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Friday 2 May 2014

Good Georgians Aghast II

Typically, roleplaying games and their supplements set during the Early Modern period like Dark Streets focus on the Elizabethan era or the Golden Age of Piracy or America’s Colonial Era or the American War of Independence. Dark Streets breaks from this tradition, for it is that rare roleplaying supplement—a campaign setting that takes place during the Great Britain’s Georgian period. A supplement for Walton & Cakebread’s Renaissance Deluxe, it is actually quite specific in its setting, for it casts the player characters as members of the Bow Street Runners or their consultants. Each is a Thief Taker, a former outlaw, thief, or watchman, or a clerk, an entertainer, merchant, or preacher, all in service to the magistrate and satirist, Henry Fielding, and his blind brother, John. They investigate the crime, the corruption, and the vice that runs rife through London life. Worse, the Fieldings have begun to suspect that there are malign agents behind the city’s heinous iniquity. For Dark Streets is even more specific in its setting—not only is it about investigating crime and immorality, it is also is also a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror.

Dark Streets specifically begins in 1749 or 1750, not long after Henry Fielding has founded the Bow Street Runners. It is thirty years since the collapse of South Seas Bubble; George II, the second Hanoverian King of England has been on the throne for over twenty years; the Whigs, supporters of the Hanoverians and the aristocracy and tolerant of the religious non-conformists, have been in power for decades; while his younger brother is First Lord of the Treasury and governs the country in the king’s name, the Duke of Newcastle holds the purse strings and routinely buys the loyalty of Members of Parliament; Frederick, the Prince of Wales, actively opposes the Whigs and his father, primarily because the King refuses to support his dissolute lifestyle; and it is only four years since Prince William, the Duke of Cumberland, put down the Jacobite Rising and earned himself the nickname, ‘Butcher Cumberland’. Meanwhile on the streets of London, the rural poor pour into the city in search of work, but find little beyond destitution and disease, even if they do find work. Women find work in the burgeoning sex trade, prostitution being very common, whether in bawdy houses, high class brothels, or for the lucky few, kept as courtesans to the nobility. Other income can be made through crime, the fact that many crimes carry the death penalty or a sentence of transportation to the Americas, an indication that times are hard and the poor are desperate. The worst of the criminals hold court in rookeries like St. Giles, dense dark dank places where even the Bow Street Runners fear to tread. The wealthy and the aristocracy are above such concerns and also the law, though many have their vices, whether gambling, prostitution, the gin that seems to flow from every building, or the Hellfire Clubs where they can indulge in titillation or blasphemy away from prying eyes. Of course, the Society for the Reformation of Manners would do away with all of this, its members actively bringing prosecutions and testimony before London’s magistrates.

In Dark Streets the players take the roles of Bow Street Runners or those serving as Consultants to the Fielding brothers. Either choice restricts the Social Class and Professions that a player can select. In addition to skill points gained from his Social Class, Profession, and Free Skill points, a Bow Street Runner investigator receives extra skill points to spend on physical and combat skills as well as a badge of office, a small club with a gilt crown on it.

Our sample character is Tobias Perdue, the son of Sir Thomas Perdue, a wealthy landowner who purchased a place at university for his son to read the law. It was there that Tobias first got caught up in the wrong crowd, gambling and whoring for the first time. Although he graduated and was accepted to the bar, his profligacy would soon land him in trouble—he ran up debts that would lead his father to disown him and almost land him in debtor’s gaol, and saw him fight duels to protect his ‘good’ name. These days he rarely practices the law and is more circumspect about his habits—there are better card players in the capital than himself. He is a Bow Street Runner at Henry Fielding’s suggestion as the magistrate believes he will bring some manners to the rough men that he has in his employ.

Adventurer: Tobias Perdue
Nationality: English Age: 28
Homeland: England Gender: Male
Social Class: Gentry Profession: Rook
Connections: Political Affiliation: Whig

Righteousness Points: 54
Faction: Bow Street Runners Faction Zeal: 25

STR: 11 CON: 14 SIZ: 15 INT: 17
POW: 15 DEX: 16 CHA: 14
Damage Modifier: +1D4 Combat Order: 14
Movement: 15 metres

