Underworld Playtest Review by Tim Gray on 02/03/02
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 3 (Average)
A lot of good ideas, and a genre all its own, but it was published before it was ready.
Author: Gareth-Michael Skarka and others
Company/Publisher: Synister Creative Systems
Page count: 165
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Tim Gray on 02/03/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Modern day Horror Gothic Other
This is a semi-playtest review. We only played it for a couple of sessions and didn’t try some of the key parts of the system like abstract combat (players avoided it) and charms (PCs didn’t have casting-spell-type ones). Nevertheless, it gave me more insight than just reading the book.
I like Underworld. It has some really great ideas in it. Unfortunately it was published before it was ready, and the implementation has some serious flaws.
So what’s it about?
This has been covered in some length in other reviews and the series of columns here on RPGnet about the process of designing the game, so I’m just going to give the canned version.
Our world has lost the magical energy knows as the Radiance, but in tunnels, sewers and caverns below New York City it is preserved by the mystical layout of the subway system. Down here misfits, rejects and victims from the world above mingle with creatures of fairytale and legend, and time and space don’t always run in straight lines. There are heroes, monsters and people just trying to get by. The most important professions are organised into guilds, and the most important places are domains ruled by lords. Inspirations include Neverwhere, the Beauty and the Beast TV series, and the works of Tim Powers.
Characters are defined by choosing Breed (what you are - talking animal, person who wandered in from a past era, homeless commuter between the two worlds, etc) and Guild, then choosing from short lists of traits, skills and charms. Task resolution is by the “Head Count” - take a number of coins based on your abilities (1 default, 0-2 for skill, 1 per relevant trait, etc), roll ‘em, and the number of heads is the number of successes - like a simple dice pool system. There are two combat systems: “detailed”, which has features similar to many other RPGs, and “abstract”, which involves one roll for each side, flipping tails to heads or vice versa according to their relative advantages, and judging the outcome based on the results.
The no. 1 strength of Underworld is how easy it is to think of interesting and unique character concepts. It is then very easy to write them up, as they are defined so simply (with nary a number in sight - e.g. either you’re “Fast” or you’re not). It also makes it hard to create duff characters, which can be a problem when players embark on a new system with lots of complex point-spending options, and easy for a GM (“Conductor”) to come up with NPC stats on the spot. Under this heading particular mention should go to the Charms, little magical knacks which blend a fairytale feel and modern trappings well.
The no. 2 strength is the setting. A number of interesting locations are given - though many of these could use more information about what’s there and what it’s like to be there, and (of course!) more of them would have been nice. Feel ranges from grimy street to austere or whimsical magic, but mostly combinations of both. Although we didn’t use it much, varying Radiance levels reinforce this by making modern technological items less reliable to use in some locations. (Similarly, the most unusual Breeds who depend on the Radiance for their very existence suffer impairment or even destruction in more mundane areas.)
What’s not so good?
The editing falls down in two ways.
Overall task resolution. I don’t know where the line is between problems in the system itself and my learning how to use it properly. A more detailed “user’s guide” would have been helpful, because it is different from many other systems. After running it and coming to the conclusion that making as few Head Counts as possible is the way to go, I found a passage saying about the same thing. My fault - it had been a while since I read through the book.
The problem is, it’s a very compressed scale. I don’t have a problem with that in theory, but there are practical difficulties. The scale for measuring results covers 1-5 successes, with the GM setting the number needed as the difficulty for the task. Three successes is the level for which “a professional is needed”. It would be very unusual for a character to throw more than 6 coins (1 default, 2 for Guild skill, plus 3 which apply from their 3 traits and special abilities), which would give that professional success reliably. Characters will have 2-4 coins for most actions. Setting difficulty above 2 successes should be really quite rare - I didn’t realise this until after we’d played. The only “meta-game” way of altering rolls is spending a “Hero Token”, awarded for doing good stuff, for an extra coin. In other words, tasks are often quite difficult, with a high degree of randomness compared to the range of ability. I’ve gone on about this at length because the players commented on it.
It would also be useful to have a skill list more closely linked to common tasks, which is mainly a matter of the wording of descriptions. For instance, what skill covers identifying a person or place, or swimming? I think the intention is for players to make cases for using their characters’ abilities in different situations, so there is plenty of overlap, but it feels a bit too loose to me.
Detailed combat system. As written, this lives up to its name. At the start of a round all roll initiative. Attacker rolls to hit, defender rolls to defend. Attacker’s net successes add on to attack damage to give the number of coins for a damage roll, opposed by a roll from the defender based on toughness and armour. Net damage successes become wound levels: 4=dead, 2-3 give penalties. At the end of each round roll to see whether the action penalty from your highest wound level applies for the next round. I left the last step off because it amounts to soaking twice, but it still felt like a lot of rolling for such a simple system. If you use margin of success for attacks there’s no need to randomise damage.
We tried a fight with [party 1] Track Rabbits, the weakest monster in the book. It dragged on for about a dozen rounds with no clear victory before the monsters got bored and went away. None of the PCs had great combat abilities and were rolling similar numbers of coins to the beasties. The compressed ability scale made it hard to get decisive variations. The players particularly disliked getting a reasonable hit and then rolling zero damage. If they had been noticeably injured they would probably have had issues with the potential deadliness of the system too! They certainly grumbled about needing 2 days to heal each wound level (that’s after a successful First Aid roll).
It may be that the abstract combat system should be used in every case - other people have said so before - except, perhaps, important duels. Unfortunately one of the game’s omissions is a rule for coming up with wound levels on each side after an abstract combat - the instruction is to make up something appropriate, but a quick mechanic wouldn’t have hurt and might have seemed fairer.
Looking to the future
The main authors have now formed a new company, Adamant, which has the rights to Underworld. There’s talk of a hardback second edition, which would tighten up the 1st ed material and incorporate material which was going to be in the ‘DownBelow’ supplement. This could potentially be really great, and I look forward to it with interest.