Posted on April 30, 2009 by Flames
Produced and Published by Eden Studios
Created by Amber Benson and Christopher Golden
Written by Amber Benson, Christopher Golden, Timothy S. Brannan, Garner Johnson, M. Alexander Jurkat
Half a dozen ‘additional writing’ people are also listed.
There is a spectre haunting the land – actually, there are two specters, one of them is the supernatural and the other is unaccountable government by self-appointed elites. In the first case, a veritable plethora of vampires, faerie folk, ghosts, zombies, demons and disembodied spirits with a variety of ill dispositions menace the land and the people of Albion (that’s Britain, of course). In the second place, instead of mobilizing the people, organizing self-defense groups and decentralizing power to enable people to fight to protect themselves, the state relies upon secretive Protectors who are reputed to have supernatural powers and are privileged to fight the supernatural using state-mandated violence. In this way, the elites of London maintain their power and can use the Protectors to regulate the toll of death and terror meted out to the general population, thereby inspiring them to obey the law and attend church regularly. We can see this same strategy used by governments around the world: in Russia, for example, the Day Watch and Night Watch are kept secret from the proletariat to maintain the status quo; in the USA, shadowy government departments have until recently been given free rein to set aside the rule of law to persecute those state-designated enemies of the state while circulating scare stories in the media to keep the people acquiescent. Anyone who has lived in a totalitarian society, loosely defined, will be aware of the sense of helplessness that grips a people who are aware that what appears before their eyes is not reality, that the politicians they vote for have no power (or motivation to effect change) and that the real decisions are made by shadowy entities about whom it is not permitted to speak. The first step towards freedom is to name and shame these secret Protectors and to lynch them in full view of the eyes of the people. The angry villagers in the Frankenstein incident provide the proper example: drive out the arrogant elite who threaten ruin to the whole of society with their vile perversions. The villagers knew full well that successfully replicating the monster-making technology would be immediately followed by the creation of an army of the resurrected, who would work the land without need for food, rest or pay. The peasants would be forced off the land and their ability to earn money for food dramatically reduced. It would be a disaster for humanity.
These are the stakes, then, for the Ghosts of Albion roleplaying game. Players take the role of one of the secret Protectors or one of their cronies and goons. It is also possible to play a class traitor – a ghost or a vampire, for example, which has turned its coat and now seeks to hunt down to extinction other members of the supernatural, presumably for money or the baubles of power and influence. No one comes out of this very well. The premise for the action apparently comes from a BBC television production, which does not appear to have made it to Thailand and about which I knew nothing before receiving this game. Fans of the program will be more able to identify with the protagonist siblings Tamara and William and the various aids and assistants, including the revived Queen Boudicca (or Bodicea as she is for some reason spelt here) and the poet Byron (described, on p.70, thus: “… the archetypal Regency buck. Born with a club foot and weak constitution, Byron inherited his title at age ten.” Obviously some new use of the term ‘archetype’ is in use at Eden Studios. I will have something to say about the language later). Statistics are provided for these protagonists and players and they can presumably recreate the television atmosphere as much as they like. Suggestions for other styles are also provided, although those wishing to organize the working classes for revolution will be on their own.
So what is contained within the game? First of all, it is a substantial 251 pages 27 megabyte PDF in the version I have. That is starting to get out of hand for a PDF with lavish use of pictures and a little unwieldy to move from place to place within the file looking for a specific rule or reference. Within these pages, pretty much every aspect of the game that might be needed is covered more or less. There are eight chapters: the first is introductory and the normal sort of thing found in most RPGs; chapter two introduces the characters, including archetypes and the original cast; chapter three details the rules; chapter four is about magic; chapter five is about ‘England’ (which is what Britain is wrongly and irritatingly called by people who should know better); chapter six is a supernatural bestiary; chapter seven describes the rest of the world outside ‘England’ and chapter eight is an adventure, ‘Almasti.’ Appendices include character sheets and reference sheets, the costs of common items (including, bizarrely, both tinned and fresh turtle), Victorian slang and other useful items. There is an index as well but it could have been more detailed. Still, who care about an index when there are dice to be thrown and ghosts to be put to the (silver) sword?
