Saturday, 3 January 2015
RPGPundit Reviews: Dark Streets
This is the review of Dark Streets, a sourcebook and adventure for the Renaissance Deluxe RPG. Its published by Cakebread & Walton (via Cubicle 7), and written by Peter Cakebread and Ken Walton. The book is about 150 pages long, with a suitably-scary colour cover, and black and white interiors. The quality of the design is very nice, with ample illustrations, but the real gem here is that there are some really marvelous maps: a spectacular two-page period map of mid-18th Century London, and some better detailed maps of the city center. Really stunning!
Now, in December 2012 I did a mini-review of the PDF version of this book; at the time I'd been sent a free PDF of the book, but its my policy not to do reviews of PDFs. Frequent readers of my (previous) blog will recall that I did a short review anyways, just because of how impressed I was. So I suppose that the result of this review is a foregone conclusion.
There has been quite the Renaissance (pardon the double-pun there) of CoC-derived games and products in the last two years, something that I suspect has missed the radar of some gamers. The Renaissance Deluxe "Clockwork & Cthulhu" game is just one of several, and it shows no sign of ending any time soon (with games like Achtung Cthulhu and Raiders of R'lyeh being among the others). All of these have shown hallmarks of being really excellent products, thus far, not a clunker among them. And, in the case of all of those working with BRP-derived rules, they're all basically compatible. If you haven't been checking these developments out, you should, now.
Anyways, on to Dark Streets. Perhaps some of you have seen the incredible TV series "City of Vice" (the one that featured the actor who played Emperor Palpatine as Henry Fielding); if you liked that series (and if you've never seen it, check it out!), you're going to love Dark Streets.
To explain, the setting of the book is London in 1749. With no professional police force, the famous author and magistrate Henry Fielding looked at the horrific crime and social conditions and felt he had to do something. Along with the help of his brother (the future Sir) John Fielding (who was quite a remarkable human being, becoming a lawyer and later one of the greatest English lawmen in spite of being completely blind), he campaigned and obtained funds from Parliament to form the first proto-police force. This organization came to be known as the "Bow Street Runners" and were dedicated to stamping out crime and vice in the dark streets of the city.
That much is history. Where Dark Streets picks up on that is by introducing the idea of Georgian London's society being infested in both its slums and its decadent high-society by Cthuloid influences. The PCs are members or allies of the Fielding's Bow Street Runners, and get caught up in investigating and combating the dark secrets of the city.
Its a great premise, but its in the execution that Dark Streets goes from being just a great idea to a truly magnificent product.
One thing I for one find very important in any historical game, but especially in any historical Mythos game, is a wealth of setting detail. Its that mix of historical depth with the supernatural/occult terror of the Mythos that make for a perfect combination. And Dark Streets provides this detail in spades. In the first chapter alone you get 51 pages worth of setting details about the city of London; this is ostensibly the "setting chapter" but of course there's further setting information pouring through every chapter of the book. Even if someone had no interest at all in the Mythos, but wanted to run a straight-historical "Bow Street Runners" campaign, they'd have everything they need here. You get loads of information; on the city in general, in a timeline from 1701-1749 (the present day of the setting; though a timeline of future events could have been quite useful), the aforementioned incredible period maps, information on the economy and prices, on the political situation (with details on the Georgian crown, the Jacobites, foreign policy, etc), information on fashion, art and culture, on religion (and the age of enlightenment), transportation, science and medicine, poverty and welfare services (scant as they are), entertainment (and a list of London newspapers and journals of the time), and of course significant information on crime and the law. On the latter note there is information about vice and immorality (the sex trade and the epidemic of gin-drinking being the great public concerns of the age), on societies for moral improvement, on what the law-keepers of the time were like before the Bow Street Runners came on the scene, on the law codes, trials and types of punishments (in the era of the "bloody code" and its brutal penalties), and finally on the Bow Street Runners themselves.
But that's not all! There's also a guide to the streets of London, an explanation of its various districts, information on the taverns and bawdy houses (as well as a Georgian sex-shoppe!), hellfire clubs, the docs, the river Thames itself, London Bridge, Westminster, Whitehall, St.James' Palace, Grub Street, the Foundling Hospital, Fleet and Newgate Prisons, the Gatehouse gaol, The Bow Street offices, and the Old Bailey.
