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

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Pre-American Gothic

I owe an apology to Richard Iorio II and James Maliszewski at Rogue Games. I have had a copy of their Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game for far too long and not reviewed it. There is no excuse, but the sad thing is that this happens. Trying to keep up with the flood of releases while not letting books slip you by is not as easy as it should be. I could complain about having to fit a real job around writing these reviews and there not being enough time, and while I might think there to be some truth in both of those excuses, this misses the point. Sorry Richard and James (and Monica and Matt, the other authors of the game), I should have reviewed this sooner. I let you down. Sorry.

So to the review itself, which is of Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game published by Rogue Games, an RPG set in the new world during the eighteenth century on the eve of the American Revolution. Although this game is strong in terms of pre revolutionary history, it is not a wholly historical game. True the cries from the colonists for liberty grow in volume, but the future of America and her independence are threatened by something much, much darker and more secret, and as the colonists move against their British masters, other forces are at work. Cabals, cultists, and sects seek to aid these forces, some from the old world, others native to the new, while others attempt to stop them. This then, is a game about two conflicts. The second to decide the future of the Thirteen Colonies, but the first to determine the course of the Secret History that will affect outcome of the first...

Originally published in 2007, but revised in 2009, Colonial Gothic is a cinematic horror inspired by Rip van Winkle and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow as much as Last of the Mohicans, that pitches a new Age of Science and Reason against the insidious influence of the supernatural, various mysteries, and the occult. Magic is real, but a barely understood mysterious force, more likely to be commanded by cultists, occultists, and witches. Meanwhile creatures out of folklore and legend stalk the shadows, ghosts, spirits, and vampires being familiar to the colonists while the natives will know more of the capricious, but informative Chepi, and the feared Wendigo. The setting is a combination of the historical and the fantastical, with both supported by lots of history and plenty of background, and all supported by a light, quick rules system.

Character creation is a point buy system that requires a little thought. First, a player selects a Background – Colonist, Freeman, Immigrant, Military, or Native American. It should be noted that the Freeman Background covers both the Freed Slave and the Former Indentured, and the Native American Background covers several different tribes. Each one indicates a character's past and provides two free skills and a language. He assigns forty five points between five attributes – Might, Nimble, Vigor, Reason, and Resolution, and then spends another fifty five points on skills. Skills are relatively expensive, the first Rank for any skill costing the same as its associated attribute, with further ranks costing half the value of the associated attribute. Thus Robert Webster, a militiaman with a Nimble score of 12, must spend twelve points to get the Shoot skill at Base Rank of 1, and then a further six points to raise it to 2, and again to rank 3. In general most characters will start off with relatively few skills.

In addition a character has five Hook or Fate Cards. On each of these a player writes an interesting fact about the character whether that be a quality or aspect about the character, or a link to a noteworthy person, event, location, or object. For example, "I possess the claw from a gigantic bear that I hunted, but did not kill. He left me scarred and wants his claw back" or "My Mother was driven to drown herself by secret voices. The spirits that spoke to her were evil." In the original version of Colonial Gothic, Fate Cards were revealed at an appropriate moment during the game to “edit” events, to add a new plot element or aid the current plot, but did not grant any sort of mechanical benefit. In the revised edition, Fate Cards are more flexible. Their use allows a player to spend Faith Points, of which a character has five. Normally, spending a Faith Point grants the character a +1 bonus to a roll, but that becomes +2 when used in conjunction with a Fate Card. They can also be used “edit” the game as before, but the big change is that Fate Cards can be tagged or compelled by the GM to bring an adverse element into the game. When this happen to a character, he receives a Faith Point. This is a nice addition, allowing Fate Cards to be brought more readily into play and the elements that a player describes for his character to be added to the game.

For example, Enola is a Native American, a Tribe Adopted member of the Shawnee tribe. She regularly joins trading between the tribe and the colonists.

Enola, Tribe Adopted Native American.
Might 8 Nimble 10 Vigor 9 Reason 8 Resolution 10
Vitality 40 Resolve 45 Sanity 50
Languages: English (Fluent), Wakashan Algonquin (Fluent)
Skills: Archery [12], Bargain [12], Observe [10], Stealth [11], Tracking [10]
Fate Cards: My fair hair marks me as different; The colony’s merchants will not cheat the tribe because we are natives; I cannot recall what happened to my parents, but I know that it ended in fire; I will be worthy of this bow, a gift from my foster father; Silence is golden, use it to your advantage.

For its rules, Colonial Gothic employs the 12° system. It requires two twelve-sided dice rolled under an attribute or a skill rank plus attribute with critical successes and failures possible. Dramatic successes are possible on a roll of two, while a roll of twenty four indicates a Dramatic Failure. The degree by which a character succeeds or fails – hence the name for the mechanics – is also important, determining the outcome in an opposed roll for example, or working as the multiplier for determining damage in combat. For example, our militiaman, Robert Webster with his skill of Shoot 14 responds to attack on his parents’ farm and opens fire at a fleeing target. He hits with a roll of six, indicating that he has scored eight degrees of success. This is multiplied by the Damage Value of his Pennsylvania Long Rifle, which is 7 (75), to give a result of fifty six damage. Whatever the degree of successes rolled, a character cannot inflict more damage than any weapon’s maximum, which in the case of Robert’s rifle, is 75, the number in the bracket. On the whole, combat can be deadly, a person able to withstand at best a couple of shots from a "Brown Bess" musket, or even one when a Critical Success is rolled and the damage doubled.

