The Kerberos Club
is one of Arc Dream's first sourcebooks for the new edition of Wild Talents
, and is a prime example of its “alternate history” approach to building superhero worlds, in this case 19th Century Britain concentrating on the reign of Queen Victoria. The book is softcover, with the first page showing the coat of arms of the fictional Kerberos Club, a shield with fleurs-de-lis, under crossed swords and the three heads of Cerberus (the mythical guardian/warden of the Underworld) over the club's Latin motto: MALUM NECESSARIUM. The text is in an appropriately 'old' looking font, and all of the art is in muddy greyscales, which in this case only increases the book's resemblance to a 19th Century illustrated text.
Chapter 1: The Kerberos Club details the club as an institution in itself, while the following chapters go over the overall culture and changes in the Victorian setting. The Club is at base level much like other gentleman's clubs of its day, places with such vast amenities that they were often more the focus of a man's life than his own home. (Especially since most men didn't have the domestic skills to host an dinner or event at their own homes. That's what wives were for.)
Primarily the Kerberos Club exists to provide a point of refuge for other beings who by virtue of their nature cannot fit in to the mainstream Victorian society, and thus extends membership and material support to many candidates, including the underage, the non-human, and those “unfortunate enough to have been born female”. But as with historical clubs and secret societies, any nominee must first be spotted and sponsored by an existing member. Once he is deemed worthy of membership he is made to face the Challenge, a secret test of his character and faculties. As with many such initiations, the Challenge often becomes just as much a test of the sponsor as the candidate, and many “Kerberans” find it sporting to somehow interfere in the Challenge if it seems either too safe or too threatening. Of course the results might be too much for a candidate to bear, and some react with rage at being manipulated. The Club has a special “Blue Chamber” to record the names of those who failed the Challenge, to spur the consciences of other members. Worse, some who lose or reject the Challenge become “Lost”, implacable enemies of the Club who are dangerous because they know its methods and are of similar mind.
Chapter One also tells us about the Club in relation to the society of its day. At the beginning of the 19th Century, going off the Revolution and Byronic period, Kerberans were considered acceptably eccentric. Rather few of them demonstrated superpowers, though they were all knee-deep in bizarre events and strange conspiracies, largely out of patriotism. This begins to change towards the start of Victoria's reign; Victoria's own birth is marked by peculiar signs and portents, and given the standard of first-born-son inheritance of title, it's implied that the events which allowed her to take the throne were largely arranged by the Kerberos Club. Victoria's reign also coincides with the growing power of the middle class, whose sensible priorities mean the egalitarianism and public behavior of the Kerberans becomes more frowned upon.
As the century goes on, Victoria not only manifests superhuman power but becomes the focus of many uncanny events, and the world, especially Britain, becomes more and more... Strange.
As in, strange BY British standards.
The fictional history makes it clear that fantastic events didn't just start happening in the 19th Century; for instance Elizabeth I had Walshingham assassinate the Faerie Queen Titania. But as Victoria changes, the Strangeness becomes more and more manifest in other areas, and the Kerberos Club soon change from gritty guardians of the secret world to a full-fledged superhero team lacking only flashy names and costumes, and eventually even these are embraced for the sake of “misdirection”. The author even compares the difference in style to the difference between The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic series and the Hollywood adaptation LXG (of course with the caveat that LXG 'is not a good movie.').
Chapter 2: All Things Right And Proper is a guide to how one lives in Victorian Britain. The first part quotes the mostly historical 1814 surveys of Patrick Colquhoun in comparing the Under Class (literally surviving on scraps and scrounging), the Working Class (still rotten, but at least you have a minimal living), the Middle Class (comfortable but ambitious for greater prestige) and the Upper Class (fixated on Duty and Honor, even if one's rank allows for a great deal of leeway from one's lessers). Sidebars for each group include discussions of how each class would: collect a debt, pursue an affair, answer an insult, react to tragedy and deal with others of the same or different classes.
