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Friday, 16 August 2019

Ministerial Leagues

Have you had an encounter with the inexplicable and want answers? Have you been the victim of an evil magician and prevented his dominance over you through sheer willpower? Has your sister fallen foul of the influence of a blood sucking fiend? Have you foiled the perfidious plans of a perverse cult that threatened the security of the Empire? Did your esoteric research uncover truths which undermine your fundamental understanding of the universe? Are you a loyal subject of Her Imperial Majesty, Queen Victoria? Then you sir (and madam, of course), may be just what we are looking for. Who are we, you ask? Why we are the Ministry of Unusual Affairs, and whilst Her Majesty’s government would deny the existence of magic, the supernatural, and such as folderol as the stuff of the tabloid press, charlatans, and mountebanks, privately it needs a body of men (and women) who attend to such matters with decorum and professionalism.

This, essentially, is the set-up for the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs, a supplement for Triple Ace Games’ Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration  and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! and its expansion, Leagues of Gothic Horror (and its expansion, Leagues of Cthulhu). Now at the core of Leagues of Adventure are the ‘leagues’, the exclusive or secret—or not so secret—society, such as The Alpine Club, the Epicurean Society, or The Temporal Society. Every character or ‘globetrotter’ in Leagues of Adventure is a member of one such league, with each league providing contacts, resources, and patrons that will call on the globetrotters just as the globetrotters can call upon the aid of their Leagues. For the most part, the various Leagues possess a friendly rivalry with each other where their interests conflict, but there exist villainous Leagues whose aims are far from honourable or enlightened. The Thuggee is one such villainous League, as is The Immortals Club, whose members seek ever greater power and the means to keep it for themselves. Of course, Leagues of Gothic Horror and Leagues of Cthulhu add further leagues. Now this provides a social framework for the player characters, but the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs provides a professional framework for both the player characters and the Game Master’s campaign.

The Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs is presented as informal introduction, one that you might receive upon your first day at work or at a prospective interview. So it opens with a history of the ministry, beginning with its origins as a cadre of witch-hunters under James I and the actions taken against Doctor John Dee, before going on to detail the investigations along the Severn Valley by one Ramsey Campbell, the truth behind the madness of George III, and the outbreak of Devil’s Footprints up and down the country, until last coming up to date with the invaders from Mars and the Ripper murders. At various points throughout the history, it mentions the founding of certain departments, such as the witch-hunters which were the basis of Department P. There are five departments, each with multiple sub-departments. So Department C—‘The Collection’—also includes The Black Archive, Department of Artefacts, and Department of Literature. The other departments include Department F—‘Foreign Intelligence’, Department M—‘Mythos’, Department P—‘Paranormal’, and Department—‘Science’.

Two of these departments are of particular note, though for different reasons. Department P includes sub-departments which deal with Apparitions, Vampires, Shapeshifters, Walking Dead, Mummies, Magic, Mentalism, and Cults. These enable the Game Master to plug other Leagues of Gothic Horror supplements into the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs. For example, the Guide to Apparitions and the Guide to Mummies support investigations and missions which dealt with by Sub-Department E1 and Sub-Department E5 respectively. This organisation means that the Game Master need only open up each department or sub-department when she wants to add the threats that each deals with to her campaign and so better pick and choose the supplements she wants to purchase and use. Until that time, of course, an agent of the Ministry of Unusual Affairs lacks the clearance to access that department. The other department is Department M—‘Mythos’. Now unlike the other departments, this one is entirely optional, since it deals with the Lovecraft Mythos, and that means that all of the other threats, whether that is vampirism or invaders from another world, pale by comparison. 

In terms of characters, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs points out that the Government Official is the most obvious type of archetype for a campaign revolving around its various departments. And certainly there is no harm in having such a character as one of the player characters. It suggests though, that since the ministry employs all types, there is room for military officers and big game hunters as much as there is alienists, clergymen, mentalists, and monster slayers, so there is plenty of room for flexibility. All new agents of the ministry receive get Rank (Ministry of Unusual Affairs) 0 for free, are assigned to a department of their choice and trained in a mix of standard skills for all agents and those taught by their department. Of course, having a number of different agents from different departments means that a team is better able to investigate and deal with a wider range of the unusual. As an agent is promoted, then he can be posted to other departments and so gain wider experience of the ministry’s operations. He is though, not given any training in the new department.

In terms of mechanics, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs details the Escape Artist Talent for agents with a high Acrobatics skill and Collector Mania as a Flaw, in which an agent succumbs to the urge to fill in the gaps and display cases in museums and libraries. Also detailed are the means to handle ministry budgets for missions, mundane gear like straitjackets, and weird science gear, like Coagulant Spray (useful for medical purposes, but not against vampires), Dig-o-Matic (for automatically disinterring graves without all of that messing about with shovels and getting dirt on your clothes), the Encyclopediamtica (a suitcase-sized device which contains hundreds of books miniaturised on small glass plates), and a Specimen Collection Vehicle (for collecting and transporting specimens and samples in relative safety). Fans of The Avengers—the British sixties television series, not the Marvel films—as will every well turned gentleman, will appreciate the inclusion of various modified umbrellas, including armoured, beguiling, and gas-launching. Rounding out this section is a complete list of the other weird science devices and creations to be found in other Leagues of Adventure and Leagues of Gothic Horror supplements, again enforcing the connection between this supplement and others in the line.

Roughly half of the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs is dedicated to NPCs, agents and department heads of the ministry. Notable department heads and agents include Philomena Freeman, the cranky, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, allegedly three-armed head of Department C who really hates lending anyone the objects and items in her department’s collection; Mina Harker, head of Sub-Department E2 and perfect for tipping a Leagues of Gothic Horror campaign into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen territory; and Jerimiah Benn, an ex-actor whose skill in disguise is so good that he has fooled fellow agents and the members of the cults he infiltrates alike. All of these NPCs are nicely done, all different and memorable for the Game Master to roleplay, several of them suffering from the effects of years of service in the ministry. Lastly the sample characters provide a ready supply of generic NPCs and character archetypes, the latter either ready for the players to play as agents or the Game Master to develop as more detailed NPCs, the latter including Cover-Up Specialist, Field Agent, and Spiritual Guide.

Penultimately, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs provides some advice on handling investigations. Much of this is obvious, but one of the ministry’s missions is to prevent knowledge of the supernatural and the weird becoming knowledge, so understandably there is an emphasis in this advice on covering up signs and evidence of it. This includes containment, concocting cover stories, hiding the truth, handling witnesses, and pulling rank and status—of course a lady of good character or a gentleman who is a renowned big game hunter would confirm that what you saw was a wolf rather than a werewolf! Certainly all prospective agents should be aware of this given it is part of the ministry’s remit.

Physically, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs is generally well presented and written, though some of the artwork is disappointing. Unlike a lot of the supplements for Leagues of Gothic Horror, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs is not a must-have purchase. In comparison, if the Game  Master wants to focus more on vampires in her game, then she buys Guide to Vampires and if she wants to focus on werewolves, then Guide to Shapeshifters is an obvious purchase. Instead of providing supernatural threats to fight, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs instead gives a reason for the player characters to investigate and combat the unusual, a campaign set-up for the Game Master to work with, and a big cast of NPCs for the player characters to interact with. Overall, the Guide to the Ministry of Unusual Affairs is perfect for the Game Master who wants a campaign set-up with pulpy undertones and hopefully, there will be scenarios, perhaps even a campaign, supporting the activities of Her Majesty’s most secret ministry.

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