I will let you all in on a secret. I may have a little bit of a weakness for urban fantasy. There is something that speaks to me about being in the modern world, but still finding the strange and magical just out of regular view. Tell me about ghosts and shadows and fey that still hang out just down the street and explain why I don’t always see them when I look their way, and you’ve got my attention.
There is no shortage of urban fantasy RPG products today. What is less common is one that details a specific setting that does not default to the United States. It’s very easy for me to view urban fantasy through a lens crafted from watching Buffy and Supernatural, and reading the Dresden Files. Liminal, the RPG that I’m looking at today, features the UK as it’s setting, and that important distinction is evident in several places.
This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is a 286-page full-color document. It has single column formatting, and unlike many RPGs, where art is limited to full page chapter introductions and potentially half page or quarter page illustrations, there are many pages that utilize thematic imagery blended across half the page, under the text, or pages that have a running theme such as a city skyline across the bottom of the page.
While many products evoke a feeling with the included artwork, the way Liminal uses its imagery tends to weave in and out of the narrative to create an otherworldly feeling in several places in the book. While some artwork is used traditionally as half page pieces, there are several pages where the artwork also serves as the background image for the page.
Chapter 1 serves as a basic introduction to the premise of the game, introduced with a short piece of in-character fiction. The game revolves around liminal characters – characters that are part of both the mortal world and the supernatural world – forming crews and solving cases. There is also a quick reference to the base resolution mechanic, which utilizes two d6s + a modifier, versus a target number. If modern game design leads you to wonder if this is a Powered by the Apocalypse Game, it isn’t, but we’ll get into more of the mechanics later.
The basic framework of the setting involves the following “truths”:
- There is magic, and magicians
- There are vampires with their own power group
- There are werewolves and werewolf gangs
- There are fae with multiple courts
- There are ghosts
- The myths of the UK, as well as many cultures that the UK has interacted with, have a basis in fact
- Some religious organizations know about the supernatural
- The UK has a police division that deals with the supernatural
Chapter 2 delves into character creation. This involves coming up with a character concept, picking a drive, choosing a focus, and then buying skills and traits.
The drive is what the character wants to accomplish by getting involved with supernatural cases and interacting with the hidden world. The character’s focus is the chassis on which the character is built, and includes the following options:
- Determined (someone with strength of will and a strong mind)
- Magician (someone trained or with a natural talent to use spells and magical abilities)
- Tough (someone with a strong body or powerful endurance)
Some of the traits listed later in character creation are keyed specifically for each of these character foci. While most forms of magic use are restricted to the magician focus, shape changing is available outside of the magician focus to represent lycanthropes and other were-creatures, although only magicians can learn multiple animal forms.
Initial skills have a skill cap which can later be increased during character advancement, and some skills can double as stats used for casting spells. For example, most magic will use Lore, but Glamour magic uses Art to resolve effects.
Characters have Endurance and Will as attributes, which measure how much physical and mental wear and tear they can take, respectively. These have a base number, modified by the Athletics or Conviction skills.
Traits are similar to what other games would call feats or stunts. Picking up the ability to use a specific form of magic is a trait, but there are also traits like Graceful or Rich as well. Characters can also pick up to two limitations, which can get them additional points to use for character creation. These limitations are also the means to represent characters that fit a specific supernatural origin, so giving a shape-changing were creature a weakness to a specific material can help create the overall theme, as can giving someone with vampiric abilities an aversion to sunlight.
In addition to focus, skills, traits, and limitations, there are example archetypes in this chapter to cover what a formally trained wizard might take, versus a mortal investigator, versus a lycanthrope or a dhampir. There are also sample player characters, which are the same characters utilized in the text for various in-character quotes and introductory fiction.
Chapter 3 details the rules on creating crews and adjudicating factions. There is a specific list of things to detail about a crew before the game begins, and the information derived from this helps to shape what the campaign will look like. It is essentially a mechanized session zero for the group.
Crews have a goal, much like a group version of the individual drives that characters create for their characters. There is a list of crew resources, and each player picks one of those resources for which the crew has access. This can involve having greater starting capital, a headquarters, a safe house, or even a bonus when dealing with specific enemies.
