For those who have never heard of it, The Kerberos Club is a source-book written by Benjamin Baugh which uses the rules from Wild Talents 2nd Ed and takes a spin of a glorious Arc Dream conceit: What if individuals with super-powers cropped up in different times? GODLIKE took a punt for WW2, and This Favoured Land takes the American Civil War.
The Kerberos Club is superpowers developing within Victorian England, particularly London, together with the wider Empire. You will need the WT 2nd Ed rules to get full use out of the book, but fortunately the Arc Dream crew have anticipated this issue, and so if nothing else you can get the core 2nd Ed rules within a href=" http://www.arcdream.com/store/product.php?id=2006"> Wild Talents: Essential Edition/a for a mere $10 USD.
It’s extremely good. Take shots of Victorian pulp to taste, like ‘Oliver Twist,’ ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and the ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.’ Mix well, and pour over world-and-society-changing super-powers and the fact that Queen Victoria seems to be turning into a god. In other words? Sex on toast.
That said, it should be noted that the ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ link isn’t precisely accurate: The theory behind LoEG was that fictional characters existed in Victorian England. In The Kerberos Club, fictional characters are fictional – but the logic is that one of the characters might be the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, even though Holmes himself is off the table.
For the record, I should also frontload my biases: It’s by Benjamin Baugh, the author of Monsters and Other Childish Things and The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor. I am genetically predisposed to love his books.
The core concept is that the players are members of the titular group, a “gentlemen’s club” of deeply questionable reputation due to the deeply eccentric views held by its members, such as the notion that women, people of colour and the poor are human beings, and that respect should be accorded by merit rather than status. The very idea! Monocle drops out over outraged, quivering walrus moustache. This is a very elegant framework for getting the PCs together, providing an excuse for PCs of very different backgrounds to work with each other, and allowing players with modern perspectives on race, gender and the like to band together against the savage and ruthless Victorian world.
Here is a link to where Shane Ivey of Arc Dream kindly provided a good chunk of the Introduction to the book as a teaser excerpt: http://arcdream.livejournal.com/3356.html. It should give you a good impression of the setting and the vibe of the writing.
I’m going to arrange this review a little differently than I normally do. The scheme is that I’ll open with breaking down all of the axis on which different Cool Things exist that sets the game apart, and then go into more detail on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
Because really? There’s a lot of cool stuff to talk about for this book, and frontloading that information among the rest of my noise seems fair – otherwise I might TL;DR people away from the gloriousness.
And we can’t have that.
The three or four individual distinct things I can see a book like this being used for are these:
1) New rules mechanics to add to the ORE stable.
As some will recall from various ranting, the riot rules from Unknown Armies are something which I love to bits. The rules were incredibly elegant – and based in one roll! – together with an incredible story seed. Well, The Kerberos Club introduces an ORE variant of those rules. They are Delicious. They can also be easily lifted out and applied to any other ORE setting, with a bare minimum of recontextualisation. (My NEMESIS game, I am looking in your direction!)
An entirely different system for building skills, reminiscient of building powers in WT 2nd Ed. Basically, there are four qualities a skill can have, and people build their own skills. ‘Basic’ skills attach to one stat – chosen by the player – and are quite narrow. ‘Broad’ skills attach to one stat, but cover more territory. It’s the difference between having a Pistols skill and a Firearms skill. ‘Flexible’ skills can be attached to more than one stat. For example, you could roll Mind + Pistols or Mind + Firearms to know stuff contextually associated with those weapons, if you had a Flexible version of the skill. And then you have ‘Influential’ skills, which are things your character is well-known for in certain circles – and can thus use to open doors, make social connections, or generally influence people with. Having a Firearms skill which is Influential might mean you’re known as a gunfighter – or a patron of gunfighting contests, maybe, if your skill isn’t in itself that high. People who know guns are likely to have heard of you, and in a Victorian context, status is very important. Influential skills are ways in which you have status – except, of course, that being influential in gunfighting circles might not cut much ice with the clergy.
