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Monday 6 December 2021

[Free RPG Day 2021] Victoriana: Going Underground

Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.


Cubicle7 Entertainment Ltd. offered two titles for Free RPG Day 2021. One is Reap and Sow, a scenario and quick-start for Warhammer Age of Sigmar Soulbound. The other is Going Underground, an adventure for the forthcoming version of Victoriana, the roleplaying game of intrigue, sorcery, and steam for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This is the roleplaying game of gothic fantasy magic and steampunk engineering set at the height of the reign of Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Magic is commonplace and even powers many of the new technological advances, such as the clockwork automata and prosthetic limbs, the latter often replacing those lost through industrial accidents or war. However, there is tension between maintaining the old ways of magic and embracing the optimism which comes with the new technology and the speed of change. The world of Victoriana is also inhabited by different species too. The Duine are much like Humanity, but there are also Púca—humans with animal traits; Muirlochs—nocturnal Humans with batlike ears and an affinity for technology; Khald—short, stout, and stubborn professionals known for their craftsmanship; Gruagach—tall, muscled, and honestly direct of opinion; and Elderen—elegant psychics said to have connections to the fae. There are numerous sources of magic too. These include the Aluminat faith which the Luminous Host and works to keep Humanity from becoming embroiled in the dangers of Entropy—which is thought to have lead to the apocalyptic magical event known as the Great Cataclysm in the past; the Thaumturge’s Guild which has legitimised and industrialised magic; Animism is drawn from the Otherworld which is home to the fae and harnesses the quintessence of nature to create talismans; and Maleficium is dark magic—necromancy and diabolism—taught by the Pallid Ones, fallen Archons. Magic is also another source of tension since it was once the sole purview of the nobility, but this is no longer the case as it has been industrialised and democratised. 

Victoriana: Going Underground is a preview of the forthcoming new edition of Victoriana, effectively the fourth edition, which is designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. It moves the setting on two decades from just after the Crimean War to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1877. After a solid introduction which explains the setting, it quickly throws both players and Game Master into the adventure itself, ‘Going Underground’. Designed for four players—the quick-start includes four pre-generated Player Characters—it is a short, direct, and linear adventure. They include Adelaide Finch, a Muirloch Sleuth, Theodore Gatesly, a Noble Gruagach Confidante, Sam Urmacher, a Púca gadgeteer, and Charalata Rathmore, an Elderen Animist. Each of the four comes with a full colour portrait and a clearly presented set of stats and abilities. All four are attending the opening and inaugural running of the deepest and newest underground train line built and run by the City & South London Subway. As detailed in the opening explanation for the players and their characters, Adelaide Finch has learned that someone is planning to sabotage the opening of the line, Theodore Gatesly used his connections to get the quartet tickets to the event, Sam Urmacher is along to investigate and write an article for periodical about trains, and Charalata Rathmore may help soothe the proletariat’s objections to the newly dug line.

The adventure itself is direct. The Player Characters alight from their carriage, descend into the London Underground, interact with the other guests and the staff, before boarding the train, and making the journey from Cannon Street to Stockwell and back (the alternate history of Victoriana means that the two are connected via the same line, when at the time they would have completely separate, unconnected lines). On the way something strange happens and it appears to be pulling the train through a portal. The question is, what caused this, and how do the Player Characters and everyone aboard the tube train get back? Throughout there are moments when the adventure puts each of the Player Characters in the spotlight, mostly to learn new information rather than act, and it is not until the strange event occurs that they really have the chance to do anything and be more proactive. Up until this point it does feel as if the Player Characters are in the background of the adventure, often reacting to the sometimes-clichéd actions and utterances of the NPCs. Once the train is thrown into the portal, the Player Characters have more opportunities to act—mostly combat and making repairs, but definitely more than the initial parts of the adventure.

Mechanically, there are relatively few changes between Victoriana and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—at least in Victoriana: Going Underground. The most notable is the list changes to various skills, of which the Social Class skill, with its specialisations of Noble, Bourgeoisie, and Proletariat, figure prominently in the play of the scenario. The other is the addition of Quintessence, which is used to power spells, special abilities, and devices. This replaces the traditional Vancian spell slots of Dungeons & Dragons with what is in effect, a spell point system.

Physically, Victoriana: Going Underground is decently presented and written, with decent artwork—especially those of the Player Characters. It is a pity that none of the NPCs are illustrated.

Victoriana: Going Underground is short and direct and playable in a single session. As an example adventure, it is not that engaging, often relying upon clichés for its presentation of its NPCs and having a tightly plotted script. The latter though, is primarily due to the length of the scenario—a little over six pages in a fourteen-page booklet—and the fact that it is set in a tube train! Nevertheless, there are opportunities for the Player Characters to interact with the NPCs, shine a little, and the scenario does go out of its way to spotlight each of the four pre-generated Player Characters, and there is also scope for players to roleplay as well. However, as an introduction to the new edition of Victoriana, the scenario in Victoriana: Going Underground is too limited and too linear—certainly to stand on its own as a memorable adventure. As the opening chapter or prequel to a fuller, deeper, and proper scenario, Victoriana: Going Underground is serviceable enough, but not much more.

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