The group determines what major factions are at play in the campaign, and each PC determines if they have a positive or negative relationship with that faction. Rankings for each faction at play go up one for each positive relationship, and down one for each negative relationship, to a maximum of +/- 3, with an extreme rating meaning that the crew is either known as an ally to, or devoted enemy of, that faction.
Additionally, each player will provide a hook, an open-ended supernaturally adjacent bit of news that is floating around the game world, that the GM can then weave into the greater campaign.
I really like this formalized way of setting up the crew, and even separated from the specific mechanics of the game, it serves as a good way to start a campaign and to poll the table as to what the campaign should look like and what the players want from the game. The biggest sticking point I think may be the hooks – it’s a great idea, but not every player is going to have a strong hook to contribute early in the campaign, and it may feel a bit like putting them on the spot.
This section deals with how the game rules work at the table. Base resolution is 2d6 plus a relevant skill versus a target number, but there are a number of ancillary rules that make this resolution a little bit more robust.
Opposed tests involve a base number plus the opponent’s relevant skill, rather than having both sides roll against one another. Characters can spend points from their Will attribute to modify their rolls. When a character fails, the GM gets to determine which of four options apply to the failure, so failure doesn’t feel quite as binary as it might otherwise. Additionally, if a character succeeds by 5 or more on a test, there is a list of additional effects that can be added to the result.
One of my favorite rules bits in this section involves persuading or coercing other characters. Successfully doing this doesn’t mean that the character has to do what you want them to do, just that they either have a penalty to actions that don’t line up with what you want them to do, or they must suffer a hit to their Will to shake off the effects of the failed contest.
In conflicts, initiative is handled in a manner similar to Cypher system, in that the players roll against the highest opponent’s skill to determine if they go before or after the opposition.
Chapter 5 is all about magic. Way back during character creation, you could buy the base level of various forms of magic, but this chapter has a number of upgrades that you can purchase to allow more thematic effects based on the type of magic being enhanced. The magic traditions included in this chapter include:
- Blessings and Curses
- Ward Magic
Most of these are straightforward effects that utilize the game rules. For example, base necromancy lets you talk to spirits, and one of the upgraded effects lets you drain life energy from opponents. Shape changing gets a little tricky and confusing, at least for me. Bigger than human forms get a bonus to Endurance, smaller than human forms get a penalty, and animal forms grant a bonus to skills that animal form is good at performing – all this works for me and adjudicating what an animal form is good at on the fly isn’t too hard in this kind of game.
Where I got a little turned around is that the description of the ability in this chapter starts mentioning traits that may go with the animal form, and that some of those may carry over to the mortal form, and I don’t know if that’s just flavor for how a character should build their character, or if you are meant to give them bonus traits based on animal form, and to decide if they should be split across animal and mortal forms. I don’t think this is the case, but for some reason, I got turned around it this particular form of magic and its description.
Chapter 6 and Chapter 7Â
I’m grouping these chapters together, as they are both descriptive of what the assumed setting of Liminal should look like. Major and minor factions are detailed, as are various cities and sites in the UK. One of the elements that sets Liminal apart from other urban fantasy games is that the factions and locations often have ties to specific elements of UK history. Some historical figures were turned as vampires, and their deaths covered up. The Council of Merlin may have looked the other way during some historical events while protecting the isles during others. There are a lot of details that feel like they add one extra layer to history, without burying the setting in lore, and without changing some important, sensitive events by shifting the blame from human shortcomings to supernatural involvement.
There are major factions for wealthy, formally educated wizards, less formally trained and potentially less lawful wizards, government agencies, Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim religious organizations that deal with the supernatural, a powerful werewolf family attempting to unite the various gangs, fey courts native to various geographical areas of the UK, and the primary vampire organization in operation.
There are some subtle and not so subtle commentaries going on with some of the factions. Vampires are dangerous, but their organizational goals tend to be a little out of date. The Council of Merlin is very much a rich male organization that thinks it is being very progressive by allowing women to join and having a reasonable application fee that only the wealthy could possibly front. The police unit that investigates supernatural crime doesn’t actually formally record any supernatural details of events, to shield information from the public record, but there is also an ancient group of wizards that still nominally works for the crown as well.
