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Review of Victoriana, Third Edition Core Rulebook

In the vein of For Fairy, Queen and Country and Castle Falkenstein, which I reviewed last years, the Victoriana roleplaying game posts a nineteenth century rich in magic, fantasy and fantastic races; unlike those games, it presents a more D&D style of fantasy rather than borrowing from faerie lore.

The Core Rulebook opens with a look at the world, society, nations and religions of the fantastic 1856 in which it is set. The presentation is reminiscent of Shadowrun (a definite pro!) and, overall, comes across rather like a nineteenth century version of that setting, too. Unfortunately, whilst tantalising, this is actually something of a flaw as it doesn’t quite work as presented. Apparently, earlier editions were set in a more overtly fantastic 1867, and whether it worked or not, this sounds a better proposition than this version. Had they taken a Shadowrun approach with magic manifesting in the Victorian period or gone further with the fantastic being something that happened mostly in the past, it would probably have worked better. Unfortunately, making the fantastic so intrinsic and hinting at historical changes, whilst largely keeping history as it was in reality creates a setting which, like Castle Falkenstein, only works if you don’t think too deeply about it or ask too many questions (such as why there are no fantastic racial nations given that the various sapient races have been around for millennia and at least some would surely have clustered together). The background is full of excellent ideas and would benefit from being mined for those you like and given a rewrite that makes more sense.

Unlike earlier editions, the third edition of Victoriana incorporates as much technological innovation as it does sorcery, having a strong steampunk feel that includes clockwork zombies and necromancers offsetting their frailty with clockwork prosthetics – even mechanical angels! But, magic isn’t shortchanged and there is a modest bestiary, too. There is enough here to play a campaign with whatever emphasis you desire and effort has been made to give everything a distinct in-setting feel rather than just porting-in fantasy stereotypes all the time.

Finally, the rules. From a cursory glance, these appear serviceable, using dice pools of six-sided dice, and ‘black dice’ (representing difficulty) that have the potential to take away successes. Nothing too outstanding, but simple.

Overall, Victoriana is an enjoyable read, full of great ideas, but doesn’t quite mesh as a setting. It could work if your group doesn’t care about details and just wants to get on with their adventure, but will require a lot more work to accommodate other groups. Recommended.

No Sense of Shame

The latest issue of Wargames Illustrated has a light-hearted article on the embarrassment of being a wargamer: this is something that I’ve seen a few times recently and I can’t say it’s a problem I’ve encountered. I’ve never felt the need to conceal that I’m a gamer and I’ve never had a genuinely negative reaction to my being one.

When I started gaming, my parents had heard all that nonsense coming out of America about how roleplaying turns you into a devil-worshipping, suicidal psychopath, but were openminded and actually looked at what gaming was and what it involved. Having been in the military, my uncle doesn’t understand the attraction of “playing at war”, but has never been more than bemused at my hobby.

Generally, when gaming comes up in conversation with strangers, something that most often occurs at job interviews when I’m asked about my hobbies, the usual responses from non-gamers are either that they have a relative who is a gamer or intrigued enquiries; not everyone wants to be a gamer, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who takes offence at me being on. Even when I took the trouble to write to a Christian publisher of a pamphlet that included a section on the evils of gaming, I got a pleasant letter back from them agreeing with my points and promising to modify the article from one decrying the medium to one cautioning to check the message.

Indeed, today, with gaming ever more mainstream than its been since the early ‘eighties, there really should be no reason for anyone to feel embarrassed about being a gamer or to find it difficult to explain their hobby. Even when you take into account the frequently muddled impression of what roleplaying is in shows like The Big Bang Theory and the way in which they thrive upon the worst stereotypes of gamers and ‘geeks’, the hobby is in no worse a position than any other pastime or group in society, given the lazy way in which the media research and report on them.

Given the many positive aspects of gaming – the community, literacy, numeracy, the positive effect on mental health – and the good that so many gamers have achieved in education and for charity, there really is no reason not to be proud of the hobby. So, let’s drop the negative commentary, even if intended for humorous effect, and recognise that being a gamer is a wonderful thing to be!

