The name’s Davenport. I review games.
Now, if you’ve been payin’ attention, you know that I’ve got a soft spot for Eden’s Cinematic Unisystem games. Hell, I been playin’ it in one game or another since the day the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game came out. So by now, I figure I’ve seen all it can do.
At least, that’s what I thought before this young Victorian dame just appeared in my office from outta nowhere in a puff of purple lavender-smellin’ smoke.
She tells me her name is Tamara Swift and says that she’s here to have me review somethin’ called Ghosts of Albion. Says it’s a Victorian horror game that uses Cinematic Unisystem. Now, I tell her I already know all there is to know about Cinematic Unisystem, but then she tells me politely that I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about. (At least, I think that’s what “I’m quite sure you do not know what you’re on about” means.) She says that it does things with magic and supernatural powers that ain’t been done before. What’s more, she says, it’s got those Unisystem rules for faeries I’d been hopin’ for.
So I tell her I’ll give it a try, and she leaves the book on my desk and vanishes in another puff of lavender-smellin’ smoke.
Which reminds me that I need to put up that “No Smokin'” sign.
Chapter One: And So It Begins
The first part of this chapter gives the usual Cinematic Unisystem introductory information: what is roleplaying, summary of chapters, text conventions, and so forth. Also included are bios of Ghosts of Albion creators Amber Benson — “Tara” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer — and novelist Christopher Golden, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of many Buffy and Angel books, comic books, and video games.
The second introduces the setting by way of summaries of all Ghosts of Albion publications so far, both animated and printed. You can see all of them here; however, the gist of the setting is this: In England during the late 1830s, a pair of well-to-do siblings discover the land’s supernatural undercurrents, including ghosts, vampires, faeries, and demons. They further learn that every land has a soul with powerful wizards as Protectors who arise when their predecessors perish, not unlike the eponymous Slayers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And it turns out that they are the new Protectors of the soul of England, known as Albion. Trained by the vampiric Nigel Townsend and aided by the ghosts of Lord Byron, Queen Bodicea, and Admiral Lord Nelson, they quickly must do battle the the demonic forces besetting Albion.
Chapter Two: Dramatis Personae
This is the character creation section, the rules for which closely mirror those in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG. I’ll refer you to my review of that game for the nitty-gritty details. Skills are simply re-named in period-appropriate fashion (e.g., “Kung Fu” becomes “Fisticuffs”), as are most human Qualities and Drawbacks. There are some noteworthy exceptions, however.
A biggie is Magical Philosophy. This represents the sort of magical training a magician has received, which governs how spells are cast, what spells are available, access to certain special abilities, and even Attribute and Skill bonuses. The philosophies are:
For example: In addition to spellcasting abilities, Solomonic magicians can bind spirits of various sorts into objects and can summon such entities to force their help in research, magical or otherwise. Solomonic magicians get +1 in Intelligence and +2 in Knowledge.
Occult Poet is a clever ability that allows a poet to recite his verses in order to link to the collective subconscious mind, allowing him to perform such seemingly psychic feats as implanting images or suggestions in a target’s mind, scry distant locations, or obtain information about a single target.
The Quality of Protector, as previously mentioned, makes the PC fill the setting’s version of the Slayer niche from Buffy. While it’s feasible to make such a character into a purely physical badass — indeed, Protectors can have superhuman scores in any Attribute — such a build would waste many parts of the package. For example, unlike other spellcasters, Protectors can cast spells from any of the aforementioned Magical Philosophies.
Here’s where the game kicks it up a notch.
While this game could, theoretically, be used to create any number of supernatural beings as PCs, just as the Angel RPG allows, GoA focuses on four base Supernatural Qualities: Faerie, Faerie-Touched, Ghost, and Vampire. (Demons in the setting are not the potentially misunderstood extradimensional creatures of Buffy and Angel, but rather beings of pure evil, and hence not PC material.)
That said, GoA sees Angel’s numerous but relatively generic Supernatural Qualities and raises with loads of new Qualities specific to given supernaturals. As a result, all supernatural types have access to “generic” Supernatural Qualities and Drawbacks such as Enhanced/Reduced Attribute and Supernatural Attack, but only Faeries can use Calling to summon mystical equipment to themselves, only Ghosts can invoke Ghostly Fear, and only Vampires can use Summoning to call vermin, wolves, and even other undead to their aid. There’s plenty of overlap as well, however: Both Faeries and Ghosts may become Invisible or use Glamour, both Faeries and Vampires may possess Bloodlust, and both Ghosts and Vampires can harm their living foes by invoking the Chill of the Grave.
