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Author Topic: The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Liminal  (Read 174 times)

Dan Davenport

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The Hardboiled GMshoe Reviews: Liminal
« on: April 20, 2021, 08:32:52 AM »
Introduction​

The name’s Davenport. I review games.

So the other day I answer a knock at the door, and there stands…

…this ordinary guy.

Just a guy in a plain brown suit.

I look around past the guy. Figure there must be some alien or hellspawn or mutant freak back there somewhere.

Nope. Just the one ordinary guy.

“Hello,” the guy says in a thick Limey accent. “John’s the name. John Walters.” He shakes my hand.

“Nice to meetcha,” I says. “Here with a gig?”

“I am indeed,” Walters says, handing over a nice-lookin’ book with “Liminal” on the cover.

“What’s the pitch?” I asks.

“Urban fantasy,” he says. “Faeries, werewolves, ghosts, and vampires hiding in the present day UK.”

“I’m always good for that,” I says, flippin’ through the book. Really pretty book. “I’ll give it a good review.”

“I know you will,” he says. He taps his temple, smiling and nodding. “I have foreseen it.”

“Riiiight,” I says. “Well, anyway, wanna come in? Have a drink?”

“No thanks, old chap,” he says. “Must fly, I’m afraid.”

He turns into a swan and flies away.

I sigh and walk back to my desk, settin’ the “Days Without a Weirdo” sign back to zero.

267203.jpg https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/267203/Liminal

Substance​

Setting​

Liminal is a modern-day urban fantasy setting taking place in Britain and Northern Ireland (although the book does offer some tips on playing in other parts of the world). Magicians, faeries, ghosts, werewolves, and vampires all exist, as do folkloric beings from all over the world, with only a select few mortals in the know. Among the latter are the Order of St. Bede, a joint operation between the Anglican and Catholic Churches dedicated to keeping the supernatural a secret, and P Division, a national police division that investigates supernatural crimes.

With a few exceptions, magic is pretty low-key, and magicians tend to be fairly specialized. You aren’t going to find anything remotely resembling the wizards of high fantasy here.

The Fae fall into three general categories: Nobles, commoners, and monsters (trolls, giants and the like). In an unusual twist, the Fae are vulnerable to bronze, not iron. There isn’t one Fae realm, but rather many of all sizes found in many places.

Vampires can sprout fangs, are immortal, and are stronger and faster than their human prey, but they otherwise have no other supernatural powers by default. They are weakened but not destroyed by sunlight and can possess certain folkloric weaknesses at which other RPGs scoff, such as garlic and mirrors. Only vampire lords can create other vampires.

Werewolves are created by choice through a ritual and are fully in control of their transformations into huge (but not obviously supernatural) wolves, although they do tend to be quick to anger. In human form, werewolves are stronger and tougher than normal humans and heal quickly but are vulnerable to silver. They form gangs.

Ghosts in Liminal are interesting. While most are invisible and immaterial, older ghosts can form physical bodies out of dirt and dust. Others enter (or are forced into) corpses, forming revenants. A powerful revenant is a Jason Vorhees type, while a weaker revenant is your typical zombie. I like that. I also like the concept of Ghost Realms, which are akin to the ghosts of bygone places.

The setting emphasizes the importance of Crews and Factions. A Crew is a small group of individuals who have each other’s backs — like, say, the PCs. Factions are the movers and shakers of the world:

  • The Council of Merlin: An ancient order of wealthy, snooty magicians.
  • The Court of the Queen of Hyde Park: Manipulative civilized Fae.
  • The Court of the Winter King: Wild uncivilized Fae.
  • The Jaeger Family: Prominent werewolf nobility seeking to unite the various werewolf gangs under their banner.
  • The Mercury Collegium: “Gutter mages” specializing in magical crimes.
  • The Order of St. Bede: A joint operation of the Anglican and Catholic churches dedicated to fighting the supernatural and protecting the public from the sinfulness of magic.
  • P Division: A secretive UK police division that investigates the supernatural.
  • The Sodality of the Crown: The rulers of the UK vampires with their claws in human society.