I love this system. It means that, shifting contexts away from The Kerberos Club for a moment, Batman could have a Broad, Flexible, and Influential skill called “I’m Batman,” with a bunch of dice in it. Chemistry problem? He’s Batman. Jungle survival? He’s Batman. Car racing? Still Batman. Obviously as with any situation where the players are building skills, the GM and other players need to be on-side. However, within the context they’re happy with, the skill applies. I, for example, would assume that “I’m Batman” isn’t a combat skill. Nonetheless, you get the idea. Skills which combine a range of Broad, Flexible and Influence are biiiig signs proclaiming both: “This is core to who the character is,” and “These are challenges which would be awesome to get into.”
This is also readily lifted out of The Kerberos Club context and applied to the rest of the ORE. I can already think of some folks it would have been useful for in my NEMESIS game.
Finally, there are Convictions, which is a different way of handling Willpower – replacing Loyalties and Passions. The player creates things which are core to who the character is, and has to invest numbers equal to their whole Base Will. Whenever the character takes meaningful action towards that Conviction, they get Willpower equal to the points invested in it. Downside: Whenever they are forced by circumstances not to take action following a Conviction, they lose Willpower equal to the investment. It’s intuitive and another way of specifically defining who the character is, in a way I think is similar to the Passions in Unknown Armies, since I like the player’s ability to make up what works for them. Once more, can be applied to anything using the WT 2nd Ed rule-set.
In short? There are delicious rules gems within this book, together with all of the rest of the nourishing goodness. Nourishing goodness such as…
2) Setting details for Victorian era campaigns – not necessarily tied to the ORE
There’s a wealth of information here which could be valuably applied to any Victorian game. There’s details for the history, and a vast wealth of information about how characters in different social strata will view the world and what they will value.
Useful for a lot of games I can think of, leaving The Kerberos Club entirely aside.
3) Elements which can be used either in Kerberos Club or in other campaigns, once their serial numbers have been filed off.
The Kerberos Club as an entity could exist in contexts outside of the Victorian – although it does fit there very nicely. Alternatively, there are some glorious pre-written characters designed to be either NPCs or pregen PCs, using the WT 2nd Ed rules. They exist as beautiful examples of what can be done with the system, together with characters which can be lifted out of context. I particularly appreciate that all the write-ups in The Kerberos Club contain notes about how to play the character as either a protagonist or a villain. It’s a nice touch.
4) The synergy of all the above.
Overall? The final word? This is a really good book. It’s evocative enough that I read it as if it were fiction, chortling all the while – which is one of my benchmarks for a damned good RPG. The integration of the setting and fluff content with the rules is smooth and comprehensible, and everything feels pretty damned intuitive to me. This is rare.
Also? There’s a great index for finding things.
The Kerberos Club Chapter Breakdown.
Provides a solid, brief discussion of the Victorian era as a setting, who the characters are and what they do, together with material from fiction, actual sources, television and other media which could usefully inform games. As you can see from the excerpt above, it’s evocative and grounded in getting people on their feet quickly.
Chapter 1: The Kerberos Club
As a book, The Kerberos Club impressed me with the sheer scale of detail and information you’re provided, and Chapter 1 is a good example. It explores the Kerberos Club as an entity, using titles such as the delightful “Cloak of Lies, Waistcoat of Obscurity, and Opera Hat of Exaggeration.”
There are the Traditions of the club, including how it is viewed in contemporary Victorian society – even going to far as to note how the way it is seen changes in different ‘contemporary’ Victorian societies throughout the 18th Century – because it’s a century with a whole lot of change going on. There is the Challenge, which is how prospective members of the Club are tested – introducing tantalising campaign elements and tabling the possibility that the game begin not with the Challenge of the characters, but with the characters creating a challenge for a new member instead. It also raises the spectre of the Lost – individuals who, for whatever reason, slipped through the fingers of the Kerberos Club (possibly when a Challenge went wrong) and turned against them. It’s an understated sidenote, but with a very powerful implication about potential antagonists roaming the setting.