I should point out that Buffy and Angel players will find that GoA Vampires are far more supernaturally versatile and potent than their counterparts in those games. Vampires can move about in daylight (albeit with a -2 penalty to all physical actions), are paralyzed but not destroyed by stakes through the heart, and may be able to communicate with animals, scale sheer surfaces, and even summon storms.
In another interesting twist, supernatural creatures do not normally have levels in the Magic Quality, and those who do must pay an additional +2 per level for it. Instead, all supernaturals have Innate Magic, which gives them a flat +3 to casting rolls. So, supernaturals have a head-start on casting over human magicians, but humans may eventually far surpass them in this regard.
Of all the skills, only Science really deserves a quick mention, and that’s because at high levels, the rules indicate that it can be used to push (or even break) the boundaries of science, creating steampunk-like devices, or even reanimating the dead in classic Frankenstein fashion. Such things aren’t part of the default setting, so this could be a game-changer in the most literal sense.
Finishing up the chapter are the ready-made PCs: nine archetypes (Changeling, Dodger, Ex-Prostitute, Faerie Lady, Ghost Soldier, Lord, Peeler, Vampire Hunter, Young Magician) and seven write-ups of the original cast (Tamara Swift, William Swift, Queen Bodicea, Lord Byron, Lord Admiral Nelson, Nigel Townsend, Farris).
Chapter Three: Rules for Play
Chapter Four: Magic; Arts Arcane
Given the focus on magicians, you’d probably expect this game to this game to have more extensive magic rules than those found in Buffy. You’d be right. What you might not expect is to find a magic system so refined and slick that it sings.
The basic system is identical to that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But that’s just the beginning.
Buffy magic has a quirk I refer to as the Summon Kittens Flaw: Because every casting after the first incurs a cumulative -1 fatigue penalty, it is just as taxing to cast “Summon Kittens” as it is to cast “End World”. Well, GoA fixes that problem in a fine “Why didn’t I think of that?” manner.
Characters have a Magic Threshold equal to ½ of their Magic Quality score rounded down. Magicians can cast spells of a Power Level equal to or less than their Magic Threshold to their heart’s content without ever incurring a fatigue penalty.
Casters may spend extra casting successes on “Flourishes” — ways of customizing an individual casting in terms of such things as duration, range, direction (as in arcing a blast 90 degrees), and even cosmetics. That’s pretty cool in and of itself as a way to reward a good roll and/or a powerful caster in ways other than just more damage from an attack spell. It becomes even more impressive with a Protector’s benefit of half of their Magic Quality levels in Flourishes for free with every cast, allowing a powerful Protector to dependably cast a completely undetectable fireball… or one that’s purple and smells of lavender, just because that’s how she rolls.
Any spell may have certain casting requirements. Embellishments are casting aspects above and beyond these requirements used to increase the spellcasting roll. These include additional time, additional or superior materials, magical circles, ritual tools, sanctums, and items, places, and times of power. Embellishments give players of magical PCs reasons to want to use those dreaded “material components” of AD&D without penalizing those who’d rather just blast away, thank you very much. This is top-notch game design.
Here we have a seemingly innocuous addition to Cinematic Unisystem magic that actually has enormous implications for magicians — not to mention making magical combat a whole lot more fun.
You see, in Buffy, magic could be terribly powerful… on offense. On defense, a magician really wasn’t any better off than the average schmuck. As a result, spellcasting battles really seemed more like a race to see who’d launch their magical nukes first.
In GoA, by contrast, any magician can use special magical maneuvers to, in order of increasing difficulty, deflect, delay, dispel, or even reflect incoming spells. (Magicians can use these maneuvers against non-spell supernatural attacks as well.) Now magicians can have full-blown magical showdowns with spells flashing back and forth and going every which way.
(Speaking of which, a sidebar in this section discusses the obvious question as to how such flashy magic stays a secret to the general populace. The answer relies on a combination of good magicians not wanting to burn down London or otherwise harm innocent bystanders and both good and evil magicians not wanting to attract unwanted attention to themselves. That seems a little weak to me, as it precludes the seemingly inevitable mad wizard who wants to take over/destroy friggin’ everything. But that’s a minor complaint.)
