Sunday, November 18, 2012

Victorian Lost: RPG Items I Like

FAERIES & FOG
I should make my sympathies clear from the start. First, I’m fond of Victoriana both in general and in its Steampunk versions. I’ve borrowed elements from that tradition for many games. Second, I’m fond of Changeling the Lost. I think it offers one of the strongest and most interesting set-ups for a supernatural campaign. With that established, you’d assume I’d be excited and enthused about Victorian Lost: A Maze of Smoke and Hedge, the recent historical sourcebook from WW providing a mash up of Changeling with 19th-Century England.

Instead my first reaction to the announcement was to cringe a little. One of the details I like about CtL is that it puts people, transformed by a horrific experience, back into a setting mixing the fantastic and real. My sense is that familiarity with place allows players to explore and deal with the implications of their new state, while having some solid ground of experience to stand on. Moving that to a historical backdrop forces players to juggle the alienness of the experience and the alienness of their setting. In some games, I think that works, but where alienation’s a central experience and theme for the game, I wasn’t sure. Blake Snyder called this “double mumbo-jumbo”- when you already have one weird premise and then you ask the audience to buy into another one.

But some games thrive on this (Evernight’s an example off the top of my head). Still I put off picking this up for some time. Then I had the opportunity to watch a couple of really interesting sessions run through G+ Hangouts. That hooked me pretty hard- and had me thinking about the setting and how you’d handle certain issues. So I broke down and bought the pdf.

PRESENTATION
Victorian Lost is a solid 87-page pdf. That’s about the standard for the alternate time period books WW has produced (New Wave Requiem and Mage Noir...which I need to pick up). As with most of the new products from WW/Onyx Path you can also buy it as a PoD softcover. The cover image is striking- a sepia toned adaptation of the Changeling the Lost cover with intruding gears and mechanical elements. The interior text design is tight and dense. Some of that comes from the highly defined page borders (gears and thorns), but overall it feels like the team jammed this supplement with material. There’s little wasted space anywhere. It follows the general two column design of the rest of the CtL line. The exception comes in the form of fiction and notice pieces in between- done as period letters and newspaper broadsheets. These looks good, but the former requires some squinting with the handwriting font. I only have one concern and that’s how light some of the modifier tables and sidebars are- making them a little hard to read.

The artwork’s excellent throughout- adapting period costumes and details to the Changeling world. Many of the earlier artists return. I like the picnic gone wrong picture and the character illos. There’s a keeper image on page 57 that really creeps me out for some reason. The writing’s good- echoing the period- overelaborate in a few places.

BRASS TACKS
The book itself has six chapters, an appendix, and various intermezzo bits. It breaks into five sections, roughly.

Set Up: Andrew Peregrine provides some game fiction- done with an accessible voice. The pieces of it run through the book. Some of the pages have Victorian adverts (though none appear to be as licentious as those which got that issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen recalled and pulped.) The two-page introduction sets up the material. VL takes into account the social structures and classes of the period, worlds which bind the characters as firmly as their new natures. The setting focuses on late Victorian England- which makes sense, but does narrow the range a little. There’s a decent, if brief, list of inspirations (I hunted down the one thing they mentioned which I hadn’t read). The first chapter is a set of letters written by a New Yorker arrived in London. It offers a decent set of narrative hooks, but is a little harder to read due to font and page coloring. I'd have liked a little more pay off and clearer connection of these materials to the game text.

Backdrop: Chapter 2 “Among the Mad People” opens with a further discussion of class, followed by some discussion of how durances of this period would vary from the modern world. There’s more on that in the next chapter- that does point to a structural problem for VL. It switches around from topic to topic quick- without a good sense of connection. Still, what’s presented is interesting- the urban/rural conflict, Hobs, and Victorian spiritualism & beliefs. It gives some new mechanics- two new Kiths, new clauses for existing Contracts, and a two new Goblin Contracts.

Through the Victorian Lens: The next chapter “The Shallow Know Themselves” looks more closely at the nature and origins of the Changelings in this era. There’s an odd bit about social movements before the book looks at each of the Seemings. I like the idea that classes remain on persons even after they go through their transformation. The discussion of the Seemings how the different kiths work within society. Most of this is really excellent and full of promise. I’d be curious about how much the “ethos” of the age affects durances and places in the Hedge. For example, the earlier CtL has reference to those echoing alien abduction scenarios. Would you have durances of steam and dark satanic mills? There’s also a new Entitlement; brief discussion of freeholds; and a longer discussion of what the Courts look like in this environment.

Mood: “The Most Wonderful Fairytale” examines what stories for this setting look like. This is a nice distillation of those ideas- well put together and colorful. That’s complimented by a discussion of Victorian lit and serial stories- and how chronicles can echo that. The last four pages of the chapter cover LARPing the game.

Chronicles & Scenes: Two more chapters plus an appendix present Storyteller-facing material. GM’s will probably want to consider what material from the pdf they want their players to read. There’s a mix of player and ST details earlier. On the one hand, much of that would be useful for them to read; on the other there are some surprises I’d like to keep under wraps. Chapter Five offers two contrasting chronicle pitches, one heroic and one paranoid. Both have a nice set up, sample character concepts, allies & antagonists, some discussion of the story, and some special rules. Chapter Six is a multi-scene story, using the SAS mechanics. The appendix presents a sample motley which the Storyteller can use as a frame for the players or as an excellent NPC resource.

OVERALL
As much as anything Victorian Lost has me thinking about the ways in which other WoD lines I enjoy could be adapted into this setting. Mage the Ascension’s an obvious one- there’s already a suggestion in those books about battles during this period over science and magic. It would be interesting to set up a “Steampunk” campaign in which a third way, outside of the Traditions and the Technocracy comes to be- a world of pseudo or fantastical science. That would make for an interesting battle. The Hunters (of HtVigil or the HtReckoning) could easily be adapted- perhaps appearing more like the Rippers. There’s already a London by Night book so the Kindred would make a useful background group. The Prometheans, more NPCs than PC, certain fit into the potential mix. Should it be a game of the secret fantastic as suggested here or perhaps more open mysticism (ala KerberosClub or the "WoD Revealed" frame from Mirrors). Are there things to steal from something like Ghosts of Albion?

What? I was doing a review? Sorry. Victorian Lost got me thinking about many different and very cool campaign ideas. In that regard I consider this a worthwhile purchase- it has lots of interesting bits to it. It is dense; a product that clearly could have been many times larger. And it does make me wish they would do a Victorian-style line for nWoD as they did with Dark Ages in the old World of Darkness. I think one of the strengths, which I perhaps saw as a weakness, is the license VL offers to indulge in the fairy-tale, fantastic, and unreal. In that it has more than a little Changeling the Dreaming vibe.

GM’s who run in the setting will perhaps want some kind of rough map- a sense of geography could be useful. Kerberos Club and Imperial Age's London offer excellent resources of this kind. I would be interesting to see perhaps fan supplements considering other regions (like the America of the "Steam Fransisco" game I watched or more on issues of industry). Victorian Lost works well on its own, but can really benefit from some of the secondary Victorian-era (and Steampunk) materials out there. I recommend this is you like either Changeling or Victoriana. This has certainly gotten me thinking about how I would run a VL campaign.