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Sunday, 11 January 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Victoriana

RPGPundit Reviews: Victoriana (3rd Edition Core Rulebook)

This is a review of the Victoriana RPG, 3rd Edition Core Rulebook.  It is published by Cubicle 7, written by Walt Ciechanowski, Chad Bowser, and Scott Rhymer.  It comes in the form of a very attractive 320 page hardcover, with a full color cover featuring a pair of steampunk adventurers (one with goggles and all), and black and white interior art, all of relatively good quality.

I have to say, I'm afraid this book almost broke me as a reviewer.  I've struggled with it for weeks.  And I can't say definitively why.  The system is pretty ponderous, point-buy, not the sort of thing I would like.  The setting is overloaded, and while occasionally clever at parts it's largely a collection of what are by-now cliches, which seems to want to accumulate the kitchen-sink of all 19th century setting ideas.  But it's really how it's written that gets to me.

If I stop, and look at any given paragraph fairly objectively, there's nothing really technically wrong with the writing.  It's not even bad. It isn't that it's filled with typos, or bad grammar, or even an absolute excess of needlessly-complex words (like you find in some undergrad papers written by people desperately wanting to sound smart).  It's not really any one thing.  But somehow, in the gestalt of it all, it becomes like trying to tread your way through treacle. I almost literally felt like I was 'bogged down' as I tried to wade through it.

It's a phenomenon I've found in a few RPG books before, reminiscent of some of the worst offenses by 90s-era White Wolf products, but even moreso in the imitators of that brand.  The language may not be excessively complex, but it is excessive. It never fails to say in a paragraph what it could have said in a sentence. Its rules material is ponderous, and its setting material feels like it's not so much about creating a playable world as it is about creating a 'literary' world, the author(s) wanting to show us how detailed they could get at creating an intricate setting but, at least in my case, boring the pants off of us in the process.

I'll try to give an overview of the book; needless to say this will go well.

Victoriana bills itself as "an enormous and diverse game world deeply imbued with Victorian period feel, gothic fantasy magic, and steampunk engineering".  If one wanted to be kind, you might say that it's sort of trying to do for the 19th century what Shadowrun tried to do for the 21st, and have a big variety of stuff on offer.  In practice, my feeling is it tries to do just too much; the setting tries to cover the entire planet, the game does steampunk, magic, fantasy, and Victorian socio-political roleplay.  But it feels just too crowded in all the wrong places, and too sparse in all the wrong places.

Almost like it was pre-ordained, the stereotype of being 'that kind' of game, Victoriana starts right off the bat with four pages of bad in-game fiction.  After that, we get to a long introduction, whose opening screed ends with the cheesy "welcome to Victoriana. We've been waiting for you".  The book explains the key points of the setting, that it's "much more" than a "mere copy" of the historical Victorian era (as if adding stuff to history makes it inherently better), that it is full of fantastical creatures (but that these creatures are part of regular society, not off in their own kingdoms), that it is a world of magic (fading magic, because of course that's supposedly more romantic), that it is a world of "steam" (the rising power of the age), that it is a world of horror (just below the surface), and finally of "fantastical adventure".

The notes in the sidebars reveal some significant information, that while not explaining everything does shed some light on this particular edition: it is the 3rd version of Victoriana, and it has some significant changes.  First, the setting itself has been shunted backward, to the 1850s from the late 1860s, apparently in an attempt to make up for some historical/setting inaccuracies of the previous editions.  Second, the steampunk side of the game was originally found in sourcebook material and not the core rules, and this edition is apparently the first that brings these mechanics into the foreground of the core material.  So I think there's some element of trying to make this the "definitive edition" going on, and drawing in a bunch of stuff that was originally in sourcebooks, and maybe should have stayed over there.

The game is set in an "alternate" version of 1850s Earth; now, you'd say that this is obvious, since the very presence of magic and monsters and steampunk would make it so.  But it is also alternate in the sense that not everything follows along historical lines, and not always in a way that is justifiably due to the presence of these non-historical elements.  Some of it is just preferential author conceit, presumably to try to make the setting more "interesting" for adventuring.  As someone who tends to think that real history tends to be tremendously interesting, I don't really see the need for this, but it is something extremely common in quasi-historical games, so I won't particularly deduct points for that in and of itself.

