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

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Victorians & Vampires (& Zombies)

In 1905 the dead rose and fell upon the living.

Whole countries collapsed under the onslaught of the cadaver cavalcade, but society and civilisation held. In the United Kingdom the declaration and implementation of martial law meant that society could hold on and hold out long enough to learn about the new world around them. It would take decades, but slowly the nation’s cities were reclaimed from the dead and refortified to prevent attacks from without, much of the countryside being left to roving bands of animates and the blight that poisons the very ground. Having retaken the cities, the Domestic Security Force – known as the Deathwatch – mans the walls, protecting the cities from threats without whilst having the mandate to ruthlessly put down any outbreaks of the Plague and the rise of the dead within. In the tightly packed slums, the living conditions mean that disease is rife and Outbreaks of the Plague and the dead are far from uncommon.

In the two hundred years since the first Outbreak, the well-known Victorian reverence for the dead has been more than reappraised. The cremation of the recently deceased, lest they rise again, with most bodies going to the great public crematoria – it is a prosecution offense not to send a body there. Only the very rich can afford to have the deceased lie in mourning, and even then, a member of the black clad Mourners’ Guild must watch over the deceased, ready to behead the corpse if he should rise. Other undead threats besides the animates – vampires and ghouls as well as the Frankenstein creations of the alchemy and embryonic sciences – lurk deep in the sewers, tunnels, and warrens below the cities. When the Deathwatch cannot deal with these, Undertakers will delve into the depths, seeking the bounty on the head of each at the branches of the Office of Urban Defence.

Whilst Great Britain remains a parliamentary monarchy, a new aristocracy has arisen as the old has ossified. The industrialists have become richer as the work place reforms of the nineteenth century have been repealed. Of course, this does not dissuade the industrialist nouveau riche from wanting to marry into the aristocracy for the name and the status, and of course, that money gives accesses to the anti-aging treatments that prolong life for up to two hundred years. Another path to unaging is vampirism, although the Office of Urban Defence places a bounty on head of all vampires – or rather their dust – as they are dangerous predators who spread their condition by disease and mind control. Vampires most commonly infect prostitutes, but there are some who survive the infection and live out an existence as that most romanticised of tragic figures in this new age, the Dhampiri. Eschewing their progenitor’s sanguinary desires, the Dhampiri express a hatred of all vampires and often turn to hunting them for their bounty.

The atrocious living and working conditions of the working class to be found in Britain’s cities are not only the breeding grounds of disease and new outbreaks of the Plague, but they are unsurprisingly the breeding grounds for dissent. Food riots are common and anarchist bombing campaigns not unknown, although the men of the City of London Police and Metropolitan Police do their best to rout the terrorists out. They are aided in this task by the clairvoyants, mediums, and telepaths of CID’s Psi Branch. The police also have to deal with the Resurrection Men who trade in bodies for experimentation and as food for the Meat Market; the swelling desire to kill in the growing number of murderers; and having to monitor the otherwise legal practice of prostitution, whose practitioners must be checked lest they spread disease and even vampirism.

The skies over the cities remind the inhabitants of both life and death. They crackle with the galvanic energy of the Tesla Towers that power many of the devices that people use daily, including the Van Haller Lightning Gun favoured by the Deathwwatch, yet are laden with the outpourings of the factories and the public crematoria, forcing everyone to wear protection from the ash coated London Peculiars – even the horses! The working classes often can only afford the cloth “dust masks” to wear over their mouths, whilst the middle and upper classes can afford gas masks of brass, glass, and rubber, as well as clothing in similar material, a style known as “Gas Mask Chic.”

This is the setting for Unhallowed Metropolis, a neo-Victorian set RPG that combines horror, manners, and zombie and vampire hunting set in an alternate future. First published by New Dark Age through by Eos Press in 2007, the Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised returns in 2012, this time published by Atomic Overmind Press, best known for Ken Hite’s superb The Day After Ragnorak. This can only be good news because the few supplements released by New Dark Age for Unhallowed Metropolis were either unavailable beyond the borders of the USA, or inordinately expensive to obtain. As the title suggests, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, the book has been redone, both character creation and combat being streamlined; the setting information being expanded to cover the USA, most of Europe, and beyond; new character Callings or types (the Deathwatch Soldier and the Detective) being added; and an array of new material incorporated from some of the supplements previously released. The result is an improved rulebook and background, but as will be explored, not all of game’s original issues have been addressed.