Retro Review: The Everlasting: Book of the Unliving

The Book of the Unliving is the first of four projected volumes detailing The Everlasting, a World of Darkness-like gothic fantasy-horror game, and was apparently the only one to be published (certainly I have found no evidence of the others). Book of the Unliving, a little unimaginatively, given that the other volumes promised less Vampire-like fare in the form of Grail Knights and Dragons, details Ghuls, Revenants, Vampires, the Reanimates and Dead Souls, covering much the same ground as its vampiric predecessor. Indeed, like the End Times of the old World of Darkness, The Everlasting are entering a final battle phase, many of the angelic daeva having vanished, allowing demons and other evils to plague the Earth.

The races are interesting and despite sharing the same space as the World of Darkness setting, attempts have been made to avoid retreading too much of the same ground. Ghuls are humans transformed into immortal monsters by imbibing an elixir known as Anecro and are skilled alchemists as well as cannibalistic horrors, although some tend more towards the latter, whilst others are almost indistinguishable from humans (and those that aren’t can wear the skins of the victims in order to pass). Although the Dead Souls are ghosts not dissimilar to Wraiths, their close kin, the Revenants, sit somewhere between White Wolf‘s Wraiths and Vampires as risen dead with a complex society. Vampires come in various types, similar to Masquerade‘s clans, but attempts have been made not to reuse the same archetypes and to link them more to regions and cultures; they seem much more like the vampires of Requiem. Reanimates are Frankenstein Monster-like beings and cyborgs that also would fit neatly in with the present World of Darkness. Interestingly, each race of beings has a unique effect that occurs when they die, making their endings just as dramatic as their unlives!

Whilst the other volumes in the series don’t seem to have been released (not a surprise, as it seems to have made little impact at the time, despite great promise), there is a chapter giving brief descriptions of the other major races and their powers, allowing them to appear in games as antagonists – which is a surprisingly thoughtful move given how interwoven many of the different types are in the background.

The rules – or ‘guidelines’ – can be used with regular playing cards or tarot cards or dice or variable dice or percentile dice… all while stressing the virtues of freeform play! There is nothing in the rules section of any particular interest and the multitude of variants, rather than offering up lots of choice, merely wastes paper on bland and uninspiring ideas. Much better had the authors chosen a specific rules set and allowed others to adapt the setting to whatever rules they wished.

Where The Everlasting succeeds is with its setting ideas, offering slightly more mythic takes on its protagonists than its rivals in the World of Darkness lines did, as well as injecting a little more fantasy into the background (if not this particular book). At the time, I certainly thought it looked inspiring and more like the sort of game I wanted to play, and even now it has plenty of intriguing nuggets, although I think the new World of Darkness has followed much the same paths in greater detail.

Having long wanted to get my hands on a copy, I am still glad that I have had a chance to read it, even if the novel ideas don’t seem quite as novel as they did then and the whole thing could have done with being further divorced from its World of Darkness inspiration. Unfortunately, the game spends a substantial number of pages wandering off into the silliness of personal Mythmaking and waffle about lucid dreaming that really have no place in a gaming book and could have been better spent on further detailing the setting. Obviously, the authors were positioning the volume as an alternative to Vampire: The Masquerade and, whilst they succeeded to a degree, it needed tighter writing, more originality and far, far less pretentiousness to become the brilliant game it might have been, rather than the merely interesting curiosity that it is.

If you enjoy either incarnation of the World of Darkness and can find a cheap copy of The Everlasting, then I would recommend that you buy it as a source of ideas or even an alternative setting to play around with. But, as a game in its own right, it doesn’t quite manage to work.

Capsule Review: Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game

Following our diversion to the 17th century, we headed for a galaxy far, far away and a long, long time ago with Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, playing a quick dogfight with the basic rules.