One interesting aspect of the setting that becomes apparent as organizations and locations are detailed is that creatures like demons and angels aren’t really a feature of the setting. Gods are mentioned as potentially being powerful fae creatures, and djinn and rakshasas seem to be fae as well, so it may be that all of the ephemeral creatures from “other realms” fall into this category.
There are a few places in the text where this struck me previously, but in these chapters, especially, I am very aware that there are no specific sidebars or separate discussions on safety or content. Not only are we dealing with some fairly ghastly werewolf rituals, predatory vampires, and gruesome means for ghosts to come about, but we’ve also got the misogyny of the Council of Merlin, potential religious friction, at least some discussion of political tensions between various regions of the UK, and a fae king who kidnaps women to be his bride (they are mentioned as needing to willingly accept the position, but they are also mentioned as being kidnapped, coerced, misled, and put in suspended animation when he is ready for a new bride).
It is a rich history that has been woven into a real-world location, and it has been done better than some urban fantasy setting material, but in this era of games, there really needs to be more awareness of content that could be problematic, and how to deal with that in a game that touches on those topics.
Chapter 8, 9, and 10
The final three chapters in the book are the chapter on gamemastering, the chapter for “faces” (which includes stats for various supernatural beings PCs might encounter), and the chapter for sample cases.
The gamemastering chapter has sections on how to structure cases, advice on setting difficulty, and places outside of the UK where Liminal stories may take place. I like the very solid, practical advice on how to structure a case, and its advice that could work for structuring other urban fantasy games as well, making it even more broadly useful. It’s also interesting to see the setting assumptions applied to locations in the US and Germany as well as the baseline assumed setting.
The faces section includes new traits, some of which can be available for PCs, but may push them further into the fully supernatural, rather than the border between. These traits mainly exist to help with the stats found in this chapter, which include fae, ghosts, clued-in mortals, ordinary mortals, vampires, and werewolves.
The final chapter sample cases do a really nice job of explaining the setups, the facts of the case, the point at which complications may occur, and ways that the case may be resolved, but not much about detailed specifics between certain “notes” in the case. The outlines are more interested in pointing out that you need to find out about X, not that you need to do a specific thing to find X, but that once you find X, some kind of complication should happen. I like the solid outline with flexible sections between approach.
That said, between gamemastering and sample adventures, no dedicated discussion on safety or content warnings for a game that can have some potentially uncomfortable content.
Index, Concepts, Sketches, Process, Afterword, and Acknowledgements
The final sections in the book include an index, a section that showcases the art that serves as the backdrop of most of the book, without the words and formatting that obscures it, an afterward, and an acknowledgments section that details the various backers and playtesters.
Â The setting resonates as a strong urban fantasy realm that is both familiar and unique, because of the rich ties to historical locations and events.Â
The rules do a nice job of riding the line between simple and granular and pick up some of the best modern game design notes by building in ways to fail forward and to add detail to skill tests. The setting resonates as a strong urban fantasy realm that is both familiar and unique, because of the rich ties to historical locations and events. The crew creation rules provide a solid structure and direction for the campaign and ensure a degree of intentionality that would benefit a lot of games.
The rules are just granular enough that they may have benefited from a few more summaries or examples, especially where magic is involved. While not entirely a negative, players need to have some creative investment to get most of the structure of the rules. In a modern game, there really needs to be more discussion on safety and content warnings at the table, especially when modern problems and elements of horror stories are assumed aspects of the game.
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.
This is a rich urban fantasy setting with a solid set of rules for adjudicating the game, but you may need to do your own work to reinforce safety at the table without any support from the game, and you may want to be sure your players are up to coming up with their own elements that help to shape the setting.
Have you also been bitten by the urban fantasy gaming bug? What are your favorite urban fantasy games, and what subgenres within urban fantasy are your favorites? What games do you think have most effectively utilized the tropes of your favorite subgenres? Let us know in the comments below – we’re excited to hear from you!
Thanks for the thorough review, and for the comments about content warnings and safety. That’s a constructive criticism I need to take on board.