There’s also a lovely note that one option for a campaign would be to play the help. We could be the Alfreds in Batman, the Mister Groins in “The Adventures of the Amazing Screw-On Head.” The people who facilitate the weird and terrible lives of the members of the Kerberos Club, and whose toil is frequently not mentioned in their adventures. Here’s a quote: “If you think that the gentleman from Transylvania is a peculiar fellow to set to table with, then you’ve not been tasked with cleaning his apartments after his night’s activity away from the club. If you had that job, you’d know he was downright bleedin’ odd!” That could be hilarious framework for a game, and is close to being a frontrunner for what I’d run first to get my players localised within all that is strange and Victorian.
We also cover the ‘complicated’ (read: deeply antagonistic) relationship between the Kerberans and ‘Special Branch,’ a group of literally fanatical secret police working in the service of Queen Victoria, discuss foreign (and thereby inferior) equivalents to the Kerberos Club in France, Germany, Russia, the Americas and others. There is a sidebar charmingly entitled “Mint Juleps and Mass Murder,” which notes that in a setting distinguished by its moral grey-areas – a theme of the game – that the closest you will get to Nazi-Grade “Kill em and feel nothing but positive about it” villains are the Knights of the Golden Circle: An organisation within the Confederacy of the USA who are defending slavery through the worship of hideous pre-human things.
Finally, famous members, associates and rivals of the club discussed here include Ada Lovelace, John Merrick the Elephant Man, and The Turk – who began as a clockwork chess-playing automaton.
Chapter 2: All Things Right and Proper
A vast mine of information about Victorian society, including detailed explorations of different social rungs on the ladder and how they relate. Extremely useful for looking at the context that a Kerberos Club game will be set, and would be relevant to any game set within 18th Century Britain.
Here is where the game includes discussions of how life in Victorian Britain works. Day to day questions of transport, manners and prejudice – and then examines how all of that changes in the course of the Strange Century. There are lists of the weapons and items that might be available at different points, such as the eventual evolution from house-drawn carriages to gigantic Aeroships and rocket-gliders. (Also a sidebar containing rules for unreliable weapons misfiring. If they’re particularly unreliable, they don’t just misfire – they explode! Again, can be lifted out of context.)
Chapter 3: Victoria’s Century.
Chapter 3 is where the Alt-History of The Kerberos Club lives, and it is a fascinating one. Many things unfold in parallel to our history, but with mad details included, while other sections are entirely different. At the beginning of Victoria’s reign, ‘The Strangeness’ is a shadowy thing which few people have directly encountered – and the Kerberos Club keeps it there. In the middle of her reign, the Strangeness becomes more obvious… in part because the Strangeness of the Queen herself enters the public consciousness when she develops specialised stigmata on the eve of the Indian mutiny. I can practically imagine the Victorian broadsheet newspapers running with that one: “SHE IS BRITANNIA. AND BRITANNIA BLEEDS.” Later in the century, things go entirely gonzo – but I think spoiling too much of this section would be a pity, so I’ll leave it there.
The writing is extremely good, written in a Victorian voice and full of evocative details. It’s written in a tantalising aware historical voice, which teases from assuming the audience has lived through events as it has. What I mean by this is that there will be a good discussion of an event, and then a reference to “Of course their whereabouts are unknown after the disaster of such-and-such year,” which will also be written up later in the Chapter. It keeps the setting alive, and you can follow how different threads intersect – such as how Ada Lovelaces’ Automatic Domestics come to intersect with the realities of Fairy sweatshop labour to shape changes in the setting.
Chapter 4: Throne of Empire
Chapter 4 details London, and in a wealth of information designed to facilitate games in the Strange Century of the specific setting, together with more typical Victorian games. The strange shifts to London are pretty obvious, for contextualising things a more normal game differently – such as the Sumpworks, the gigantic hole discovered to ‘somewhere else’ which pragmatic Londoners proceed to reroute the city sewers into.
Integrated smoothly into these sections are details for campaign sections which can be run within them – such as escaping from New Brighton, the British enclave into the Fae Realms, or from Bethlem Mental Hospital. There are rules for how to make this interesting, using the Chase/Race extended conflict rules from WT 2nd Ed: essentially, you need to accumulate a certain level of Width – Width being the number of matching numbers in a set rolled, so getting two fours would add two to your total. There are Complications and Catastrophes when the rolls go entertainingly wrong, such as losing Width from your total, the goalposts being moved further away, or something else coming to eat your face.
