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Saturday, 24 March 2018

A Gaslight Precursor

Victorian Adventure was not the first British roleplaying game to be published—that honour falls to Bifrost, but arguably, it was the first to live up to its tag line, “The first ‘Truly British’ role playing game”. Published in 1983, it was the first roleplaying game to address the Victorian Era—Chaosium’s Cthulhu by Gaslight would not be published until 1986 and Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Horror, which included a chapter on the period, would not appear until 1987. It can certainly be seen as a precursor to Cthulhu by Gaslight, having a similar set-up with ordinary men and women facing mystery and danger, though of course, not necessarily the Mythos. It does touch upon similar elements as the Cthulhu Mythos, but only very briefly and instead draws classic Gothic stories for its very traditional horror. Mechanically, whilst it does use percentiles for its resolution system, Victorian Adventure is more inspired by the complexity of the roleplaying games published by Fantasy Games Unlimited rather the streamlined simplicity of Call of Cthulhu and the Basic RolePlay system. Nevertheless, it can also be seen as a precursor of Cthulhu by Gaslight since according to Stephen Jennison-Smith, the designer of Victorian Adventure, the second edition of the game was to be produced in America by Paranoia Games and William A. Barton, but the deal fell through. William A. Barton, is of course, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight.

In just forty-eight pages, Victorian Adventure provides the rules for character generation, action and combat resolution, Spiritualism, and more, supporting it with a timeline, a guide to wages and a price list for goods in both 1837 and 1901, a guide to NPCs and monsters, plus three scenarios. The large yellow, buff-paged book even includes an index—not bad for a forty-eight page book! Given the limited page count, it is no surprise that after a quick introduction to the game and an explanation of what fantasy roleplaying is, and the dice needed to play, Victorian Adventure begins its explanation of character generation—and all that on the first page.

To create a character a player rolls two-sided dice for eight attributes—Physical Strength, Mental Strength, Spiritual Strength, Agility, Health/Physique, Wit/Charm, Countenance, and Education—and adds the results together for each. Physical Hurt Points are derived from Physical Strength and Health/Physique, Build and both Height and Weight from Health/Physique, and Looks from Countenance. Also rolled for are Sibling Rank, Father’s Social Class and whether a character has an occupation of higher or lower social class (which determines the jobs available), Schools Attended, and Marital Status. There are oddities though… For example, women lose Physical Strength if their Physical Strength rolled is higher than twelve, and a character cannot have a difference of more than six between his Physical Strength and his Health/Physique. 

Skill points to be divided between the game’s skills—both ordinary skills and combat skills—are derived from a character’s Mental Strength and Education. Some of the skills do get some base values, mostly a character’s general skills. The assigned skill points are multiplied by ten to give a character’s starting value. There are a couple of oddities to the game’s skills also. For example, it differentiates between Climb and Mountaineering, and it includes Ventriloquism, but not Hypnotism. Also, there is no Psychology skill or Perform skill.

Name: Mrs Betty Wyndham
Class: Middle Class
Occupation: Lady’s Companion (Servant)

Description: A short, rotund woman with greying hair and pince nez. Dressed in dark colours, she is never without her hat or an umbrella
Background History: Margaret Wyndham nee Hayes, is the only daughter of a clergyman who became a lady’s companion. She has never married, although she was engaged to an army captain who was killed in the Second Afghanistan War.

Year of Birth: 1851
Place of Birth: Princes Risborough
Schools Attended: Dame, Charity, and Sunday Schools
Marital Status: Single
Build: Stocky Sex: Female
Height/Weight: 5’ 6”/145 lbs
Looks: Unattractive Gait: Shuffling

Physical Strength 07 Mental Strength 18
Spiritual Strength 19 Agility 03
Health/Physique 14 Wit/Charm 16
Countenance 07 Education 14
Physical Hurt Points 11
Bonus/Penalty to opponent’s P.H.P. —

Ancient Language: Latin 20%, Dealing 10%, Etiquette 40%, Language: French  30%, Lockpicking 10%, Occult: 10%, Riding 10%, Streetwise 10%

General Skills
G1 English 70%, G2 Search 21%, G3 Observation 40%, G4 Climb  24%, G5 Jump 45%, G6 Grab 03%

Hand-to-Hand Combat Skills
Punch 10%, Head Butt 08%, Kick 05%, Knife 05%, Club 25%, Hand Axe 04%, Spear 04%, Sword 03%, Rapier 01%

Missile/Projectile Combat
Rifle 05%, Shotgun 04%, Pistol 03%, Dagger 02%, Spear 02%, Bow 01%

Character creation is not straightforward and requires a fair bit of arithmetic, a process not helped by the production methods of the day which could not always handle mathematical symbols with any great clarity. The results also feel underpowered in terms of what a character can do, with an average of just eleven points per character to assign to a wide variety of skills. The likelihood is that skills of more than 50% will be uncommon. Likewise, improving a skill is challenging, if not plain hard work. Each time a skill is used, it is improved by 1%, up to 50%. At which point, each time a skill is used, it grants a player a 1% chance of the skill being improved. Alternatively, a player can save these chances, 1% at a time building the chance of a skill being improved until the player wants to roll against this chance. If the roll is successful, points accumulated are lost, but even if the roll is successful, the skill only increases by 1%! It is also possible to raise an attribute in a similar fashion.

As to the actual game mechanics, Victorian Adventure employs a simple percentile system—roll under and succeed. The system, as such, is barely developed and there is no advice as to how and what might modify a skill attempt depending upon the situation. The same can be said of the combat system, which focuses more on a relatively complex initiative order and action system which plays out second by second. The rules do cover most personal combat situations, but they are not clearly written and feel muddled and obtuse. There is a relatively simple system at the heart of the rules presented in Victorian Adventure, but as written, they are a challenge to read and learn.

