Fourth Review

This review comes from Trey, an enthusiastic chap (he even asked for a job before he wrote this review) whom folks will likely have encountered on our forums, and on the Cubicle 7 forums, and in many, many places on the RPG.net forums where he posts prolifically either as Pilgrim or Dark Pilgrim.  This very personal review, which appeared on RPG.net, rather oddly even includes a character he rolled up.  Don’t say he’s not good to you all!
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When I first heard about this late last year, I was intrigued – a setting where Frankenstein was real and so was the Creature. But, instead of an obsessive pursuit and self-destruction, Frankenstein turned to politics and wound up king of Romania (now re-named Promethea). And, oh yes, the  Creature is aware of all this, setting the stage for an epic struggle. The setting of Dark Harvest Legacy of Frankenstein (DH:LoF) doesn’t have an everything and the kitchen sink approach of many steampunk games. There isn’t any magic, elves, dwarves, fairies or massive clockwork automatons, just humans, and Frankenstein’s changes. Finally, this is set in 1910, at the end of the Edwardian era – squarely between the steampunk and ‘pulp’ eras.

The authors paint an interesting, intriguing and lovely (if incomplete) picture of a nation where the wealthy, well connected and important prey upon the beauty, strength and health of the poor, courtesy of the Dark Harvest, where limbs, organs, faces and on and on are taken to supplement the wealthy. Or the Promethean Military Forces (PMF), a veritable army of Frankenstein’s monsters (or Jäger Monsters without the humor). Anyway, Promethea is a land where the industrial revolution has come with a vengeance and science reins supreme. The peasants sullenly comply, or rebel, against the government and its harvests of the people. All this is kept in line by the Domestic Security Forces (DSF) and the PMF. And the ultimate punishment is the degrading mutilation of Evisceration which makes drawing and quartering look pale.

Now, the lack of completeness can be a bug or a feature depending on your point of view. The authors have indicated they intended it to be a ‘broad brush sort of book’ allowing players and GMs to fill in details as needed or desired. Still, I’d have liked to see the uniforms of the PMF, or known how long someone has to serve if they volunteer, or if they’re conscripted as punishment. Or just where King Frankenstein has gotten so many doctors and surgeons that he can field large units of augmented people, or that augmentation can be done as a fashion statement.

Still, the broad brush technique offers a lot of room for GMs to play with. If you’d like to dial up the mad science, stat up Nikola Tesla and bring in Dr. Mabuse, Griffin (The Invisible Man) and others. Or if you like working and playing with the extreme wealth and corruption of the Golden Age, introduce J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller or Carnegie. Or dial up the mad science and Golden Age elements for a weird Frankenpunk game. Or play with the dystopian aspects? Have the DSF or PMF have zeppelins with patrols over major population centers, with telescopes and a wireless set up aboard, plus semaphore gear as well. Add in everyone informing on everyone in order to avoid the Dark Harvest, and you have something truly unpleasant.

As a GM, you can make your own decisions about Promethea as well. Is the military corrupt? Or not? What sort of technology is in play in Promethea? World War I technology? Mad science beyond Frankenstein’s Secret? Or close to what is historically available? Does Frankenstein have a designated heir? Not having answers about this isn’t a design flaw, but a potential feature allowing GMs and PCs to explore, find and build the Promethea they want to play in.

The default campaigns seem to focus on the Resistance, espionage and working for the PMF or DSF. Still, there are implied campaign frameworks – politics of power and intrigue or just reform; building Promethea into a powerful nation; smuggling or criminal enterprises; day-to-day life in a nation of horror; and Gothic horror among the boyars and other elites. I’m pretty sure others can come up with more than just these and I’d love to see them.

Now, my worst complaint about the game is that since DH:LoF sits squarely between Steampunk and Pulp in terms of its timeline and technology (sort of) with its start date of 1910. Because of this, I admit I’m not as familiar with the Edwardian Era (unless you count my daughter’s obsessive watching of Mary Poppins (and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count)), so I’ve been rummaging through my other books and files for an idea of just what’s available and can be done in the era. I think this might be a problem for other gamers as well. As much as I hate to admit it, GURPS High Tech, GURPS High Tech Pulp Guns, GURPS Steampunk and GURPS Steamtech have been terribly useful if only to help figure out what technologies are available and what can be done with them.