Chapter 5: The Great Game
Here we have Character Gen rules, including the method of player-generated skills, and creating the character through answering certain questions about them in a way that reminds me of the Monsters and Other Childish Things generation system. Where there are changes from the WT 2nd Ed rules, they are noted as such, together with ways of ignoring these changes if you just want to use the normal rules.
Solid and interesting, and includes some Power Archetypes to allow people to play members of the Fae – together with their weaknesses. There is also a way of building sorcerers which reminds me a lot of Unknown Armies in terms of vibe: The basic gist is that sorcerers always have an ‘easy way out,’ since they can give themselves great boosts of Willpower for the one-time price of sacrificing their attachment to other elements of their identity, and moving that into their obsession with the Occult. Magic: Awesome, but corrosive of your ability to remain grounded in normal society, in the long run.
Chapter 6: Dramatis Personae.
Another golden section, here is where we get the character write-ups, which can be used as pregen PCs, or NPCs, or antagonists. Delightfully enough, all the characters on the cover of the book are provided as playable – and the write-up takes the reader through the typical process of building them, including the answers to the questions asked in character gen. There’s a whole section for each one about how to turn them into a genuine Villain, which is both very interesting and provides insight into how they could be played.
And what characters. Their numbers include a suffragette hybrid of the Count of Monte Cristo and Batman called the Night Hag; a glorious twist on shows like “Psych” and “The Mentalist,”; and an opportunity to play David Bowie with superpowers in the form of Mister Leon – one of the fae. There are many others, and they’re campaign seeds on their own.
Then we get into write-ups of NPCs and stat-blocks for the denizens of Victorian society – many of whom have little notes about how they can be raised to either PC or Villain status themselves.
There’s the Tower Gang, a pack of antagonists with names themed around different parts of Big Ben – such as The Face, Tick Tock, Big Hand, Little Hand, etc, which are examples of Mr. Baugh’s creativity in applying the system.
Also, we have write-ups for different modern superheroes who have been contextualised into the Victorian with the serial numbers filed off, such as a spin on Niki Sanders from Heroes and ‘What if Superman was a total prick,’ together with the coolest Fu-Manchu analog ever.
If you want entertaining and original examples of how the One Roll Engine presented in the WT 2nd Ed rules can be bent and shifted to produce wonders, this chapter is a fertile ground to explore.
The Adventure of the Black and White Decks.
The campaign included is well-presented, and arranged so that the players can roam around at will rather than being railroaded. The concept involves the PCs investigating a developing issue with Ada Lovelaces’ Automatic Domestics, which could bring them into conflict with rogue clockwork robots, hired goons and Special Branch itself.
There’s a timeline for the way events will proceed if the players don’t intercede, which the GM can adapt based on what they do, together with write-ups of many different places of relevance along with notes about how they might intersect – including one set-piece chase and brawl that sounds great fun to do, if the players trigger it or are there to witness. It’s a jigsaw puzzle assembled around where the players choose to go, and since there’s notes about how to adapt it around different PC types – with direct nods to the pregen PCs included in the book – it’s a campaign that can be run right out of the box.
As I’ve said at the beginning to defeat the Teal Deer, this is a very good book. At heart, even if I should never actually run a Kerberos Club campaign… it is deeply fun to read. I took it on holiday with me and tormented my girlfriend by reading her bits when she was doing other things.
There are great little tweaks to the rule-set spread throughout, of which it turns out I specifically identified the ones which really leaped out at me. It turns out there are more than I initially remembered. There’s a wealth of setting material, much of which could be usefully applied to other games set within Victoria’s Empire. People looking for more examples of how to use the WT 2nd Ed rules need look no further, and the characters themselves could be lifted out of context with a minimum of work. And, as noted, it’s well written and funny.
The Kerberos Club is a great book, and a great example of the increasing modularity of Arc Dream products: It’s able to focus entirely on what it wants to explore rather than duplicating material, because the core rules are available cheaply in another book.
If you want to explore the weird and Victorian, I can’t think of a better book to do so through.
[4 of 5 Stars!]