Then you have biographies of prominent individuals in London: the Fielding brothers, the Duke of Newcastle and his brother, the Earl of Sandwich, Sir Francis Dashwood (of Hellfire Club fame), His Majesty King George III, their Highnesses the Princes Frederick and William, Sir John Gonson, James MacLain, the famed lover and magician Casanova, the famed composer George Handel, William Pitt, and about a dozen others.
There's also details of a prominent street gang: the Black Boy Alley Gang; and the chapter closes with a gigantic two-page list of London Cant (slang).
Again, one could very easily use this material alone for a ripping Historical Campaign. Its awesome.
The second chapter, in contrast, is tiny at only 3 pages; it is "character creation", and of course the reason for this brevity is that Dark Streets is a supplement and not a full game. This chapter just gives details on those modifications used in this supplement from the regular character creation process found in Renaissance Deluxe. Three new advanced skills are provided: Thieves' Cant, Lore (Cthulhu Mythos) and Lore (Occult).
The excellent resource material continues in chapter 3, "Factions", though the material in this chapter is framed around the structure of the faction rules from the Renaissance Deluxe RPG. Even so, should you not have that game you'd still find the material here useful, as it talks about the nature, motivations, allies, and enemies of different groups in the setting: gangs, guilds, The Association ("a secret society dedicated to the art of murder"), the Bow Street Runners, The Bullingdon Boys (a club of aristocrats who like to hunt the poor for sport), The Church of the Red Trinity (a cult of Nyarlathotep who's been tainting the Gin supply in London), the Cthulhu Cult, the Hellfire Club, the Jacobites, lawmen, the Mohocks (a gang of vicious libertines), the New Puritans, the Paradisians (an ecstasy cult), political radicals, the Society for the Reformation of Manners, the Tories, and the Whigs.
Although as you can see there's some mythos material mixed in among the Factions chapter, we only really get to the hardcore Mythos stuff in chapter 4, "The Mythos". The chapter begins with an introductory delineation of Lovecraftian Themes, and then with information about what is known about the mythos in 1749, as well as setting details like the 1740s perspective on witchcraft (ie. they were over the whole 'witches are real' thing). Then you get an outline of the basic Mythos spell categories with information about how they'd work. There's also details on three Mythos tomes; one is the old familiar Necronomicon, but the other two are novelties: "Discourses on Druidism", and Sir Isaac Newton's "Secrets of the Temple".
The bestiary presents some very commonly recognizable mythos creatures, but in some cases gives a new perspective on them relevant to the setting; the illustrations in this section are really fantastic as well.
After that we get to the section on Adventure seeds. A total of 16 different seeds are provided, each of them provided with a summary, a description of the central "job", details of important events, locations, and some suggested NPCs (complete with statblocks!), related mythos themes, and further potential adventure hooks to follow the situation. So this is more than just a couple of short sentences. Instead, you have the information needed to set up a complete campaign. The final page of this section is a 2-page table of statblocks for typical generic NPCs (barmen, beadles, beggars, watchmen, doctors, laborers, gamblers, highwaymen, judges, merchants, military statblocks for redcoats and cavalry, etc).
The last 33 pages (plus a few extra pages at the end for sample PCs) are dedicated to a full-blown adventure to get things going: "Gin & St. Giles". As is my typical policy, I'm going to avoid revealing any specific details about the adventure so as to assure that I don't end up spoiling it for anyone, but suffice it to say that its a rollicking ride with evil gin, street gangs, and a dark mythos cult.
So yeah, there really isn't much to sum up here; if you like the sound of absolutely anything in this review, get Dark Streets. You'll love it. And while I don't want to disparage the Renaissance Deluxe system (I can't say much about it one way or the other, not having the game), but its very obvious to me that this book can just as easily be used by most any other BRP-derived game, or indeed by any other system you'd care to use (as the book itself has a very favorable proportion of setting-material vs. stat material).
Currently Smoking: Gigi Bent Billiard + Dunhill 965
(originally posted October 5, 2013)