Outside of that, there isn’t any advice on how to make it scary or tense. Or how to even shoot for the feel that the author apparently has in mind. So, again I went rummaging and came to the conclusion that additional ideas and material would help.

But, wait, where are the statistics for the Creature and King Victor? Well, Iain Lowson is of the opinion that “If we stat it, they (the PC’s) will kill it.” So, no stats for either of these giants of Promethea, but something is promised as a down load for the website.

So, what do you get? From the .pdf 11×17 sheets, with 2 pages apiece of color illustrated pages. It also lacks bookmarks. From the book, grey scale illustrations of the art which is quite a shame because the color illustrations are good. You also get the following: 220 pages total, 73 of setting material, 30 pages of setting fiction, 73 of rules, 4 pages of credits to the authors and illustrators and a very thorough index. You also get some adventure seeds for your money from the NPCs and Half Told Tales.

Now, the current version of the .pdf with the 11×17 sheets isn’t bad, but its a pain the butt to read on screen and murder to print. I’ve notified Cubicle 7 and Dark Harvest about this, but they haven’t moved yet. If you just have to have this in electronic format I’d suggest waiting until they do fix it. Apparently. Any. Day. Now.

In both of soft and hard copies there is a poor use of white space. At the bottom of each page, there is a border that takes up a lot of space from the text. Worse, in the fiction pieces for the setting, there are blank half pages that could have been recovered for other uses. This is a minor grump for me since the lack of space is cited as a reason for why some things aren’t answered. Still, I may have been spoiled long ago by the GURPS series with their relatively high information density. Or even Castle Falkenstein with its odd mix of flavor and information.

The rules are the Heresy Engine from Victoriana, which reads interestingly- its a bit like the old D6 system for Hercules and Xena. It’s a d6 pool system. The dice pools are the sum of the Attribute + Skill and roll that many white d6 dice with 1s and 6s counting as successes. A 6 also ‘explodes,’ allowing the die to be rerolled again. If it rolls another 6, it can be re-rolled again. To represent difficulties the GM will ask the player to also roll black d6s, the more black dice, the more difficult the task. For each 1 or 6 a success is subtracted, though black dice do not explode as white dice do. Average tasks require no black dice, and difficult tasks bring in between 3 and 12 black dice. How many successes a player rolls determines the level of success. A single success is enough to barely make it, but several successes enable a character to accomplish their goal with flair, faster than they intended, or with an additional benefit.

In reading the rules, I spotted that there are no rules for combined actions, unless you count spending Fate Points or Scripting Dice to benefit others. The developers have answered this on the Dark Harvest forums.

As of June 2, 2011, I have not play tested the rules. I have been making a character though. The rules for character creation seem a little unclear though. Just by reading them (and tinkering with them) its apparently impossible to make an augmented character with an attribute more than 3 (p128). And even if you can, it looks to cost more – 5 character points per point of enhanced attribute (p157). So, my concept character of the discharged, but heavily augmented former PMF Pioner Corps (Combat Engineers) corporal went down in flames. Kind of a shame that.

So, I decided to try again and follow the steps of the example character and make an un-augmented character. Concept: Famous Magician (after all, Houdini, Selbit, Goldin and others were active in 1910). Since the default rules have starting characters with no skills + attribute at 4 dice or higher, that means that the idea of an experienced character (5D), or expert in the field (11D) is straight out. It looks like its designed to create inexperienced characters in the default mode. Not my desired goal, but I’ll settle for one of his apprentices/assistants. Now, you can give characters the Traits Adventurer, Daredevil, etc., and some additional points for Talents, Privileges, Contacts, Assets and Augmentation for the players to spend. I’m sure I can rough something out, but I’d have liked the options spelled out from the word go. Also, since Promethea is one the most repressive regimes since the Inca (and North Korea isn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye in 1910), I have a hard time buying into inexperienced characters surviving acting against the government.

Concept: Magician’s apprentice/assistant I see him as having a high Dexterity (sleight of hand), Fortitude (training for escapes), Presence (stage presence & charisma) and Wits (for mentalism fakery). So, with 6 points to play with here, let’s see… Class: Middle Class (he’s the shame of his family) Attributes Strength: 0 (average) Dexterity: 2 Fortitude: 1 Presence: 1 Wits: 2 Resolve: 0 (average)

Not quite what I wanted, but let’s keep going.

