Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 8 January 2010

Scandalous, but not Heretical

The Victorian period has proved a rich basis for numerous RPGs over the last twenty five years. “Basis” because whenever a new Victorian set RPG appears it always comes with an added theme, whether it be Science Fiction as in Space 1889, Horror as in Cthulhu by Gaslight, or magic, such as For Faerie, Queen, & Country. Some games even combine two of these genres, such as the Horror and Science Fiction of Unhallowed Metropolis or Victoriana, which not only combines Fantasy and Horror, but even has some Science Fiction elements. Originally published by Heresy Games in 2003, the second edition of Victoriana appeared in 2009, this time published by Cubicle Seven.

Now ahead of time, I should explain my slight involvement in the game. First, I was involved in a playtest of the First Edition, and while we liked the setting, to a man we were unimpressed by its choice of the Fuzion System for its mechanics. Second, I am credited as a playtester for the new edition, but I am surprised to be so listed, primarily because my involvement amounted to just playing in a demonstration game at DragonMeet in 2006. In fact, the extended combat example given in the rules is the one that we fought and the one that my character initiated.

This new edition of the game comes as a sturdy hardback with a tidier and better illustrated layout, a better explanation of the setting, more detail about Victorian society, and a completely new set of mechanics. Gone is the Fuzion system to be replaced by the Heresy Game Engine. This uses dice pools comprised of six-sided dice that are rolled to achieve successes. Any roll that comes up a one or a six counts as a success, while any roll of a six can be re-rolled to generate yet more successes. The primary method of setting difficulty is by adding black dice to the pool, three black dice for a difficult task, six for a very difficult task, and so on. Any roll that comes up a one or a six on a black die reduces the total number of successes rolled. Fortunately, rolls of six on a black die do not get rolled again. The other method of setting the difficulty of a task is by modifying the total number of dice in the pool. Anyway, a single success rolled counts as a partial success, two rolled successes as an adequate success, three rolled as a good success, and so. In general, the system is solid, workable, and an improvement.

The setting for Victoriana is an alternate 1867 in which the Crimean War is still being fought against a matriarchal Russia lead by a Czarina, and the American Civil War is yet to occur. Some technological breakthroughs have been made – Babbage is still perfecting his Difference Engine while travel by commercial airship remains the province of the very rich. Although the hierarchy of Victorian society is as strict as you would expect, it is further divided by race. While Humans remain the dominant race, they are joined by Eldren (Elf-like and predominately Upper or Middle Class); Dwarves and Gnomes (predominately Middle or Lower Class); and Beastmen, Halflings, and Ogres (all Lower Class). Of course, Humans can be found at levels of society, and everyone knows their place in Victorian society – except the player characters, because that would make for a somewhat restrictive game.

Most of the races in Victoriana are more or less those to be found in standard fantasy, but the Beastman is a little different. Essentially he is an anthropomorphic animal, whether that be a dog, a donkey, an ox, or a rat. It all depends upon your country of origin because the images in the rulebook do show Panda and Tiger Beastmen. Playing one is another matter because the core Beastman only comes with a single ability of the player’s choice, such as Claws or Enhanced Sense. Beyond that, the player will have to add abilities from the Talents list to get exactly what he wants. Other races exist, such as the Zulu Orcs in South Africa and the Steppegoblins of Russia, but neither of these is available as a player character race.

Its existence acknowledged by the Vatican following the Thirty Years War, magic is a recognised field of study that is regulated by the Guild. Technically it is illegal to practice Thaumaturgy without a license, usually acquired after earning a Thaumaturgical Doctorate, but it is rare for such unlicensed practitioners and Petty Magicians to be hunted down and prosecuted. Unlike demonologists and necromancers, who if caught, will themselves prosecuted and imprisoned at best, executed at worst. There are those of a stalwart moral character though, who are licensed to study and practise the Dark Arts so that they can protect society from demons and the undead. Such men are carefully watched.

The more acceptable forms of magic include Thaumaturgy or sorcery, basically traditional magic; Mediumship as practised by genuine psychic sensitives or the devout rather than by charlatans and fakes; Runelore, practised by Dwarves and Gnomes who imbue stones or pebbles with runes for various effects; and lastly, Petty Magic, which is seen by its practitioners as drawing from an older tradition and requires a focus to work through. Mediumship is categorised into three types: Channelling, Corporeal, and Sensate. Channelling Mediums can connect with the planes beyond while Sensate Mediums have enhanced senses and can see into those other planes. Corporeal Mediums can draw on power from the planes to enhance their physical abilities, but as with Bardic Petty Magic, it is not detailed in the core book. Once detailed, I suspect that this form of Mediumship will appeal to a lot of players.

All of these forms of magic come with their own ability or spell lists, including Demonology and Necromancy, but these Dark Arts spells are really there to help the GM create interesting villains rather than grant a player character infernal power. The only type of magic to differ from this is Runelore, which instead gives a number of runes such as “Messages” and “Wood” that the caster can enchant a stone with, the exact effect of the rune to be determined by the caster. This flexibility is only limited by a player’s imagination.

The setting’s various faiths are all slightly different, with the Aluminat faith – a version of Christianity – dominating Western Europe. Rather than revering a single deity, the Aluminat church reveres Order itself represented by an ascending order of angels. The Aluminat faith actually has Twelve Commandments rather than ten, the extra two concerned with the maintaining of the natural order, which includes not learning sorcery as its use breaks the laws of nature. What this means is that in the society of Victoriana there is a religious, but usually unspoken bias against the use of sorcery and against anyone trying to better himself or push at the limits of his place in society. Similarly, the Aluminat Church is tolerant of other religions to varying degrees, but is understandably intolerant of anyone found to be a member of a daemonic cult or of practicing demonology or necromancy.

