The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day there’s a knock at my office door, and it’s Sherlock Holmes. That’s right, the Sherlock Holmes. Deerstalker hat, pipe, the works.
I ask him what brings him by today.
“Elementary!” he says. “I’ve come by today for a review of Victorious!”
“Okay,” I says. “So what’s Victorious?”
“Elementary!” he says. “Victorious is a roleplaying game about Victorian superheroes!”
“Victorian superheroes?” I says. “So why’d they send you by with this gig? You ain’t exactly a superhero.”
“Elementary!” he says. “Why, with my exceptional mind and extraordinary skills, not to mention the fact that I am a remarkable physical specimen, I am easily a match for that bat fellow you Colonials are so fond of.”
“Uh-huh,” I says. “And where’d you get to be such an all-around amazing guy?”
“In elementary school, of course!”
Victorious deals with superheroes — “SuperMankind”, to use the game’s parlance — in a fictional Victorian era. The question of just how fictional depends upon the “alignment” of the setting chosen by the GM, with Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic serving as one axis and Grand, Gilded, and Grim serving as the other. The former axis determines the moral absolutism/relativism of the setting, while the other determines the amount of “weirdness” that exists.
In Lawful settings, good and evil are cut-and-dried, in Neutral settings there are some shades of grey in between, and in Chaotic settings “good” and “evil” are purely relative. In Grand settings, the supernatural and super-science are part of everyday life (like your typical steampunk RPG setting); in Gilded settings, such things are in the shadows (as in Dracula and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); and in Grim settings, the heroes are mostly normal humans facing off against hidden, overwhelming supernatural evil (as in your typical H.P. Lovecraft tale).
This is a nice setting shorthand. My only problem with it is the fact that the rules don’t really cover a Grand setting at all. They allow for it, but that’s not the same thing. If you want a full-blown steampunk setting, you’re on your own when it comes to the accouterments — the airships, the steam devices, the clockwork limbs, and what have you.
What the book does very well is cover the historical Victorian age. Everyday life gets plenty of attention, and the text doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of that life, be it racism, sexism, social Darwinism, etc. (It does get a bit confused on the former subject, however, listing Japanese oppression of Koreans as an example of Europeans oppressing non-Europeans.)
The setting includes an extensive timeline of the late Victorian era. It covers political, cultural, and scientific milestones and includes literary events as well as events unique to the Victorious timeline. Unfortunately, the timeline doesn’t actually include the promised literary events aside from the initial detection of the Martian invasion — it apparently never actually occurs in this timeline — and the Victorious events are limited to the unsolved crimes of terrorists known as the Dynamiters. (And, to be honest, given the formatting errors involved, I’m not 100% certain if the Dynamiters were historical or fictional.) More to the point, the timeline doesn’t include the influence of weirdness in general or SuperHumanity in particular.
Speaking of timelines, I should also mention that a number of the setting’s superhumans hail from an alternate timeline’s 21st century, stranded in an unfamiliar Victorian period by a process that’s never explained in the book. I wouldn’t have included these heroes, personally, as I feel that they dilute the Victorian feel of the setting. Victorian superheroes are enough of a tough sell as it is without bringing in superheroes who aren’t Victorian at all to muddy the waters.
The book does feature an excellent listing of Victorian-era organizations from around the world, both governmental and non-governmental and both historical and fictional. Like settings, these receive alignments of Law, Neutral, or Chaos to indicate their goals relative to the established order.
It also boasts an impressive bestiary of creatures both normal and paranormal, including dinosaurs, morlocks, yetis, various forms of undead, werewolves, and the Jersey Devil. (The book could have featured an even more impressive assortment of creatures if it didn’t spend a lot of space on historical flavor text.) Also featured are a large number of superhumans of all sorts, including characters from literature and folklore like John Henry, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula.