This is important from the player's perspective given that Kerberans might have been recruited from outside the upper classes; the book explicitly states that the Club is a device that “allows for the equality among characters that most players expect.” Because it also explicitly states that modern liberal concepts of human equality were simply unthinkable to people of the era: “In the larger social consciousness, there is almost no belief that all members of humanity are equal and of equal value.” At the same time there is a seemingly peculiar tolerance for isolated examples of non-white individuals in the culture, which the book distinguishes from the Victorian hypocrisy towards women and sex, instead citing such tolerance as “the distinctly aspirational nature of Victorian morality and beliefs.” In other words, these other peoples might be savages, but some of them can learn civilization. Yet the Victorian acknowledgment that their stereotypes might not always apply doesn't prevent them from applying the stereotype in general.
This leads to both specific and general discussion of how the “typical” Victorian lives, and at this point the text more freely inserts fantastic elements, although even these are colored by the grimness often associated with this period. For instance, not only do you have mass urban factories in London, they usually employ craft faeries to create otherwise impossible technology. On top of this element of steampunk, it is said that “the residue of evaporating faerie creatures” creates its own form of pollution, with records of various deformed stillbirths and weirdly mutated babies in the vicinity.
Then the chapter goes over the major technology of the period, especially melee and military weaponry. With firearms, various methods of gadgeteering made possible by the Strangeness produce both practical and ridiculous results, leading towards the latter as a commercial arms race develops. It gets to the point where serious firearms enthusiasts begin to favor the old mundane weapons for their proven reliability. Even so, caseless ammunition becomes the late-century standard, and the period also produces Colt's Avalanche, a revolver that can unload its full chamber in under a second. Such technology also makes practical “aero ships” and rocket gliders that are not science-fiction by our standards but futuristic to people of the real era. In this case, the Titanic is listed as a commercial aero ship that was lost in an Arctic storm.
Chapter 3: Victoria's Century is a rather detailed timeline going from 1800 to 1902. It is much, much too full of Easter Eggs for me to really give it justice.
Chapter 4: London- Throne of Empire is about the capital of Victoria's Britain. There are of course other British cities, but none that so obviously define Britain and Victoriana in particular. It is important largely as the Empire's focus of political and legal power, so this chapter does a lot to go over the nation's law enforcement policies. In fact, historical 19th Century Britain, under London official Sir Robert Peel, did a great deal to innovate and standardize police policies, creating a local police force that eventually became the national standard and then an example to the world. Of course the “bobbies” weren't always as beloved as they are in the popular image, and this world also had Peel form the Special Branch, a core of especially hard-headed tough men who exist mainly to keep Strangers in check... and to make subversive elements of society “disappear.” The Branch loathes the Kerberos Club, even though the Queen relies upon and supports both. The need to confine and punish outlaw Strangers leads to the sort of changes to law that you see in other superhero settings (for instance, the selling or use of love potions can be charged as a form of rape) and there is the possibility that some of these criminals may be sent to Special Branch's facility in Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital, or “transported” to the Queen's New Birmingham colony just within the borders of Faerie. Rules for both scenarios, including extended contests to attempt escape, are included.
There is also “A Visitor's London” travelogue, including not only Bedlam but Whitechapel, Heath Row Aerodrome, and the “Sumpworks,” an excavated pit around a stone circle which is effectively a Sphere of Annihilation-type portal to Nowhere. So what did the City do with it? Made it the basis of the critically full sewer system. It's fairly typical of the reading of Victorian Britain here: In a world with magic and Strangeness, the Victorians don't use it to transcend the limitations of their technology and culture so much as dodge them. Which has the potential for disastrous long-term consequences, especially with the faerie-tech Automechanical servants.
Chapter 5: The Great Game is about... playing the game. Character creation for The Kerberos Club differs somewhat from Wild Talents standard, as detailed in this chapter.