Next we get into the "Encyclopedia Victoriana", which tries to depict the game world, through the irritating medium of in-game fiction and in-game media.  There are several pages of fictional articles and letters that paint miniature pictures of the world; but here we get into the treacle effect again and slogging through them was very challenging.  Curiously, when we get to the "religion" section, this very unexpectedly just shifts over a more standard author-written non-fictional discussion of details, with no real explanation for the sudden change.

In any case, the setting deals with religion by replacing standard religious ideas with the "Aluminat Church".  It is a kind of Gnostic-inspired religion, in effect not tremendously different than Christianity except that (as of the time of the setting) it sees all religious manifestations as "Archons", still expressing a sense of superiority over them but not an absolute intolerance.  This was obviously done so as to create a substitute Christianity which avoids some of the religious issues of the Victorian Imperialist era without eradicating it entirely.
There are also equivalent close-substitute religions in other areas of the world.  Jews are referred to as "Yehudi" (which is really just Hebrew for "Jew"). Muslims are instead referred to as "Followers of the Word", which for whatever reason (extreme political sensitivity? Fear of being confronted?) has some very notable differences to Islam, while still having a highly pseudo-muslim 'flavor'.

Now, I definitely can't criticize the notion of creating substitute-faiths.  I do that myself in my upcoming OSR-setting "Dark Albion: the Rose War".  And it is also clear to me that whoever wrote this section has at least some level (and not just "beginner") of knowledge about world religion and religious history, as well as some knowledge of occultism.  I might not have gone the route the authors went, but they're not shooting blind here.  Unfortunately, the writing itself is pretty ponderous, and while I (with advanced graduate-level training in religious studies) got most of the context, I really have to wonder if the average reader would be able to grasp it all in the way its presented.  It's not very straightforward, and makes certain statements as if they were immediately comprehensible, which I suspect that to the average reader, they would not be.

It doesn't help that while this section is not written as quasi-fiction, the style in this section as well as the next (on class) is still written from an in-game perspective; the author writes as though it is an explanation from within the world.  In the section on the aristocracy, for example, you get the line "I daresay that by the end of the century, they'll probably have servants spoon-feeding them".  In the section on class you get a fairly decent overview (albeit a little tinged with a perspective of 21st century judgmentalism) of the upper classes, the bourgeoisie, and the lower class.

After that you get a nice but fairly nondescript world map, which should probably have been a foreboding of what was to come: a large and very broad overview of the world, with sweeping perspective and very little really usable material in terms of play-on-the-street.  Great for the author to show off the world he made, but poor at actual playability.

Another part of the problem is a failure to properly weigh the significance of locations.  Great Britain, for example, gets 8 paragraphs.  It certainly deserves at least eight paragraphs, as one of the most significant world powers and a very likely place for most campaigns to be set.
Columbia (in South America) gets five.  So yeah, a place that will be even fairly unlikely to feature in one adventure, much less a whole campaign, gets only three less paragraphs than the epicenter of the civilized world (and, as we will see, the country the game rules themselves assume by default the PCs will come from!).

For some reason, people who fiddle with history in 19th century games always think its cooler for the U.S. to be more balkanized than it was. The date of this edition of Victoriana makes it impossible to have the CSA around, much less around-after-1865 like so many games do for some dumb reason, but they try to make up for that by mangling history in other ways: for example, here both California and Texas are independent republics, for no particularly good reason I can fathom other than that the authors think it's cool.  There's also the obligatory "nation of Native Americans", here called Commancheria.

The material of this gazetteer of the world is not focused on playability, but on showing off the world.  You don't get a great deal of stuff that immediately tells a GM "this is what's interesting here, now, for you to do with this area in the game".  Instead, you get a lot of backstory in a broad, university-textbook style; stuff like "For the last several years Bolivar, aided by Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury, has been turning Colombia into an industrialized nation.  An extensive railroad network connects the Republic together, and Quito and Caracas have become major port cities".

You only get to actual character creation on p.68. And it is point-buy, unfortunately.  There are some interesting details, though: the very first thing you do in character creation is choose an association, a "group of like-minded adventurers" (with options like "the cobblestone club", an anarchist group; or the Aetheric Branch of the Metropolitan Police, the branch of "british" (London?) law enforcement that deals with supernatural crime).  There's a variety of interesting groups; which tend to focus on English/British groups first, and Continental groups second; which again makes you wonder why they spent so much time telling us quite so much about countries other than Great Britain. For the record, there's no specifically Columbian groups; or even Texan groups, for that matter.

