Bedlam Hall is a Powered by the Apocalypse game by Monkeyfun Studios that attempts to capture the feel of a household staff of servants in an estate in 1920s-ish England. The twist is that the family is involved in all kinds of bizarre and supernatural hi-jinks. The pitch is that this is Downton Abbey by way of the Addams Family.
Reading that pitch, I backed this on Kickstarter rather rapidly, and what you are currently reading is my review of the final copy of the PDF, delivered to Kickstarter backers.
What Does a Tome of Unsettling Electronic Lore Look Like?
As you may have surmised from the above, this review is based on the final PDF version sent out to backers. That means I haven’t had a chance to see this in physical form. The PDF is 180 pages, including six pages of Kickstarter backers.
The book itself is in black and white, with line illustrations that look like all those New Yorker cartoons that gave you nightmares as a child. Wait, they didn’t give you nightmares? Oh, and it happens to call back to the look of the original Addams Family comic strip as well.
The formatting on the book is well done, and is easy to read. Everything is single column with numerous headers for individual sections. The artwork does a good job of conveying and reinforcing the tone presented in the book.
A Note On Structure
Instead of having a larger chapter covering broader topics, the book is broken up by smaller topics. Because of that, I’m grouping them by theme to make it easier to summarize.
An Apology from the Author and A Foreboding Introduction in the Foyer
The introduction sets the tone for the whole book—the book is written as if the family referenced in the examples was a real-world family, and this is just a game that happens to turn stories of that family into a tabletop experience. This means that the writing can accomplish a nice trick right from the start. It can stay “in character,” and yet still address examples as an author explaining how to play the game.
The introduction then begins to explain what the game is about, exploring themes of a life of service, dealing with social ranking within the staff, and unexpected supernatural weirdness. After a few paragraphs explaining each of these themes, there is a scenario presented and bullet pointed to show how this situation would be presented in game.
Setting the Table—Preparing for Play, How to Play, The Simplest of Expectations—Your Basic Moves, Positions and Duties, Clearing the Table—At Session’s End
While the previous sections did a good job of framing some scenes and exploring the situations that player characters will be dealing with, these sections go into the actual mechanics of the game.
There are definitions of staff positions, attributes, and game terms used in the book. If you are familiar with other Powered by the Apocalypse games, you might notice that the book doesn’t immediately default to using the most commonly used terminology. That terminology is introduced later in the book, but here, the game terms are presented “clean,” with no assumptions of familiarity.
- Prestige is almost like a combination of Luck and XP from other Powered by the Apocalypse games. You can spend up to three to increase a roll, spend one to drop or learn a suspicion, or you can spend five at the end of a session to get an advance.
- Trauma is a broad label for injuries or psychological stress that a player character sustains. Too much, and your character dies or is no longer fit for service.
- Every character has at least one Secret. A character can create a new Secret when they hit three Trauma to clear their Trauma track. The Innuendo move is a roll +Secrets, meaning that if you know another character’s secrets, you get a bonus for each one you have confirmed. Having a suspicion allows you to attempt to confirm a Secret.
- We are also introduced to Cruel Moves, special moves that just trigger when the player decides, once per session. These moves can do nasty things, such as causing Trauma to everyone in the house, triggering a family member’s Trouble (which hasn’t been mentioned much at this point in the rules), or causing everyone to lose Prestige.
I really like the playbooks, and they are very indicative of the tone and setting of the book. There are six playbooks: the Butler, Housekeeper, Chauffeur, Maid, Cook, and Valet. Nobody gets to play the Gardener—ever. The Gardener is reserved as an NPC that the Master of the House can use to advance the plot, and the person running the game is encouraged to make them difficult to understand and strange. I really love this concept.
Other than adding an attribute and any bonus from the character spending Prestige, other bonuses or penalties are handled by rolling with Something Extra (3d6, take the highest two), or rolling with Something Less (3d6, take the lowest two). This isn’t new to this game, but it is a mechanic I like. Rolling more dice is a physical thing that creates more drama than a bonus or negative to the die roll, and it should work well in a game like this.
There is a section on romance in the game, and how it differs between staff, between staff and outsiders, and between staff and the family. It seems out of place when it appears, and seems to be something that should have been in the Master of the House sections of the book.
It becomes very clear in this section that the game is very much a player versus player experience. Many moves include ways to succeed while causing another player character Trauma or a loss of Prestige. The writing consistently reinforces that the best way for people in these dreadful circumstances to find joy is to undercut other members of the staff. In a group that is very good at separating their character from themselves, I can picture this being very enjoyable. But any player versus player situation, in my experience, should be approached carefully. Characters “can” be dismissed if they lose Prestige and they are currently at 0, characters can die or need to be permanently retired if they max out their Trauma. Prestige is used to advance characters, as well as to boost rolls and plant suspicions. Given all of this, it feels like the player versus player in this could easily get a bit heated.
Adding to the Dreadful Décor, and Navigating the House
This section of the book has notes on various aspects of running the game. This includes giving the Master of the House examples to use, such as a list of names to use or some terrible food that might be requested by the family. There is also a brief treatment about drifting the game to other settings. There is a procedure outlined for creating the unique version of the house to use in the game, and the standards and principles for the Master of the House to use when running the game are also found in this section.
There is some commentary on gender roles that states the game isn’t assuming that a role is only covered by the gender traditionally associated with that role, and that assumptions of the real world in England in the 1920s don’t need to intrude on the game. I appreciate this section, although I wish the playbooks themselves had a note on them to explain that they are more open than the terms and even the art would indicate.
The other genres listed are interesting (cruise ship, asylum, department store), but there isn’t much to support those genres other than broadly explaining them and giving alternate names for the playbooks.
