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Sunday, 28 July 2019

Lost in Limbo

There have been roleplaying games and scenarios where the player characters start off in the grave and go to explore their lives after their deaths—such as James Wallis’ Alas Vegas: Flashbacks, Blackjack and Payback—but Limbus Infernum ups the ante by leaving each character bereft of name, identity, skill, memory, or any vestigial legacy of they once were… Instead of climbing out of their shallow graves and going somewhere to find out what happened to them, who they are, what they did, and so on, as in most such set-ups, they are instead climbing out of their shallow graves and going somewhere to find out they are. They may find out what they were—and what they were is player characters in traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style. They may be the players’ own characters or just adventurers who died and ended up in Limbus Infernum. They may recover memories of what they were, but more likely they will recover memories of others—and whilst they may not be their own memories—such memories will profoundly influence who they will become and what they are capable of.

Limbus Infernum is published by Montidots Limited, a publisher best known for its Old School Renaissance scenarios for use with OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), starting with MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games and its Lovecraftian investigative horror scenarios using the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, being with The Fenworthy Inheritance. Written for use with the OSRIC™ System, the set-up in Limbus Infernum is so stripped back and bare—intentionally so—and the succeeding story purposefully constructive, that the choice of retroclone to run it under is all but irrelevant. With some adjustment Limbus Infernum could be run using Swords & Wizardry as much as it could be run using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Like many another supplement, Limbus Infernum begins with character generation, or rather character building. The difference is important because every player begins with the same character, a grey, dessicated husk with a value of seven in each ability, no Class, and no skills or features, called a Seeker. They are still Dungeons & Dragons-style characters, but not competent ones. In fact, a Dungeons & Dragons peasant might be more preferable to play, a la the ‘Character Funnel’ of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Yet character abilities begin fixed in Limbus Infernum and where in Dungeon Crawl Classics there is a definite objective for the players and their Seekers, that is, survive the adventure and acquire the ten Experience Points necessary to attain First Level. In Limbus Infernum, players characters start play not even knowing what they need to do to survive or what their objectives are.

What the Seekers are looking for is Essence, a vaporous radiance which can be consumed and which comes in several different colours and comes from different sources, but ultimately from actual corpses… When consumed, it can grant a character Experience Points, a one-off spell to cast, an ability increase, a skill or proficiency, a memory, and so on. There are numerous ways in which Essence can be found and consumed, but what is interesting here is that what a player character is gaining when consuming Essence, is not his own Experience Points, spells, ability scores, skills, proficiencies, et cetera, but those of the corpses he scavenges the Essence from.

Against all of this gain, there is the danger of a Seeker being forced from the situation too soon. As a character acquires Experience Points, his skin will lose its grey pallor and begin to flesh itself out, he will improve his Charisma ability, but acquire too many and a character is likely to be reincarnated. This though is being reincarnated in a body that matches the ability values of the character currently has, so he may not necessarily be much more capable than the starting point for Limbus Infernum. So in effect, a player needs to stave this off for his Seeker, trying to improve his Seeker in other ways as well as exploring the grey and ashen, overcast and dreary world in which he finds himself.

At the same time, there is an option for the Game Master to track the Seekers’ Alignments. A grid is provided for this as well as list of actions that a character might do, starting at the center Neutral square. So aiding or serving a demon will shift a character’s Alignment to Evil on the Evil-Good axis and to Chaos on the Chaos-Law axis, whilst aiding someone selflessly shifts it towards Good on the Evil-Good axis. Nicely, this grid is included on the character sheet for Seekers in Limbus Infernum. Its inclusion on the sheet though, really pushes for its inclusion in play.

What the Seekers can find is listed in a set of extensive tables. Numerous items, both magical and mundane, are described which can help the Seekers find and harvest Essence and interact with the strange environment they find themselves in. Even the mundane ones are weird though, but is down to the nature of said environment. New spells like Detect Essence will help the Seekers, whilst there are numerous types of flora and fauna to be found, fought, and scavenged, from Dead Man’s Fingers and Soul’s Tear fungi to Hivers and Penitent Bugs. One particular type of creature of interest to the Seekers is the Vermus, a flying maggot-like creature which feeds on Essence and which can be harvested by the Seekers. Another threat are the demons of Limbus Infernum, many of which seek out the souls of humans and other mortals as playthings and possessions. This has lead to souls being enslaved or traded by soul traders, often in return for protection or power.

Roughly half of Limbus Infernum is dedicated to ‘Surviving Limbus Infernum’, the campaign proper which opens with the Seekers waking up and exploring their grey, sunless, moonless world. This is a world beyond their understanding—the Game Master is encouraged to describe everything in terms that take into account the Seekers’ ignorance—but ‘born of the grave’, the Seekers will eventually come to apply meaning to and gain a grasping understanding of the world around you. Initially, there are towers, tombs, settlements, and more to be found, but then the campaign set-up takes a swerve to the left… The Seekers encounter not something born of the fantasy genre or medieval period, straight out of classic Americana, and the scenario drives forward—quite literally if the Seekers manage to learn to drive the 1957 Chevrolet—into the modern genre, and beyond… All without magic of course, since there is none of that in 1950s America.

Physically, Limbus Infernum is decently presented. Black and white throughout, like all Montidots Limited titles, it benefits hugely from the author’s fantastic artwork, whilst its maps benefit feel just a little tighter than in previous books. The writing is also decent, really only requiring a slight edit here or there.

Limbus Infernum presents a fascinating set-up to a survival horror fantasy campaign which rewards careful play. Where it misses an opportunity is later in the campaign where its encounters ramp up through successive modern periods, ignoring earlier time frames which would be just as alien to the Seekers as a midwest main street or an Ancient Greek agora. The finale of the campaign also feels slightly rushed and not always quite clear what it is that the Seekers should be doing, so the Game Master will need to make a close read of this. Another question is, what happens after the campaign and what the Seekers now that they are characters with knowledge of a possible future—a future without magic which they currently possess—and an array of abilities, features, and skills that may reflect multiple Classes.

Another issue with Limbus Infernum is that it is not freely available. Montidots Limited does not have a website, which is a shame because as a publisher, it releases some interesting titles. Montidots Limited does need a website, but in the meantime, Limbus Infernum is available at DrivethruRPG.com.

As much as Limbus Infernum begins with a cliché, it takes that cliché and drives it in an expected direction, a fresh, hellish take upon both survival horror and character generation. It is in effect, character generation as campaign play, clever and original, also weird and alien in the way it undoes character generation and has the whole process played out across an unforgiving, post-death, post-apocalyptic world.

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