After that you choose a vocation, which is in essence what your PC did before starting the campaign.  Examples include things like "army officer", "beggar", "engineer", "guild associate" (the "guild" in question being the guild that magicians belong to), etc.  There's quite a lot to choose from.  Vocations are divided by social class type (lower, middle, upper). Both vocations and associations give you access to some skills, and associations can also bring privileges (memberships, access, etc) and sometimes assets (libraries, contacts, etc).

The next step involves determining your character's childhood; strangely this comes after determining recent 'vocation', you'd think the other way around makes more sense. Again, there's a large set of selections, mostly with a distinctly British style; options like Chimney Sweep, Church School, Public School (which is actually an upper class private school, for those of you unfamiliar with the English system), Farm Hand, Stage Hand, etc.  Once again, these are divided by social class, and provide certain skills.

To their credit as a saving grace (something that should be in every point-buy system), there is a set of "builds", a dozen pre-made set of talents, privileges, assets and "complications"; these are divided into Upper, Lower and Middle class builds, with each class having pre-made attribute adjustments, starting cash, and default species.  Strangely, they opt to do this not at the start of the chapter (as a first option), nor at the very end of the chapter (after everything has been explained), but right in the middle (before things like talents or complications have really been explained).

After that we get to the races, or rather "subspecies" as they're called here. The races are totally integrated into humanity, and we're told that an "Eldren" (elf) from England would feel more in common with other English people than with their Italian counterparts. You get Beastfolk, Dwarves, Eldren (i.e. Elves), Gnomes, Huldufolk (hobbits), Humans, Ogres, and Orcs. Each have a couple of special traits and "complications".

I'll note that it is only at this point that we get to attributes.  There's six of them (strength, dexterity, fortitude, presence, wits and resolve) and they range from negatives to positives, representing bonus dice if the value is positive, but if it is negative it doesn't subtract dice but rather add "black dice".  Make sense? No? Maybe because until now we still haven't seen anything about basic task resolution. Characters start with a +1 in all attributes, modified by race, and fortitude is modified if you're lower or upper class (amusingly, lower class gives you a bonus to fortitude while being upper class gives you a penalty; so apparently someone who spent their childhood malnourished and working in backbreaking menial labor is going to be more "glowing with health", as the attribute description says, than someone who grew up with adequate nourishment, medical care, and went to a military academy).  After the basic stats are determined, you can distribute three extra points among them, with certain limits. There are also some derived attributes: Health, initiative, quintessence (magic points), and movement rates.
I'm just glad to see that the attributes weren't set up with a point-buy system as well.

Skills, however, are point buy, unless you chose one of those "builds". You get 30 points that must be spent from the list of skills available to you based on your childhood, vocation, and association. So at least it's not totally freeform point-buy.

After that, more point-buy! You get another 20 points that you can spend on Talents, Privileges, Assets or Contacts.  There are long lists of each of these; which is good (because it's dumb if they were to only put a tiny handful of options) and at the same time bad (because it means a prospective players will need to read through every single one to figure out what it's about and then spend potentially hours to figure out how they're going to budget their stuff).
Talents are innate abilities for a character, stuff like Acute Senses, Backstabber (a bonus to stealthy violence), Conjurer (a magical talent), "Eureka!" (which gives you a bonus when trying to create a steampunk invention), etc.  Privileges are mostly non-innate abilities but rather representative of different forms of access: "friend of the Library", "knighthood", "Military Commission", "Private Club membership", etc.  Some of these are restricted to only certain social classes, others have variable costs depending on the social class of the character.
Assets are material resources, things like "Ancestral Estate", "Clockwork Limb" (yes, it's that steampunk!), "Hunting Dog", "Loyal servant", "shop", etc.  It's stuff that gives you stuff.
Finally, there are also Complications; a long list of what amount to disadvantages. These are not individually prices (thank the Archons!); instead, a character can take three complications (only one of which can be mental).  What's more, each complication you take gives you less bonus points than the previous one, providing you with a reduced incentive to just load up on those 'disadvantages' you think won't really screw you.

After the Equipment section (which is pretty much fine for the period, though not super-awesome, just fine), we finally at long last get to an explanation of the basic mechanics.  Note that this is at p.160 of what is an almost-320 page book.  Yes, you have to read half the book (a half, by the way, that is as big as some entire RPGs) before having any idea of the basic task resolution system of the game.