The House details are great. This section has a list of different rooms that might exist in the house, and each room has several different example traits that explain the quirks and how to use that room in the game. The rooms are written down on index cards and positioned on the table, and it’s up to the table to decide if the layout remains consistent between sessions (in other words, shifting rooms may be a trait of the house as well).
A Useless Guide for the Master of the House
There is a guide to creating Troubles for the family. These have levels, and when they reach their maximum level, the family member causes something major to happen that must be dealt with. While players may have an idea about a family member’s quirk, to get the full extent of what is going on with their trouble, they need to confirm it much like they would another player character’s Secret. There is also some advice on balancing different types of Troubles, so that some family members have more mundane Troubles (like a gambling debt or an affair) versus more over the top Troubles (like being possessed by a demon).
This section reinforces that the group is expected to work as service staff. It isn’t their job to solve the Troubles. It’s their job to manage the Trouble. Eventually, it may come to a head, and then the family member gets a new Trouble that makes sense for them, but the staff isn’t fixing problems, just limiting the impact of the Trouble when it manifests.
There is a brief treatment of how characters might play more collaboratively, but there isn’t much in the way of mechanical support. Some of this amounts to “they don’t have to use the moves that harm each other,” and that’s true, but in some cases, the difference between a 10+ on a move and a 7-9 is that the character succeeds and causes Trauma or a loss of Prestige, instead of just succeeding, which just lowers the success threshold without replacing the “complication” threshold with anything.
As an aside, I’m a little surprised there isn’t much of a discussion of safety, or the X-card, or anything similar. This is a game that has horror elements, violence, psychological Trauma, and sex. It seems like a game could easily slip out of a player’s comfort zone if there aren’t some discussions up front, boundaries set, and safety procedures agreed upon.
The Terrible Tale of a Dreadful Birthday Party and Household Standards (Or Lack Thereof)
The sample adventure for the game gives you an opening scenario, some family members with detailed Troubles, and some sample rooms with some quirks already determined. Between the family members involved, where the action is likely to take place, and the event that is happening (the birthday party), the adventure is largely playing to find out what happens, with lots of moving parts in place that can trigger if the PCs start to move in that direction. There are a few sample resolutions for when Troubles reach their peak, with multiple ways for them to resolve, some of which interact with other Troubles that may be ongoing.
Overall, it feels like a very good introduction to how this kind of scenario should work. I like the family members involved, the room descriptions, and the potential resolutions. This seems like it would be a good convention scenario to introduce the game.
After the adventure, there is a section that gives a sample of a fully detailed version of the family. The family members mentioned in the adventure are referenced here again, but the text refers you back to the adventure for their current, ongoing Trouble.
While I like the idea of creating the family from scratch, I really enjoyed the sample family members provided, and I can see getting some good use out of the default family before customizing them.
A Horrible Compendium of Moves and Suggested Inspirations and Unsavory Influences
The final sections of the book contain a summary of all the moves across all the playbooks and what they do, and a section on inspirational material.
A Note on Terminology
The game went with Master of the House as the term for a GM in this game. That’s very in tune with the vaguely 1920’s English setting they are going for. However, they switch back and forth between Master of the House and Mistress of the House. On one hand, I’m glad they do this. On the other hand, I’m just not a fan of alternating terms for the same thing while reading. I would have been happy with “we’re calling this Mistress of the House, but use the term you are comfortable with.” It’s a tricky balance between inclusivity and atmosphere, and how those interact with clunky wording.
What’s So Good About It, Anyway?
I haven’t read many RPG books that are so consistently entertaining to read. This goes beyond just being entertaining. The narrative conceit of talking about the family as if they really existed allows the text to be entertaining, and to constantly convey the tone of the game. There is much less work to do when you get to the principles of running the game when the prose has been so illustrative throughout. The sample adventure, family members, and house creation make me want to get this game to the table. The other aspect of this book that I really enjoy is that it’s kind of sneaky, in that you could totally remove the supernatural elements and make this a straight up Downton Abbey game, just dealing with the family members and their affairs, tantrums, and health problems. The book knows what it’s emulating, and does a very good job of conveying that.
A Spot of Trouble Coming Up
The full extent of some of the rules are split across multiple sections, making it harder to understand the full process of using them. While the player versus player nature of much of the game isn’t automatically a negative, it’s worth noting. Even when players think they are okay with adversarial play, it is very easy to lose control of a player versus player situation. Some of the moves feel overly broad (Ignore the Strange is kind of your default “Defy Danger,” but it’s also “I’m ignoring something not immediately threatening because I can’t show that I’m phased by this.”). Given the topics involved, more of a discussion on safety would have been a welcome inclusion.
Clearing the Table and Putting Away the Silver
This book was so much fun to read. My initial impulse after I started reading was that it was going into the list of Powered by the Apocalypse games that I am planning on running at my local convention. The more I read, however, the more I realized that I need to do some work up front before presenting this at the table.
If you are looking at this book just to read an enjoyable, darkly humorous RPG, you will not be disappointed. The book never fails to be entertaining. If you are picking this up to use at the table, you will likely want to be very sure to have some discussions up front, especially about player versus player style games. The player versus player elements, as well as the slightly confusion organization when the rules are first introduced, impacts how broadly I can recommend this game.
TL;DR – Bedlam Hall is a Qualified Recommendation
—A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases. It’s a fun, entertaining read, that could be a lot of fun at the table, but know your players, and keep an eye out for potential conflicts, if player versus player isn’t your usual play style.
Let me know your thoughts on the review, Bedlam Hall, and what reviews you would like to see in the future down below!