Tuesday, May 27, 2008 | Games
or "How I Qualified for the FBI's Subversives List"
by Ray Winninger
People are constantly telling me that Underground is "different," and I hope they're not putting me on. It was certainly my intention to design a game that was totally unlike anything on the shelves. You see, we're all freakish, anti-establishment do-no-gooders with sharp, itchy spray-can fingers and big boomin' woofers up here at MGI central. I thought it was about time somebody designed a game we might actually play!
Unlike a conventional RPG design, Underground didn't begin with a genre. At first, I knew only that I wanted to design a game that was political, relevant, over-the-top and cynical. I knew also that a well-developed, richly-detailed world would eventually serve as the centerpiece of the new design. If it ever came down to a choice between better mechanics or a better setting, I resolved to go with the setting every time. I hoped to create a world capable of supporting stories that are every bit as interesting as those found in the best adventure films and comics.
Actual work on Underground began with a lengthy period of research. In the beginning, I read every political tract I could get my hands on. A few weeks later, I gravitated toward "futurology" texts. After poring over two or three feet of Toffler, Owen and their colleagues, I drew up a series of notes outlining my own vision of the future. This early version of the Underground history was very straightforward and plausible. In fact, my earliest notes are all footnoted to the economic studies and futurology texts I was reading. Once I had a general idea of where the futuristic background was heading, I started to "editorialize" by exaggerating some events and warping others. It was at this point that several of the background's key concepts -- like cannibal fast-food restaurants and the twisted geopolitical stalemate -- entered into the design.
So far, so good. But I still had no idea how "player characters" fit into my general scheme. Once I began to ponder this problem, I decided to design a game that forced the players to confront relevant political and social issues. I envisioned the game as a means of sparking political and sociological debate among the participants. More specifically, I was looking for a game in which the world was askew and the PCs had the power to fix it, but the problems they faced were so complex that reaching a consensus as to how to fix them wasn't necessarily easy. Since my own personal definition of a "hero" is "someone capable of changing the entire world," I began to think of our PCs as heroes. And since there is no better personification of the uniquely American view of heroism than the costumed comic hero, I decided to comment on that view of heroism by designing our PCs to share some traits with their four-color cousins. Since I was familiar with some of the vicious, post-modern comics of the last few years (Watchmen, Elektra Assassin!, etc.), this decision gave me a concrete direction.
Next, we needed a look. I was excited about the idea of ironic superheroes, but I hated the thought of capes and masks. Gaudy uniforms were okay, but I didn't want anything that looked like it walked off the pages of Marvel comics. When I discussed this problem with Maria Cabardo, our art director, she told me about this fantastic MTV cartoon called "Aeon Flux." Maria was sure that the general feel of AF was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Two days later, the MGI art department assembled at Maria's place and watched a few "Aeon Flux" episodes on videotape. I was immediately hooked! Then and there, we resolved to adopt a similar look for our project. After some lengthy consultation, we resolved to convince comic artist Geof Darrow to execute the Underground cover and create our basic look. Once we discussed the project with Geof, he informed us that Peter Chung, the creator of "Aeon Flux," was one of his friends. Two days later, Peter was aboard as well.
Now that everything was in place, we set about finalizing various elements of the project. The first final pieces we created were the six ads that preceded the game's release. We then turned to cover and logo designs, world background and packaging considerations. It was at this point that we discovered the long-buried arcane secrets that allowed us to profitably execute the entire book in full color. Once I knew we had the color, I resolved to make the best possible use of it, and the three-column multi-color layout was born.
The final step before beginning to produce finalized text for the rulebook was plugging our artists' ideas back into the world background I had started to create. I can't possibly stress the artists' contributions enough. Ultimately, many of the major concepts incorporated into the game began as rough pencil sketches received from as far away as Paris, France. I so enjoyed this interplay of words and pictures that I'd never dream of undertaking another major project without it.
By the time I completed this final step, we had a world. Now it was time to start worrying about the game. Since I tremendously admire our own DC Heroes game (designed by veteran Greg Gorden) and since the project was heading in a similar direction, I decided to model my own rules upon those of DC. Of course, many alterations were necessary to fit our new parameters -- the game's scale needed to be compressed to account for nearer-to-human levels of character statistics, we needed a simplified resolution mechanic, we needed more lethal combat rules, etc. -- so in the end, what we had was a whole new game system that owed some of its major concepts to DC, but executed each of those concepts in its own fashion.
It's now five months later and I'm sitting amidst a pile of Underground support products.
I'd like to take this opportunity to answer a few specific questions:
Your background is great, but your rules suck! Why?
Although this reaction surprised me, it probably shouldn't have.
Underground spotlights a lot of concepts that are probably unfamiliar to many gamers. Without experiencing the system, some of these concepts probably look intimidating.