Victorious uses a modified version of the SIEGE Engine that was introduced in Castles & Crusades, itself a streamlined version of Dungeons & Dragons. The core mechanic involves taking a modifier from a character’s relevant attribute and adding it to the roll of 1d20. Ordinarily, the target number is 18, but when using the Prime skill, the target number becomes 12. (The use of the Prime skill becomes apparent only through examples, sadly, and I’m not sure that I’d have picked up on it had I not already been familiar with the mechanic from Castles & Crusades.) I don’t really see why the skill doesn’t just add a +6 to the attempt, but that’s a matter of taste.
In a big departure from Castles & Crusades, Victorious adds a full-blown skill system, albeit not in a very transparent manner. Buying one level of a skill allows the hero to add his character level to the attribute bonus. Rank 2 in a skill adds +3 to this score, Rank 3 adds +2, and any further ranks add +1. I’d rather not have to stop and think this much when I see a character’s skill rank. I’m used to seeing three skill ranks add +3. Still, I appreciate the extra level of depth the skill system adds to characters.
Characters have the standard D&D attributes: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Players generate scores for these by rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest die. The text doesn’t specify, so I’m not sure if the rolled scores are taken in sequence or assigned by the player. I’d hope for the latter.
Characters then receive one instance of the Prime skill plus a number of skill ranks equal to 1 plus their intelligence bonus. That seems a bit low, although thankfully, the skills are fairly broad (e.g., Melee for all hand-to-hand weapons).
Of course, there are the all-important superpowers. Starting heroes get power slots equal to 3 plus their Charisma bonus — a nice way of ensuring that Charisma isn’t a dump stat, although it would seem to penalize Hulk types. Powers are purchased “cafeteria” fashion rather than “effects-based” fashion; i.e., the powers are purchased pre-built rather than created based upon their effects. However, the system allows for bundling powers into packages in the form of battle suits, gadgets, inventions, magick, and themes. For example, a fiery hero could define such powers as Blast, Force Screen, and Super Movement as being fire-based and could purchase them at a discount.
As an aside, I’m very pleased to see the Invulnerability power, which reduces damage rather than increases AC.
PCs can gain access to more skills or powers by taking shortcomings.
Victorious uses a class/level system and features eight classes: Contraptionist, Hypnotist, Inquiry Agent, Magician, Paragon, Radiant, Strongarm, and Vigilante. These are much more like archetypes than classes, really — they specify where the top three attributes should go, the hit points, power slots, and experience points per level, then offer default powers, skills, shortcomings, and equipment. This speeds up character creation considerably… if the classes as written fit the player’s concept. If not, they require a bit of rejiggering to work. It seems to me that if rejiggering is allowed, however, an unscrupulous player could take the class with the best hit points and simply alter it to fit any concept.
The game features a sort of Drama/Hero/Fate Point mechanic in the form of Victory Points. These can be used to ensure success on a hero’s roll or failure on a villain’s roll, or they can be exchanged for experience points. In an interesting touch, only Good characters automatically gain a Victory Point at the end of a session. Good or Neutral characters can gain a Victory Point at the beginning of a session by party vote, but Evil characters cannot gain Victory Points at all. This enforces a sort of moral clarity that fits the setting but that may not be palatable to players who prefer to keep things morally grey.
The book includes a very brief adventure pitting the heroes against an arsonist-set fire, armed thugs, and the Hulk-like form of Mr. Hyde, allowing for some investigation along the way. There’s enough here to put the heroes through their paces and get the feel of the system, but I suspect that it would be a bit of a let-down if it weren’t treated as the opening of a much larger adventure.
The text badly needs another round of editing. The dreaded “page XX” reference rears its ugly head several times, and irritating formatting errors hamper clarity (e.g., using the typeface for a literary event for an historical event in the timeline). The art, by contrast, ranges from good to very good.
If you’re expecting superheroes + steampunk, you’re going to be a bit disappointed. The setting allows for that but doesn’t do much to support it. If, however, you want superheroes in a Victorian setting, this game may well be your thing. It offers a solid, workmanlike superpower system and a good coverage of the Victorian era.