So how does it work?  The system is a dice pool system (d6 dice used), where you add attribute plus skill to determine how many dice you roll, then you roll the dice, and you count successes.  Oddly, a "1" or a "6" are successes; a 1 counts as a success, a 6 counts as a success plus you get to roll another die.  You need 2 or more successes to actually succeed at the task.
However, there's another twist: for anything harder than an average test, the GM ALSO rolls dice (that's a lot of dice being rolled), which are called "black dice".  These count successes in the exact same way but those successes are SUBTRACTED from the player's successes.  So a harder test still requires 2 successes but the GM's black dice increase, making it less likely you'll actually end up with those.
Opposed rolls (including combat) work so that the two characters face off against each other and only the one with the higher successes wins; the GM rolls black dice for both characters.
Co-operative efforts are possible, where only one PC adds their attribute, but anyone helping him can add their skill bonus.
There's also a possibility of "Foul Failure", where you get MORE black dice successes than there are regular successes to eliminate, in which case you have a disastrous failure of some variety.

This part is all relatively straightforward, but then we get to the combat section, and once again we're faced with odd choices of ponderous writing, a lack of organization and lack of clarity. The section starts out with explaining how a 3 second round begins with an initiative roll  (done each round); initiative is a very important ability in this game because in each round a player can only take ONE action, so you can either attack or dodge but NOT both.  Whoever gets to act first would thus have a very big advantage.
Now, where it gets tricky is in the combat description itself.  There is NO place where you get a simple description of the formula for attacking, for example.  What I mean is, if this was a D&D game, you could say something like:
"Melee attack: to try to hit your opponent, roll 1d20+Melee AB+bonuses from magic items + other bonuses; to hit you need to get equal to or higher than their AC".
Here, you get nothing like that.  Instead, the section on Melee attack goes like this:
"Melee Attacks:  To make a melee (hand-to-hand) attack, you must be ready with a melee weapon, be it a sword, cosh, rifle butt, or just your fists.  The use of each weapon is governed by a particular skill. An opponent may counter or evade".

There is no place anywhere in the section on combat, nor are there any 'easy reference' sheets (as far as I could see) where it broke down the basic mechanics of combat (attacking, dodging, etc.) in a straightforward fashion.  One can infer, of course, by looking at the Skills section (note, however, that the Skills section does not give you a specific attack formula either, you can just infer that a swordfighting skill roll is what you'd use to attack with a sword), the weapons lists in the equipment section, or the description of the basic mechanics on p.160, as to how it all goes, but it just seems sloppy to me.  The section above is just a tiny example of what most of the writing in this book is like: overly long use of words that say way too little, and missing the more practical utility one would want for play.

Anyways, there are a variety of rules for all kinds of special maneuvers in combat, considerations of complexity (how many black dice get rolled, etc.), things governing firearms like spread and suppressive fire, chases, damage and injury, etc.  Most of these are OK, if a bit wordy as before. You also get some guidelines after that on non-combat matters, like the tracking of time, environmental dangers, poisons and drugs (which look like fairly good rules, I have to say), and recovery from injuries.

Next we get to the "Fate Pool and Scripting Dice", which are points that can be used to add bonuses to dice rolls, to reduce damage, to extend the number of rounds before you die from injuries, or to give bonuses to someone else's roll (at double cost).  Complications can add extra fate points (at a limit of one per complication per session), and it's noted that this is not at the GM's discretion (another reason to not like this game): if the player feels the situation warrants their complication arising, then they can do so and gain a fate point for it.
If a player blows 6 fate points in one shot, they get a "scripting die"; and here at least the universe-ignoring effects are mitigated by GM decision.  You can use a scripting die to reroll an action, avoid a permanent injury, evade death, or "grant the player power over the story".  The latter is Storygaming rearing its ugly head, but it is made clear (at least) that the GM has veto power over anything he feels is "too potent or disruptive to the story". This of course only partially mitigates the problem in the first place, which is thinking of the game as a "story" rather than as a virtual world.

Then we get to the "Celestial Engine", which is kind of the equivalent of an Alignment system.  The quasi-gnostic metaphysics of the setting imply that there are two great powers, of Entropy and of Order, that are in conflict with each other.  Characters can progress toward either extreme along the "celestial wheel". As characters move toward one extreme or another, they end up getting both benefits and drawbacks from it; they have to take care not to move too far in either direction or they are ultimately lost to those powerful forces.

There's also reputation mechanics; and experience point mechanics that are spent to increase all the various attributes of the character through direct expenditure (this being a classless system).

