Play the heroes and villains of a Strange century! Doctor Archibald Monroe, the erudite chemist and physician-chimpanzee . . . "Stony" Joe Smithson, the honest London boxer, transformed into living rock . . . Maeve O'Connel, Queen of the Mudlarks, the eternal child touched by Faerie . . . the Lady Mirabel, who by darkness defends Whitechapel as the terrifying Night Hag. .Play the heroes and villains of a Strange century! Doctor Archibald Monroe, the erudite chemist and physician-chimpanzee . . . "Stony" Joe Smithson, the honest London boxer, transformed into living rock . . . Maeve O'Connel, Queen of the Mudlarks, the eternal child touched by Faerie . . . the Lady Mirabel, who by darkness defends Whitechapel as the terrifying Night Hag. . . . When the victims and enthusiasts of magic and bizarre science meet in an infamous club for "the Strange," thrilling action is sure to follow! "The Kerberos Club" is a "Wild Talents" sourcebook for superheroic roleplaying in Victorian London. It includes a detailed history and thorough treatment of Victorian society in its every particular, especially the incredible and sometimes awful changes that "the Strangeness" comes to wreak upon Queen and Country alike. "The Kerberos Club" gives "Wild Talents" players every tool they need to create new heroes and villains in a world that is at the same time familiar and alien-a world made more of both by the Strangeness that grips it and the dangers that threaten it. There is, after all, every good reason for the club's motto: "MALUM NECESSARIUM."...more
Paperback, 331 pages
July 6th 2010
by Cubicle 7 Entertainment
(first published June 15th 2010)
This is going to be a very short review, at least in comparison to some of the Vast Tomes I’ve done, because I’ve already reviewed the book in another incarnation. That review is available here, and I recommend you check it out, since the setting and concept is reviewed there in depth.
My focus in the review of the FATE edition is to concentrate on the new mechanics, and how they work. If anyone is interested in a thread where I bend those mechanics to weird new purposes by using them to adapt things like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Girl Genius, Kim Possible, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s available here.
For anyone in a hurry, I’ll put this up front: This is a great book with a standalone rules system, and comes with an imaginative, evocative setting complete with an adventure and pregen characters. It introduces new mechanics into the FATE stable that I’m entirely impressed by. I can safely say that I am more likely to play this edition of The Kerberos Club than I am the One Roll Engine version, because my current player group is more likely to get this one off the ground – and I really liked the ORE edition, so this is high praise.
For the sake of transparency, the version of the FATE edition I’ve read was a complementary copy kindly provided by Shane Ivey. The PDF is high quality, well bookmarked, and prints beautifully. I intend to purchase a copy of the book in both print and PDF as soon as funds and time permit.
Now, on with the show!
For anyone uninterested in reading the review where I cover the fluff in more depth, the underlying setting of The Kerberos Club is an alternate-history Britain and British Empire of the Victorian Century, and an alternate history that diverges from our own more and more as time goes on. The Kerberos Club itself is a “gentleman’s club” of dubious reputation, and known for its scandalous ideas, like that of treating women, foreigners, the poor and even the Irish as human beings. The Club is home to any number of individuals touched by the Strange, and possessed of eerie powers. It is a way for these people, frequently outcasts from society, to band together – and also to defend Queen and Country from Strange threats that loom or lurk. Probably the fastest way to pitch the concept is to describe the game as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen RPG, except that on deeper investigation it’s more nuanced than that.
Every incarnation of FATE thus far released has presented a variation to its core theme, and The Kerberos Club is no exception with its FATE edition: the system it presents has enough variations that it’s being referred to as ‘Strange FATE’ for the sake of clarity.
Anyone familiar with the basics of FATE will be right at home here. There are Fate Points and Aspects, Stress and Skills.
However, within this underlying mechanical framework, Strange FATE presents two clear and distinct ‘killer apps’ that I’ve found myself borrowing for other FATE games.
The first of these is ‘Power Tiers,’ which are discussed here on the Arc Dream site. The core concept is that you pay Refresh to raise the tier of a given skill. For each tier of difference between yourself and an opponent for a relevant interchange, you replace one of your Fudge dice with 1d6. Such a d6 cannot go negative, and thus always contributes at least +1 to a roll. Thus two Superhuman opponents would share a Power Tier, and roll 4dF plus whatever their skill rating is, whereas one Superhuman fighting a Mundane foe will be rolling 2dF + 2d6, again modified by their skill rating. This introduces more variety to the outcome of one-sided conflicts – making Collateral Consequences, where the surroundings take damage instead of the PCs while creating dire problems at the same time, all the more important.
The next big contribution to Strange FATE is Unique and Strange skills. Along with a comprehensive list of traditional skills, Strange FATE allows for the creation or modification of new skills by adding new Trappings. The simplest example is that the basic Burglary skill allows for getting past security and casing intended targets. However, a Unique skill that also included the ability to climb and to be stealthy could be called ‘Cat Burglary,’ and accomplish the same task but with broader scope.
