Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein and the Resistance


Spinning out of the imagination of Iain Lowson, and incubating within his mind for many years, Dark Harvest is a Gothic roleplaying setting which takes a very simple idea, that far from being repulsed by what he creates Victor Frankenstein becomes enthralled by it and hatches a plan with some confederates that leads to him hijacking the creation of Romania for his own purposes; namely to create country in his image and runs with it.

The resulting country, Promethea, is a country where science is revered, technology is pushed to the cutting edge of its time (the game is set in 1910) and Frankenstein's dream has been corrupted to the point where the poor are used as a resource for fresh body parts for some of the rich and powerful. In some respects this makes the game feel as if it's capturing the Zeitgeist, mirroring the track that the 21st Century seems to be taking (to date anyway) but with enough distance to take the sting out of the situation and allow gaming groups to focus on plot and story.

The core book is sensibly laid out, tracking through Promethea's creation and then going on to talk about the country in a series of relatively broad brush strokes. Whilst this doesn't provide as much information as I would have liked, particularly in regard to the Resistance, it allows enough space for individual GMs to put their own spin on things, whilst at the same time providing just enough detail to anchor plots on. The writers have been very thorough and have constructed a state that seems plausible, particularly with regards to social matters like religion and education and international politics, where we learn that Frankenstein has sealed the country's borders and decimated his nation's ability to go to sea (in part to stop resistance fighters and smugglers, but presumably also to make sure that Britain can't simply turn up and blockade the country into submission). I must admit that I'm at a loss as to what stops Russia from simply throwing wave after wave of troops into Promethea until they achieve victory beyond the fact that them doing so would destroy the game (the game's time line is only four years away from the Great War, where tactics more or less boiled down to that for the most part) and the more diplomatic elements of 'the Great Game' have as yet been unexplored. This said Frankenstein has been portrayed as enough of pragmatist that the idea of him doing favours for foreign monarchs or elites to extend their lives in return for influence or allies must surely be raised at some point.

The fourth chapter of the book gives us a detailed overview of the country, county by county. Whilst this level of focus is good, I was uncomfortably reminded of the way a/state handled a similar intensity of detail and felt that Dark Harvest could have provided a little more in the way of practical support here in the form of adventure seeds, locations, characters and so forth. After a while it does feel rather flat, as if what you're reading is a text book. Whilst the sample NPCs and adventure seeds do make an appearance a little later in the book, they would be much stronger if they were initially tied to specific locations in my opinion.

After this there's a series of short fiction pieces which nicely illustrate the state of Promethea, though it is a shame that all of them seem to reflect the Promethean state winning against the rebels, which does start to drag after the first couple. They're well written but that doesn't save the sense of deja vu that comes from reading them.

Mechanics wise the game uses a simplified version of the Heresy engine (also used for Victoriana and Airship Pirates). This is largely well done but unlike Victoriana I actually found that there didn't run out of characters points that often, which made the Complications feel a little unnecessary. I hope that more Talents and Privileges will be introduced in supplements to add to the options that players have. This being said I did think that the option to buy some of the Talents as Augmentations (to show that your character has been operated on by Frankenstein's scientists) was a very good idea, and whilst the surgery table feels a little bland in places the fact that augmentation surgery can be botched, or sabotaged, is too good to leave out.

Returning to the subject of adventure seeds (which I realise are probably at the back as precaution to stop players reading them), many of them are good but there's also a strange frission between Dark Harvest and traditional roleplaying here. There are frequently points at which it seems to be assumed that the characters will simply be adventurers, despite that fact that my reading of the game pretty much destroys that possibility; there is no provision for even a Shadowrun style set of deniable assets as the setting is written. Gaming groups seem to have the choice between Frankenstein's forces or the Resistance (at a push an insertion team of black ops operatives from a foreign power would be possible, if a little difficult).

Beyond this my only niggles with the game are minor – the map shows Yugoslavia a full eight years before the country was founded (indeed if we are to believe Wikipedia, Yugoslavia as a term was not used until 1929). It's a minor slip but one that seems odd, especially given the final trigger to the Great War. There are also occasional issues with formatting, at times the right hand margin of the text is so ragged it actually inhibits reading.

All in all though Dark Harvest is a good, solid game. It needs supplements to flesh it out a little more but there's little that's actually actively wrong in the core book.

Turning to the Resistance, which starts with a lovely comic strip, so much kudos to Iain's team for getting that in place, we find a much deeper insight into those who defy the new order, some of which does feel like it should have been in the main book.

The Creature, Frankenstein's first creation and his implacable foe – here trying to destroy the nation his make has wrought and the technology he's apparently mastered, makes more of a presence here (elevated from a picture and a few mentions in the main rule book). Depicted as the prime mover behind the Resistance, he nonetheless remains something of a cipher. I suspect that this is to stop him turning up and overshadowing the player characters.

The first chapter overviews the Resistance, establishing what it is, how it operates and its relationship with many of the other illegal aspects of the country, smugglers and black marketeers taking prominence. There seems to be a missed opportunity to delve into the Socialist and Communist ideas that must have been sloshing around in Eastern Europe at the time, though women's suffrage gets a look in. There's not much exploration of how splintered resistances so often are; I don't really want to see the idea taken to Life of Brian levels, but the idea that other groups than the Creature's are operating and being successful in their aims would be nice, as would the concept of foreign powers using native Romanians/Prometheans as cats-paws to gain access to Promethean secrets; there is mention of other nations attempting to meddle but nothing concrete, presumably to give the GM some more wriggle room. This chapter also details the Resistance's stronghold, Baba Vida, on the Bulgarian border. This is well described and a lot of thought has gone into the creation of the stronghold.

