Underground (2005)

Overview

What it is, where it came from, and what I was smoking at the time :)

Underground is a near-future cyberpunk adventure, in the vein of the old Orwellian classics, like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, meant for Atlas Games’ Feng Shui system. This alternate Daniverse world takes place in the setting detailed in GURPS:Cyberworld, modified for the Daniverse, and influenced heavily by the movie, Equilibrium (in fact, the storyline depicted in this adventure would eventually lead up to the Equlibrium story). As with all Feng Shui games, this was meant to be “cinema-based,” and represented the pilot episode of a possible TV series. The PCs were to be members of a resistance cell, masquerading as Waste Management workers, while fighting Evil™ and evading the oppressive government (which would often be one and the same).

This game was entirely experimental, intended to determine the feasibility of several aspects of a game system I have been long working on, meant to take the “cinema-based” idea to the next logical step (see my GM Tips section on the subject). As the Feng Shui system is entirely cinema-based, at its core, and was a huge inspiration for the game system I’ve been working on, it was ideal for the adventure/experiment.

Dramatis Personæ

Who played who, who they met there, and who tried to kill them

Player Characters

Jack Smith (Phil)
Formerly an anti-terrorist agent; represented by Kiefer Sutherland (Ref: 24)
Niles (Esque)
Formerly a book-dealer, secretly a Sorcerer; represented by Sean Bean.
John Carpenter (McNurlen)
Formerly an astronaut, pilot, with “mental problems;” represented by Ben Browder (Ref: Farscape)
Juan (Chris)
Formerly an overzealous SWAT officer; represented by R. Cruz (Ref: Clear and Present Danger).
Sabra (Kayci)
Formerly an aristocrat’s daughter, secretly psychic, and self-defense expert; represented by Jennifer Garner (Ref: Elektra).
Also:
Myalei Lakota (GMPC/Denée)
Resistance cell-leader, liaison to PCs; represented by Amy Lee (of the band, Evanescence). It was uncertain, at the time the adventure was being created, whether or not Denée would be available to play, and as it happened, she missed the second Session. When she was here, I (the GM) allowed her to run the GMPC for me.

Major NPCs

Good Guys:
  • Gus (Steve Buscemi); smart-ass resistance gadgeteer.
  • Seth (Laurence Mason (Ref: Tin-Tin-The Crow)); resistance hacker, referred to on radio as “Dispatch.”
  • Abbey (Selma Blair); hard-assed resistance med-tech.
  • (B)Rick (Adam Baldwin (Ref: Firefly)); resistance bruiser.
  • Foreman Bob (John C. McGinley (Ref: Scrubs)); unwitting hot-headed Waste Management foreman.
  • Dr. Valee (John Hurt (Ref: Hellboy); defecting medical scientist.
  • “Spartacus” (Marshall Bell (Ref: Cuato-Total Recall)); low-level resistance cell-coordinator.
Bad Guys:
  • Shadow Men (“CG” (Ref: Imps-Doom3 game); Evil™ mooks
  • Keller (Martin Sheen (Ref: Spawn)); corporate-type, secret Sorcerer, sold-out to the oppressive gov’t

Execution

What I planned to do, and how I planned to do it

Unlike previous games, this one was a “Players’ Choice” game derived entirely from a voting-session with the Players. Billed as a “pitch meeting,” I went ’round the room and had everybody “pitch” a series idea. Once finished, everyone voted which idea would be put into production. Players voted on the realism level, style—even the name of the series was eventually determined by vote. During the pitch meeting, I also had the Players come up with a scene or two for the “trailer,” which I could then work into the story.

Another experimental aspect of the game was in the Character creation process. Feng Shui is very “flexible” when it comes to many specifics of Character creation, but I wanted to take it a step further by letting the Players “make up” their own Traits, using the ones already specified in Feng Shui as a guideline. This aspect was a marginal success, in that nobody abused it, but at the same time, most seemed a bit lost. I think, in the end, the Players weren’t quite ready for that sort of freedom.

Another experiment was more GM-related, in that I created the adventure in one week, from the voting to the start of the game—the first half, anyway, as I intended it to last two Sessions (a two-hour premiere). The second half was created (mostly) within the following week, after the first had finished. The reason for this was two-fold; one, I was testing my own improvisational abilities, and two, I was determining the feasibility of this entire process, and whether or not it would stand up to continual usage as such (for my game system).

During the game, I encouraged the Players to develop a more “cinematic” feel for what was happening—maybe a bit more so than in Feng Shui. I had planned to use my Action Movie Cards for this adventure, but discarded the idea, as I did not want to run too many “experiments” at once, for my own sake and for the Players’ (some of whom had played Feng Shui before, and had certain expectations).

After the episode was finished, I required that each Player take on the role of “Critic,” and write a brief blurb about their impression of the show. As real critics seem to rarely have anything good to say, I instructed them to be as brutal (but truthful) as possible—sort of like a “roast.” The concept was that a good GM could take these criticisms, embellished though they would be, and get at the truth behind them, so as to make later improvements in his technique.