And if a couple of magicians want to settle things without a full-blown magical battle, they may choose a formalized duel. This is simply a contested magical roll with the winner inflicting the difference in Success Levels as Constitution (not Life Point) damage on the loser. Combat may be to the death or simply to unconsciousness. Unfortunately, the text doesn’t describe what a duel looks like, since it doesn’t involve actual spellcasting.
GoA features a spell creation system like that found in the Buffy core rulebook. The big difference here is that the subsequent list of spells amounts to a full grimoire akin to that found in Buffy’s The Magic Box rather than a mere list of sample spells used to illustrate the creation process. In fact, the listed spells already exist within the setting, which means that PC magicians can simply seek out and learn them rather than creating them from scratch.
As to the spell list itself, I like the selection as a whole, although I’d have preferred to see more philosophy-specific spells. As it is, players will have to draw upon a number of repurposed “philosophy-agnostic” spells, some of which have awfully specific descriptions. Both of the lightning spells involve invocations to Kali, for example — not the sort of thing I’d imagine a theomancer or kabbalist doing. This is just flavor text, of course, that I’m assuming is based on spells appearing in the source material. As a practical matter, this should only be a concern insofar as it makes finding the “generic” spells behind the esoteric names and descriptions a bit more difficult than it should be.
Other than that, I’d have liked to have seen a summoning spell or two. Such spells seem particularly appropriate for elementalists, Solomonic, and (especially) diabolic magicians. (True, the latter wouldn’t be appropriate for PC magicians, but the list includes a great number of evil-only — and even demon-only — spells already.)
Chapter Five: This Blessed Plot; This England
I suspect I’m not alone in being a gamer fairly unfamiliar with early Victorian England. This chapter is so loaded with information on the subject that it feels like a crash course on its every aspect: society, law, technology, military, religion, politics, geography, and oh-so-much history, from prehistoric Britain to 1851. And the text skillfully weaves the potential influence of the supernatural throughout, resulting in a whole chapter full of plot hooks. (That’s in addition to the extensive listing of actual London hauntings.)
This could have been a horrifically dry chapter. Instead, I daresay it’s the best chapter of its sort I’ve read in an RPG.
Chapter Six: The Supernatural; Friend, Foe, and Fiend
Ghosts, demons, faeries (lots of faeries), vampires, lycanthropes, and the undead (including zombie dragons), not to mention some mundane animals… I’m a sucker for a good bestiary, and this, my friends, is a good bestiary. Every entry drips with flavor, and many creatures have access to nasty powers unavailable to PCs. As a bonus, the chapter discusses both the realm of the dead and of the faeries, both Seelie and Unseelie, in broad but fascinating terms. There’s no discussion of a demon realm, but given the fact that demons in the setting can come from any number of places, that’s forgivable.
Chapter Seven: All the World’s a Stage
And here we have the GM advice chapter, most of which consists of solid adventure design tips and insightful discussions about the various sources of horror. As was the case with the chapter’s counterparts in Buffy and Angel, the section also suggests variations on the setting beyond that of the players playing the original cast in London. What struck me a bit was the fact that these variations don’t go as far astray as they do in the aforementioned books — which, I suppose, makes some sense, as the GoA setting is a bit more specific.
Chapter Eight: Almasti
This introductory adventure pits the heroes against a fairly standard Evil God Trying To Manifest And Ruin Everything — which could be tiresome, were it not for some quality twists, roleplaying opportunities, and some very unexpected allies and enemies along the way. Unlike the adventures in Buffy and Angel, this one is pretty much self-contained and doesn’t kick off a campaign. That’s more than fine with me, because (1) future adventures seem unlikely at this point and (2) I’d rather have my PCs go their own way anyway.
This handy chapter includes conversion notes from Cinematic to “classic” Unisystem, a glossary of game terms, an extensive and badly-needed list of Victorian slang, costs of goods, a list of Qualities and Drawbacks (including Supernatural Qualities and Drawbacks sorted by creature type), Victorian calendars, and even a list of common male and female names.
Extensive use of period artwork and text that sounds vaguely archaic while maintaining total clarity makes this game positively drip with verisimilitude, while the format will be instantly familiar to fans of previous Cinematic Unisystem games. I saw no obvious errors.
And, as is true with all good RPG texts, it includes an index.
This game not only masterfully emulates the source material, but also could serve as the solid basis for a magic- and/or monster-heavy Cinematic Unisystem game set at any time from the 19th century and earlier. Given the excellent refinements to the magic system and the vast flexibility of the supernatural powers, I’m happy to declare this the finest incarnation of Cinematic Unisystem to date.