Character creation is a mix of player choice, assigning points, and spending points. A player chooses his race, which determines his social class, and then assigns a handful of points to his characteristics. These can be negative as well as positive, but player characters all start with a score of one in each characteristic. A larger pool of points is available to spend on skills (divided between ordinary skills and speciality and magical skills), talents (or advantages), privileges (social advantages), and assets, while a few more points are available if a player decides to take some complications.

The only limiting factor is a character’s Rank, which caps the maximums for characteristics, skills, talents, and so on.  It is also a measure of a character’s reputation and potential, and should not be seen as totally constraining though, as players are free to design whatever character that they want within the limits of its confines. Thus a player could create a Beastman ex-East India man, a Dwarf doctor, an Eldren Medium, a Gnome detective, a Halfling rector, or a Human tosher with little difficulty. The book lists numerous childhood backgrounds and adult vocations, each with the appropriate skills, but these are suggestions rather than packages to select.

It is not a quick process, but overall, character generation is quite satisfying. Here is a sample that I designed, a Beastman Weasel who has the brains to get into trouble and the agility to get out of it. It is a character that I was never quite able to get right with the game’s First Edition, but am happier with the results here.

Name: “Derby” Ned Rank: 1
Nationality: British Social Class: Lower Race: Beastman
Age/Gender: 22/Male Vocation: Gambler Childhood: Chimney Sweep
Build: Slim Hair/Eyes: Black/Black
Personality: Optimistic Social Ethics: Take What You Can

Strength 1 Dexterity 4 Fortitude 2
Presence 1 Wits 1 Resolve 1

Common Skills
Athletics 3, Bull 1, Charm 1, Conceal 1, Dodge 2, Fisticuffs 2, General Knowledge 1, Hide & Sneak 3, Improvised Weapon 1, Perception 1, Streetwise 2, Swordplay 1

Specialities & Magical Skills
Appraisal 1, Boating 1, Conversation 1, Gambling 3, Pick Locks 3, Pick Pockets 1, Sewer Lore 1, Sleight of Hand 3, Tracking 1

Racial Special Abilities: Enhanced Senses (Smell)
Complications: Code of Honour, Enemy, Stubborn
Talents, Privileges, & Assets: Agility, Contortionist 2, Bolt Hole 2, Ear of the Street, Gambler 2, Glib 1, Local Expert (Rookeries) 1

One aspect that Victoriana wears on its sleeve is its politics. Its bias is anti-conformist, its authors deploring the rigid social structure, the misogyny, the hypocrisy, and the racism of the Victorian Era, all of which they pitch the player characters against. Thus there is a liberal bias inherent to the game, and while that might be deplorable to some players, it also gives the rationale for the player characters to go and adventure. Plus of course, what the game pitches the player characters against was – to be fair – deplorable itself. As “Gutter Runners,” the player characters are expected to buck against the restrictions of Victorian mores and society, their desire for change and their freedom forcing them to act. There are parallels in this with the ethos of the Cyberpunk genre, and the authors point this out themselves, but qualify it by saying that while the parallel is true for Middle or Lower Class characters, it does not work for Upper Class characters. After all, an Upper Class character already has his money, so what else does he want? Simply his freedom, because he is as equally bound by the restrictions of his society as anyone else.

The parallel with the Cyberpunk, combined with Victoriana’s mix of fantasy races and magic, has led to it being described as “ShadowRun 1867.” While there might be a game in such a concept, Victoriana is not that game, primarily because its focus is on conflict within and against society. Further, the origins of Victoriana do not lie in ShadowRun, but in a venerable British RPG of a similar age, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. That shows most obviously in the inclusion of the Beastman as a player character option, but also in the Moorcockian treatment of the setting’s various faiths with their Law versus Chaos underpinnings.

For the GM there is advice on styles of play accompanied by some campaign. It also addresses the problem of the Class Divide in play, suggesting that a party consist of characters from all classes or troupe play wherein a player controls three characters, one of each class. Various locations, ranging from a rooftop chase to aboard a train, are discussed as places to stage a fight, but no maps are given with them, which is a pity, though there is potential for a sourcebook that could do that job. Pleasingly, the advice includes some very matter of fact guidelines for running the game, and suggestions on how to deal with problem players.

Beyond the advice, the GM has a bestiary to play with that includes both monsters and ordinary members of society, and a starting scenario with which to get his game going. “Spiritual Matters” describes itself as a Penny Dreadful and has the characters engaged by Lord Highgate to locate an artefact for him. The scenario should last no longer than a session or two and just about serves to introduce the characters to setting, though the players might be disappointed at the lack of reward beyond simple Experience Points.

Penultimately, the first edition of the game is not ignored and an appendix tells you how to adapt a First Edition character to this new version. The book is rounded out with an excellent bibliography, which should provide fine further reading and viewing as well as actual inspiration.

Victoriana feels very complete as a game. If it has an inherent weakness, it is that it does not quite provide quite as strong a focus for what the player characters are meant to be doing as it should, but given the depth of background provided, a GM should be able to develop such a focus with some thought. In addition, that the game is set in 1867 could also be a problem, because the period that will not be quite as familiar to most gamers, who in terms of gaming will be more au fait with the later period of the 1890s through games such as Space 1889, Cthulhu by Gaslight, and Victorian Age: Vampire, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Fortunately, Victoriana goes a long way to addressing this problem by presenting an excellent exploration of Victorian society and mores. It is this exploration of Victorian society that is the game’s primary strength and the foundation upon which its more outré elements – the magic, the fantasy races, and so forth have not only been added, but more importantly been integrated into.

What has been achieved in Victoriana Second Edition is a fine blend of history and society with more fantastic elements, so fine a blend that the outré aspects feel part of the setting rather than additions. That the game comes with its own new and better rules system is just a plus.