You should know that London is a great city for more than just hosting the Olympics. The capital of the United Kingdom (well… it’s kind of “Patched-up Kingdom” really) has been there for millennia and seen historic events like no others. It has been the cradle of a powerful empire and beholden the fall of mighty kings and queens.
It has the biggest fleet of steam powered cars on Earth. Zeppelins and other magical flying contraptions dot the sky, clouded by the smoke from factories where men, women and children labour relentlessly to earn a living that the upper classes can’t even bother to think about from their lavish and decadent parties and lifestyles.
Yes, my friend, London is a city of many contrasts; some of them unknown by most of the city inhabitants.
But enough of the introductions; let’s take a look at The Smoke.
This 186 pages book is Cubicle 7’s supplement for the Victoriana game describing London in 1867. This book is in its second edition, having been revised and greatly rewritten, by Andrew Peregrine, one of the original authors of Victoriana. And there is a lot written here!
First things first. The book itself. The layout and art direction of the book very much follows the same style that the Victoriana Core Rulebook and Marvels of Science and Steampunk featured. Two columns layout, though this time there is so much written in this book that the font is a bit smaller and it looks really “full of words”, if you catch my drift. The art direction, though, is a bit tighter than the Core Rulebook, though still suffers from some of the original issues that have been present since the original release.
The illustration styles are a bit of a miss-match and they don’t relate that well to each other, but at least they have been chosen carefully to give context to the area of the book where they reside, so they make sense and help visualise what London was at the time.
If I had to be picky (!), I would prefer to see a little bit more separation between paragraphs to help the reading flow. But I don’t have to be picky, so I won’t mention it.
Inside the book there are 10 chapters; meaty and full of information. I know this might sound like a redundant thing to say, but it’s not. The amount of unnecessary text in this book is very, very close to null. Every paragraph has something worth knowing and Andrew Peregrine hasn’t held back his punches in revising this book and packing it with tons of history, both real and ficticious.
The first two chapters give a brief history of London; from the inception of Trinovantium by the Trojans, to the Roman occupation, the arrival of Justas and the Church of the Iluminat, the birth of the British Empire, life in the city for both upper and lower classes, employment, government, law, communications, transport, crime… 57 pages in all, which is not bad at all.
The following 5 chapters cover the whole of the city. Now, London was a big city in 1867, not as big as it is today, but it was very big nonetheless. Each chapter covers a part of the city and each part of the city is divided in smaller areas with description of the architecture, industry, roads, levels of crime, etc. There is also a decent amount of cartography in this book to show where each part of the city is and give you a sense of scale. Also descriptions of important places personalities in more or less detail.
These chapters can be a bit heavy. The amount of information is pretty incredible and most of it feels very, very real. In fact my main feeling when I was reading these chapters, is that they felt too real. I didn’t get enough fantasy material to inspire me to come up with new adventures. However, if you have an idea for an adventure, you can be sure you’ll get all the information you need to document the environment from this book.
The personas more than described are referenced. I found that somewhat annoying, to be honest. There is enough on some high importance NPCs to give you an idea of what they are like, but not enough to be able to use them. For that you’ll need another supplement like Faces in the Smoke Volume One – the Secret Masters. I don’t have a problem with a company referencing another of their books, but when the information is so succinct that it becomes difficult to use, it might as well not be there; or alternative, more detailed, information could be given and then wet our whistle by telling us that there are more characters like that in another supplement. However, I have to admit those NPCs did give me some ideas to create my own, so they were far from useless.
Once we’ve digested the vast wealth of information the first few chapters give us, we reach the Undercity. This rather unoriginally named part of the city is (no surprises there) under the streets of London. Now let me tell you, this chapter alone would justify buying this book and I really hope it will get at some point its own book.
The Undercity describes what goes on under London at three levels. From the more accessible areas, like underground train and sewers, to locations barely anyone knows of, like ruins of old temples or marvellous caves. Although there is no map for this area, the descriptions have been well thought so you can feel free to create your own places, knowing they will fit your campaign and be credible.
As well as the geographical features, we are given a detailed portrait of the society that lives under the streets of the capital of the empire. No information on how to use the members of that society as player characters, but with a bit of ingenuity and some imagination you can create characters with the right feel to them. Also there is a half decent amount of creatures that live in the Undercity, and they do get some attention. Worth remembering them next time you go down into the Tube, since they are not to be meddled with. At least not if you want to come out of that train you’re about to board alive.
Chapter 9 takes us further away from London and, although briefly, gives us a picture of the rest of the Island. A quick glance at Scotland, Wales, the South, West, Midlands and the North West provide with a good cue about the relationship between London and the rest of the country. At only four pages is not a long chapter by any stretch of the imagination, but then, this book is not about the rest of the island, is about London, so this a welcome and helpful glimpse just in case we need it.
Lastly, chapter 10 is a list of templates and archetypes of professions and characters that can be expanded with the core rules to make them playable. The professions and descriptions are well tailored to London (though they could be used elsewhere too) and, if you are looking for inspiration, you could do worse than to delve into this part of the book.
This book is useful and a must-have if you’re a fan of Victoriana. Heck! even if you’re just looking for a book on London to add to your Steampunk or even Cthulhu campaign, this one would be useful.
It is not perfect, though, and in some places there are missing opportunities to create really fantastic adventure and plot devices. For example, there is a section that describes sex in the city of London and Victorian times in general, with their fetishes and general views on sexuality in the different classes. Yet, there is no mention of a brothel run by a succubus, or of people who find excitement in having sex with other species. It’s just an example and there are other scattered around the book.
My problem with that is not because that makes the book inadequate, at all, but because if I can come up with this sort of ideas, I can only imagine how much better the creators of the setting could do. It is a glimpse to the unrealised potential of a setting that promises to become legendary but falls short.
They say that less is more and in this case it could very well be true. Less “real” information about London, leaving more to the reader’s imagination, and more description of the fantastic and “steampunky”, and this book would have received 5 stars without even thinking about it.
As it stands, I am more than happy to give this book 3 stars because it really is a quality product that you will get a lot of hours of enjoyment and tons of adventures out of, but it could be better and I hope in 3 or 4 years’ time, when the third edition of Victoriana is proudly sitting on our shelves, this book will be revisited again to iron some corners and make us even happier.
However, dear friends at Cubicle 7, this must not happen before we get a “Creature Atlas” or similar. After all, it would be a bit of a waste if Mr Darwin’s travels didn’t bring us all sorts of references of wonderful and exotic species.
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I’ve always liked the idea of source books like this, and it’s the only failing I have with UnMet, another steampunky type system. But last time I looked at Victoriana as whole, I seem to remember it had a dice rolling heavy system that put me right off.