One set of rules imported from Thousand Suns, Rogue Games’ RPG of Imperial Science Fiction, is for social interaction. Where physical damage reduces a character’s Vitality, in social contests a character’s Resolve is reduced. Instead of the results of a weapon attack determining damage, in Social Contests, social skills such as Bargain, Diplomacy, and Intimidation are used instead. Reducing a character’s Resolve and his attitude towards you will change, the aim usually being to reduce to make the character friendlier towards you. In most games these rules would work against just the NPCs, but under the 12° system an NPC can affect a player character in the same way. This can be a problem for the player who does not like to lose control of how his character feels, but these rules actually makes social interaction more combative, strengthen the role of NPCs, and presents a player with more of a challenge in roleplaying his character, because the character is being influenced rather than the player.

Since Colonial Gothic is a horror game, it needs a sanity mechanic. A Fear Test requires an opposed Resolution Test, one by the character and the other by the cause. If the player fails this test, he loses a point of Sanity and suffers a penalty on his actions for a day. Lose ten points of Sanity and a character might gain a permanent Disorder. Sanity can also be lost for casting spells. The problem here is that it is incredibly difficult to lose enough points to gain a Disorder as a character regains Sanity equal to half his Resolution per day.

Although fundamental to the game, Colonial Gothic keeps magic quite low key and difficult to acquire. Beyond its occult skills of Astrology, Divination, Lore, Magic, and Sense, each spell or ritual is treated as an individual skill, one that can be learnt by a shaman, a sorcerer, or a witch. Finding someone to teach you or a book to learn from is a difficult undertaking, purely because all magic is regarded as evil, whatever the caster’s intent. This is of course, less difficult for a Native American who is studying under a shaman. Numerous common spells are described as well as the more powerful arcane spells, all of them in quite a lot of detail, including a lot of background and history when compared to the original rules. Casting magic breaks natural law which has the side effect of leaving a magical trace or trail that someone with the Sense skill can detect and recognize.

The second example character reflects some of this. Thaddeus was apprenticed by his parents to a printer who also happened to be a mage. He proved to be a harsh taskmaster, Thaddeus being forced to ward blows when he did not take to his lessons as easily as his master wanted. One day his master disappeared and when inquiries were made, the authorities discovered his occult activities. At first Thaddeus was accused of murdering him, but was forced to flee after he too was accused of being a warlock.

Thaddeus Arkwright, Former Indentured Freed Slave.
Might 7 Nimble 8 Vigor 9 Reason 10 Resolution 11
Vitality 40 Resolve 50 Sanity 55
Languages: English (Fluent)
Skills: Defend 8, Divination 11, Magic 13, Profession (Printing) 11, Spell (Guidance) 12, Study (Optics) 11
Fate Cards: I do not know where my master is; Flee before facing a fight; Magic is dangerous, knowledge is not; Make yourself useful, but not noticed; Without my glasses...

The bulk of the background details the historical elements of the setting, primarily the Thirteen Colonies and the Native American tribes. All of which is particularly helpful if you happen not to have the grounding in early American history that the authors do. This though is information for both the players and the GM, whereas the game’s Secret History is the subject of the Game Master Advice, which is much expanded in this Revised Edition. Its focus is how a GM needs to weave his campaign between a Secret History game where the characters can affect, but not alter history, and an Alternate History game, where change can be made. In intent though, Colonial Gothic steers towards the former rather than the latter. The GM is also supported with good advice on running the game, an explanation of its secret history, and new for the Revised Edition, an expanded chapter devoted to the game’s monsters. In the previous edition, there were few if any full write-ups for monsters in the setting. Instead there was simply advice on designing them with the traits listed. The Revised Edition includes this advice and the traits still, but includes a full bestiary that covers unnatural creatures native to both the new and the old worlds. This has come at the loss of an adventure, but the expanded information more than makes up for that loss.

Physically, Colonial Gothic is a little bland looking by contemporary standards, yet the choice of buff coloured paper and lots and lots of suitable clip art lends it a certain charm and enforces the period feel. The writing is good too, and if the book lacks an index, it is at least well organised and everything is easy to find.

Where Colonial Gothic is flexible is in how it is played. It can be in a High Action Style, like Last of the Mohicans; in an Occult & Mystery Style akin to Call of Cthulhu; or in a Supernatural Style much like Brotherhood of the Wolf or Pirates of the Caribbean. The choice is up to the GM and his group to decide, the first style downplaying the outré elements of the occult and emphasising the action, the third downplaying the physical elements in favour of high magic. The default setting is that of the middle option, Occult & Mystery, and the GM will need to decide if the other styles change any of the game’s rules.

Whatever the style of play, Colonial Gothic brings a pleasing degree of grittiness to a slightly cinematic game. It is strong on its period and history (a good thing given this reviewer’s nationality), but keeps its more fantastical elements quite restrained, emphasizing the dangers represented by not just the creatures and cultists, but also in learning and knowing magic, particularly if known to society at large. The Revised Edition expands greatly upon those fantastical elements, adding details to the spells and adding actual monsters along with more advice. It is thus a more rounded core rulebook with everything that the GM needs bar a scenario. In achieving a fine balance between the history and the supernatural, Colonial Gothic: A historical supernatural role-playing game brings reason to play that history.