Posted on September 14, 2007 by Flames
I write for Victoriana, though I didn’t work on the corebook, just so you know. Though I think I’ve established myself as a fair reviewer of products by now. In fact I’m writing this review when I really should be trying to get back on with some writing for Victoriana. Bad monkey, no biscuit. Anyway… Victoriana is a steampunkish, fantasyish, politically aware RPG of an alternative Victorian setting, the height of the British Empire, seemingly limitless technology, mediums, necromancers, strict class boundaries and – most importantly of all – top hats.
This is the second edition, a revision, update and expansion on the original Fuzion powered edition, this time powered by the proprietary Heresy game engine (part of a welcome return to individual game systems rather than d20isation). The original version was softback, black and white with lower production values. This new version is softback again, but with thicker, glossier paper and much higher production values. As a guide I would have rated the first edition a Style 3, Substance 4, Overall 3.5 game.
The world of Victoriana is a mirror of our own world in 1867 but with some important differences including, but not limited to…
* Different main religions
* Standard issue fantasy races
* Some steampunkish technology
* The US civil war hasn’t happened yet
* The Crimean War is still in full flow
* Russia is ruled by a Czarina and is all but matriarchal
The interplay of all of these makes a multitude of small, but important, differences in the world. The Aluminat Church (the Christianity replacement) for example, is not the worship of a god but rather the worship of the principle of order itself, rather than chaos or entropy and the Aluminat faith is even more militant in its way than Christianity with its prophet, Justas, being more of a fighter than a meek and mild figure.
There were three main criticisms of the original edition of Victoriana, all of which, I think, have been addressed in some manner.
The first was that it was ‘Just Victorian Shadowrun’. That was certainly the impression I got from the first edition, even though it was using Fuzion (which is more closely related to Cyberpunk) there was that sort of distinct impression from the book in both terminology (Victoriana adventurers were called Gutter Runners) and in presentation, up to and including an illustration of a typical Shadowrun party facing off against a Victoriana party. While the terminology etc has not changed too much the extraneous illustrations are now absent and somehow there’s been a shift in the overall presentation that makes the second edition much more its own game.
The second criticism seemed to be against the inherent politics of the game and its setting, which were unashamedly socialist/left wing with much of the thrust of the setting seeming to be decrying the misogyny, racism, classism and other problems of the period. Now, personally I like this in games, even if I don’t agree with the politics being presented it can make for a much more interesting game in much the same way as I can read Peter F Hamilton or Orson Scott Card and find their books and world interesting without having an aneurism (though I can’t manage it with Ayn Rand). Some people, however, seemed to think that the social injustices of the Victorian period weren’t so much a rich vein of adventure potential, but rather left/liberal propaganda.
Still, while the politics remains within the game for those who want to pick up on it, the pointed and robust nature of much of it seems to have been blunted and softened a little which should throw a bone to those who were so upset before. Of course, this does remove some impetus from what I took to be the main thrust of the setting (semi rebellious ‘outcasts’ from the class system trying to make the world a better place as best they can) without necessarily replacing it with an obvious hook. Here’s where the merc/criminal hook that IS present in Shadowrun/Cyberpunk might have been more welcome.
Lastly, ironically, there were some accusations of the last edition being racist, since the Zulu Nation (at war with the British in the period) were represented as proud, tribal, warrior… orcs. The implication seeming to be taken that orcs must necessarily be evil, brutal savages and that the setting was equating the brutish, dimwitted, impressively underbite-enhanced orcs with black people in the current world.
This was never truly the case and this has been specifically addressed to leave no doubt.
The artwork and presentation of the new edition is miles ahead of the previous edition. The better parts of the artwork have been kept and several new stand-out pieces commissioned, the border is evocative without being intrusive, the cover – a leatherbound look – fits the overall theme and feel of the book while being simple and striking (Akin in appeal to the original Vampire cover) and the only real complaint I can find to have about the presentation is the ‘telegraph’ style attached notes which are hard to read due to the typeface used. While real Victorian photographs and illustrations are used throughout the book they fell appropriate and not just a cheap clip-art option for filling up space and they do, genuinely, evoke the period of the setting, even with the absence of ogres, halflings and the like.