This is an interesting little game that makes use of maneuvers, chosen prior to each turn, that allows for a sort of ‘space ballet’ (albeit in two dimensions) as you attempt to place your fighters to shoot at the enemy. The game gives a great feel of what space combat ought (from our earthbound position) to be like in a way which squares or hexes cannot through the use of cardboard measures that represent straight moves and sharp and gentle turns, as well as the occasional flip. The advanced rules sound as if they should add even more tactical thinking into what becomes an absorbing game in which not much, save repeated circling and maneuvers, seems to happen for a while before that magic moment when you have the enemy in your sights and are praying that you will score a hit.

If it sounds a little boring when I put ‘not much seems to happen’, don’t worry – the tension of trying to second guess your opponent and the desperate hope that you have chosen the right maneuvers to make (as well as the amusing moments when you discover that you didn’t!) makes for a tense game of cunning. I would definitely recommend this!

ECW Battle

Despite having owned a copy of the Warhammer English Civil War rules and an intense interest in the era, I’d never actually played a battle. That all changed when  one my friends purchased some figures and suggested we restage the battle for the future of the monarchy.

Opening Moves

We decided upon fighting a flanking battle and, as I was playing the Royalists under the command of Prince Rupert with a decent cavalry force, I agreed to send them off the table till turn three. Before we set up, I was a little nervous about having around half my force offtable, but seeing the not-much-bigger Parliamentary force before me, I wasn’t too worried. Sure, in terms of quality, their infantry was better than mine, but I felt I had a fighting chance of holding out till Rupert and his chums could arrive to save the day.

As it was, it quickly began to look as if they wouldn’t even need Rupert, after all, as a mortar shot took out most of the Parliamentary pikemen in the first turn and an agitator convinced a unit of shot to march away from the battle, depriving the Parliamentary forces of a substantial chunk before the battle had even really got underway!

The second turn saw the mortar prove just as accurate for a second time, only for my underestimation of the range to cause the shell to explode short of the pike. Then, in the third turn, having got the range right, it decided to deviate well away and do nothing. That’s mortars for you, I guess! Sadly, my marksman was failing to live up to his name and achieved only a single hit (thankfully a kill!) in the battle.

Rupert Arrives…

Heavy musketfire depleted the Parliamentary cavalry by the third turn, when Rupert arrived to menace the Parliamentary saker.The remaining Parliamentary pike, steadfast in the face of their losses, were inspired by their agitator to advance with fervour, although they failed to achieve anything much…

Desultory Parliamentary musketfire caused barely any Royalist casualties and with Rupert’s horse on the board, things were looking very bad for the rebellious forces of Parliament, especially when cannister shot from the saker managed to only kill a single horseman.

Rupert’s horse then proceeded to run down the saker crew, driving them off. Meanwhile, the other unit of Rupert’s cavalry contingent moved to take up a position beside the Royalist infantry block in order to threaten the remnants of the Parliamentarian cavalry, which were wiped out a moment later by a further volley of musketfire, leaving Sir John Meldrum injured and alone with the Royalist cavalry bearing down on him!

Final Moves

The mortar’s final short wiped out the remainder of the steadfast Parliamentary pikemen, save for the leader and accompanying agitator, who joined Sir John in a failed attempt to charge the depleted left-hand unit of Royalist shot, who chose to fire and retreat behind their allied pike, causing the three ‘brave’ Parliamentarians to rethink their strategy when faced going up against a near-intact unit of pikemen!

Ironically, both forces had had their left flanks rendered useless – Parliament’s had been wiped out and the Royalist mortar and marksman were out of gunpowder, leaving the battle to be decided in the centre.

Rupert led his cavalry on a rather inglorious charge against the surviving guncrew, being briefly faced by a lone artilleryman willing to stand his ground and fight, whilst the other unit of horse went for Meldrum, the agitator and leader of pike, only for the three of them to turn and flee rather than stand and fight!

Meldrum continued his flight followed by the other two cowards. Other than the lone artilleryman, who was slaughtered in the final turn, the Parliamentary forces had been reduced to two units of muskets without any gunpowder left to shoot, who opted to charge the Royalist horse in one case, being countercharged and wiped out, and the Royalist pike in the other, being routed, leaving the largely intact Royalist forces victorious!