Like the megacorps of cyberpunk, these organizations provide plenty of major forces of the world for the PCs to back, oppose, or simply run jobs for.

The book goes into loving detail about the cities, towns, villages, and unusual locations of note in the UK. Is it enough to run a game set there? Never having been there myself, I can only speculate, but it certainly seems to do a serviceable job.

Bestiary

Actually, this is more of a modest list of sample NPCs than it is a bestiary, at least insofar as the section describes examples of individuals rather than stats to cover an entire class of being. These examples fall under the following categories:

  • The Fae
  • Ghosts
  • Clued-In Mortals
  • Ordinary Mortals
  • Vampires
  • Werewolves

Now, being a huge fan of monster stats, the section definitely left me wanting more. In particular, the stats for Fae creatures seem awfully generic. Still, it’s a decent start that does cover the basics.

Adventures

The game includes two adventures of reasonable length: “Goblin Market” and “The Book of Blood”. Both require equal parts social interaction, investigation, and combat, making them very good introductions to the setting.

System​

Task resolution is a 2d6+skill roll, with certain traits adding a bonus. The difficulty level is either set by the GM, with 8 being the base level, or by an opponent’s skill+8. This does mean that actions against another character are going to be tougher than uncontested actions. That makes sense for PCs and major NPCs, who, as the text points out, are competent individuals, but seems a bit off for actions against “Joe Average”. Still, it’s a simple enough system. I approve.

Critical successes occur when the total is the difficulty+5, of which I also approve — I never like critical successes to be left completely to chance. The text suggests several special effects that a critical success might produce.

The result of a failure is up to the GM. It could be an actual failure, or it could be a success with consequences of some sort, including damage. I’m ambivalent about purely “fail forward” systems, but I really like “failing forward” being treated as an option rather than as a mandate.

Rolling double ones is a critical failure of sorts, adding a complication but, interestingly, resulting in experience for the character. Again, I’m not keen on critical failures to be purely luck-based, either, but at least the effects here seem fairly mild.

Character Creation

Unsurprisingly, character creation begins with choosing a concept. In this case, PCs are the game’s eponymous Liminals, people with one foot in the mundane world and one in the hidden world of the supernatural.

This status places some limits on just how “supernatural” a PC can be. All must be at least part human, but werewolves are allowable, as are Fae-blooded humans and the not-quite-vampiric dhampirs. Actual Fae and true vampires, however, are beyond the pale for PCs. This makes sense for the setting: In my opinion, the Fae of urban fantasy should be mysterious. And vampires? Well, let’s just say that it’s a refreshing change these days to have them be purely inhuman blood-suckers.

Players will also choose a drive for their PCs — what motivates them. In addition to its importance for roleplaying the character, the PC’s drive also affects regaining Will (see below).

The closest the game comes to character classes comes with the choice of the character’s focus:

  • Determined: The character gets +2 Will and can take Determination Talents for traits.
  • Magician: The character can take magical styles as Traits.
  • Tough: The character gets +4 to Endurance and can take Toughness Talents for traits.

For starting characters, skills range from 1-4 and are fairly broad — Melee and Shoot cover all combat abilities, for example. However, characters with skills of 3 or higher can choose to spend a point on a specialty, at which the character will have +2. I’m always a fan of general skills with optional specialties, so this is ideal for me.

Characters do have attributes of a sort, but not in the common RPG parlance:

  • Endurance: Athletics skill + 8. Your basic hit points.
  • Will: Conviction skill + 8. See below.
  • Damage: Depends upon the weapon the character is using, which doesn’t seem much like an attribute at all to me.

Traits are a mix of mundane and supernatural perks and flaws. Characters receive 5 points to spend on traits and can gain 1-2 more points by taking limitations.

Some traits serve as what other games would call “attributes”. These only provide one flat bonus; e.g., characters with the Brawny Trait get +2 to strength-based Athletics tests and to hand-to-hand damage. Traits include three entries each for use by Determined or Tough characters, including Supernatural Strength, which supersedes Brawny and adds a +4 bonus instead. Note that this means that in this setting, there are literally only three levels of strength: Normal, Brawny, and Supernatural. That’s awfully limiting.

