originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/10/24/tabletop-review-the-kerberos-club-fate-edition/
WHAT IS IT?
A complete setting and rules system for playing out Victorian-era supers in an alternate history.
Kerberos Club: Fate Edition is the latest version of this unique setting, with Arc Dream having previously published it as a sourcebook for Savage Worlds and Wild Talents. For this outing, the authors opted to include a full set of rpg rules, adapting the FATE system. FATE provides the core engine for number of popular games- Dresden Files, Starblazer Adventures, Diaspora, Spirit of the Century and others. Arc Dream’s version tweaks the rules to fit the setting and gives gamers an all-in-one rulebook for play.
The Kerberos Club of the title refers to a private group of individuals with “powers” who battle against threats to the Empire (and world) throughout a very different version of the nineteenth century. The book offers a fully fleshed out Victorian setting with superheroes. It obviously owes a debt to Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but even more to the wide range of strange literature produced during the period (for the best reference on this see Jess Nevin’s Guide to Fantastic Victoriana). We often tend to think of modern steampunk literature as first applying a layer of fantasy to the period, but the works of that time already presented a range of early sci-fi, fantasy and pulp tropes. Kerberos Club does more than just offer Victorian Supers- it offers an impressive toolkit for GMs wanting very different kinds of campaigns.
Kerberos Club begins with the idea that while the fantastic and strange have always existed in the world, they’ve been behind the scenes (ala White Wolf’s World of Darkness). That’s how things stand at the beginning of this alternate 19th Century. The “Strange,” as the book calls it, hides in the shadows. Plots, plans, and machinations occur without the waking world being aware of them. In this early world, the Kerberos Club exists to fight in those shadows and keep the truth from coming out. They dedicate themselves as much to secrecy as to prevention. A campaign set in this early period looks like like Buffy or Call of Cthulhu, but the situation changes as the years move on.
By the middle of the century, the Strange starts to creep out into the open. Queen Victoria herself shows signs of mystical powers, becoming an embodiment of the British Empire itself. New inventions- machine men, flight devices, lightning guns-begin to appear. Steampunk and mad science technology enter into public consciousness. Britain wars with and then brings the faerie into the Empire. In short, wonders and the fantastic begin to appear. Campaigns set in this period still have the Kerberos Club fighting against the most dangerous manifestations of the supernatural. But they’re now known, with a public reputation for such activities. Some take on alternate identities to better fight these enemies; street-level supers against the darkness. In many ways, this mid-century campaign frame feels most like the classic Steampunk campaign- with the uncanny existing, acknowledged and beginning to change how people live. Kerberos Club members, themselves strange, operate more openly. But the century continues to press on and with it, an unrelenting tide of change.
Towards the end of the era, the mystical, strange and weird have reached a high tide. Atlantaen Invasions, Marxist Fae, Werewolf police corps, Mad Science Amok, Automechanical Rebellions, an Indian Mutiny pitting ancient gods against the power of Faerie Legions. Here the Kerberos Club members fight openly against these threats- a team of high-power supers joined together. They’re akin to the Avengers or Justice League (perhaps closer to the Elseworlds JLA: Age of Wonder). Things go four-color and over the top, ending up with a massive collapse at century’s end. The authors do a great job of tracing the implications and consequences of developments throughout the period. The theme of ‘Future Shock’ runs throughout, offering the GM a very different approach to the period. In some ways, it reminds me of the best kinds of campaign ideas from cyberpunk.
Kerberos Club manages the difficult task of providing enough material for a GM to build three very different campaigns: Shadow Investigators; Supernatural Vigilantes; and Steampunk Super-League. A group could play out a series of campaign arcs across all three of these period- starting at the beginning of the Club’s self-appointed duties and ending with them fighting an ultimate enemy.
THE BOOK ITSELF
The book clocks in at 376 pages in pdf; that version includes a number of supplemental files- including a Quick-Start Version, reference sheets, and a “How to Play Overview.” Arc Dream opted for a simple and open two-column text design- not fancy, but incredibly easy to read. Where the book uses grey backgrounds or other tricks, these don’t get in the way. The layout is solid and clear. Black & white illustrations accompany each chapter, plus excellent maps and diagrams. The artwork’s consistent across the chapters- with Todd Shearer’s work especially fitting with the period and atmosphere. Strangely for a book this size, which includes a full set of rules, there’s no index. There’s an extensive and detailed table of contents, but in play that’s no substitute for an index.