Conclusions

Overall, Warhammer English Civil War played as well as the various other iterations of Warhammer that I have tried and produced a fairly realistic result (and, certainly, one pleasing to me, at any rate!). The limitation of gunpowder to four turns’ worth of shooting is an interesting and historically accurate element that forces you to consider whether opening fire is a good idea or not. Muskets are very powerful, punching through what little armour is available, but once you’ve used all your allotted shots, your unit of shot becomes a rather subpar melee unit. Despite the amazing piece of good luck I had with the mortar in the opening turn, artillery proved pretty ineffective in the battle as a whole, again quite realistic for the time. It certainly made for a fairly quick, fun battle and I hope we will be revisiting the period again in future (indeed, I intend to invest in some figures myself). Highly recommended!

Standing Still

The real world has been getting severely in the way of doing any gaming recently, with the last month being taken up with a series of family crises for me and, when I was available, the unavailability of other players. However, now that life seems a little calmer again, there is the prospect of a retro-review or two in the near future, whilst I am currently booked to fight a battle on the last day of the month.

That’s not to say that there has been no gaming in my life recently. A friend and I have been discussing our ‘holy grail’ of a ‘one roll’ combat system for roleplaying so that games need not become bogged down in fight scenes that take longer to play out than they actually took to be fought in real time.  Although a literal ‘one roll’ combat system remains out of reach (other than going for an unsatisfyingly straight roll to see who wins), my friend did make an interesting suggestion for an elegantly simple combat structure that, I hope, he will actually write up properly. Having spent too much time thinking about politics recently, I have also come up with an idea for a political board/cardgame that I hope to actually try and develop at some point, allowing players to control political parties in the cutthroat struggle to form a government.

Hopefully, September will see more activity on the blog, so please do check back at some point!

Doing The Laundry…

I had my first encounter with The Laundry RPG yesterday. No, not a game of washing and ironing, but the game inspired by Charles Stross’ take on the Cthulhu Mythos. Although I’m well aware of the series and intend to read the novels one day, my actual level of knowledge about the setting was probably about equal to my character’s, which probably helped make for a realistic session as only one of the four players had any real knowledge of the setting and was portraying a more experienced agent.

The rules are an adaptation of the Chaosium BRP system as it appears in Call of Cthulhu. Given that the session was roleplaying heavy with only a handful of rolls, I can’t comment on the differences from the parent system.

Perhaps it was because we were unfamiliar with the setting, necessitating more questions and even greater caution than one might expect in a game involving the Cthulhu Mythos, but the first session was very roleplaying focused, which was good. The lack of familiarity did impact things slightly negatively, though, as it meant we frequently had to seek confirmation of various details of how the Laundry (the investigative group for which characters work) and setting elements such as magic work. Obviously, as the campaign progresses, that will be less of a problem.

Overall, I found our first session enjoyable and liked the premise of the game. Although there is potential for a lot of ‘official’ backup through the Laundry and for heavy firepower, the contemporary British setting and the ‘rules of engagement’ characters have to operate under in order to not attract attention enforce a suitably low-key and paranoid mindset for the game, with the need for paperwork to be completed and the slow wheels of the civil service meaning that getting help is frequently more hassle than just coming up with a plan of your own.

Certainly a game worth considering if you like your Cthulhu Mythos leavened with some conspiracy elements or if you’ve enjoyed reading the novels.

Retro Review: The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire is a sourcebook from Steve Jackson Games for Castle Falkenstein and Gurps: Castle Falkenstein covering, as the title suggests, the Ottoman Empire. I am a huge fan of Gurps sourcebooks and this volume lives up to the high standards of the line. As with most Gurps sourcebooks, the concentration is upon background, setting details and ideas rather than rules so that, even with it being dual-formatted for both systems, you do not find yourself bogged down in rules.

As with Castle Falkenstein (and, I presume, the Gurps edition), the sourcebook is largely presented in the form of in-setting writings – mainly the memoirs of Eberhardt Starkmann, who is travelling through the region and getting into all sorts of thrilling adventures (which actually make for quite enjoyable reading in their own right!), supplemented by various other sources as befits different topics and general commentary from Tom Olam (the chap from our time cast into this alternate history).