Intiative: 4 at a base, plus whatever I put into the Perception skill. Health: 3

Skills are split between Common (anyone can use them) and Specialties (must be trained). So, let’s start figuring out the desired skills for Henric, starting with the common. Act, Charm, Conceal, Dodge, Empathy, General Knowledge, Hide & Sneak, Perception, Streetwise

Specialty Skills Business (getting permits in Promethea), Conversation, Craft (illusions), Culture (Jewish), High Society, Lip Reading, Pick Locks, Pick Pockets, Research, Sleight of Hand.

Now, I’ve got 50 points to spend between this and Talents and Contacts, with 30 suggested for skills. If I spend one point apiece, I get something like this…

Act (Pre): 2 Charm (Pre): 2 Conceal (Wits): 3 Dodge (Dex): 3 Empathy (Pre): 2 General Knowledge (Wits): 3 Hide & Sneak (Dex): 3 Perception (Wits): 3 Streetwise (Pre): 2 Business (Wits): 3 Conversation (Pre): 2 Craft (illusions) (Str/Wits): 1/3 Culture (Hungarian) (Wits): 3 High Society (Wits): 3 Lip Reading (Wits): 3 Pick Locks (Wits): 3 Pick Pockets (Dex): 3 Research (Wits): 3 Sleight of Hand (Dex): 3

With 11 left to spend on addional skills. So, let’s spend ’em.

Act (Pre): 4 Charm (Pre): 4 Conceal (Wits): 4 Dodge (Dex): 3 Empathy (Pre): 4 Fisticuffs (Dex): 4 General Knowledge (Wits): 4 Hide & Sneak (Dex): 3 Perception (Wits): 4 Streetwise (Pre): 2 Business (Wits): 3 Conversation (Pre): 4 Craft (illusions) (Str/Wits): 1/3 Culture (Hungarian) (Wits): 3 High Society (Wits): 3 Lip Reading (Wits): 3 Pick Locks (Wits): 3 Pick Pockets (Dex): 3 Research (Wits): 4 Sleight of Hand (Dex): 4 Throwing (Dex): 4

Now, we have accomplice skilled at pumping people for information, or researching for a mentalist act. He’s also better at fighting than I intended when I started since I needed to place the points.

So, what Traits to take? I’d like Agility, Contortionist, Deduction, Glib, Polyglot (Hungarian) and Speed Reader. I can only take 4.

Hmm. Glib and Polyglot are probably most important, followed by Deduction (applying it to Research). I’ll take Agility and hope I can use it with Lockpicking as well. 11 points with 9 left.

Now a few Complications… Since I’m basing him around a Houdini type character, I’ll take Stubborn (10 CP back), Gloryhound (5 CP back) and I’ll stop there.

So, 24 points left. Henric needs Ear of the Street and Society Friends, so that’s 9 points right there. Theatrical Patron fits as well, so I’ll add that for 3 and 12 points in Privileges.

He starts with 2 Contacts – 1 plus his Presence dice. Since these can be of any class, I’ll make them both Upper Class (Socialite and Lawyer). The remainder I’ll put 2 in Middle Class and 2 in Lower Class.

Equipment: Brass knuckles, lockpicks, notebook, box of pencils, 2 decent suits.

Character advancement is tough. The rules suggest between 1 and 3 experience points per session you have to buy it in blocks of Adventurer, Daredevil, etc., that raises the caps on Attributes and Skills, gives you skill dice to use and some reputation dice at 15 experience points apiece. Unfortunately, as it reads, you can only get these through experience. Worse, it costs 4 times the new level of the attribute to raise it. So, don’t expect major changes to your characters attributes as they are for a fairly long time. Unless Augmentation and its drawbacks has some appeal…

All in all, for all my griping and questions, I like it. I like it for the questions it raises for me and the ideas it sparks. I want to see more and would like to see what other gamers could do with this setting.

Style: 2. From the poor lay out of the .pdf and use of white space, it brings it down for me. The rules could be better, but it seems to offer a lot of room to work with. I could see folks taking the setting and adapting it to their own favorite rules set without too much trouble.

Substance: 4. I’d like to give it a 5 but there is room for improvement and development. The ideas brought to the table are wonderful and speak to my inner nerd, and it keeps sparking ideas. And while there are missing details, they do spark questions.

 

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