There's an entire chapter dedicated to magical practice.  Magic in the setting is overseen by the Guilds, who were in turn set up by the Aluminat Church as a way to keep magicians under control.  There are three general forms of magic: thaumaturgy, magnetism (beings connected to Aether in an inherent way, who have the power of special seeing), and petty conjuration or 'low magic'. The broad classes are divided into subsets, like Clairvoyance, Spiritualism, Goeticism (a particularly odd choice of term, since in 'real world' magick, "goetia" refers to the power of summoning and binding demons/spirits through complex ritual, while here in the game they for some reason chose to use goetia to describe the power of miracles/prayer).  There's also empirical thaumaturgy, and conjuring to enchant objects, as well as sigil magic. Finally, there's also "maleficum", the power of black magic and of making pacts with demons, as well as necromancy.

Magic is resolved in much the same way as with other skills, only spell require the expenditure of 'quintessence' points. There's a brief chapter on ancient relics, detailing nine objects from a time when magic was more powerful.   On the whole, the magic section is at least fairly interesting. However, I found some of the choices a bit odd, as something that tried to approximate details of Victorian magic, but didn't go all the way to actually be a reflection of Victorian magical practices.  Like they were almost daring to go that far, but couldn't bring themselves to. A pity.

Next we get into the steampunk section, which explains the process of creating "marvels" (of technology).  This requires an engineering skill check, with 'black dice' being dependent on the difficulty of the invention.   This difficulty is determined by a variety of factors.  There is also a 'build point cost' in the form of XP needed to obtain the marvel.  A variety of sample Marvels are presented, things like "Aetheric Goggles", Autogyros, electric pistols, grappling guns, personal submarines, plate steel armor, and even roller skates.  There's also clockwork limbs, steampunk cybernetics. These can have various modifications that add to the cost and xp cost.
While the samples themselves are all fine, my experience with this sort of thing is that it would be only a matter of time before any steampunk-engineer PC would want to start making up his own stuff, getting the game bogged down into a 'mother may I' scenario of seeing just how much they can get away with.  It's not precisely the game's fault, its what happens with any system like this.

Next, there's some GM advice (not horrible, not great) about the type of games you can run in Victoriana, with creating atmosphere (stuff like the war of divine forces, class conflicts, industry, etc.), and guides of how to set up ("script", they call it) an adventure. The latter is done very much in a white-wolf GM-as-author style (someone should have told them that this went out with Hootie & The Blowfish), complete with information about how to make a 'five act structure' (or a simpler 'three act structure') and how to create 'story arcs'.  There's some guidelines about locales in the setting for action scenes (stuff like on a train, a factory, a ball room, or even in the London fog). There's also stuff about creating NPCs, be they villains or 'supporting cast' (with stats for a number of NPC types).

Then we get to the monsters & creature section.  There's a variety of creatures (and their stats), ranging from automata, to elementals, undead, imps, archons and demons, and ordinary animals.

So, what to conclude? What more can I say?  This is clearly not a game for me; even though there's no particular inherent reason it shouldn't be.  I have nothing against Victorian adventuring, or even steampunk necessarily.  I love Space:1889, I quite enjoyed Deadlands in spite of its mangling/whitewashing of history.  And yet this game falls flat to me in so many respects: the point-buy and dice-pool mechanics, trying too hard to be about too much.  But mainly, it's the writing that isn't-even-bad.  I can't objectively point at it in specific places and say "this is bad writing", other than perhaps the way it seems written more as an exercise in world-building than an exercise in creating useful setting for actual play.  But it's not technically "wrong" writing, it's just rambling and ponderous and too in love with itself.

Could someone else like it? Quite possibly.  Someone who is attracted to the kind of mechanics, to the kitchen-sinkness of it all (and mind you, I played RIFTS every week for about a decade, and my favorite old-school D&D setting is Mystara, so I have nothing against kitchen-sink; but this one just doesn't do it for me).  And mainly, they'd have to have a lot more patience to read through this kind of morass of writing (and probably have way more love of in-game fiction) than I do.   Look into it at your own risk.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell shell + Image Perique


  1. I see what you are saying here and I don't 100% disagree. In fact when I read the rules the first time they gave me a headache. BUT I will say this. I have made an effort to play this game at every Gen Con I have been too in the last 8 years and it really is fun.

    The game plays faster and smoother than reading the rules would have you think.
    True, I am a fan of Victorian games and I consider a lot of the guys at C7 to be friends.

    1. I like the C7 guys too! I contributed to Doctor Who, remember? And generally, most of their game products have gotten fairly good reviews from me. But this one?? I don't know what the fuck happened here.