The following chapter gives us a long look at the Promethean security forces (in the sort of detail that would have been welcome in the main book, perhaps more so than it is in a book dedicated to the Resistance where it feels slightly out of place) and, perhaps more importantly, lets us peek more closely at the fault lines within the military structure Frankenstein has created. These run both generationally and between the different types of service serving his will.

There's a series of maps of military bases only a couple of chapters later, which feels discordant. In the core book the adventure seeds were hidden away, presumably to hide them from players; it seems odd that a similar approach isn't taken here to prevent them knowing every inch of a military base that their characters have never seen before.

There's more fiction, again well written, but by this point I must confess that it felt too much; I wanted facts and ideas to help me run again, not a trio of short stories I'm afraid.

The mechanics section provides a smorgasbord of helpful additions, new weapons and equipment that capture the flavour of the time and bring the guns up to the right level, rather than relying on Victoriana's weapons tables, which are nearly 50 years out of date. There's also a set of errata and additional rules for character creation, expanding the Augmentations players can buy for their characters, which look solid enough (I haven't had a chance to test play the game so I can only go on what's on the page).

The sample adventure reads well, and I will endeavour to run it in the near future (and naturally provide an actual play review of how it works), whilst the appendix provides a series of useful links for further reading and research.

In general this is a nice game, founded on a horrifically well thought out idea and bursting at the seams with potential. There are places where it feels a little confused as to what it wants to be and the writers need to keep an eye on this front. For players and groups that want to take part in fighting Frankenstein, the odds are stacked against them but realistically so; it's not impossible to change the world, just very difficult. On the other hand, there's enough material available to play the other side of the fence and be part of the authorities, and even the glimmer of internal politics to allow for an intrigue based campaign where Frankenstein's loyal troops start to uncover corruption in the ranks or claw their way up the ladder to the dizzy heights of power.

As a GM more than a player, I can see from reading the books that there's a lot of material it's best to use sparingly here, it would be easy to overwhelm players with too much information, or a threat that's simply out of their league, especially with the paucity of equipment that's meant to be available to Resistance characters; so tread carefully.

All in all the game does feel as if its very 'now' and I worry that will be to its detriment in years to come, but with horror on the rise again in the public imagination, and fact that Gothic always creeps back in behind its more general cousin, I think that for the moment Dark Harvest will do well.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber



A thick book of stories, this volume is packed with some of the best sword and sorcery I've read in a long time and really confirms that Leiber was one of the stars in the genre's firmament.  Written as short stories, which suits both the sword and sorcery genre and the characters, the narratives within have a different texture to those I've read to other writers of the genre, whilst losing nothing of the strangeness or wildness that make it one of the more interesting sections of the fantasy genre.

The book starts surprisingly slowly and the first story is perhaps the weakest part of the book; it drags a little as the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are introduced and are set upon their paths.  The writing here is self indulgent and woolly, and it's a relief when the characters arrive in Lankhmar itself and meet, if only because the pace picks up and Leiber's use of language becomes much sharper.

Despite this I must say it's a shame that two interesting characters, the women the protagonists are romantically involved with, are killed off in the first story.  Partly, it feels cheap and cliched but also the women's deaths feel like a waste, they had potential and through their deaths it's squandered.  Even with the springboard it gives the characters for the other stories (as they're established as being driven by guilt), it's something of a blemish on the book.  Of course this may be because this sort of motivation for heroes has become ubiquitous across fantastic fiction, to the extent that within comics the "women in refrigerators" trope has been established, deconstructed and soundly mocked.

The rest of the stories are intriguing and make for more fulfilling reading.  The world that Leiber builds has a charm to it, full of wonders and mysteries.  Whether on the streets of Lankhmar itself, full of strangeness and charm but seedy and somehow realistic feeling, or out in the odder parts of Nehwon, the world feels solid and exciting.  The city, which forms the centre of the characters' world, is almost a third character and has a texture of its own.

In common with many sword and sorcery settings it feels as if it has been constructed piece by piece rather than as a whole; the stories have come first and there's no feeling that Leiber ever sat down and mapped the world out.  This doesn't matter because the stories are so intimate; they don't tackle the world spanning events, and the more political aspects of the protagonists' careers are skated over rather than fully explored.    This seems apposite as the heart of both characters is focused on adventure and the acquisition of gold, it's clear from the start that neither Fafhrd or the Mouser will end up as kings; neither of them are Conan.

This said they aren't Elric either and moments of melancholia are generally swept away by a fresh adventure or an opportunity to engage in cunning; even the prospect of being sent from Nehwon into the ancient world of our own Earth isn't enough to dampen their spirits for long (this is perhaps the bravest part of the book, and makes for an interesting read as Leiber adapts both his protagonists to their new setting, albeit briefly). It's clear that Leiber had fun creating challenges for the pair, which range from violence to the unfortunate side effects of spells, usually cast by the Mouser himself.

The characters are well drawn, multi faceted creations, far from being simple warriors they have other traits, from the Mouser's magic or Fafhrd's skald, bardic abilities.  This gives the characters so much depth and variety and allows them to exhibit a wonderful level of whimsy.  Their shared history is referenced in places, none so more effectively than the final story where they stage a duel for the benefit of rival employers to great effect.

If I had to sum up Lankhmar in a single word it would be charming; the work practically oozes charisma from the page and is such an easy read that twice whilst reading it I lost track of time, hardly a good thing on your morning commute.  This comes highly recommended for sword and sorcery fans.