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Monday, 31 October 2016

The Ubiquity of the Gothic

Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! is Triple Ace Games’ RPG of globetrotting adventure and mystery. Set during the 1890s, it brings together the greatest heroes and villains of the era—Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, Allan Quatermain, Phileas Fogg, Abraham van Helsing, and more—with the player characters and flings them to the four corners of the world to explore the unknown, make great discoveries, and uncover dark mysteries. Unlike other titles from Triple Ace Games, Leagues of Adventures uses the Ubiquity System first seen in ExileStudio’s Hollow Earth Expedition. The result was an RPG of pulp action in a mannered age and like all RPGs published by Triple Ace Games is ably supported with a raft of supplements and adventures.

Now Leagues of Adventure is heading into all new territory and an all new genre—gothic horror! Where Leagues of Adventure draws heavily upon Victorian era fiction, the supplement Leagues of Gothic Horror draws upon one particular genre of fiction—the Gothic! Works such as Vathek, The Monkey’s Paw, Frankenstein or, a Modern Prometheus, The Castle of Oranto, Dracula, and more, and pitches the player characters or Globetrotters against black dogs and disembodied hands, Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula, ghouls and golems, Jack the Ripper and Mr. Hyde, mummies and wendigo; takes them to dark places and involves them in sinister cults; and arms them with magic and psychic powers. In doing so, it pushes back at the science and reason of Leagues of Adventure, for magic and monsters are real rather than myth.

For the player character, Leagues of Gothic Horror provides eight new archetypes such as the Gypsy and the Mentalist, the Monster Slayer and the Mystic, and so on; new skills such as Alienism and Magic; exotic Talents like Dowser, Exorcist, Fortune-Telling, Medium, Mentalism, and Second Sight alongside the mundane Talents of Alternate Identity, Rabble-Rouser, and Unflappable; and Flaws that cover the physical (Albino), mental (Disbeliever and Highly Strung), Social (Doomsayer and Meddler), and miscellaneous (Weirdness Magnetic). In addition, Globetrotters can join and enjoy the benefits of a host of new Leagues—as clubs are known in Leagues of Adventure—such as The Ancient Order of Druids, The Frankenstein Guild, The Golden Circle, The Hellfire Club, The Society for Rational Explanations, and so on. Two in particular stand out. One is the The Ministry of Unusual Affairs for when the GM needs some ‘Gentlemen in Black’, the other is The Vengeants’ Guild, the membership of which consists of those who have lost ones to the supernatural and desire revenge.

As to gear, of course Leagues of Gothic Horror includes such mundane items as holy water, leather neck guard, morphine, opium, and a vampire hunting kit. All right some of those items are not exactly mundane, but once you add Weird Science to the mix and the author clearly has had a lot of fun retrofitting items from other sources back to the 1890s. Need to take out a ghost, then an Etheric Energy Dissipation Ray (and its hand-cranked backpack power unit) is wha want; similarly, the Gas Powered Automatic Crossbow is very much your friend when faced by a vampire horde; and do you get in a tiz when confronted by a ghost, werewolf, or strangeness? Then wear an Unflapilator on your head and you will be the bravest of souls!

Mechanically, the primary addition to Leagues of Gothic Horror are the rules for Sanity, Shock, and Corruption. Each Globetrotter is given a new derived stat called Sanity—equal to their Charisma plus their Willpower—and as long as it stays above zero he is fine. At zero, a character is shaken; below that, he is driven unconscious through shock; and at -5 or less, he is utterly mad. Sanity is lost by failing Horror checks. Each monster in Leagues of Gothic Horror has a Horror rating, for example, Horror 2 for a Disembodied Hand and Horror 4 for Count Dracula, as can various phenomena. In such encounters, a character rolls double his Will. Succeed and he is fine, but fail and he loses Sanity equal to the difference. Means of recovering Sanity includes drugs (but these can be addictive), roleplaying a character’s Motivation—this is instead their gaining a Style Point as is standard in the Ubiquity System, psychotherapy, rest, and of course, success in an adventure.