In terms of background, Victorian Adventure is light on content, the bulk of it essentially comprised of lists. There is a timeline running from 1817 to 1901, a list of inventions year by year, and of wages and prices in both 1837 and 1901. The longest section of background is weirdly specific, being devoted to Spiritualism. It details how modern Spiritualism came about, the divisions—or spheres—of the spirit world, how to contact a spirit and how to hold a seance (it advises not to hold real seances), as well as how to use Spiritualism in the game. There is the possibility that a player character might become a Medium, or at least sensitive, but again the rules are not clear. 

Both this content and the option to become a Medium are problematic. The content is problematic because its specificity unbalances everything else in the book—no other subject is given as detailed a treatment. The option to become a Medium is problematic because it is the only option provided for player characters to be anything other than mundane. Unlike O.P.s, or ‘Other People’, as Victorian  Adventure likes to call its NPCs. In particular, O.P. heroes with high combat skills—combat skills of 90%, that is, skills far in excess of anything a player character can expect to have except after long periods of play. Each of these O.P. heroes—Acrobats, Chinese Boxers, Cowboy, Dare Devils, Duelling Swordsmen, Elite Soldiers, Ring Boxers, and Sleuths—has one or more particular special skills. So a Sleuth has Deduction, a Cowboy has Fast Draw, a Dare Devil has Luck, and a Duelling Swordsman has Swordfence and Swordfence Deflection, and so on. Not only are these skills inaccessible to player characters, they are also double what a player character can expect to have and so are nigh on unbeatable. Ultimately it is difficult to determine what purpose these NPCs serve.

Fortunately, the point of the monsters given is more obvious. Just six are given: the Mummy, the Vampire, the Werewolf, the Zombie, and the Serpent People and the Children of the Serpent People. The latter two entries have, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with the Mythos. Anyway, it would be easy enough for the Game Master to adapt almost any monster to the rough mechanics of Victorian Adventure. Some of these monsters appear in the roleplaying game’s three scenarios. The first is ‘Bane of the Downs’, in which the players characters—on a camping trip no less!—are trapped in a Yorkshire public house, ‘The Wolf & Lamb’, as a werewolf hunts outside. The second, ‘Fish’s Plot’, is much longer and involves a criminal’s plans to carry off a major jewelry heist, but the hook to get the player characters involved will need some work. A problem with the scenario is that it does not start with the hook, but with the first scene, so it reads oddly. Lastly, ‘Lord Farringtons Son’ at first involves a trade in young men being snatched off the streets of London and sent to China as slaves, but then turns out they are being trafficked into the den of a Serpent Man and served up as dinner! Again the problem with the scenario is the lead in, which the Game Master will need to develop in order to get the player characters involved. By the standards of the day, these scenarios are not bad, and arguably they are one of the better features of Victorian Adventure, but they do need development work upon the part of the Game Master. It does not help though that there is no map of London or the United Kingdom to support any of the scenarios.

There is advice as to both play and run the game. There is a guide to roleplaying for both aspects of the game and for the players the pertinant advice is that their characters stick together because their skills are low and stick to the law because so many criminal offences are hanging offences! In fact, the bulk of the very short section on history is devoted to crime and justice. The general advice on creating scenarios is pretty decent in comparison. Rounding out the book is a map of the British Empire and some illustrations of typical period dress, illustrations which are not that dissimilar to those that would later appear in Cthulhu by Gaslight.

Physically, Victorian Adventure is lacklustre. The layout and look of the book is rudimentary and the artwork amateurish. That said, the front cover has a certain charm. The absence of maps of London and the British Isles is a major omission, and even if there is a map of the British Empire, it really lacks sufficient detail to be of great use.

It is no surprise to discover that William A. Barton reviewed Victorian Adventure shortly after its release. In Fantasy Gamer No. 6 (June/July 1984), he wrote “If the Victorian Era holds any interest for you in terms of roleplaying, and you don’t mind having to convert your dollars to British pounds and sending to England to obtain a copy, I think you’ll find much of interest in Victorian Adventure.” The only other review appears to have been in Imagine No 15 (June 1984). Where William A. Barton was positive, Chris Hunter was not. He criticised the social class mix for player characters as being too realistic in that it led to there being too many Lower and Middle Class characters who would not have had the opportunity to adventure whereas Upper Class characters would have. He described the combat system as being “…[N]ot one of the best I have ever seen.”, highlighting the lack of modifiers and weak rules for reloading weapons. Hunter was particularly unhappy with the section on Spiritualism, finding it disturbing and suggesting that the author’s time could have been better spent on finishing the combat rules. In concluding he wrote, “In the game’s favour, it has some interesting background information including a diary of events and inventions, a table of wages and cost of living for each year of Victoria’s reign and a price list for items both at the beginning and the end of the era. However, the poor artwork and the occasional low standard of English do not help a set of rules which in their present state I would not recommend.”

It is tempting to dismiss Victorian Adventure as the first—and apparently only—efforts of an amateur designer. It is certainly no more than that and there is almost no reason to recommend it to anyone who is not a student or collector of roleplaying games, British or otherwise. So what Victorian Adventure really is, some thirty-five years on, is a curio. What makes Victorian Adventure a curio is that it is the first entry in a long line of Victorian Era set roleplaying games. The truth of the matter is that Victorian Adventure would quickly be surpassed by other Victorian Era set roleplaying games—most notably Cthulhu by Gaslight.


With thanks to Jon Hancock for providing access to the review in Fantasy Gamer No. 6.