In terms of characters, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised offers eight Callings – two more than the original edition – each of which not only determines a character’s social class, but also his Class in game terms. The eight are Aristocrat, Criminal, Deathwatch Soldier, Detective, Dhampir Vampire Hunter, Doctor, Mourner, and Undertaker. In addition, rules are given that enable a player to create a custom character not using one of these Callings. Although a Calling provides a character with a set number of features and skills, each also gives plenty of options that allow a player to customise his character. For example, the Aristocrat Calling grants the Blue Blood and Deference Features, but allows the player choose from another thirteen, one for each level in his Etiquette Skill – the skill varies according to the Calling. The Features for the Aristocrat Calling range from Big Game Hunter and Casanova to Military Family and Vogue via Duellist and Gossip. Each Feature usually adds a bonus to skill roles or allows failed skill rolls to be rerolled, but each also adds flavour and background to the character too.

Once a Calling is selected, each player has twenty-five points to spend on six attributes – Vitality, Coordination, Wit, Intellect, Will, and Charm; and another twenty-five to spend on skills. Both are rated between one and five, and with the points available, most characters will have average attributes of 3 or so, with perhaps one attribute a little higher, whilst their skills will again average at 3 with one or two skills much higher. Each player has a final five points with which to customise his character, and he can also choose from a wide selection of advantageous Qualities and disadvantageous Impediments. Before that, a player must select his character’s Corruption. This reflects that although the characters have the capacity to be great figures of the Neo-Victorian Age, they possess a greater susceptibility to the moral decay that threatens the very fabric of society. This is represented by the three Corruption paths that a character could take – Physical, Desire, and Drive. A character begins with just a point in one of these paths and an associated Affliction, but through play can develop further Afflictions as he meanders along the Corruption paths into moral decay, eventually to turn into a monster, both physically and mentally. The most obvious way of being drawn down these paths is by being exposed to greater horrors, but there is a more common means of being driven along the path to Corruption. First a character has “Second Chances” and can make a number of rerolls per session equal to his Corruption, and if he needs more rerolls, then he must increase Corruption, and second, once per session he can call upon the “Devil’s Luck” to automatically get out of a perilous scrape, again at the cost of increasing his Corruption. Since the likelihood of a character requiring “Second Chances” is quite high, it seems odd that the desperate need for luck is so tied to a character’s path to Corruption. That said, at its heart, the Corruption paths are a pleasing roleplaying reflection of the setting.

Our sample character is Mrs. Arthur Fanshawe, the widow of the late Arthur Fanshawe, Member of Parliament for Deal. He rose as a vampire after being infected following continued dalliances with prostitutes and had to be staked after he had killed several of his servants. Thankfully his son, John, was at boarding school at the time. Florence was the one who did the staking and had to endure the scandal even whilst she was in mourning. Come the end of mourning, the scandal did not go away and she entered the “Quiet Service” of the Guild and became a Mourner.

Mrs. Arthur Fanshawe
Calling – Mourner
Vitality 3 Coordination 3 Wit 3 Intellect 2 Will 3 Charm 3
Skills: Concentration 4, Etiquette 3, Language 2 (French), Melee Weapons 4, Psychology 1, Ride 1, Second Sight 1, Shadow 2, Thanatology 3, Theology 2
Prowess 6 Wealth 4
Corruption: Desire 1 – Addiction (Laudanum)
Features: Death Trance, Disconcerting, Disciplined Mind, Exculpus Mastery (Preferred Weapon: Exculpus), Familiarity: Animate, Latent Medium, Twin Blade Fighter (Two Weapon Fighting Stunt, Ambidextrous)
Combat Stunts: Fast Draw, Free Parry, Lucky Shot, Snap Reaction
Qualities: Dreamer (6), Faith (2)
Impediments: Allergy – Pollen (1), Fastidious (1), Good Tasting (4), Ward – Son, John (2)

Equipment: Exculpus (Pair), Armoured Leather Corset, Mourning Clothing, Respirator, £8

Mechanically, Unhallowed Metropolis employs a pair of ten-sided dice, these being rolled and added together along with either the appropriate attribute or skill to equal or beat a Difficulty Rating. A Moderate Difficulty Rating is 11, Complex is 14, Hard is 15, and Virtually Impossible. Although the average result on the dice will be 11, with a character only adding a pertinent attribute or skill to a roll, the average of which will probably be only 2 or 3, there is nevertheless a high chance of a character failing even a Moderate Difficulty Rating. Although some Calling Features and some Qualities allow rerolls with certain skills, it is not all and the likelihood is that a player is going to need to turn to his character’s “Second Chances” more often than not. As much as the Corruption mechanic is an integral part of the setting, this potential reliance upon it is all but an imposition.

This mechanical issue is only exacerbated when it comes to combat, which can be very deadly. That said, one pleasing aspect of the combat rules retained from the original edition are the combat stunts, which a character receives for each level he possesses in a combat skill. For example, “Snap Reaction” enables a character to react before an foe can take an action, whilst Fast Aim allows a character to forgo an action rather than a whole turn in order to gain an aiming bonus. (In the previous edition, every skill had a series of stunts associated with it, which while it added detail, slowed down both character generation and play). Nevertheless, the deadliness of the combat rules not only exacerbates the unforgiving rules system and its reliance upon the Corruption mechanics, it is at odds with the cinematic leanings of the combat stunts.