Characters can also gain Corruption that can eventually lead to their gaining further Flaws like Flea-Infested, Callous, or Disfigured. This is done by acting evil acts—and Leagues of Gothic Horror draws a distinction here between acts of necessary evil and avoidable acts of evil, a character gaining Corruption for the latter—and can only be removed by undertaking morally worthwhile acts.

Since there are monsters in Leagues of Gothic Horror, there is also Magic and Mentalism. Both are real. Magic comes in numerous traditions, including Animism, Black Magic, Ceremonial magic, Natural Magic, and Old Ways. Magic is not cast easily or quickly and is not the wizardly flash of fantasy magic. Magic has ritualistic feel with rules for casting in the right place and at the right time, for example at the confluence of Ley Lines on solstices. Rituals include Augury, Banish Spirit, Premonition, Raise Dead, Seal Portal, and even Stage Magic. Magic is also supported by numerous examples of magical texts and occult relics and on the whole is neither easy to learn nor practise. Mentalism has a slightly more scientific feel and covers ESP, Precognition, Telepathy, and so on.

Almost a third of Leagues of Gothic Horror is devoted to fiends and foes. From Animated Ivy and Bat Swarm to Wolf and Zombie/Skeleton, the supplement gives the stats and descriptions for monster after monster. Pride of place in this bestiary goes to the descriptions of ghosts and vampires, as they are no mere write-ups, but more toolkits with which the GM can tailor and design different versions of each. This also allows the GM to create ghost or vampire foes that will challenge players who are overly familiar with them as well as regional variants. There is not much help towards the latter goal, which is a pity, but some research upon the part of the GM will solve that. Allies and mortal foes come in the form of mediums and police constables, tyrannical lords and necromancers, as well as several of the characters from Dracula. The Count himself makes an appearance alongside a number of major foes and this is followed by some cults to pitch against the Globetrotters. These are huge fun and each comes with a sample NPC important in the cult and a minor member too. Any one of the cults given, such as the freak show La Cirque Díabolique or the finger-munching Wendigo Society, could be worked up into a fuller threat to support a campaign by themselves.

In comparison to the bestiary, the list of gothic or dark places, feels all too short. It only covers a few actual places around the world, the most exotic being the Flying Dutchman. Several generic places are also given, all suitably dark and gothic. Fortunately plenty of these places are easy to research, but Triple Ace Games has a published a number of PDFs that would support a Leagues of Gothic Horror campaign. For example, Globetrotters Guide to Unusual Places and Globetrotters' Guide to Cads & Cultists, as well various guides to monsters.

Rounding Leagues of Gothic Horror is a solid bibliography and example campaign ideas and adventure seeds. The GM is also given an essay that provides a good overview of the Gothic genre and a discussion of the types of campaign that can be run, for example, action-adventure, comedic, dark, or true Gothic horror. These include guidelines on how to adjust character generation and the rules  to it in each case.

Physically, Leagues of Gothic Horror feels as if it needs an edit or two in places and the gothic script makes some titles difficult to read, but otherwise it is well presented and well written. The artwork is suitably dark and foreboding, but much of it feels like it should be in colour.

It would be unfair to state that Leagues of Gothic Horror is not quite as thorough a treatment of the Gothic genre for Leagues of Adventure and thus the Ubiquity System as it could have been. True there are aspects that could have been presented in more depth—the means to tailor monsters to particular regional legends and more places—but to be fair, those are probably best left as the subject of more detailed supplements that support this one. Putting that aside, and indeed, Leagues of Gothic Horror is thorough treatment of classic horror. It has rules for fear, for magic and its dangers, and it has lots of classic monsters that fit the period (but can be used in other periods too). Given the inclusion of those classic monsters and the supplement has the feel of both Hammer Horror and Universal Monster movies, but then they are drawing from the same source. Leagues of Gothic Horror though draws more heavily upon the works of Gothic fiction and gives the GM more means to do so. Overall, Leagues of Gothic Horror provides everything a GM needs to bring the supernatural and the horrifying to Leagues of Adventure (and other Ubiquity System RPGs).