System Mechanic: Custom D10
Genre: Gas-Mask chic Role-Playing Game of Neo-Victorian Horror [Unique See Below]
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99 USD
As I will go with genre as my first go. This game is truly a marvel as it takes many different influences and mish-mashes them together in a nice little package. The game calls itself a gas-mask chic role-playing game of Neo-Victorian Horror and even still, that doesn't really actually answer a "What the hell is this?" question. To sum it up in a generalization, it's this:
One Part Dawn of the Dead, One Part World of Darkness, One Part Grim & Dark, One Part Alternate History. What do you get when you combine those? A really interesting setting.
The premise is this. In 1905, the dead mysteriously rose up from their graves/whatever and decided it was time to eat people. This was quite the epidemic as it took the world by storm, force and surprise. The worse part was, regardless of how someone would die, they would mysteriously rise up again as a hungry dead, so that made conflict even worse. People panicked, but fought bravely. It took them years, if not a century to reclaim many lost areas to the hungry dead. But another problem was rising, the world seemed to have been tainted by something, be it the catastrophe that shook the world or perhaps it was the true source of the problem. The blight as they called it, slowly corrupting the land, mutating flora, fauna and making the water poisonous.
Over time, the Reclamation began, the surviving people of Britain fought vigilantly to secure one of their greatest cities in the world; their capital, London. The fight was long, hard and quite dangerous, but they finally succeeded and rebuilt the city into a fortress. The year is now 2105 and a storm is brewing. Zombies attack in concert now, other horrors stalk the streets, new, unknown problems arise. The aristocracy became more thin blooded, alienated, the poor become far more downtrodden and the city is plagued by an increased population of immigrants, threatening overpopulation. What is your role? What is your Calling in this dark world?
The game's background history is extremely rich and a lot of love have been put into it. From a detailed time-line to how the city is run, why the people are there, how the situation is and much, much more. It makes the game world feel truly alive and a reason to how things are. Many things are not detailed and left vague for example, the cause of the blight and the Plague (zombie outbreak) which are left up to the story-guide. Even if you were to never use the game in the sense of playing it, the world is detailed enough for one to write a story arc. This of course, is also a double-edged sword. As it tends to be quite a lot to digest to those who want to just jump straight into the game and play. Although it's doubtful your character will know the entire "truth/history" of how things were, it's just as important to read to get a feel as it is for the game master running it. The section after it, although is the part you truly need to read. It details how life is in modern London since the Plague of animates (zombies) and Blight that has a choke-hold on the world, the new incursion of psychic phenomenon and the raise in ghost activities. The rise of old technologies and advances in them brought advances in Tesla's method of energy, meaning yes, galvanic weapons aka energy and lightning guns are mainstay. As well as detail of the outside world and what countries survived and a sample as to how they are now.
Next comes the mechanics segment. While some say the dice system is clunky, I would disagree. It's deadly and random at best, clunky? No. The game mainly consists of rolling two d10 dice and adding the two numbers together as a sum with the modifiers (attributes, skills, bonuses & penalties) against a difficulty value or in case of opposing checks, the one with the highest number wins. While this is intuitive, it is also rather chaotic. It would have been much more simple to use a percentage base or a dice pool. The game is quite reminiscent of a dot system used by White Wolf merged with the Warhammer Fantasy RPG/WH40K Dark Heresy dice system consisting of Attribute values of 1-7 and skills of 1-5. With the inclusion of "stunts" it takes more of a cinematic feel to combat, which makes combat quick and deadly.
The system is rather straight-forward and explained here in detail, most of the system is streamlined, meaning a more streamlined feel to it. Also, it shows the various Paths of Corruption (which is also key to your character as an original sin) as it plays main focus. There are Three types Physical, Desire and Drive types of Corruption. Each character begins with one point in any of these as an original sin. A taint of your character. What Corruption does is two things, flavors your character as an unique flaw, grants them the ability to re-roll any dice roll number of times based on how much Corruption points you have per game session. If you spend more, you gain another point of corruption and if you must have an automatic success, it automatically gives you another point of Corruption and even if you didn't send any The "bad stat" is more of a hybrid stat as it grants you the ability to turn failures into success while "striking a deal with the devil" as it colorfully states it. Abuse this and you will become unplayable, so corrupt you're monstrous in your own way.
