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Colonial Gothic: Rulebook

Colonial Gothic: Rulebook

The book begins with a Primer, a fascinating discourse in which the author explains the intent behind the game. Set in an alternate version of the American War of Independence, a world in which the supernatural is as much of a threat as a musket-ball, it is intended to be a horror game in a semi-historical setting. Characters pit their reputations, sanity, faith and very lives against horrors which most of their fellows do not even believe exist. Different styles of play are possible, from high action/adventure (most of your enemies shoot back) through an occult/mystery approach (investigative) to the default supernatural style where dark forces lurk and plot and must be combatted for the sake of the very world, and the survival of your soul.

Next comes Chapter 1: 12°. This chapter presents the game mechanics, which are based around the d12. It's very simple, whatever you are trying to accomplish you roll 2d12 against a target and if your roll is less than or equals the target set, you succeed.The target is based on whatever skill or statistic your chatacter has that is relevant to the task in hand. If it is an opposed task - you are competing against someone else, be it at combat, a game of chance or seeing if you can sneak passed unnoticed - both individuals roll against a target based on their abilities, and whoever rolls the lower number, if both 'succeed,' will be the victor. Rolling a 2 - whatever the target - is a critical success, and a result of 24 is an automatic critical failure. Generally it is up to the GM to decide what this means, but in combat a critical success generally means that you do double your normal amount of damage. Naturally, there are various modifiers than can be applied to the roll depending on circumstances, and comprehensive guidelines are provided.

Chapter 2: Heroes goes through the process of character generation. The basic statistics, encoding the character's natural abilities, are Might, Nimble, Vigor, Reason and Resolution. The character's current physical health is represented in his Vitality and his mental health by Sanity - both of these are calculated from your statistics and then vary during play as damage is taken or healed. After explaining this, we get down to the detail of the process, beginning with determining a background for the character, which can influence starting skills and even give ability bonuses. There's a range of options including frontier or urban colonists, freed slaves, newly-arrived immigrants, military personnel (British forces or colonial militia) and of course Native American if you prefer not to be a recent arrival. Background selected, you then use a point-buy system to choose your abilities and skills. As each skill has a controlling ability, it is worth checking through these to ensure you have natural talent at the things you want to be skilled in doing.

A novel element is added, the Fate Card. Here you write down some insight into your character, perhaps something from your past that has made him the man he is, or which motivates him in some way. The idea is that when the moment is right, you pass the card to the GM who weaves that into the plotline, thus making the whole thing that bit more personal.

To conclude character generation, there are notes on how to generate experienced characters as opposed to beginning ones who gain their experience the hard way; and a selection of sample characters which can be used immediately or as a basis for your own. This is followed by a complete chapter devoted to the skills available and how to use them in the game. These are wide-ranging and cover everything from the things you do to earn your living to knowledge of the occult. Each may be taken with a number of Ranks to reflect how good you are at that particular skill.

Chapter 4 is titled Action. This looks at combat and other - in cinematic terms - action scenes that can occur during the course of a game, and describes the way in which they should be run. It covers all the usual stuff, determining initiative, what factors modify your chance of success at a combat act, dodging, taking cover and so on. It also looks at other ways in which your character might come to harm - e.g. getting caught in a fire - and at how once injured, you recover (and, of course, how being injured can affect your chances of doing anything!). It also explains how a character can draw on his Faith - a pool of points - to help with die rolls or even to save a dying character. Faith points are regained by rolling a critical success, no matter what you are doing or whether you used any Faith points when making the roll. Being a horror game, there is also a system for handling characters' fear and concomitent loss of sanity. And if that not is enough to contend with, the Colonies were not the most healthy of places and there is an impressive range of disease you'd really rather not catch... as well as some poisons you'd be wise to avoid.

Game mechanics by and large dealt with, we move on with Chapter 5 to Economics. Both English and Spanish coinage is in use, along with barter and bills of credit... while if you look respectable enough you can negotiate with your supplier for 'book credit' - your debt is paid off at a later date when you provide goods, services or whatever is agreed as a fair price for the items you need now. Without further ado, we move on to what you can buy and what you can expect to pay for them.

Chapter 6: America provides an overview of the location in which the game is set. Both colonial geography and history and the affairs of native tribes are covered with a generally historical basis. There's a wealth of information here which should give a grounding in who's where and what sort of things motivate people, at least in political and economic arenas.

Chapter 7 is about Witchcraft - or to be more precise, about magic in general. Most people do not understand magic and many do not even believe in its existance - although shamans are respected amongst Native American tribes, and many midwives, healers and others amongst the colonists apply more than mundane knowledge to their work. There are many places where it is regarded as 'forbidden' knowledge, and asking the wrong question could land you in a lot of trouble. Magic is generally done by performing a 'ritual' - with success in this task causing the desired effects to occur. Many of the sample rituals presented are quite dangerous, even when they do work as intended... and they all have a chance of going wrong, sometimes in a manner which will bring the wrong sort of attention down on your head!

Next comes Chapter 8: Secrets - and this is aimed primarily at the Game Master. The core secret is that there is an underlying 'secret history' as well as the regular schoolbook history of the American Revolution period. Just what that is... well, there are some ideas here and it is something for the characters to find out, if they dare, as the game proceeds. Mix in with that the fact that magic really works in this setting and historical accuracy has to take a back seat, handy in setting the scene but not something to be obsessive about. If you want to break away even further from reality, consider an alternate history approach, where the familiar events of the Revolution may not play out in the way that the history books say - which does give your players a chance to influence major events far more than in most historical games, but does open up a whole can of worms of its own. The touchstone is to remember that for the purposes of this game, the characters are the heroes, the central and pivotal individuals - so care needs to be taken when real historical events and personages interact with them.

There's plenty of advice here about both the wide sweep of events possible and the minutae of creating good NPCs, villains, ghosts and... well, whatever else you intend to mix in to your storyline. For common supernatural enemies such as ghosts and vampires, ideas are presented as to how to make them 'work' within the confines of the game mechanics as well as how to use them to effect. There is also more general commentry on running a horror game, the pace of 18th century life, encouraging teamwork, and how to make effective use of those Fate Cards players had to make during character generation.

Chapter 9: Adventure provides a ready-to-run introductory adventure to be used with newly-created character or the sample ones from Chapter 2. A small but prosperous village is plagued by mysterious disappearances and it's up to the characters to find out what is going on. Plenty of opportunity for interactaction, investigation and some good, heart-stopping combat.

Finally, Chapter 10: Appendix, rounds up with timelines, source reading and the like. A nice map of the 13 Colonies and blank Fate Cards and a character sheet finish it all up.

Overall, this is a well considered attempt to produce something that has both historical grounding and overtones of the supernatural, with neither overpowering the other. The game mechanics are simple and presented clearly, with the potential to enable just about anything your players come up with without obstructing the flow of the game. The background is well-presented with a good understanding of what really went on blended with some truely imaginative ideas of what might have been happening if magic really worked.

Return to Colonial Gothic Rulebook page.

Reviewed: 13 October 2007