Step 1: Concept (for the character). Step 2: Questions. These are defined in a format used later for the main NPC character examples: The character's Humble Beginnings, Follies of Youth, First Awakenings (when were you first Touched by the Strange?), Secret Origins (how did you come into your powers?) and Great Failing (the character's main regret in life). Step 3: Stats. Each begins at 1 and the character assigns eight more dice at this point, with no more than 5d in any one at this stage (equal to 70 character points). Step 4: Skills and Experience- pick normal-dice Skills, up to 5d each. If using the normal system, the PC applies 30 dice in Skills, but if using the custom system (below) he gets 60 character points to assign in Skills. Step 5: Customize- the PC receives 120 more points to spend among the next three steps: Step 6: Choose an Archetype, Step 7: Choose your character's Powers (including Miracles, Hyperstats and Hyperskills) and Step 8: Assign your character's Convictions.
Convictions serve the same purpose as Loyalties and Passions in the standard game but are applied more broadly. Despite being the last step in character creation, Convictions are described fairly early in this chapter. All Base Will must be assigned to Convictions and you cannot 'spare' character creation points to add to your Willpower pool. With one important exception (below) a Conviction can never have a value higher than 5, so if Base Will is above 5, a character must assign his Will points to at least two Convictions. Similar to basic Wild Talents, a character is expected to act on his Convictions, being rewarded with Willpower points equal to the Conviction rating for doing so, but losing Willpower equal to a Conviction's rating for being forced to deny that Conviction. As in the basic game, the GM is advised to use this mechanic as a tool to motivate characters, especially when their Convictions are in conflict with each other.
Next, Chapter 5 introduces a variant and highly customizable skill system.
It works like this: “Basic Skills” are like the specific skills in Wild Talents, for example, skill with Pistol. A Broad Skill applies to a larger category, for example Firearms. In both cases the skill is used with only one stat, in this case Coordination. A Flexible Skill (which usually also has to be a Broad Skill) could potentially be used with any stat where applicable- for instance a “Shootist” skill could apply to Coordination for actual shooting, Mind for maintaining a weapon, Sense to identify a weapon by the sound of its fire, and so on. Any given skill can also have the Influence Quality which is used with Command in certain situations. When made part of a larger Skill, Influence means the character's skill gives him a reputation within the field; for instance the Shootist whose skill includes Influence would have a reputation as a military man or gunfighter, and he could use the skill to gain contacts in that milieu. Characters with Influence in a group can even use their Skill to recruit minions from that group who perform as per the regular rules, with their number equal to the dice pool, and the height of the roll used to determine the quality of the minions. “Just remember that it's rather rude to call them 'minions,' and no good at all for morale- unless of course such an affectation of arrogance is your particular idiom.”
In game, this is written in a format where a Basic Skill (like Pistol) is (-/-/-) at 1 point per die (with the usual multiples for Hard or Wiggle Dice), a Broad Skill (like Firearms) is (B/-/-) at 2 per die and a “Background” Skill which is both Broad and Flexible is (B/F/-) at 3 per die; examples given include “Educated Abroad”, “Escaped Slave” and “Street Urchin.” Influence-only Skills (-/-/I) are listed as “Social Positions” and cost 2 per die, with examples including “Country Vicar,” “Member of Parliament” and “Kerberan.” Full 4-point Skills (B/F/I) are called “Occupations”: Examples include “Crime Boss”, “Natural Scientist” and “Officer and Gentleman.”
This is really very innovative, making the regular Wild Talents skill system something akin to the Aspects system of FATE, allowing a given character background to apply in any situation where a player can find it appropriate. It also makes skill selection much like the creation of a Miracle, which is also by design, intending to spur creativity.
After this, Chapter 5 discusses the Archetypes usable in the Kerberos Club setting.
The powers and concepts available to characters start from what would be natural for the “fantasy media” of the day: belief in faeries, belief in God (or gods), Unnatural Science, and in Victoria's case, a heaping dose of pagan Celtic “The Queen and the Land are One” myth. However the setting quickly develops into one where a Victorian veneer is used to adapt concepts straight out of 20th Century superhero comics. For instance, the Club includes Dr. Archibald Monroe, master chemist and self-described pinnacle of Darwinian evolution. He is of course, a talking chimpanzee.