Unlike New Europa, the lands and history of the Ottoman Empire are largely the same as they were in reality. Although this is maybe a little disappointing in terms of alternate historical possibilities, it does, at least, avoid the irritations of Castle Falkenstein, where major changes to the world and history seemed to have little real impact on things. In addition, by sticking closely to real history, this book is not only Gurps: Castle Falkenstein: The Ottoman Empire, but Gurps: The Ottoman Empire – in other words, if you ignore the few Castle Falkenstein-specific elements, you can use this as a historical sourcebook like all the others from Steve Jackson Games (although, of course, it does tend to focus on the empire in the late 19th century rather than earlier or later periods).

In addition to the information specific to the Ottoman Empire and Arabia, there is also a great chapter on Jinn, the Middle Eastern equivalent of Faerie, that is full of great ideas.

In all, this is a fine historical sourcebook that greatly expands upon the world of Castle Falkenstein, whilst suggesting many interesting roleplaying possibilities. Whether you play this particular setting or any other Victorian setting, or are just on the lookout for interesting ideas, then I would recommend that you pick up a copy of this sourcebook.

Review of ‘Wraith Recon’

There is one particularly strong case for the presence of gaming shops in the world of online purchases – the opportunity to walk into a shop and browse the shelves can reveal products that you would probably never have come across, let alone purchased online.

I was intrigued by the Runequest II version of Wraith Recon, a game of special forces combat in a fantasy milieu, an obvious nod towards Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. It is a novel, yet oh-so-obvious idea that got my attention the moment I saw it. It is always interesting to discover a game that does something new with fantasy, rather than merely rehashing the pseudo-Tolkien tropes of D&D.

Reading through the volume, I felt as if I had purchased two games for the price of one. There is Wraith Recon itself with special forces and, then, there is the world of Nuera which, as presented in the background material, didn’t quite feel as if it belonged. Don’t get me wrong, I loved much of the background – there are some great ideas here, especially the descriptions of the new races – but it just didn’t really feel as if it went together with the central premise. Although there were a lot of great ideas, it all seemed a bit too traditional fantasy to me, overall. Part of the problem is that we are told there are these other countries in the world, but they are ‘too small’ to appear on the maps or be given write-ups. So, at a stroke, a vital part of the background is lost. Special forces games should be about situations analogous to Vitenam, Afghanistan and Iraq, with maybe a little James Bond thrown in, not rehashing the standard tropes of fantasy. My immediate reaction was that I would love to play a Wraith Recon game, but would need to tinker with, or change altogether, the background to accommodate it, whilst also being very interested in the world of Nuera and wanting to run a more traditional sort of fantasy game there.

Reading the supplied mini-campaign, The Heart of Tzarkesh, essentially Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, it was clear that the setting could lend itself to the sort of game envisaged, so it is a shame that more wasn’t done to accommodate the correct style of play.

Overall, the physical quality of the product is good and it does avoid rehashing anything much from the Runequest II rules that are required to play, so everything between the covers is new. The spelling and grammar were a little slipshod and there was a peculiar discrepancy between the world map (in which the kingdom of Dardarrick, home of Wraith Recon, is about 2000 miles across) and the national map of Dardarrick where it is about 250km (approximately 150 miles) across; the former fitting with the concept of various pocket kingdoms, the latter doesn’t.

Wraith Recon is a brilliant concept and the book has lots of great ideas in it. However, it is flawed. Whether these flaws are present in other versions of the game, I do not know, although I suspect it might be a little less effort to play the Pathfinder version as the unit is heavily reliant on magic items and Runequest II doesn’t really handle standard enchantments. I don’t think there is really anything in here that a GM wanting to run a fantasy special forces game couldn’t devise for himself, but it is well worth mining for ideas. Recommended, with reservations.

Retro Review: For Faerie, Queen & Country

Having been overshadowed by Castle Falkenstein, it is inevitable, if unfair, that this review will be comparing the two games, despite For Faerie, Queen & Country actually having preempted Castle Falkenstein by a year.