This version of Kerberos is powered by by the FATE system (“Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment”) developed by Evil Hat Games, based in turn on the Fudge RPG system. Fate is a relatively simple rpg, focusing on storytelling over heavy mechanics. That low-detail, high-trust approach shares narrative control between the players and the gamemaster. Fate uses a unique set of dice- Fudge dice- which have six sides: two each blank, two with a “+” and two with a “-”. When attempting an action, players roll four of these dice for a result from -4 to +4. Player add their character’s base values and compare to a task difficulty. But players (and the GM) have interesting options to modify that roll.
Everything in Fate–characters, NPCs, equipment, environments, situations, even the campaign itself–has one or more Aspects. Aspects are quick descriptions of something which can be drawn on in play. For example, a character might have the aspect “Master Swordsman of the Montmarche School.” In a sword-fight, when attempting to persuade a fellow student of that school, or any other related activity, the player may use that aspect to gain a bonus. Scenes can have aspects as well- so if the group enters a darkened warehouse expecting an ambush, they may have to deal with the aspects Shadowy Corners, Teetering Shelving, and Stacks of Crates. The GM also has the opportunity to use these aspects for and against the players, leading to an ‘economy’ in the form of Fate points.
In order to use an aspect, a player must spend from their Fate point pool which refreshes at the beginning of each session. They ‘invoke’ an aspect on themselves to gain a +2 bonus, reroll the dice, or create a new effect on the scene. Multiple points may be spent this way. Players make invoke enemy, scene or other aspects, usually at the cost of a Fate point. The trick is that the GM may also invoke these aspects- either giving an benefit to the opposition or a penalty (-2 to the roll, rerolling, or causing a change) to players by offering them a Fate point. The player may decline, but at a cost of a point of their own. The GM may also offer Fate points for ‘compels,’ which limit or force a player’s action based on their character’s personality or disadvantages. Fellow players may do this as well. The exchange of Fate points and the constant interaction with the environment and situation makes for an exciting and involved rpg experience.
Of course each version of Fate offers its own tweaks and takes on the system. Fate veterans will see some differences in choosing character aspects and the options available to invoke those aspects. Kerberos uses an open skill system- players can choose from a relatively small list or create their own. Those skills can be used to create powers, with the addition of Power Tiers measuring a skill’s relative rank. Instead of an exhaustive list of Powers, called gifts or advantages elsewhere, Kerberos offers a simple toolkit for building powers from a skill “trappings” and a set of six “generic” gifts. The game offers a number of other new conecpts, including the novel idea of shifting damage to the environment through collateral consequences. GMs of other Fate games will find interesting new approaches here.
THE WORLD OF THE KERBEROS CLUB
Kerberos Club opens with a comprehensive and useful fifteen page “Introduction.” Beyond setting up the color and flavor of the setting, it specifically talks about who the PCs are and what kinds of things they might do in a campaign. An rpg sourcebook like this has to offer exciting and playable material- and Kerberos immediately addresses what campaigns look like. Those ideas don’t narrow the game, but instead offer a nice frame of reference when you read the rest of the book. The introduction also provides an excellent two-page summary of the Fate rules. Players will want to print a copy of that out. There’s an excellent annotated bibliography there as well.
With the basics established, the Chapter One- “The Kerberos Club”- jumps into the meat of the setting- the Kerberos Club itself. The Club serves as the cornerstone for the campaign. Here the characters can interact and exist outside of the staid and prejudiced attitudes of Victorian society. In the early part of the century, the Kerberans quietly act and keep their identities and roles secret. As the era moves on, that secrecy fades and the Club takes a more active role battling against dangerous Strangeness. The forty-page chapter nicely presents a sense of that change, what it means for the world and what it means for members of the Club.
Club membership comes with a price. After describing the cryptic origins, privileges and laws of the Kerberos Club, the chapter talks about The Challenge. This is a rite of passage which potential members must undergo. Such challenges could easily serve as a starting adventure for a new character or characters. The book provides many ideas- including how challenges can be used later in a campaign, if the PCs want to recruit new members. The Club’s presented as a loose organization, with a few general rules but without real restrictions. It is unabashedly a mechanism to gather PCs together, provide them with resources, and give them direction without imposing too many codes or limiting their choices. It doesn’t feel artificial given the depth of material. The rich details here include everything from the lives of hired help, to the relations to the Queen, to changing public perceptions.