Take the "Unit" scale, for example. Some players get caught up in the perceived mathematical complexities of the system without stopping to consider whether or not these complexities ever enter into play. If you consider the rules carefully, you notice that the only thing you are ever required to do with Units is to make a simple addition or subtraction. You have a STR of 7 and you want to throw a rock with a weight of 4, so you throw it a distance of 3 (7-4). What could be simpler? The math that lies behind the system might be complex, but the players needn't worry themselves with it.
Units were incorporated into the game in order to help the GM make decisions. They are very useful for deciding how fast, how much, how far, and answering similar questions. Once you gain experience with the system, you can adjudicate all of Underground's skills, genetic enhancements, and strange pieces of technology without remembering scores of special rules a la Champions or GURPS. And in fact, I've discovered that once people actually play the game for a while, they begin to appreciate the Unit system.
While I'm on the subject, I should address another criticism frequently heaped on the Units -- the fact that they are not directly additive (in fact, this very criticism was voiced in the Pyramid review in Issue #2). This is certainly true, but I don't think it's very significant. After all, I can't think of many RPGs in which statistics are directly additive -- if one D&D character has a 12 Strength and another has an 11 Strength, they can't combine to lift as much as a character with a 23 Strength. This general rule holds true for every other major game system I can think of (Champions, White Wolf's Storyteller, Shadowrun, Star Wars, etc).
My god! I'm firing a 25mm handgun! Why can't I kill someone in a single shot?
Actually, you can kill an old lady in a single shot, you just can't kill her instantly. Imagine that you are using your 25mm handgun to shoot Aunt Petunia -- no genetic enhancements, no armor, nothing. Since your gun has a Penetration of 15, you are going to get an A result on your Penetration Challenge (causing an Incapacitation) approximately 90% of the time. Characters who are Incapacitated die unless they receive medical attention in an amount of time equal to their RES scores, but Aunt Petunia has a RES of 0. In other words, she dies instantly unless she receives medical attention within a single Turn (4 seconds) of impact.
If you think about it, this isn't too illogical. Gunshot wounds that kill their targets instantly are rare. Remember, JFK survived for almost 15 minutes after a bullet exploded half his head. Consider, too, that the available medical technology in 2021 is light years ahead of the technology available in 1993.
Play balance was another good reason to cap most of the weapons at INC results. No one wants to watch his favorite gang-banger go down to a single lucky melon shot.
Why does the GM roll dice during every Challenge? Doesn't she have enough to do already?
Yes, the GM is overburdened. But all we're really talking about is the physical act of picking the dice up and dropping them on the table. Determining the outcome of a Challenge is very simple and requires no significant chart consultation. I felt that it was better to require a GM roll than to build a complex chart into the system.
But aren't there other games that feature no chart and no GM roll?
Yes, but none that cover a range of abilities as broad as those available in Underground. Strengths and other factors that can range by factors of up to 205 require some special treatment.
Why did you incorporate the Parameter Rules? Why does it take so long to affect an area? Since something bad happens every time I alter a Parameter, why do I bother?
The Parameter Rules were built into the game in order to make the Underground world more dynamic. I and my playtesters were sick of playing "cyberpunk" games in which the PCs are batted around like a pinball and never allowed to accomplish any task of real import. We wanted to give Underground player characters the ability to change their world; that was the entire point of the game.
As for the time it takes to use the rules to accomplish a goal, yes, it takes a long time unless you are working on a small scale. There are a number of reasons why this is so: we don't want you quickly and wildly altering the entire setting, for instance, and it's difficult to even rationalize a group of three or four characters using the sort of tactics discussed in the Parameter Rules to alter the entire world. Later (in the Underground Players Handbook, in fact), you'll be introduced to new "global" Parameter tactics that can be used to alter Parameters across larger areas much faster. For instance, you'll have the ability to use your Reward Points to gain sympathizers, who in turn contribute more Reward Points to your cause, allowing you to recruit even more sympathizers and rack up even more Reward Points, etc.
As for the bad things that happen when a Parameter gets bumped, welcome to the real world. Students of politics know that all of the socioeconomic factors that serve as Underground Para-meters are intertwined. Tampering with one always has effects on the others. As the number of police on the street increases, for instance, so do taxes, making it more difficult for the public to save money for emergencies or provide themselves with quality health care. Again, solving problems, though possible, is not always easy and is supposed to provoke debate among the players. In any case, note that whenever a Parameter is changed there is a net positive effect (one other Parameter is raised and another is lowered, for a net of two up and only one down). Furthermore, because I've defined Underground characters as "heroes," they have the ability to do the impossible and increase a Parameter without having a negative impact upon any of the others, though such an effort is time-consuming.
Anyway, that wraps it up for now. Thanks for listening.