For Faerie, Queen & Country has much the same premise as Castle Falkenstein – a world much like our own in the Victorian era but inhabited by Faerie, with the Unseelie Court waging a proxy war with humanity. That they draw upon the same history and folklore, it should come as no surprise that there are distinct similarities. Where they are different is that Castle Falkenstein embraces steampunk and Victorian literature, whilst For Faerie, Queen & Country sticks closely to history and folklore, explicitly rejecting Victorian SF and steampunk embellishments. Where Castle Falkenstein works in broad strokes and attempts to set mood, For Faerie, Queen & Country works to recreate the Victorian world with accuracy and a dash of (faerie) glamour.

In some ways, the volume is a decent enough primer to Victorian Britain for the unfamiliar, although it falls somewhat into the nomansland of neither quite enough of the reality (and accuracy) to be truly useful for historical games, whilst failing to provide enough detail on the fictionalised side of things: like Castle Falkenstein, it is rather light on how history has changed in this alternate world, although what we do learn – such as a semi-independent Scotland, Faerie-backed pagans clinging on in Ireland, powerful spirits thwarting the British in India and Africa and the defeat of the USA in the war of 1812 – is intriguing, although it does prompt some awkward questions – if the Faerie have propped up paganism in Ireland, why has Christianity evolved much as it did in reality, save for some name changed? And, if the spirits of Africa and India could keep the British out, why have those of the Americas seemingly failed so poorly against them and other colonial powers? And, equally, what about the spirits/non-British Faerie of Europe?

Unfortunately, whilst its description of the Victorian world is quite good, For Faerie, Queen & Country has its flaws. For example, the attempt at an introduction to the Welsh language is laughable – not only is their pronunciation guide bizarre (somehow I doubt that this was an attempt at depicting an alternate evolution of the language!) but they even mispell Eisteddfod. Welsh is only a difficult language to learn if you insist on rewriting it and mangling the way it is spoken! Equally, whilst they are more sensible than the authors of Castle Falkenstein in deciding that the British have gone metric – 100 pennies to the pound making far more sense than 200! – the change is given no mention and I was left uncertain as to whether they hadn’t realised that decimalisation had only occurred in the late 20th century or if the authors just thought the math too hard for delicate American brains… A decimal Pound was unlikely then as not only was the decimal system regarded as dangerously foreign and revolutionary, but the Shilling was the unit of currency at the heart of the system (and closest in value to the Dollar and Franc) – even when decimalisation did occur, the Shilling rather than the Pound was strongly favoured. I just feel that, if you are going to play in a specific nation or era, then you should seek to emulate what made it distinct, not turn it into your home town with funny accents.

Although the greater adherence to reality does perhaps mean a great similarity to the real world is plausible, the changes that are mentioned should probably have had a far greater effect than they are credited with. Unfortunately, it does seem that the Faerie Victoriana genre doesn’t receive the treatment it deserves.

For Faerie, Queen & Country uses the Amazing Engine percentile system and requires the rules booklet to play. The system has never particularly excited my imagination and doesn’t really capture the feel of the period or genre in the way that Castle Falkenstein does, although it doesn’t impede it, either. Certainly, it will be favoured by more traditionally-minded gamers than the rival game’s system is likely to be.

The volume is significantly thinner than its rival and, whilst it has some good ideas and includes a great map of the UK, it fails to supply anywhere near as much inspiration or world detail – just compare the half-dozen NPCs in the back of it with all those in Castle Falkenstein! In fact, it is almost as if Castle Falkenstein is a reboot of For Faerie, Queen & Country, putting flesh on its bare bones. Like the other Amazing Engine ‘Universe Books’, it presents a brilliant idea and then fails to deliver more than a cursory look at it. Strangely, despite their proximity in date, this feels much older and more amateur than Castle Falkenstein.

Overall, it has some merits and provided me with a nice sense of nostalgia as I reread it, and it is likely to be a fraction of the price of the other, but, overall, For Faerie, Queen & Country doesn’t really live up to expectations.