Making Your Character:
Now on to the next part, the meat of the game of getting started. The character creation department. It introduces the professions/lifestyles and such mainly as Callings, those that have a definite stand-point and specific features associated with being such. There are six Callings that the core offers (Seven if you include the monstrous Anathema as one, but it isn't suggested): Aristocrat, Criminal, Dhamphir, Doctor, Mourner and Undertaker. The game also allows custom characters with no specific features and such, as well they have a downloadable Calling, Detective.
The Callings each have their own purpose, while some are life choices (Criminal, Doctor, Mourner, Undertaker, Detective) others are a mix between breeding and upbringing (Aristocrat and Dhamphir). While each of these do have a semblance of Uniformity amongst their own ranks, they still opt a lot of customization and as well in it being a point buy system mimicking a dot based structure, it comes flavor to make your character unique, even if there are multiple people playing the same Calling. Pretty much basic in that regards, it explains what each Calling is, what they do, what they can do, what they start out with and such. Next segment is the Corruption list in detail about how the Corruption is, how to make it unique and one suitable to pick for your character. It goes on a 1-5 list on each types of Corruption, past 5 in that number and your character is unplayable.
Calling core breakdown are as followed in simplification:
Aristocrats are the socialites, the High Londoners of the city, creme la creme at the top of society, the richest and most influential, although many do not even leave their fortifications in the West Side, if not a full Aristocrat game, it would suggest your character is adventurous.
Criminal is a rather vague, but still straightforward Calling. You are in fact a Criminal of some sort, be it violent crime (mugging) to that of passive crime (pick-pocketing and breaking into a shop/home for burglary). While they are not the strongest of classes, they are quite versatile, they take a mish-mash of various skills and traits for many of the other traits making them a wild card to play.
Dhamphir is more of a mix of what they are and one that follows the call of a monster hunter. Dhampiri are people that have either survived a vampire attack and fought of the infection before it was too late or more rare, one who is born of the union of a sentient vampire and a human. They gain all sorts of new benefits and take more of Vampire Hunter D/Blade approach, each are skilled with the sword, have various bonuses that keep them from for example, catching the Plague, zombies ignore them unless provoked and many others. While that, they also have penalties, for example, they cannot take the Physical Corruption paths, meaning they corrupt faster, they always rise as a vampire with a 20% chance of being sentient when they die unless they die of some extreme means (decapitation/burning so on).
Doctors are the primarily healers, physicians and mad scientists of the group. Depending on your focus, you could be any sorts of things, although each do have a type of practice and a specialty to that practice which gives them invaluable to have in a group, especially if they're adventuring with you and don't charge you for medical care, scientific expertise and so on.
Mourners are an unique class, as they are the guardians of the dead to those who can pay for it. They tend to be emphasized as silent, quick as lightning celibate warriors wielding impressive kukris like blades with deadly precision. In other words, celibate ninjas in mourner's garb. They're extremely efficient and unique to play as being one has many traits that make them different. Traditionally female, the Mourner's Guild hire by skill and not sex.
Undertakers are the brunt end of the kill all. All tend to be glorified (or notorious) aspects of the monster hunter. Be them animate, vampire, human and otherwise. Licensed by the state to kill these aberrations and collect bounty once they show proof of their success. A key Calling if you want to play as a tough as nails soldier of destruction with enough weaponry to make a third world country envious of your hardware.