Traits also cover the schools of magic, but I’ll get to those in just a minute. For now, I’ll just note that because magic schools cost 2 points each, the most styles any starting magician is going to have is 3.

Will

Will in this game combines aspects of fate/drama/hero/luck points and magic points. Will points can be spent to add points of success to a roll in order to increase the success level, but they are also required to activate some traits and magical effects. I like this, as it makes magic require more dedication.

I also like the fact that Will returns as characters follow their drives as well as when they take a day of rest.

Combat

Opposed Awareness skill rolls determine initiative. The Melee or Athletics skill opposes Melee attacks, while Athletics alone opposes Shoot attacks. Damage is rated in 1d6 plus a modifier, from +0 for unarmed to +4 for a heavy firearm. Any attacks more dangerous than that are treated as instant kills. I can see the value of the simplicity there, but it enforces a human scale upon the game. Granted, it’s unlikely, but suppose a PC got ahold of a heavy weapon and turned it on a massive Fae monster. Should the result be instant death, simply because such an attack would instantly kill a normal human?

Unsurprisingly given the modern setting, the rules don’t even mention armor. Still, there’s certainly a chance that, say, police body armor could come into play, so I think some mention is warranted.

Because damage comes off of Endurance, of which the typical person will have at least 8 points, one-shot kills are unlikely unless the attacker gets a critical success and invokes the effect of +1d6 to damage. (Other possible effects including taking the initiative and disarming the opponent.) Still, the danger of a one-shot kill will almost always be out there, making combat appropriately dangerous and best avoided when possible.

Magic

Liminal breaks down magic into eight schools:

  • Blessings and Curses
  • Divination
  • Geomancy
  • Glamour
  • Necromancy
  • Shapechanging
  • Ward Magic
  • Weathermonger

Each school provides one basic ability, with additional trait purchases adding additional school-related abilities — some of which may be surprising. For example, the basic Blessings and Curses school allows the magician to give +2 to a skill or attribute for a scene or to attack a target’s Will, a named curse taking effect if the target’s Will is reduced to zero. However, specialists in the school can learn to bless a weapon to make it effective against supernatural protections, make minor physical attacks, heal wounds, and place themselves or others under protection from physical and magical attack. Likewise, the seemingly purely defensive school of Ward Magic can allow magicians to place wards on weapons to cause more damage — essentially forcing a target to break the ward — and specialists can place wards on themselves and break them at will, directing the energy toward an enemy target.

I find all that to be very clever.

The only drawback I see is that due to the limited number of points available for traits, starting magicians will be quite limited in their abilities. Of course, for some, that may be a feature and not a bug.

Style​

This full-color book is a true work of art, filled with beautiful, vaguely dreamlike images that fully convey the feel of the setting. As a nice bonus, the book features an entire section of nothing but inspirational art.

The writing matches the art in its poetic portrayal of the Hidden World. In particular, the author clearly portrays his love of the UK and its mysterious legends and folklore. No typos stood out to me.

The layout is clean and professional. The book includes a comprehensive index.

Conclusion​

Liminal presents a very specific vision of urban fantasy. It’s a lovely, skillfully crafted vision, but a specific vision. That being the case, it won’t scratch the urban fantasy itch for everyone. If it does scratch that itch, though, it will scratch it quite well.

For me, it doesn’t quite work, mainly because I love the author’s vision of the Fae so much that I’d like to see much more of them and their abilities than the game currently reveals. The author’s elegant prose is just that good. It may well be that Pax Londinium, the London sourcebook, includes some of the details I crave.

I think this game will appeal to fans of urban fantasy who are willing to look at the subgenre through a fresh set of eyes, especially if they’re the sort of gamer happy with a system that works for the setting without allowing for outlying possibilities. So, while this isn’t my ideal game, it is a very good game, and it might well be yours.
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