The problem would not be so bad were the base roll consist of the result of the two ten-sided dice and both the pertinent skill and the pertinent attribute (or twice the pertinent attribute if an attribute check), but it does not. Then it does under certain circumstances, such as attempting to strangle someone, which requires an opposed roll of the Vitality plus Unarmed Combat. To have such inconsistencies is odd and undermines the game’s rules.

The setting itself is explored in some detail, such as a discussion of “unmentionables” and “combat corsetry” under equipment, which covers the setting’s weaponry with flavour aplenty and gives the tools of the trade for the various Callings. Animate Restraints or Dust Kits for collecting the fine ash of staked vampires? Just what every Undertaker needs! Almost a quarter of the core rules is devoted to the threats faced by humanity in the Neo-Victorian Age. In turn, the anatomy of the animate dead – Zombies and Zombie Lords, Vampires and Dhampirs, and Ghouls, as well as the creations of alchemical and galvanic science – artificial life such as the Anathema and the Homunculi, the reanimated dead known as Mercurials, the assembled Prometheans, and the half-living Thropes that are capable of switching between human and bestial forms. The chapters explore the science and philosophy behind the creation of each as well as presenting the stats, and there is plenty here that the GM can draw from for inspiration and flavour for his scenarios. There is enough here that a player could draw from if his Doctor character wants to delve into the alchemical, galvanic, and life sciences of the very modern Neo-Victorian Age.

Many of these elements and threats are further discussed, exploring in particular how they can be used in play, in the chapter for the GM’s eyes only, as well as that ever present danger in the Neo-Victorian Age – scandal! Accompanying these notes and advice is a set of eight plot seeds. The rulebook is rounded out with appendices that provide a glossary, a bibliography, an index, and a detailed description of Deathwatch uniforms.

Physically, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised come as an attractive and sturdy hardback. The book is illustrated with an array of artwork, some of it black inks, some greyscale pieces, and some it actually photographs of posed models. Much of the latter illustrations are devoted to the illustration of the setting’s “Gas Mask Chic,” and whilst they do fetishize said style, they do not always capture the grime and grubbiness of the setting. The other artwork does though. The book comes with a very nicely done map of London on the inside front and back cover, and the book is generally well written. If there is an issue with the book it is that it is not all that easy to use. The glossary is probably all too short, whilst the index, which although present, is too broad to be really of any use, whilst the need to refer to various tables, such as the wound tables in combat, is hampered by their not being reprinted at the end of the book (though they are referenced).

As much as the setting of Unhallowed Metropolis lends itself to any number of scenario and campaign ideas – Deathwatch duty beyond the walls of the fortified cities, animate hunting through the streets of London, and vampire hunting through London’s high society being the obvious ones – there is pair of dichotomies at the heart of the game and its set up. The first of these is intrinsic to the Victorian era, and is one of class. The issue is that bringing characters of different social classes together, as certainly it would be a possible scandal for a member of high society to be seen consorting with a member of the lower orders. Yet characters of all classes are needed if a party is to gain access to all classes of society. The second is the dichotomy between the combat orientated and the non-combat orientated characters. Both types are necessary, but one type will find itself relegated to the role of bystander when the game focuses on the speciality of the other. Both dichotomies are addressed in the section on Dynamics of Play, and whilst the advice is good, it does not totally negate either dichotomy.

When Unhallowed Metropolis was originally published, I reviewed it in 2008 for Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid e-zine. The issues that I had at the time were the lack of Callings, the underpowered mechanics that imposed the Corruption mechanic, and the social/combat divide. Four years on and with the publication of Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, not all of the issues have been addressed. Certainly the additional Callings of the Deathwatch Soldier and the Detective are welcome, as is the additional new material and the streamlining of the stunts. Yet the failure to address the fundamental flaws in the mechanics is at the very least disappointing.

Despite the shortfall in the revisions carried out with Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, the return of the RPG and the promise of supplements are both more than welcome. The game itself is far from unplayable, and the setting itself is rich in horror, suspense, and intrigue, being atmospheric to the last. Ultimately, the atmosphere is what sells Unhallowed Metropolis, ash-laden, gin-soaked, and perpetually in mourning…

1 comment:

  1. I hate to say this, but every time I've run/played the game, there has been an unspoken agreement that no one would make too big a deal about the mixed societal class parties. I know it's not very realistic, but it meant we could just get on with it. As to the combat issues, we all realised fairly early on that combat was brutal and should be avoided at all costs, with hardly an exception. So when a fight did happen, it was either a trap that the players fall into, meaning no one gets the option to sit it out, or a carefully constructed trap the players would spring, meaning even those less suited to a brawl could apply whatever talents they possessed.