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Ghosts of Albion
Right, well I have the flu so I can’t go to today’s session, so instead, I’ll make the most of my time and post up a review on this little book. It’s called ‘Ghosts of Albion’, by Eden Studios, using their Unisystem. It’s set in Victorian England, and is basically at it’s heart a supernatural investigation type of a thing.
Cover: Okay, I know there’s the old saying about not judging a book by its cover, but the reason I picked this up was because it has Amber Benson’s name on the cover, and that got me interested. She used to act as Willow’s girlfriend in Buffy, so that perked my interest. Anyway, I’d never heard of this title before, but it turns out that it is based on a series of online animations. Which are pretty neat, once I found them. Anyways, the cover itself is nice and suitably atmospheric.
First Few Chapters: Yeah I know, all RPGs start off with one of these; a little taster type thing. They’re usually alright, although White Wolf manages to pad theirs out for 40 pages. This one’s thankfully short, and sweet. After that you have the obligatory ‘what is an RPG’ type of a bit, followed by a description of the setting which amounts to “We’re in Victorian England, and there are ghosts and fae and vampires running around, and here’s what has happened before”. I can’t fault this at all, it’s quick, got some nice info, and cuts right to the point.
Artwork: I’m going to stick my comment about artwork in here, so that I don’t forget. Stylistically, it’s not great; but atmospherically it’s perfect. It’s almost all done in the style of Victorian line sketches, the kind you might see in old Dickens books. It’s a real charm to see.
Characters: Okay, so the characters are pretty basic; they’re your standard Victorian-era bunch of gents and paupers, to start with. There’s quite a lot of flexibility in here, because of how the whole ‘points go wherever you want’ motiff, there’s not really any restrictions on class; the emphasis is far more on what kind of role your character plays in the story. So in short, some freedom there is good. The skills are basically the same as in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game (no surprise, made my the same company with the same system), and the fact that you can choose from Apprentice, Journeyman or Master power levels is a pretty nice touch. We then have a whole bucketload of possible extra traits you can choose to take which might affect your points, some positive and some negative; basically these really give your character some depth.
And then we have Supernatural characters. It’s an option to spend your points on this, and it can cast you as a supernatural entity with your own load of skills and abilities and drawbacks. There’s the usual types, ghosts and fae and vampires, but I’m personally thrilled at the banshee types. I’d probably throw in a limit on how many of these to include per group per game, but I can see this adding some real flavour.
System: Up next is the chapter on systems, and this is a real treat. For me, at least. There are not a lot of numbers in the game, once they’re all down on your sheets. Actions are nice and simple, with very clear rolls and modifiers, so you’re not going to get mixed up on any of those. There’s a few tables here and there, but they’re all pretty much logical and shouldn’t need to be poured over like a study guide (like some games I could mention, coughD&Dcough). In fact, the most useful one would probably be the fear table.
I tend to worry quite a bit about combat, because it gives me a headache and tends to turn into a cluster of dice-rolling and cross-referencing if it’s not a good system. Ghosts of Albion has the kind of combat system I love, but is bogged down by a whole bundle of possible ‘combat actions’ like jab, kick, parry, uppercut… why is uppercut different from punch? And why is punch different from jab, and from left-hand punch? You get the idea. I’m sure this could give someone a lot of freedom in combat, if they can be bothered to memorise all your possible combat moves; but I don’t want to. The basic ‘how to hit’ and ‘how to be hurt’ is nice, but all the rest is just window dressing for me.
Lastly, we have a bit from the Drama points system, last seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The drama points here are really nice. They work well, they’re fluid, and keep things feeling very cinematic.
Magic: Yeah, I tend to think that magic in games can **** right off, I know. I’m just not a big fan of it. I’ve rarely seen a game in which magic doesn’t feel clunky and unnecessary. At very least, here it’s streamlined and easy to use, and with the whole occult thing and the Golden Dawn type of a thing going on, it could work pretty nicely, I suppose. I’d still be hesitant to go around equipping your entire cast with magic spells though, simply because I’m not really sure they add all that much to the game. Having said that, a few of the ones suggested here and there (like Banishment and various curses) can add some real flavour, so I wouldn’t be afraid to give them a look-over. The actual system for them is nice, but sometimes swerves to extremes; do we really need ‘wizard duels’ in the middle of Victorian London? Wait, what am I saying; go for it!
Setting info: Now as I’ve said, we’re setting this in Victorian London. What do we really know about Victorian London outside of Sherlock Holmes stories? Well, there’s a LOT of info here. Some of it, surprisingly accurate. Some of it (particularly the bits on the occult and ghosts), not so much. But it all adds up to creating a lively atmosphere with wads of possible story hooks. This isn’t just a mini-sourcebook, but has some genuinely useful bits; timelines for history, discussions of class structures and cultural attitudes, philosophy and the role of women in Victorian society, international relations and current affairs, the judicial system (FINALLY – It helps us to remember that the police of this time and earlier did NOT perform detective operations, or have anything remotely like forensic evidence, as noted here), transportation, the districts of London, famous people of the day, a very chunky bit on history….
Is this chapter necessary? No, you could get all this information from a textbook. But why root through one when everything you need to give a sense of atmosphere and believability is right here. I like this chapter a lot, mostly because it serves to help people get a firm grasp on a setting rather than struggle as they might do otherwise.
Antagonists: Some of these are pretty nice. The people writing it have offered some examples of various supernatural entities that you might run up against; they’re not all totally evil, of course. The segment on the fae is very well written, and allows for stacks of potential, although in-game I’d lean more towards ghosts. It’s not a huge chapter, and most of the supernatural enemies are the traditional kind; don’t expect aliens or anything like that, for instance. Overall a good chapter, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing.
The obligatory ‘how to make a game’ chapter, and the demo game: We’ve all seen these chapters before, so you could be excused for wanting to skip over them. But the fact is, the ‘how to run a game’ chapter has some surprisingly useful tips here and there. So even a veteran could do well to flick through these pages. The demo game sets a cast of characters against Chernobog, the dark god of Slaavic mythology. I have to be honest, I only skimmed this because I don’t want to spoil it in case I’m ever playing it, but the overall look of it certainly seems to be in the artistic vein of the Victorian gothic horror ‘penny dreadful’ tales.
Indexes: You know how some games have an index which is utterly useless? Well this one has a lot of them, and they’re all… well, of different levels of use. The calendars (so that you know what date fell on which day of the year, I assume) are useless if you ask me. The Victorian slang, though, is an excellent lot. Grab some words out of that, throw it into a NPCs speech, and let the players figure out just what he’s trying to say!
Overall: I really like this game. It comes with all the information you’d need to not just run a Victorian age investigation game, but gives you what you need to run one that actually FEELS like it’s a Victorian age investigation game, rather than just a regular investigation game set in some other random time and space. The atmosphere may be what attracts me the most, but there’s a lot of other things going for it too; it’s a smooth easy system for the most part, and if you’re not afraid to push it, I’d expect it can give a whole bunch. It’s got some real cinematic style to it.
Downsides? Well, it’s not for everybody. You may find it rather ‘meh’, if you’ve played a lot of supernatural investigation horror type games before. It doesn’t really offer anything new to the table, but what it does is present itself very, very well. If you want to run a game that’s a mix of Sherlock Holmes, The Sixth Sense and From Hell, this is a damn good option.
Reviewed by Marsten