Type: Buff Coat AP: 2/1

Hit Points
Maximum: 15 Current: 15
Major Wound Level: 8

Sanity Points
Maximum: 15 Current: 15
Major Insanity Level: 8

Basic Skills:
Athletics  37%, Close Combat  58%, Culture (Own) 64%, Dance  40%, Dodge  62%, Drive  33%, Evaluate  61%, First Aid  33%, Gun Combat  33%, Influence  73%, Insight  77%, Lore (England) 64%, Perception  62%, Persistence  40%, Ranged Combat  33%, Resilience  28%, Ride  41%, Sing  29%, Sleight  55%, Stealth  33%, Unarmed Combat 37%

Advanced Skills:
Art (Prose Writing) 29%, Beliefs (Bow Street Runners) 59%, Disguise 31%, Commerce 31%, Courtesy 61%, Gambling 62%, Language (English) 81%, Language (French) 41%, Language (Latin) 41%, Language (Thieves’ Cant) 31%, Oratory 51%, Lore (Law) 54%, Lore (Law) 64%, Seduction 61%, Streetwise 50%

An extensive overview is provided of London as well as period maps. The overview covers the current social and political situation, religion, science, medicine, entertainment, and newspapers, but its primary focus is the law, crime and punishment, and vice and morality. The period maps support a gazetteer that details inner London and its most notable personages, from George II and the Duke of Newcastle down… A whole gang is described as is a Thieves’ Cant glossary, the latter nicely adding verisimilitude.

One of the interesting mechanics in Renaissance Deluxe is that of ‘Factions’, which handles a player character’s or an NPC’s allegiance to either himself or an organisation and its strength. Dark Streets adds gangs, the Bow Street Runners, the Jacobites, New Puritans, Tories, and Whigs as well as malignant Factions from aristocratic dinning clubs and murder clubs up to Mythos cults.

Dark Streets’ treatment of the Cthulhu Mythos is simple, unfussy, and straightforward. Magic is treated like witchcraft and cultists much like witches, the spells of the Mythos being kept generic. A few Mythos tomes are detailed, but unlike later periods of Lovecraftian investigative horror, books of the Mythos are not really a major element in Dark Streets. It keeps its Mythos ‘bestiary’ relatively short—just nine creatures and four gods, though some of the entries do feel a little exotic considering Dark Streets’ earthier feel. Of course, this being the Mythos and both Dark Streets and Renaissance Deluxe being Basic Roleplaying compatible, it is easy for the GM to find material to add to his campaign.

In terms of scenarios, Dark Streets is well supported, in fact it is better supported than Renaissance Deluxe itself in this regard. Nearly twenty scenario hooks are given, each relatively detailed and pleasingly, not all of them involving the Mythos. The supplement’s main scenario, ‘Gin & St. Giles’ is a detailed affair that draws the investigators deep into London’s worst Rookery on the trail of the worst gin the city—and that in London, is no mean feat. It is a solid adventure that should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

Physically, Dark Streets can be described as dour. Done in black and grey, it is perhaps a little oppressive in its look. The layout is for the most part workmanlike, but it grows wayward in places. In terms of content, the supplement is in places succinct. For example, although the book comes with a detailed overview of London and its life, vices, and personalities, its timeline ends in 1749 with the founding of the Bow Street Runners. This leaves the GM not knowing what will happen next unless he conducts some research himself, which seems odd given that Dark Streets is a historical game bar the influences of the Mythos. Also, as much background detail as there is in the book, it does lack advice in terms of setting up and running a campaign involving the Bow Street Runners. One hand-out that would be useful is a sheet detailing pertinent facts about London and what exactly the duties and powers of a Bow Street Runner are. After all, they are nothing like the police of later centuries.

The Dark Streets setting has the advantage of familiarity—at least from film and television, such as The Madness of King George (though this is set forty years later) or the television series Garrow’s Law and City of Vice. The latter in particular is useful watching since it is about the Fieldings and their establishing of the Bow Street Runners. Indeed, after watching City of Vice, it would be hard for the GM not to portray Henry Fielding as Ian McDiarmid and John Fielding as Iain Glen. Similarly, the Cthulhu Mythos will be familiar to many players, as will the processes of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Here though, as with many settings before Cthulhu by Gaslight and classic Call of Cthulhu, those processes involve less of a paper trail and more detective legwork, although that is beginning to change…

Dark Streets lacks the polish of other RPG settings of Lovecraftian investigative horror. It is a little rough around the edges, perhaps not as developed as it could be. Nevertheless, it is solid and accessible, presenting a fairly pulpy take upon investigating the Mythos whilst possessing an earthier tone that matches the vice, venality, and corruption of the setting.

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