Synopsis

Where the Players went, who they saw, and what they conquered

Due to the loss of my digital files, I have scanned the printed copy of the Synopsis and converted it to PDF format; viewUG-Synopsis.pdf. It was written in the format of a TV series outline (or treatment).

Aftermath

What went right, what went wrong, and lessons learned

This experiment was basically a success, as I determined that most of the “experimental” elements had functioned properly. The Players got what they asked for, for the most part, and there were no complaints to that end (though the game, as a whole, was less “fun” than I had hoped). There were no problems with the Characters, with regard to the “flexible” creation process. As to the Players being a bit “lost” during the creation process, that could be eased in time, as they get used to the concept and as the related rules become better defined. My “improvisation” of the game itself seemed to survive the “test of battle,” for the most part.

That being said, I wasn’t totally satisfied with the experience. I had some trouble with my own motivation in the creation of the game, since the story concept ended up being something I wasn’t wholly excited about—and that lack of enthusiasm will always show in the execution, whether intended or not. During the course of the game, I made one of my classic mistakes—expecting the Players to “play along.” When the PCs broke through the windows to confront Keller, who brandished a remote detonator and declared that the building was wired to blow—I wasn’t prepared for the PCs to attempt to immediately jump out of the window, rather than listen to Keller’s monologue. I seem to recall that there was a problem related to them shooting the detonator out of his hand, as well, though I don’t remember the nature of it—I was prepared for that sort of thing, but not prepared enough. In the end, the situation got so messed up that I had to turn it into a “cut-scene,” basically taking temporary (retroactive) control of the PCs—the Players were understanding and helpful at this point, as this is (sadly) not the first time this sort of thing has happened to me. You’d think I’d have learned by now :) I blame the “rush.” Other than that, there were no real surprises. My biggest disappointment was that out of six Players, I only ended up getting two “Reviews” after it was over (from the usual suspects), which led me to believe that the rest weren’t all that excited about the game either. As another factor contributing to the reduced enthusiasm, it should be mentioned that a few of those Players had never experienced anything like the Feng Shui system (and were new to RPGs in general, having played nothing but D&D 3e), and so had considerable difficulty wrapping their heads around the “style over substance” concept. Feng Shui doesn’t really lend itself to hack-and-slash gaming, and that sort of Player won’t fully appreciate it.

So, after a round of audience-testing, the Underground series was not accepted by the Network for continued production, and the pilot would eventually be re-run, ad nauseum, on the SciFi channel :).

GMs Only

Downloads forthcoming.

Player Comments

Critical acclaim, heckling, and other comments from the Peanut Gallery

Sci-Fi Reviews: “Underground”
REVIEW TITLE: FOX has a sci-fi show! Catch it before they cancel it!
BEGIN REVIEW: In a season filled with reality shows (next week on FOX; “Lions Eat Christians!”), it’s good to see that the Simpsons network is taking a chance on a genre show. Showcasing a bleak future in which a fascist government has seized control, “Underground” is (not surprisingly) the pilot for a series revolving around the resistance such a government has spawned. Critics have already blasted the show for portraying terrorists as the heroes and the government as the villains, although the screenwriters insist this isn’t their goal. Whether intentional or not, this uncomfortable analogy lowers the impact of an otherwise enjoyable two hours despite the massive rewrites demanded by the network at the last minute which caused series creator Dan Lunsford to divorce himself from the project.

The most extensive of the rewrites take place in the first hour and it shows. In the original script (reviewed by Richard Fitzwell in the Feb ’05 issue of Sci-Fi Magazine), the series would have simply began with the core characters already recruited into the Resistance and actively fighting the government, but executives at FOX insisted that the recruitment be shown. Several actors, notably Kiefer Sutherland and Martin Sheen, have opted to not rejoin the cast should the series be picked up, prompting a rewrite of the ending involving Sheen and continual speculation regarding the Sutherland character “Jack Smith.” Clearly trying to capitalize on Jennifer Garner’s physical attributes, the pilot’s focus on her character has drawn outrage from the feminist community and the continuing negotiations between FOX and the agents of Ben Browder and Sean Bean have dominated the news.

Despite these problems, “Underground” has a strong premise, albeit one that has been explored many times in the past. “Underground” also has moments of genuine humor that help break up the general bleakness of the pilot. The effects of the pilot are top-notch and the dialogue is sharp and fast. Unfortunately, the rewrite demanded by the FOX Network that completely reshaped the first hour seriously damaged the impact of the second; as originally written, the pilot would have had more emotional weight as the characters realized that they had been manipulated into damaging their own credibility.

With word that series creator Dan Lunsford has been re-hired by FOX as creative producer and given full veto power, it will be interesting to see what happens in the future.

RATING: 1 thumb up for boldness of the concept, 1 thumb down for stupid network decisions.

- Phil Norfleet


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