Monday, May 21, 2012

Tommy's Take on Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein

This is the first of two reviews I'll be doing for Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein, starting with the core rules (makes sense, right?).

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Published by Cubicle 7, the PDF is a surprisingly thick 216 pages (formatting makes it appear to be 110 in PDF readers) and is currently $19.99. The PDF I have lacks bookmarks or clickable links in the table of contents, which does hurt utility a bit.

Compatible with the Victoriana RPG (which I'm not familiar with), Dark Harvest is an alternate history RPG in which Victor Frankenstein, posing as "Prince Baden", has taken over Romania and replaced it with Promethea, a country-sized monument to his insane creations. The game is set in 1910, and the world has convinced itself that the Frankenstein in question must be a grandson or something, for Victor Frankenstein should either be dead or much older than he appears to be.

The heavily industrialized Promethea is a feudal society devoted to beauty and protection (as Frankenstein sees it), to the extent that the upper strata can order that the lower class can be forced into The Harvest, in which their better "parts" can be removed and added onto the wealthy in order to keep them alive and healthy. However, Promethea is wracked with civil war as The Resistance wages war with Frankenstein's upper class...The Resistance led by The Creature (Frankenstein's original monster). The lower class also have "scar gangs", which damage those with physical beauty, in order to keep the wealthy from harvesting them.

The first two chapters cover the history of Promethea and the current situations, including the processes of Augmentation and Evisceration (in which a person is basically torn apart...and kept alive and conscious for it far behind normal human limits) in excruciating detail. For instance, by law, the dead are turned over to the state for Harvesting, and the poor will often attempt to delay the certification of their dead in order to prevent harvesting...or even cripple and scar their own children in order to do so.

The book includes a gazetteer that breaks down all 41 counties in Promethea, ranging from a short paragraph to half a page, depending on size and importance, as well as a listing of "generic locations" like military bases and augmentation facilities. The details about the fortifications on each border are included as well, from the staffing and barriers to the time it took to close the borders.

If that doesn't give you enough of a feel for the setting (and there's a lot of information in the first few chapters), then there's also an anthology of short stories included that take you into life in Promethea through the eyes of citizens. After all of that...we get into the rules themselves.

Dark Harvest uses the Victoriana rules (modified), which I am not familiar with, but everything required for the game is included in this book. It's a d6 dice pool system, using an attribute and a skill to build your pool, and any 1s or 6s are counted as successes, with any 6s being re-rolled for the possibility of more successes. Essentially a 1 in 3 chance of a success for every die you roll, and the success chart doesn't count a "full" success until you've gotten two or more. However, if you are making a particularly contested roll, you have to roll a number of Black Dice, whose successes can cancel your own.

Damage is a bit odd, until you see the character sheet. There are a number of "dice" printed on it with 2 pips each, and whenever a damage roll is made, each success rolled on the damage roll is a pip of health. Every two pips of damage taken, you add a Black Die to future rolls. There are four shaded dice, and when those are covered, you pass out and are in danger of death.

Character creation is point buy. You start off selecting your concept and social class (the top tier isn't open to PCs), and then you assign six attribute points among three physical attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Fortitude) and mental (Presence, Wits, Resolve). You then get 50 points with which to buy Skills, Talents, Privilegs, Contacts, Assets and Augmentations.

The skill list has about 27 common skills (firearms, improvised weapons, streetwise), and you can also purchase specialities like Demolitions, Engineer, Lip Reading, etc.

Talents include the likes of Acute Sense, Backstabber, Deadly Shot, Drinks Like A Fish and Speed Reader.

Privileges include things like Military Commission and Society Friends, while Assets are things like Shops, Trained Pets, Legendary Reputations.

You can get more points with Complications, like Illiterate, Bad Reputation, Mute and Shy. You might need those if you want your own twisted augmentations like claws, gills, night vision and tails.

Each and every listing is detailed, with specialities, mechanics and the like.

Rules are provided for Augmentation in-game, influenced by a number of factors, including including the social class of the character. If things go badly, there arae complications, like drug dependency or even permanent flammability.

A lot of games allow for additional manipulation by the players, and Dark Harvest has Fate Dice and Scripting Dice. Fate Dice can be used to add successes to actions and reduce damage, while Scripting Dice (gained by spending 6 Fate Dice) can allowing for re-rolls, saving characters from death (mortal wounds are now very bad, but not lethal, wounds, etc). Rounding out the character stuff is Reputation, gained largely by Assets, which allow you to influence people around you.

A listing of stock NPC stats are provided, but it's really quite nice, as each stock type gets a paragraph, following by the streamlined NPC statblock, an example (character wise) of an NPC of that type, and a plot hook for that NPC type (from Priests to Servants to Socialites). Then we get into Promethean Creatures, which start with basic stuff like horses, monkeys and wolves and get into augmented bears and Promethean dire wolves.

The book rounds out with fairly detailed adventure hooks, a good sized bibliography, an index and a character sheet.

WHAT WORKS: The presentation is fantastic. There's a lot of information in here, but it never feels overbearing. The art is well-done and well-placed, never dominating the book but adding appropriate flavor. The setting is quite disturbing, with the wealthy preying off of the poor in a most unique manner, and the horrors of Frankenstein's machinations revealed in excruciating detail. The sealed off nature of Promethea also allows for extra intensity in setting that might not be there in a more "open" environment.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: The health system seems unnecessarily complicated. I probably would have liked more Talents, but with Augmentations, Assets, Privileges and Contacts, there are more options there than it appears on the surface. Perhaps my biggest gripe with the setting is that, as cool as it is, it seems to be building to a Frankenstein vs Creature encounter (okay, it says so a few times), and that seems like it would exclude the PCs from playing the major role in the future of Promethea.

CONCLUSION: A top-notch product with an inventive spin on alternate history and the Frankenstein mythos. Certainly not the first product I've seen to place the Creature in the role of the hero and Frankenstein in the role of megalomaniacal madman (Dean Koontz' series did it as well), but it still has its own spin on it that feels quite cool in its own right. Not sure I'm 100% sold on the system, as it has a few parts that feel unnecessarily complicated (like Health dice), but that may just be unfamiliarity with the system shining through. The setting alone places it on the higher end of alternate history games I've read.