After that, we have the listing of skills and their applications (pretty straight-forward) each with a list of a specialty to grant a bonus on particular rolls and then there is the combat skills. Minus Artillery, each Combat Skill has a series of Stunts that can be taken with each level of the skill, giving your character a more unique feel and extra bonuses for when the hard fight becomes unbearable and to make it easy before it starts. A nice feel instead of simple flat skill bonuses like the other skills possess.
On to the juicy part, the Qualities and Impediments section. This segment covers further customization of your character by giving them specific bonuses and penalties (and flavor) to your character. You can only buy them in two manners, using your 5 custom points you get at character creation or by taking Impediments to balance out your character. Be them from Supernatural Power to Mental Derangement, there is quite an extensive list to make your character feel truly unique.
Tools of the Trade:
Equipment, Clothing, Food, et cetera is explained in detail here. The start goes with Currency and how to break-down. If you live in the UK, this is something you'd already be able to pick-up as it uses British script and coinage, if not, the charts teach you how to use British denominations. After that, there is an extensive list of all the gear and services you can procure and it's quite extensive and their costs.
After that, it has a break down of each of the gear, their costs, what they do and describes in detail. Be it combat armor to a night with a whore, it's all covered. As with some things, it also describes some staples like the corset, what wearing one does and so on in intricate detail. As a note, with how the world is so deadly, armor is a mainstay and a fashion. Those wearing no armor tend to be either dirt poor or having a death wish.
The Anatomy of Horror:
A simple, yet mainly meant for those who focus in a given field of the monstrosities that lurks across the Wastelands and the city itself. Each entry explains in rather detailed information of each type of monster complete with autopsy diagram, their usual patterns of existence, habits, usual home and so on. Really helpful for the game master to get a feel for the monsters and to help those that hunt those know more about their enemy (Aka, an Undertaker would know how to hunt Animates, a Dhampir would know how to hunt Vampires) to extensive detail.
Covered in this section is that one of the mundane narcotics, medicines and supermundane ones as well. A plenty straight-forward list of what you'd expect a Doctor Calling would possess or a type of service and medication you can get either legally or illegally. It goes further in detail on medication, health care services and such.
Abhorrent Abominations of Man:
Basically, the section called Forms of Man cover the creation of the Anathema (artificial life), Reanimation (artificial reanimation) and Galvanic Horrors (think of Frankenstein merged with Terminator). It covers in detail the creation of custom ones, their traits, how to use them as antagonists (or protagonists if your GM allows it) and the types of secret societies that deal with these sort of forbidden fruits.
The next segment, although somewhat small compared to the many other lengthy segments is that of the GM's guide of how to run a game and comes with how to give out experience, how to add Scandals (an unique addition to those with a high life) for flavor and offers some sample examples of what to use as antagonists and some sample scenarios to play. The last bit of the book covers a lexicon of terms, and a list of suggest reading material. The last bit is the character sheet.
Now on to my full review based off of my sum. The book offers quite a lot to digest, it's a worthy read, if albeit quite long winded in the background. The dice mechanics are a mix of chaotic and streamline making a rather interesting mix. The detail put into the various bits, from lifestyle, the paradigm of general thought and background, it could appeal to anyone willing to give it a try for a grimdark game that wasn't horrible. It takes many niche settings and puts them together. As well, for example, the Neo-Victorians are not as prudish as the Victorians (a -great- improvement), my only true complaints about the game are minimal, but still very obvious. While it does have a thorough glossary, it completely lacks that of an index, making quick references a bit hard unless you know what segment they're under and the fact the game does not include a map of London, which the game assumes you to be a part of. Be it that obvious glaring flaw, that annoyance and the chaos of the system, I still recommend this game.
-Unique Setting That Works With the Material Given
-Streamlined, Easy To Use Dice System; Not Rules Heavy
-Great Read From Start to Finish
-World Feels Realistic Due to Detail
-Obvious writer's love for the setting is poured deep and ebbing within this tome.
-Lack of Map of London
-Dice Rolls Can Be Chaotic and Dangerous