I figured this week would see a few UnderWorld (UW) reviews, so I decided to focus on how well UW will function as a Live-Action game. This is just a read-through review; I'm afraid I wasn't able to organize and run an UW LARP in the week since I got back from Gen Con. I hope you'll understand. (However, I am quite interested in doing so in the near future. See below.)
UnderWorld is a game of urban fantasy set far below the mean streets of New York City. It turns out that the NYC subway system moves its passengers in a complex web of runic patterns which generate Radiance, the essence of magic. This Radiance filters down through the many layers of tunnels, ruins, caves, and other locations of the UW. The deeper you go, the weirder things get and the less reliable modern technology becomes.
Now that the introductions are taken care of, on to the three most important things, IMHO, that contribute to a Live-Action Role-Playing Game (LARP): Mechanics, Characters, and Setting...
The Head Count
The core mechanic of UnderWorld involves flipping coins and counting each "heads" result as a success. It's pretty simple, but remarkably versatile. I tried it a few times with some spare change, shaking them in both hands and looking at the results in my palm (ie, without having to use a flat surface). Even with a half dozen or more coins, it worked quite well. The Head Count system should prove easy for new players to grasp and even easier for LARPers to use on the go.
Players of more rules-heavy LARPs may notice the lack of hand signals and other such gimmicks for magical effects. On the one hand, this means that players will have to use their imaginations a little more and cultivate the ability to suspend their disbelief. On the other hand, you're already playing a live-action game... you should really already be able to do these things. Personally, I never liked those kinds of LARP gimmicks and am glad to see them conspicuously absent from UnderWorld.
Finally, UW comes with two, count them, two systems for resolving combats. The one meant for LARPs is the more abstract method. Each side of a fight flips three coins: one for Attack, one for Defense, and one for their Goal in combat. Each side then attempts to alter the results of the tosses, either their own or their opponents', by explaining how they use their various combat advantages. For example, one side may have superior weapons and, therefore, be able to flip their enemies' Defense coin to tails. ("Your phone-book armor is no match for our Ready Whip Aerosol Cheese Guns!") To win, all three of your side's coins must be heads-up. It should make for fast, exciting fight scenes without a lot of number-crunching.
Bare-bones character creation involves little more than picking items from a few laundry lists. This is a good thing, however, because it means a harried player can whip up a PC in just a few minutes. (The same goes for harried GMs and NPCs.) All characters choose a Breed (race) and Guild (occupation) with a few Secondary Skills and Defining Traits to add flavor and diversity. This strikes a nice balance between speed and versatility. Add a few magical and mundane items, and you're ready to go.
For LARPs, people tend to want more detailed characters than this minimal system produces. Fear not, because there is plenty of room for creative license within the system. Because the mechanics are so light, it's a simple matter to write your own Skills, Traits, magical charms, signature gear, etc. Plus, many of the Breeds require you to make up your own abilities; for example, no two Freaks are exactly alike, or have the same powers, and every Legendary is based on a different part of popular culture... and born completely of magic. Of course, you can always add as much background and history to a character as your little heart desires.
Finally, UnderWorld lends itself to a wide array of costumes and props. Players with the time and inclination can go certifiably nuts creating horns, wings, improvised weapons and armor, junkyard "salvage tech" devices, magical charms... the list goes on and on. For the rest of us, street clothes fit in just fine for most human characters. (It is a modern-day setting, after all.) The fertile ground between these two extremes leaves plenty of room for variations in free time, character concepts, and plain old motivation.
The only thing I found lacking for UW characters was the madness rules for Artificers, the (literally) mad scientists who specialize in salvage tech. In the UnderWorld, there are two theories on why Artificers always go insane. The first is that such close proximity to the Radiance would eventually drive anyone insane. The Artificers themselves claim that it is their "madness" that allows them to grasp the convoluted and illogical processes that make salvage tech possible.
Personally, I would have liked to see the sample forms of insanity uphold this difference of opinion by focusing on disorders that result in deranged thought processes. Instead, we get a fairly random collection ranging from the decent (obsessive/compulsive) to the cliché (multiple personalities) to the irrelevant (sociopathic). However, this is a minor criticism because they are just examples; players and GMs are free to invent their own forms of madness.
First of all, the book recommends running games in designated locations with strict boundaries. Good call! Bounded games are easier to organize, control, and prep than unbounded games. They are also far, far less likely to run afoul of locals and police. What's more, the UnderWorld setting lends itself directly to bounded game areas; it's all underground, so low-rent interior locations are perfectly in-character. (Note: the book stresses that people should NOT be running games in subways, caves, sewers, steam tunnels, or anywhere else so addle-brained. Another good call!)
If there's one thing any good LARP setting needs, it's political tension. While there is a decent amount of such built into the Breeds and the various Domains (nations) of UnderWorld, it think the best place for it would have been the Guilds. These professional organizations could easily be brought into conflict, and most characters will belong to one, so getting players involved would be a breeze. Unfortunately, the Guilds are horribly under-developed in the main book. Each gets only a single page and these give only the minimum amount of information needed to create a character. In a book that sells itself as equally good for table-top or live-action play, I expected a lot more attention to detail.
The other bit of bad news for LARPers is in the "Other Unders" section. Here, the author explains that, though it is generally agreed that there are UnderWorlds beneath many major cities, it is quite difficult to travel between them. This makes the utility of much of the book's material questionable for those of us who may want to set a UW LARP in our own cities.
For example, if I wanted to start an UW LARP in the Twin Cities area, I'd first have to figure out where our Radiance comes from. We don't have a subway system, so the usual explanation is out. If I wanted to use the Guilds as described, I'd have to figure out how they arose in such an isolated location; is it an odd case of parallel evolution, or were they somehow transplanted here from NYC? Either way, I've got some work cut out for me... before I even start organizing the game! (On the plus side, this situation would also give an enterprising GM ample room to innovate and build a unique UnderWorld in his own image. To each his own.)
The sample UW locations given towards the end of the book are uniformly excellent. They convey the mood of the setting effectively and got my head swimming with plot ideas immediately. UnderWorld is definitely a place I'd have no trouble running an on-going tabletop in.
There are a lot of editorial errors, but only a few really impede comprehension of the text. A few useful things, like how to create new charms or a bit more LARP-specific GM advice, were missing. Hopefully, such material will be forthcoming in the next edition. (The copies sold at Gen Con are of a "limited edition," presumably so that errors can be corrected later on.)
Finally, the artwork is pretty good, for an RPG at least. I'm by no means an educated art critic, but I found nearly all of the artwork to be evocative of the setting and, thankfully, completely devoid of chainmail bikinis. I can't tell you how much of a relief that is to someone who games regularly with women.
In its introduction, UnderWorld claims not to be a game. Instead, it is a framework for the creation of your own game. This is a refreshing take on RPG design and UnderWorld achieves its aims beautifully. The entire book is inspirational. Hopefully, many of the deficiencies discussed above will be remedied in supplements and future editions. I know I'm looking forward to them!
For those of you in or around the Twin Cities (Minnesota), I would love to start a monthly or semi-monthly UnderWorlds LARP. I've been writing and running live-action games for over four years, played in games settings from the World of Darkness to Shadowrun, and always inject a healthy dose of humor and high-strangeness into my games. If you'd be interested in playing, or helping me run things, either post a clearly-marked message to the forum for this review or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)