Most Archetypes are unchanged. Extradimensional is here described as “Otherworldly.” Mystic is not allowed; a magic-using character must take the new Magus (occultist) Archetype. Other new Archetypes are Faerie and Human Oddity. The latter is a type of mutant with the Super permission and the required Intrinsic drawback Hideous (equal to Inhuman from the basic book) or Uncanny (a half-value version of Hideous with half the social penalties). This is for the John Merrick type who happens to have superpowers (which, in this history, he does). As in other sources, Faerie are basically creatures of pure magic and imagination. This gives them an inherent power of Glamour (illusion crafting) but also means they must take severely debilitating Intrinsics against breaking their oaths or going against their Convictions, and must spend Base Will to increase their other traits; a faerie is basically a figment of his own imagination.
More complex is the Magus Archetype. The Archetype is built on the premise that to master the occult, a magician must sacrifice all other considerations, such as scruples. Mechanically the Magus uses the One Power permission to get either “Sacred” rituals or “Profane” spell-slinging, these powers translating as the Gadgeteering and Cosmic Power Miracles from the core book respectively. Each of these Miracles allows the character to make up any power on-the-fly, but at a tremendous cost in Willpower. A Magus has two special options to reap the Willpower points he needs for a magical Work. First, a Magus must take an Obsession in his primary Conviction, the one relating to his quest for magical power. Once per game the Magus character can switch points from his other Convictions to the Obsessed Conviction, gaining a one-time Willpower reward equal to twice the new value of that Conviction. This allows the Obsessed Conviction to exceed 5, an exception to the rule. (Of course it also makes the character even more Obsessed and imbalanced.) A Magus can also build up his Willpower through rituals, perception-altering drugs, and other acts, though these all act on the principle of sacrifice and dedication. Acts which the character enjoys and would cause him no scandal if exposed gain Willpower equal to his magical Conviction once per day-long ritual. But the more morally questionable or socially “transgressive” the act is, the more Willpower it gains over a shorter period of time. If you are willing to risk everything dear to you and suffer something horrible, you can gain tremendous levels of power. “Magicians aren't often counted as respectable society.”
This chapter also has rules for procuring off-the-street Miracles (that is, magical items or weird science gadgets) using both game mechanics and roleplaying scenarios. There is also a GM's advice bit which in addition to mentioning the gentleman's-agreement standard for trading favors and getting things done, and the advice to employ character Convictions as motivating tools, also says: “Don't worry about breaking the setting. It's going to break itself eventually, as things spiral out of control.”
Chapter 6: Dramatis Personae focuses on six pre-generated characters who are all built to serve as examples of character creation, having 250 points of traits. They are also all extremely interesting characters in their own right. There are also somewhat briefer examples of other character types who could be Club members but who are built on less or more (usually more) points than the 250 starting-character standard, such as the Conflicted Magus, Faerie Peer, Saurian Survivor and the Cthuhloid “Pre-Human Horror” ('Really now, some things are beyond the pale even for us').
Some of these examples prove just how flexible the skill system is: For instance, The Night Hag (accurately described as a feminist Victorian Bruce Wayne) has 5d in the background skill “Mistress of All Pursuits” with the Variable (+4) Extra, essentially acting as a “variable skill pool.”
Finally, you have an Adventure, specifically “The Adventure of the Black and White Decks.” It shows the aforementioned Automechanicals in what might otherwise be a typical cyberpunk/robots-in-rebellion scenario, twisted by both the high-society setting and the denouement it confronts the players with.
I highly recommend The Kerberos Club as a setting. It has all the wild fantasy and Victorian style of Castle Falkenstein but is a good deal more sinister. Many of the Club's example members have the potential to be just as much a threat to humanity as the beings they oppose, with only a decision of conscience separating the hero from the monster. The organization very much deserves the motto “Necessary Evil.”
The Kerberos Club sells itself with impressive fantasy and a writing style couched in a very British sort of understated wit.
The book also expands on the possibilities of basic Wild Talents, especially with the broadened skill system.