Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tommy's Take on Colonial Gothic 2nd Edition

So I'm a pretty big fan of Deadlands, which is a bit of a distant cousin to Colonial Gothic, seeing as they are both alternate history horror games. Plus, I'm a bit of a fan of early American history, so that helps, too.

DISCLAIMER: This review contains an affiliate link, and using it to purchase the book may provide me with store credit at RPGNow. A review copy was provided by the publisher.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: This review covers the Colonial Gothic 2nd Edition rulebook, by Rogue Games, specifically the PDF version available for $9.99 at RPGNow. Colonial Gothic uses the 12° system, which requires each player to use two 12 sided dice. An interesting choice, to be sure, but certainly not unheard of.

The setting conceit is that it is the time of the American Revolution, but magic and monsters and demons and spirits are all real. three assumed "styles" of play are provided: High-Action (focusing on more mundane enemies), Occult & Mystery (which has supernatural elements, but on a smaller level) and Supernatural (which is a full on war against unnatural evil). The system involves adding your Governing Ability and Skill Rank together, and rolling 2d12, trying to get under your total. If you do, you succeed. Simple as that. If you roll double 1s, you get a Dramatic Success. Double 24s net you a Dramatic Failure. Each point (or degree) that you roll under your target number counts as a degree of success (and a multiplier on damage rolls).

Characters are defined by Might, Nimble, Vigor, Reason and Resolution (I really like that last one for a Colonial game), as well as Vitality and Sanity. Skills are based off of rank, in the sense that you actually cannot have a skill lower than it's governing attribute (and if you don't pay to take the skill at that attribute, you essentially double the attribute, but subtract 4 from the total because it's Untrained).

You get 45 points to spend on Attributes (which can go as high as a 12), 45 points on skills (and there are 42 of them, some of which are "blanket skills" like Profession, so you aren't picking up a little bit of everything here). You also select a background (which provides skill bonuses) like Militia, Native-Born, Freed Slave or Frontier Colonist, and five Hooks, which are player defined traits that help you pick up Action Points, which you can use to raise Target Numbers (even after you roll) in order to ensure success, allow you to utilize a Hook for a situation (maybe re-rolling the dice or adding 2 to the TN), or "Editing" - making little narrative changes to suit your character's needs.

While the Skills list is larger than I prefer, it's still a fairly broad list. For instance, there's a single Shooting skill (though bows are covered under Archery), only a couple of melee skills (Melee and Brawl), etc. Not too overdone.

The chapter on Hooks provides some good explanation, for those who aren't into player defined traits. A really good Hook will have positive and negative connotations, like Fate Aspects, but you're probably alright if some are unambiguously one or the other, so long as you have some kind of balance. For instance, your Hook might be "I Shall Never Ride Under The King's Banner" or "My Life Is Empty Since Your Death" or No Man Shall Chain Me Again", that sort of thing.

The rules section actually comes before character creation, and covers a lot of the basics you are used to in a rules medium to heavy game, including various combat tactics, fighting with two hands, multiple actions (take your normal action and apply penalties to each additional action), etc. It also includes an impressive amount of poisons and diseases, from rickets to lycanthropy, and even a helping of mental disorders (the game does have a Sanity stat, after all). In fact, Sanity can swing back and forth, even being used to power magic (though a "Lovecraft rule" is provided, in which you can opt to not allow Sanity to regenerate, putting people on a slippery scope).

But that sets us up into a nice segue: Magic! Spells are bought with skill points, but start at level 1 and can work up to 12, and are combined with Resolution when casting is attempted. Each spell also has a Sanity cost, however. There is success and failure, but Dramatic Success and Dramatic Failure can also come into play, with Dramatic Failure often reversing the spell's effects (like one setting themselves on fire instead of torching their opponent). Common spells include Draw (allowing you to pull disease from someone suffering), Burn (used to ignite small fires), Divine Breath (which can be used to heal others) and Preserve (used to prevent common items from decaying). Arcane spells get into the higher end stuff, like Cloak (which allows you to move among your enemies undetected), Exorcise (functioning much as it sounds), Rainmaking and even Summon (for when you absolutely must summon something not of this plane). Rules for Alchemy are included as well, including poisons, acids, dyes, and even elixirs that serve as the typical RPG equivalent of magic potions.

