A deeply atmospheric game of people with dark secrets hunting monsters in Victorian London.
I’ve run my first session of this excellent game by Jason Cordova, and it was everything that I hoped it would be. The good news is that this is not down to any skill on my part, but the lovely ruleset which helps bring this game to life.
My first exposure to some of the key rules elements here was Brindlewood Bay by the same designer. I had so much fun playing in that game that I really want to take a look at a darker version of the rules.
This is a Powered by the Apocalypse game at it’s heart, but one that is stripped down to its basics, and then built up again with clever mechanical and play style elements.
You still use 2d6 + an attribute value; 6- is a miss, 7-9 is a partial hit and 10+ is a strong hit. Well, except that if you’ve got a piece of equipment handy or something else that gives you an advantage, then you roll 3d6 and pick the two best results. If you’ve got a disadvantage (like a condition that has been inflicted on you that applies) then you roll 3d6 and pick the two lowest results.
There are essentially only three main moves where you roll dice. The Day move (doing something difficult or dangerous in the daytime), the Night move (doing something difficult or dangerous at night) and the Information move (to try to get a clue through investigation, conversation or other means). There is also a move to comfort one another where you don’t roll dice, and the important “Answer a Question” move which you make together to attempt to use discovered clues to find out what happened.
It’s much more dangerous attempting something at night, and the consequence for failure can easily be horrible, mangled death! Cleverly, though, this isn’t as bad as it might seem.
The Clever Safety Net
The game has the concept of ‘Janus Masks’ and you can always choose to tick off one of your masks in order to improve the result of a die roll (going from a miss to a partial hit, for instance). There are masks of the past that you can use to reveal your characters backstory — in fact it is the only way that you can reveal any backstory — and masks of the future which hint at your future bad destiny.
The masks are a limited resource, and at some point you run out and cannot avoid your fate. However, until that point your fate is always under your own control… if you think it is dramatically important to die at this point in the adventure, die you may! The important thing is that you get to choose the point at which your character exits the game.
The mechanism of hearing a horrible or bad result and then being able to avoid it adds to the atmosphere of the game, giving a fearful glimpse of what might have been!
There are six playbooks for the characters. There is the American, a cowboy cursed with something feral. The Mother, a Frankensteinian doctor. The Explorer, a wealthy colonialist. The Vessel, a witch whom dark creatures are obsessed with. The Undeniable, a beautiful immortal with a portrait in the attic. Finally the Factotum, a butler who exists to serve and glorify one of the other characters. Each of them has flavourful descriptions, dark secrets and some excellent playbook moves. Every one of them looks like a blast to play.
The Structure of the Game
There is a rigid structure that emphasises the feel of the game. There is Dawn, Day, Dusk and Night.
Dawn is an upkeep phase. You resolve any experience you’ve achieved and modify your ‘Dawn questions’ if you wish — role playing hooks, some of which are unique to each playbook.
Day is an unhurried phase of investigations. The Keeper who is running the game will introduce an additional threat to be investigated (if there are fewer than three), and then the players can frame whatever scenes they would like to have - whether following leads to gather clues, personal scenes showcasing some aspect of their character, or scenes sharing their vice with one of the other characters in order to overcome Conditions which they have picked up along the way.
Dusk is an opportunity to understand something more about Hargrove House, the London mansion which is their base of operations, and to state what they want to accomplish during the night. That might be more investigations to gather clues, or if you’ve successfully answered a question, tackle a threat and resolve it for good!
Thinking about Hargrove House is where the idea of Painting the Scene comes in, and it is also where the keeper introduces the Unscene. These things are both so enjoyable I’m going to expand them out into separate headings.
Night is a dark and dangerous time. It is the time when you might try to resolve threats, and even finding more clues can be very hazardous. It is fast moving where the day scenes are more relaxed. The keeper will drive the action forward, framing scenes and cutting between them. The keeper will also call for Unscene prompts to be read by the players to convey the action continuing through the night, and then drawing the phase to a close.
Painting the Scene
This phase engages all the players, giving them authority to add interesting details to the scene in question. The keeper will give a leading prompt (so it’s not something like “What do you see at the opium den”, it is “People from all walks of life patronise the opium den. What do you see that indicates this”). Each player then answers, building up for everyone a picture of the location.
It is a part of collaborative storytelling that works beautifully. It is simple and evocative. I’m sure that this technique could be imported into many games and make them all the better.
This is a fabulous pacing mechanism and scene setter that runs alongside and through the Night phase. It is something else which is happening that dark London night. If this were a TV show we would see intercutting between the Unscene and the action through the night phase. It isn’t connected with the characters, or the threats, or the mastermind behind things. It is a reflection of the darkness of this Victorian London.
Although separate, there can be thematic parallels drawn between the Unscene and the night time scenes that the characters find themselves in. During the game which I ran the Unscene was about a woman visiting a fortune teller. During the first prompt the seer spread the cards out on the table. During a night scene the Vessel character knocked over a pile of magazines; they fanned out on the floor in an echo of the tarot deck.
This mechanism is a lovely one. It adds a real sense of depth to the dark London which the adventures take place in. As a pacing mechanism it gives a good sense of how far through the night everyone is. As a collaborative world building thing it gives each player the opportunity to add their own individuality to the descriptions of dark London.
If this has piqued your interest, you can find out more by following the author on twitter @jasoncordova6 and you find his design diary blog posts on the Gauntlet blog. There is also often chat on the Gauntlet Forums.
You can purchase it from DriveThruRpg.