After laying out the Club, the chapter talks about parallel organizations and enemies around the world- Le Société Scientifique in France, the Russian Section Seven and others. All of these offer plenty of hooks and plots for a GM wanting to build a campaign. The background of five famous associates of the Club come next- from Ada Lovelace to John Merrick. The authors have cleverly chosen these NPC backgrounds to illuminate certain parts of the world, from Automechanicals to the Faerie Courts. The chapter wraps up with a four-page summary of the history of the Club throughout the 19th Century- broken into the three major sections, each with a different level of The Strange. The time-line feels open enough to allow the players to shape the story- rather than feeling like a metaplot that cannot be affected.
Chapter Two- “All Things Right and Proper” presents a 43-page overview of the Victorian world- both as we know it and for a setting where the Strange has begun to encroach on all facets of life. Kerberos‘ overview gives us the world, warts and all. It doesn’t whitewash the period; instead focusing on the kinds of distinctions between groups that will impact characters. The extensive treatment of the class system and its implications offer modern players significant challenges. Playing a woman or a minority has inherent problems, beyond those of playing someone who may be outcast due to Strangeness. Unlike other games, Kerberos Club doesn’t shy away from those issues. While the campaign structure of the Club itself offers a refuge, the Victorian world can be difficult for players used to greater autonomy. Kerberos breaks down many of these questions- with guidelines for playing different classes for example. The chapter covers many topics like these, but never feels overwhelming. It presents a well-constructed introduction to the era. From manners to divinities, faeries to railroads, clothing to mad science, weapons to aeroships, this chapter tours them all.
Chapter Three- “Victoria’s Century”- pulls those ideas together into a detailed history of this alternate world. That time-line runs from 1800 to 1902 in 47 pages. The authors pick and choose events, each one given a multi-paragraph story. These stories focus on the events of import to the Club- charting the rise of Strangeness and the key players of the time. Kerberos Club avoids the pitfalls of gaming alternate history- rewriting every key event through the lens of weirdness, changing every significant person into a supernatural or empowered character. Those changes happen (most notably with Queen Victoria herself) but those balance against new events and directions which logically arise from the world they’ve created. There are only a few missteps; the rewrite of the Charge of the Light Brigade feels a little too much. Generally it is great fun to read. Notably it suggests the presence of the Club at various times, but allows room for the players to slot into those stories. GMs will find excellent inspiration here. The reading is compelling in part because of the foreshadowing the authors have done. We know that things will get out of control by the end of the century- the previous chapters have hinted at that. But here we finally see how everything goes dramatically out of whack.
The thirty pages of Chapter Four- “Throne of Empire”- cover a lot of ground- all of London. The Kerberos Club itself sits close to the heart of the city, and many campaigns will find that territory more than enough to play in. The chapter opens with a discussion of life in London- from the low to the high. Important for Kerberan characters, it covers matters of crime and law as well. Two sections cover specific places in London. The first offers brief tidbits on the sections and neighborhoods of the city. The second looks at key locations such as the British Museum and Whitechapel in greater detail. These articles mix together local color, background and plot hooks for a gamemaster.
PLAYING IN THE KERBEROS CLUB
Chapter Five- “Playing the Game”- switches to the rules, splitting the book pretty neatly into two parts. This begins with character creation. Players build their characters with choices in six areas. With a concept in mind, the player answers a set of five background questions to start the process. They then pick an Archetype and Social Class. Archetypes offer a loose ‘professions’ players use to help define their role. Kerberos has ten different archetypes including Adepts, Aliens, Faeries and Super-Normals. That choice affect which of the four Social Classes the player may choose. Both Social Class and Archetype determine one of the character’s Aspects.
Next players spend 30 points on skills. The rules offer several different kinds of these, beginning with a list of 28 Common Skills (Athletics, Intimidation, Stealth). But players may also bundle skills together into a larger group, creating Unique Skills. For example, the Unique Skill “Royal Surgeon” can apply to the practice of medicine, some kinds of scientific knowledge, and even to interactions where the character applies their status. The game also allows Strange skills- representing the unusual powers of those touched by the Strange. Skills have associated Power Tiers, ranging from Mundane to Godlike. Characters using a power of higher tier against an opponent gain bonus dice for the action.