The game relies on the Unisystem, er, system. The basic mechanic is to throw a d10 and add modifiers for skill and relevant attribute and hope to get a 9 or better. The GM (called the Director here) will no doubt wish to apply other modifiers based on the situation. However, this strikes me as the kind of game which would work well enough with very few dice rolls. Characters are given ‘drama points’ which may be used to reroll dice or in another way change the narrative to suit their purposes better. Character creation follows what seems to be the modern trend of combining statistics, skills and traits and drawbacks in such a way as to allow players to have more or less the kind of character they want. There are also some attempts at balancing starting characters, although this seems doomed to failure in a group of characters, one of which is a centuries’ old vampire and another is a young and penniless sex worker (which are two of the suggested archetypes). Bumptious players might easily get out of hand if permitted to take the vampire or ancient ghost role. The same problem concerns the whole trait/drawback approach and not just in this game of course. Players of a certain sort will choose traits which they think will give them an advantage which can be used in a very wide range of situations, for example the natural toughness or nerves of steel advantage and then petitioning the GM to be able to use these for every opposed roll. Other players will buy drawbacks, perhaps even expensive drawbacks, and then ignore them completely without much pretext. Well, in these cases the GM may tell the bumptious player to meet on a Wednesday and everyone else to meet on a Tuesday. We all have our crosses to bear.
The chapters concerning the background to the action show the difficulty of writing this kind of material well. There is, it would seem inevitably, a gulf between what writers are capable of producing, what editors think should be included, what readers want to read and what is actually required during play. This is particularly true when the game covers a lengthy time period (most of the C19th) during which so much changed. There is very little sense given here of the British Empire and its impact on society and economy. There is little sense of London not only as the centre of a country but the centre of a great empire and the greatest, most cosmopolitan city in the world. There is no little sense of racism or of the brutality of crime: alas, there are cheeky cockney rascals and honest London peelers but this is all far from reality. There is always the danger of falling into the Dick Van Dyke style of olde London towne and this has not always been avoided. The text claims that the language used is something called ‘British English.’ Well, there is more to ‘British English’ than throwing in a far too often for comfort ‘ofttimes,’ ‘mayhap’ and perchance.’ Well, I could spend five thousand words pointing out all the examples of Americanisms in the text and various other infidelities but what is the point? It is too late and probably nobody else cares that much. Probably nobody cares that the Chartist movement is reduced to an opportunity for proto-fascism and a devotion to evil. Bah humbug. As the great philosopher Tony Hancock once observed, “Does nobody remember Magna Carta? Did she die in vain?”
In summary, this is a solid piece of work and as complete as might be expected from a single book. It has rules, characters and an adventure and role-players with any experience will be able to play immediately. Those people who think role=playing books benefit from lavish use of illustrations will be pleased to see them here – they are all black and white and more or less related to the text. There is some flummery around the edges of the pages but this can be ignored and does not detract too much from the text. I draw a veil over the fluff fiction piece at the beginning, set rather unwisely in Norwich. It is probably necessary to be British to understand why setting something (anything) in Norwich is an inherently bad idea.
So, if you are after a pleasant enough romp through cod Victorian England laying about the ghosts, drinking tea at inappropriate times and murdering the language, then this might well be for you. There is certainly something to be said for exterminating the supernatural, which is full of tax evaders and god-botherers. Most supernatural creatures claim some unique privilege of connection with the land and refuse to countenance change; this is, inherently, racist of course. Exterminating faerie folk in Ireland (to slightly lesser extents Scotland and Wales too) is a different story because it is reminiscent of Cromwell’s murderous depopulation of the land and the difficulties attendant on retaining any kind of cultural memory in the wake of such a pogrom. The original ideas date back to the Roman occupation of Britain and, subsequently, the Norman yoke laid on the necks of the Saxon peasants. Still, never mind that, Mary Poppins, throw another Irishman on the fire and let’s have a brew.
Review by John Walsh