Jul 122012
 

101815[1]By Paco Garcia Jaen

Victoriana has become a darling of mine of recent. From believing it was a system that was hard to be taken seriously, I’ve gone to actually love it and regard it as close in richness (if not richer) than Call of Cthulhu. Yep, feel free to disagree. I won’t change my mind. Get over it.

The thing is, the more I read about it, the more I understand people’s fascination with Steampunk. The thought and notion that things could be done with technology nowhere near as advanced as ours, and the charming sort of look and feel they’d have it’s truly enchanting and very enticing. And that is what this book attempts to convey.

In the Victoriana Core Rulebook, we are introduced to the world of 1867. A world in which the real and the fantastic live side by side and work shoulder to shoulder. Sometimes. There is magic and there is religion. There are elves and giants, ghosts and dragons. There is also a horrid class system, poverty, child labour and injustice. There is untold potential for discovery and growth, and there is danger. A lot more danger than you think!

Marvels of Science and Steampunk expands on that already rich world and brings us a new wealth of material to add to the existing. This book concentrates on the application of science to machinery, and the application of magic to machinery.

This might sound a bit off with respect to the title of the book, but it does make sense once you start to read this book.

The production values

Unlike the core rules book, this one is softcover and also in black and white. However, unlike the core rules book, this one features the artwork of Jon Hodgson. Considering that the core rules book was a bit on the inconsistent side of illustration, having Jon on board is a relief. Not because the Victoriana book was rubbish (it’s not) or because that’s made this supplement perfect (it hasn’t), but because it has raised the bar as much as it can considering the layout constrains and the existing style from other books.

Still, the artwork has indeed improved, not just in terms of the quality of the artwork used, but also in terms of the layout choices and consistency. The reason why is worth noting this is because it comes to show that Cubicle 7 is indeed thinking about this product line and devoting a fair deal of attention to it. Something worth knowing!

At a 154 pages, this book is by no means deep in terms of the level of detail the material goes into. However is very meaty. Its eight chapters are packed with useful information from description of machines to rules updates and introduction of new rules.

Chapter one is just an introduction to the book as well as a disclaimer about the historical accuracy of the setting and the contraptions and historical events and characters mentioned. Apparently some people can kick up a fuss when historical facts are taken out of order in a fantasy setting. Go figure, huh?

The second chapter starts with the proper content without any messing about. New races – Cyclop, Nacaal, Orc and Mechanical man (or woman!) are introduced, each with their characteristics and traits to make them fit in the world of Victoriana without having to shoe horn them. The last two section of this chapter are there to provide new rules for combat and vehicle chases. This is actually well thought as vehicles feature heavily in this book and chases by land, sea or air, can be terrific fun.

In chapter three we find rules to create new scientific marvels. What what marvels they are! From simply convenient items (analytical engine anyone?) to weapons and destructive devices or armour. The best thing about this chapter is that the difficulty is kept at the right pace. Although creating contraptions is by no means easy, it is not as difficult that can prove impossible for an average ranking character. Of course, the more refined or more features you want your device to have the more difficult it’ll be to create or expensive to buy. The weapons listing is very comprehensive and detailed, which is great because I have no interest whatsoever in researching Victorian weaponry to adapt it to the game.

And talking about expensive and difficult to create, we reach chapter four and the prosthetic limbs and automata. From replacing phalange to full limbs and even creating fully functioning androids, the formulas are there and ready to use. Once again these contraptions are expensive enough to be a difficult goal to achieve, but reachable enough to be obtainable if the right amount of work or effort is put into it.

And we get to vehicles. This, my friends, is where this book truly shines. The description of vehicles are excellent. Plenty of ideas for everything starting with day-to-day vehicles to unique vessels that come up, raid and then disappear are given away. Details in the different engines that can be used – from coal and steam powered to internal combustion, electric and magic engines – and even how to create them fro scratch. Some truly amazing ideas here too and some truly brilliant pieces of information, like description of the interior of zeppelins.

And, of course, let’s not forget Magic. Even though this is a book about science and steampunk, there is no reason to mix both and use magic to, say power engines or repair them. Also, magic is necessary to activate prosthetic limbs and for the creation of some automata, like the sentient ones. What left me most impressed about the magic here is the clear sense of its cost. Using magic costs, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of mana and stamina cost. This supplement goes further into describing how Magic is not a tool to do your shoe-laces. It is dangerous, it is extremely powerful and it can be extremely nasty. And as nasty goes, nothing goes further than Haemomancy.

Let’s forget for a second that the right name should be “Haemothaurgy” (mancy in latin refers to “reading” or “divining” and these spells do a great deal more than that) and let’s concentrate in the fact that it deals with blood magic. As you can expect, not a pleasant branch of the mystical arts. These spells require sacrifices in order to power machines and engines and they cost… a lot. In fact they are so horrid that they are completely forbidden by the Church of the Aluminat and even its research is forbidden for whatever the reason. Necromancy reaches almost as far, but is not really as evil and horrific as Haemomancy. Still pretty bad, though… Oh, there are demons too. They haven’t forgotten about those.

The book ends with some very welcome descriptions of locations and, most importantly, environments, such as factories, scrapyards and airships. Yeah, OK you might know about those already, but it doesn’t go amiss to have a description of them so you an incorporate them to your adventures. Not everyone is as well prepared as you!

There is also a small section of creatures, but it is really tiny, and is a shame because that is something I missed in the core rulebook and could have done with!

Conclusion

The book is very, very well written. From the snippets of fiction that give flavour to the chapters to the description and the attention to detail in the stats of all the objects described, it all forms a very solid chunk of information that you will be able to use as and when. And because of the chapter distribution, you won’t have to read the whole book before you can start incorporating all of this information into your campaigns.

However, this book also falls short in some areas that are not easy to address. The layout is still lacking somewhat. Although the best has been made with what it’s been had, there is still great room for improvement. The difficulty is that the biggest improvement should come in the shape of more illustrations of the objects described in the book. I don’t know you, but I have no idea what a pepperbox gun looks like. Also it’s a missed chance to invent new objects and increase the already present charm of the steampunk fantasy. The same can be said for the creatures and the locations.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that illustrating something like that would be very, very costly, but this book is too short of those illustrations and the descriptions are not enough to bring some of those contractions to life.

This is not to say this book is not worth it. At all. It is very well worth it and if you like Victoriana you definitely should get this book (now), but don’t expect anything lavish from it.

Because of the lack of illustrations and reference images, I can’t bring myself to give four stars to this book. Still three stars is a bit of a disservice, so I will give it three stars and a very hefty recommendation.

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Paco G. Jaen

Born in Spain with a talent for dyslexia, I am gamer, player, graphic designer, photographer and psycotherapist. Also online magazine publisher and writer. Yep.. I do lead a busy life!