Skills are key to the Kerberos Club system. A basic skill can be taken or players can construct a host of different skills by applying “trappings” to a basic effect. Trappings fall into categories of effect (Physical, Technical, etc). This is probably the game’s most involved and mechanical system. Just about any combination of key effects can be put together. There’s a flow chart and a list of steps for creating these unique skills. Skills may even be created with advantages and drawbacks, such as area effect or requiring a focus. New players may find it overwhelming- but they can simply fall back to the common skill list. Experienced players or those who enjoy crafting new approaches will likely get the most out of this. The rules offer a host of sample skills as well- from the mundane to the fantastic.
Players next pick their aspects, using the choices they made earlier to help decide. Some aspects may be linked to skills or gifts as well. Finally, while the the game defines super-powers through skills for the most part, Gifts offer a flexible system for players to add an additional special detail to their character. Players start with one customizable Gift and can purchase more later; these include Companions, Equipment, Impact (a boosted Skill), Signature Aspect, Skilled (more skill points), and Theme (minor bonuses related to a circumstance). All of these options make for a more involved character creation process than other rules-lite systems, or even than many other Fate games. Several additional sub-systems add even more options- such as campaign aspects and the ability for characters to create legacies between stories.
The chapter offsets that with a detailed example of character creation, and then moves into Chapter Six, “Dramatis Personae.” That begins with six pre-generated Kerberos Club characters. Players and GMs can use these as they are or modify them to match the campaign’s power level. Each character has full stats as well as discussion of their point of view and unanswered questions to serve as story hooks. The rest of this 60-page chapter presents NPCs. The first part contains some specific characters such as The Elephantine Man and others more generic such as the Pre-Human Horror and Gentleman Adversary. Each write up includes suggestions for handling them as enemies or as members of the Club. The second part provide quick overviews for more general NPC types from Police Constables to Automechanical Riflemen.
Chapter Seven, “Running the Game” presents the rest of the rules for handling conflict and crafting a campaign. Complementing the basic action rules of Chapter Five, this material covers resolving combat and other conflicts, managing complex skills, using maneuvers, creating adversaries and so on. Fate is an abstract system- with things like distances and time measured in relative units. Combats can end in with one side leaving more from concessions and consequences than from loss of hit points. But for its abstract simplicity, Fate can be a difficult game to wrap your head around. Players coming to Kerberos Club from other Fate systems will have little difficulty. Players unfamiliar with Fate face a steeper learning curve. The authors work to make the game accessible- providing that two page mechanics overview right at the beginning of the book. But there’s still a lot to take in and I found myself flipping around confused a few times in this chapter. It does wrap up nicely with some general advice about running games in the setting, and a simple adventure finishes out the book.
This is a dynamite setting and a dynamite game. There are a number of steampunk and Victorian games available now- Victoriana, Unhallowed Metropolis, Forgotten Futures for example. But few offer a strong take of supers in that setting (perhaps Agents of the Crown for Basic Roleplaying, but that’s more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style super agents). Kerberos Club provides a new concept- and isn’t just super-powers dropped down into another period. The material’s richly developed, compelling, and consistent. These days when I pick up new setting materials I’m more often looking for ideas and stories I can use in other games. However this book makes me want to run this campaign- it grabbed my attention and had me thinking about the kinds of rich stories I could tell in this world.
Arc Dream has already produced the Kerberos Club in three system flavors (Savage Worlds, Wild Talents and FATE) and plans a fourth (for Hero System). The setting material and campaign ideas presented here are strong- and could be used with any number of systems (GURPS, Mutants & Masterminds for examples). This Fate version in particular, because of the lightness of the rules detail makes an excellent choice to work from. Converting the stats and details given here should be pretty easy to manage, once you’ve chosen how you want to handle the relative levels and effects of the super-powers. On the other hand, Kerberos Club also has many ideas which could be borrowed for other Victoriana and/or Steampunk campaigns. Obviously some of the material is setting-specific. But I think any GM of those periods would discover interesting concepts, NPCs and plot hooks here.