This is done by spending Skill Points. Traditional skills merely cost 1 skill point per level of rank you wish in them, so 4 skill points leads to a +4 at the given skill. Unique and Strange skills are slightly more complicated: a clearly organised map of the different trappings is provided, so that it is more expensive to combine entirely different trappings together. (The Trapping Map is discussed here. This may be the laziest review ever, if only because Shane Ivey and others have put so much effort into providing easy access to information about what sets the game apart.) This means that creating the right combination of Trappings will cost a number of Skill Points in itself, and then more are added to buy the relevant rank. So, hypothetically buying a +4 rank in a Unique skill could cost 9 skill points for all of the trappings, then another 4 points for the rank.
There is a simple, elegant advancement mechanic for all of this, which means that existing Unique or Strange skills can be amended so as to include new trappings over time – so that a hypothetical character can expand the repertoire of their Cat Burglar skill as they develop. It’s very flexible: you can increase the ranks you have in a skill, increase the Power Tier of a skill, or increase the trappings associated with a skill, at different points in the development of the story, and different milestones.
Unique and Strange skills differ only in that Strange skills can have higher Power Tiers, and are more likely to complicate life for the character. They are how to build super powers, and the system is flexible enough that I have yet to find a setting that cannot be handled out of the box.
Unlike Spirit of the Century, there is no list of Stunts; instead there are tailorable extras and flaws that can be associated with given skills in exchange for skill points, or a rebate for same.
(For an example character built in the system, check out an example built by Shane Ivey here. As I say, laziest review ever.)
So, what are the downsides, you ask? As it happens, there are very few.
The adaptation from the ORE version is very strong, and I like how the mechanics meld with the setting. The only element of the change I consider unfortunate is that short paragraphs for each of the pre-gen characters which showed how they could very easily be recontextualised into villains rather than heroes are missing. This is a very, very minor issue, and I mainly noticed because of how impressed I was with them in the ORE version, where they underlined the tone of the writing and the characters as being a deliberately grey, fitting the setting. They qualify as ‘missing’ only in as much as I liked them enough to notice, and I cannot begrudge Mike Olson the loss of what would be less than 100 words across a whole adaptation. The writeups for antagonists in the book do include a short section describing how they might become members of the Kerberos Club, which emphasises how little distance there is between hero and villain nicely.
The next point is not a downside so much as a point of reference. Until now, each edition to the FATE stable has presented unique variations on the core themes of the system, and thus allowed fans to easily hack, mix, match and hybridise from different books to our heart’s content. With The Kerberos Club, it’s looking like a point is being reached where that easy cross-pollination cannot be entirely taken for granted.
Both the Dresden Files RPG and The Kerberos Club have mechanics hung around the idea of reducing the Refresh points of a character in exchange for mechanical benefit. In both cases, the mechanic is elegant and entirely workable – the only reason it’s worth mentioning is that it means hybridisation between the two examples of FATE is going to need to decide which side to prioritise. The other point of distinction between the two is that the DFRPG uses a carefully arranged separation of skills as a way to prevent any given spell-slinger to be a mechanically perfect wizard: one skill must always be prioritised. The capacity for skills to be combined for purpose in The Kerberos Club might easily upset that particular pivot-point.
However, it must be said that the direct likelihood of people wishing to mash-up the DFRPG and The Kerberos Club is not high, and anyone interested in that level of hackery will undoubtedly find a work-around. I mention it because it’s an issue which has simply never arisen before. My only other point of concern in coming into the FATE edition of The Kerberos Club would be that there would be a trade-off: a more flexible system for tailoring skills would lead to a higher maintenance character-generation, which might reduce the enthusiasm of people new to the bells and whistles. In part, my thread for adapting Strange FATE is a laboratory for me to test out how complex it is, and so far I am impressed at how time-consuming it’s not. It’s entirely possible that the extra time taken to tailor personalised skills and powers would have been spent reading over the set skill-list from other FATE incarnations and – if you’re like me – getting stuck at the +1 skill phase because there are either too many skills I want to include for a character, or too few.
In summary, this is a very impressive adaptation, and will mark the first occasion I’ve decided to purchase the same setting in two different systems. It does the source material justice at the level of its mechanics, and those mechanics can be cheerfully repurposed to very different contexts.
The book comes complete with its own alternate history timeline, a rich vastness of information about the period and the people in it, and a rollicking high-stakes adventure complete with chases and world-shaking events.
If you want to explore the weird and Victorian, I can’t think of a better book to do so through....more
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 rulFor 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 Wild Talents: Essential Edition 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.
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 One Roll Engine.
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.
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 he...more