because of the first incarnation of this column, so I’m honored to be filling in for him.

As we set about forming the second edition of UnderWorld, we know that the mystical nature of the setting needs to be given more attention than it was previously. Down Below is, after all, a surreal place where immortals walk beside honorable metal men and cats demand the right to protection from dogs. In the first edition, Rites were briefly discussed, but then laid aside. Not so, this time. Rites will be far more fully explored in UW2.

Rites, however, are not what I thought of when I first read the completed UnderWorld. Down Below is a place of darkness and mystery. I wanted it to have some magic that reflected its nature and, quite frankly, I wanted to add something of my own to Gareth and Laura’s original vision. The thought began simply really: Where do Charms come from? [Charms being both actions and the actions to create an item that can do something mystical.] Someone had to come up with them, right? Some of them, maybe. But what if a few of them have always been? What if they were once something more, something greater by far than they’ve become…

Consider the Radiance, the mystic energy that helps make the UnderWorld the wondrous place that it is. The Radiance is the raw stuff of magic, the hopes and dreams and fears of the world collected and channeled by the arcane lines of the New York subway system. When the Radiance empowers an object, it is called a Relic. When the Radiance coalesces into a sentient being, he/she/it is called a Legendary. So what if the Radiance could imbue a piece of lore with power?

I started writing up a series of these "pieces of Radiance imbued knowledge" for Down Below and called them "Secrets". This is no mere term of convenience, for it contains within it an essential truth of Secrets: they must remain true to their namesake to continue to function. The more beings that know of a Secret, the lesser its power becomes. While I love the in-built control mechanism and adventure excuse this principle gives a Conductor, I also knew that some Secrets were just too powerful to give multiple characters access to and nothing in the UnderWorld, especially power, should come for free.

I decided to codify the most powerful Secrets as Greater Secrets. Their bearer acquires a Radiance Level, like a Legendary or Junkman, as the Secret literally burns the character’s spirit into an appropriate shape to carry it. Giving up a Greater Secret will most often kill its former bearer. I also wanted Secrets to work without flaw, so I decided that as long as the user of a Secret was within a domain with a Radiance Level equal to or greater than the Radiance Level of their Secret, it would function. After that brief bout of magnanimity, I also added a ‘price’ to all of the Secrets. The "price" of a Secret is sometimes physical, sometimes mental and occasionally easily paid, as I mostly leaned towards role-playing based prices. Yes, a twink can ignore them, but it is my sincerest hope that most munchkins deplore UnderWorld anyway, so I’m content with the result.

The picture then became complete: Greater Secrets can fade to Lesser which eventually get disseminated so much that they become Charms. Which is why the various Guilds guard their Charms – if too many learn them, they too, will lose the Radiance inherent in them and cease to function. Suffice to say that the Secrets went over well and perfectly matched Gareth’s vision for UnderWorld. The supplement that they were due to appear in has given way to a whole second edition, which has given me the time to expand the original document and add in a number of other Secrets as well.

Lesser Secrets are common enough that most UnderWorld denizens have at least heard of them. Some Secrets are fiercely guarded by the Guilds, who insure that they are only given to worthy members and limit the number of guildsmen that can know any given Secret to preserve its power. Others move quietly from Domain to Domain, going mostly unnoticed by the people Down Below. Greater Secrets are the stuff of legend, many of them are held by only one being in the entire UnderWorld and if they fall before passing it on, the Secret can be lost forever.

As an example, and seeing as the noble Titan gave me my intro:

Prometheus’ Whisper

Description: Long ago, a titan chose to fall so that humanity could rise. The gift of fire elevated humanity above the beasts as well as banishing many fears of the night.

Lesser Secret, Radiance Level 2

The Gift: Once per scene, the character can summon fire. They must be able to speak to do so. Anything from a large bonfire to a single torch flame can be summoned. The fire burns without fuel as long as the character wills it.

The Price: Those that attempt to use this Secret as a weapon experience warning pains in their side. If they continue, this becomes a permanent 1-coin penalty to all actions and they develop pyromania.

See ya around kids,

TS

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