A perfectly good equipment chapter covers most of your major era-specific equipment, as well as breaking down the currency used in the colonies at the time.

Life in the Colonies is covered in its own chapter, with sidebars like the colleges that are open in the Colonies at the time. The section on politics is also useful, given the difference in the state of politics then versus now. Religion gets its due as well, and this section also covers Magic and Alchemy and their effects on life in the Colonies. Magic isn't COMPLETELY fringe, it seems, as any major power in the world is using it on some level, interestingly enough. The Native tribes get a pretty decent chunk of space as well, delving into just what differentiates the Cherokee from the Shawnee from the Mohicans.

The bestiary starts off with human adversaries and just takes off running. The first entry is an Agent of the Inquisition, and we get basic stat blocks for others, like Colonial Mages, Minutemen and even Knights Templar...and then it starts getting freaky. Devils of the large and small variety are included, as are a race of Stone Giants, a Headless Horseman, scary tree spirits, vampires, wendigoes and even zombies. Several "normal" animals are intermingled as well, and in case that's not enough, an extensive "how to" guide on creating and balancing your own creatures is included! Even if an ability you are needing for a monster isn't present, the section covers enough ground that you should be able to fudge it from there.

The first and most important part of the GM section covers using (and abusing) history, an important part of an alternate history game. It assumes that you will use "secret history"...that is, the surface story we know about history is factual, for the most part, but the PCs and their adventures happen in between the cracks of history...(maybe they were the reason Washington never fell to a British vampire, but that part got left out of history books). The other major piece of advice (to me) is the creation of adversaries (not just monsters) that fit the feel of Colonial Gothic, be they demons worming their ways into the hearts of men or a league of assassins operating in the colonies. Guidelines similar to the creation of monsters are included here as well. You also get your "How to run a horror game" advice, and a breakdown of the secret history that happened in the Colonies right up to the "present day" and the dawn of the American Revolution. To put it mildly, there were darker forces at work in the New World and, interestingly, the settlers weren't the root of all problems. A timeline of events as well as a bibliography, character sheet, and blurbs about the rest of the Colonial Gothic line are included.

WHAT WORKS: I'm a fairly psychotically patriotic, idealistic American, so playing or running a game at the dawn of the United States is cool to me, and adding in demons and devils and overwhelming eeeeevil just makes it cooler. I love a magic system with a chance of failure and consequences, which this certainly provides. It also provides utility spells, which are often omitted to the annoyance of many gamers of many games. The Action Points can easily make the game as cinematic as you like, by forcing success assuming you have any stockpiled at all, and you don't roll just miserably.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: Not enough random tables. What? I like random tables. Rolling Ability Tests seems like a dicey proposition, as you are rolling 2d12 and trying to get under a single number ranked 1-12. The creation guidelines for monsters and adversaries worries me that the game could get a tad hefty on the book keeping end for GMs. Personally speaking, I would totally have placed the rules after the character creation. Just felt jarring to me.

CONCLUSION: I'd wanted to check this game out for some time, and I was glad to finally get a chance to. Supernatural action/horror in the time of the American Revolution ranks up there pretty highly on my list of "likes", right behind supernatural action/horror in the American West. Having not read the 1st edition, I can't tell you if it's worth buying if you already own that one, but for a first exposure to the game, I really enjoyed the subject matter and the presentation (aside from my quibbles with the organization). I'm slightly apprehensive about how the 12° system plays (specifically on Ability Tests), but the game has been around for quite a while and is in it's second edition without having that changed, apparently, so I'm willing to assume that the issue is bigger in my head. I would definitely like working this into my game table's rotation to find out for sure.


  1. So the crucial mistake of Colonial Gothic was simply the use of cover-art looking overtly much like historical RPG instead of horror?

    1. Fair conclusion. It isn't the most eye catching, for sure.