While there’s a little too much fiction for my personal taste – in terms of length, not actual amount – this doesn’t impinge on your ability to understand the world or to extract the necessary information from the explanatory text. For the most part it is a straightforward explanatory text, detailing the world, making clear the differences and spelling out how everything works. What is lacking, to an extent, is a ‘default mode of play’ though this is implied in the accompanying sample adventure. While suggestions are made for various campaign ideas (staff of a country house and several others) the implied Gutter Runner/A-Team righters-of-wrongs is not as explicit in the text as it used to be and so one can be left with an impression of ‘cool!’ but ‘what do I do with it?’
As described this is a world much like ours but with a few changes, including fantasy races, magic and some limited steamtech. This is not, truly, a steampunk setting, despite the inclusion of some steampunkish elements, it is really more of an alternative history game and the themes of the game (order versus chaos) along with this element may, perhaps, make it suitable for playing our Moorcockian type stories though there is also ample room – if you tone down the technology – to do Gibson/Sterlingesque Difference Engine or whimsical Alice style fantasy.
The British Empire is the, almost, undisputed great power of the world though the Prussians are up and coming. The clash of magic and technology/faith ended with the Thirty Years War but the aftershocks are felt now in the Crimea where the Russians – and their Wyvern cavalry and magic, face up to the modern allied army with their artillery and rifles. The sheer size and scope of the British holdings at this time give the players plenty of scope to explore – fully 1/5th of the world from India to Canada and Australia and can also allow for a great mix of characters.
To me, despite the slight toning down of the theme, the heart of the game is in the social conflict. This was the time of the Workhouses, Dickensian London and the great failings of philanthropy and industrialisation. The stratified social system, the ‘dark satanic mills’, the sheer desperation of the poor and the gilded cages of the rich all combine, for me, to make the political implications of the setting those of great importance and the best for story hooks.
The Heresy gaming engine is a dicepool system, this time using six-sided dice. Both ones and sixes count as successes but sixes can be rerolled again, adding additional successes until you stop rolling sixes. So far so good, though dice pools can get quite large through circumstances and additions, this remains manageable. The problem, for me, arises in the addition of ‘black dice’. These represent the difficulty of tasks, the adverse conditions that can work against you and they work the same as positive dice, save that they do not re-roll sixes.
Things pretty much roll on in predictable fashion from there, though the combat system is more of a frenzied free-for-all than many strict turn-after-turn combat systems and holding the initiative gives you a considerably bigger advantage compared to the usual state of affairs.
Characters are a combination of statistics and skills, though there isn’t much wiggle room at the lower ‘ranks’ (a sort of halfway house between a strict level system and Savage Worlds’ more broad ranking system) for character individuality this is compensated for via merits and flaws that give you more opportunity to customise.
There are rules for magic and mediumship included in relatively full form in the main book, so the book feels complete in one without the essential need for a ton of supplements, though they would be welcome. The bestiary is small, but enough – I feel – for a game that should mostly concentrate upon the machinations of human/oid enemies.
The Heresy system is no great leap forward in the history of game design but it is a robust enough system that would seem to suit the setting (being primarily made for it) and it works well enough. It is only the large dice pools that present a possible issue and there are ways around this – described within the book.
* Significant and worthwhile improvement over the first edition.
* Great presentation.
* THE Victorian setting game at present.
* Lacks a strong hook.
* Not really a steampunk game (your mileage may vary).
* Fantasy race inclusion is a bit predictable.
While Victoriana has, somewhat, moved away from the Steam-Powered Shadowrun feel of the first edition some of that remains. Back in the day I was a Cyberpunk 2013/2020 guy, not a Shadowrun person (Eww, you got elves in my cyberpunk) and while I can be more forgiving in this context I think Victoriana would benefit from a more prominent, but harder and more steampunkish competitor, even if made by the same company, to provide for both tastes and give a friendly rivalry. I would say Etherscope but, for me, it doesn’t quite fit the bill.
Either way, Victoriana is a great game and could easily be adapted to such a setting if that was your taste.
Reviewer: James ‘Grim’ Desboro