This article originally appeared in Pyramid #2
UNDERGROUNDDesigned by Ray Winninger
Cover art by Geoff Darrow
Internal art by Geoff Darrow and Peter Chung
Cover price $24.95
The first thing you notice about Underground, Mayfair's new dystopian/slapstick super hero RPG, is that it's a shameless, bald-faced ripoff of Marshall Law, the dystopian/slapstick super hero comic by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neil. If this offends you, don't buy this game.
If it doesn't offend you, you're probably asking "OK, but is it a good shameless, bald-faced ripoff?" Well, yeah, it is. Underground could become the Paranoia of the '90s (in more ways than one, but more on that later).
The concept in both Marshall Law and Underground is a repressive near-future where genetic engineers have discovered a process to make ordinary people into super-beings. The only problem is that the process tends to turn its subjects into ravening psychos - ravening psychos with the power of a tank or a howitzer. Nonetheless, the military loves its new loose cannons, though the downtrodden populace despises the super beings.
Eventually, however, the super-vets muster out of the military, and are left to face real life with nothing but freakish powers and a seriously misaligned psyche. Some super-vets become entertainers, some become criminals, some just go crazy and some work for the government, hunting their former comrades who've gone crazy or turned to crime. Many choose "all of the above." A few of the costumed misfits, through the haze of their psychosis, can see where the world has come to, and decide to make a difference. These people join up with the Underground, the boosted freedom fighters that battle society. The player characters usually chose the last option, thus the name of the game.
A big twist in Underground is that bio-engineered soldiers must undergo a prolonged program of virtual-reality indoctrination where they live the simplistic, morally-unambiguous life of a four-color comic book superguy. This conditioning allows the recruit to adjust to his superhuman power, and is the only way known to keep bio-engineered soldiers even marginally sane. However, the process also alters the soldiers' perception of reality to the point that many will try to impose comic-book morality and physics on the real world. This clash between comic book ideals and a dystopian cyberpunk reality is what gives Underground it's edge.
Far and away the best part of Underground is its setting and background. The world of Underground is savagely ironic, nasty and hilarious. Cannibal fast-food franchises, housing projects made out of high-tech Lego blocks, a national holiday to commemorate the assassination of the rap group Public Enemy (August 11, 1998, if you were wondering) - Underground shines when it presents details like these, that take all the absurdities and annoyances of modern life and exaggerate them to the point of hilarity. Often these details are presented in snappy little graphics that present, say, an album cover or vid listing of the future. These short side-pieces contain some of the best stuff in the book.
The game mechanics don't stand up nearly as well as the setting, sadly. I found the rules unfocused and mathematically intimidating. Character stats use an unwieldy logarithmic scale based on the one from DC Heroes. In DC Heroes there's some justification for this, due to the need to present characters with astronomically-differing abilities, but for a new game like Underground such a huge variation between characters is neither necessary nor desirable, and the designers would have been well-advised to come up with a new, less-grainy system for powers and attributes. DC Heroes players may be accustomed to this, but new players could feel a little daunted by it.
Particularly annoying is an attempt to convert basically every quantity in the game - weight, time, volume, even information - into generic "units." First, you have to question why any one would even think that it's desirable to apply the same scale to weight, distance, time and information. Second, and even more annoying, the system is completely counter-intuitive to anyone without at least a BS in mathematics. If you have one 600 lb pile of junk (8 units of weight), and you add it to a 1,200 lb pile of junk (11 units of weight), do you now have a single pile of junk weighing 19 units of weight? No, the resulting 1,800 lb. junk pile constitutes something between 12 and 13 units of weight. Sheesh.
And that's what I mean by "the Paranoia of the '90s." A very, very nifty, funny setting with unwieldy and annoying rules. I suspect that many GMs running an Underground campaign will end up using the rules from Champions or GURPS Supers, and just use Mayfair's background.
Back on the plus side, Mayfair has obviously investing a lot of thought and effort into the book's full-color appearance, and barring any last-minute printing disasters (like the too-dark screens that rendered Chill effectively unreadable) this should be an notably attractive, easy-to-read book. I've only seen a few preliminary samples of the art, but what I've seen is outstanding.
The graphic design of the game book is executed in a superior fashion; in fact, far better than most other games on the market. A derivation of the basic main text/sidebar format many games utilize, useful trivia and support information is flowed in a "hypertext" format along both sides. Information is color coded for easy reference; this aids reading and comprehension, taking making the somewhat cumbersome rules much easier to navigate through. Underground is a fine example of the type of graphic design gaming has been moving towards, and a new standard for the industry to uphold.
Any super hero GM with a nasty sense of humor (and in my experience, that's most of them) is advised to buy this book for the excellent background material. Mayfair tells us that future support material will expand upon other territories - lunar expeditions, millitary espionage runs - which will deviate from the Marshal Law-influenced Los Angeles of this first book. In addition, they should be less burdened by the unwieldy rules, and an even better buy.
-- Chris W. McCubbin
Note: Pyramid reviewed a prerelease copy of Underground. While much of the archetecture should remain the same, several details may change as it goes into production. We suggest you check out the game for yourself, upon its release this July.
Article publication date: August 1, 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.