As I’ve mentioned countless times, if I had to pick just one tabletop RPG to take with me to a desert island, it would be Call of Cthulhu. I love the game and I love the Basic Role-Playing mechanics that underpin it. BRP is what I started with, and it’s what I’m most familiar with, and it’s extremely versatile. However, as time has gone on, I’ve found myself more and more interested in rules-light, streamlined games. Games that handwave a lot of the more noodley details. That’s why Over the Edge 2nd Ed. eclipsed BRP as my favorite system. It’s why I’ve been digging Free League’s Year Zero games (Alien, Tales from the Loop, etc.) lately. It’s why Seann McAnally’s Gentlemen VS Demons piqued my interest. From the description I read, it was thematically similar to Call of Cthulhu, with a vaguely similar rules system, but simplified. And that’s mostly accurate.
This isn’t Basic Role-Playing, but it’s adjacent. A not-to-dissimilar core mechanical idea. And it’s not exactly Call of Cthulhu, either. It’s more toward Sherlock Holmes, Carnacki the Ghost Finder, or even The Shadow or The Spider. Intended for the general time period of 1890 to 1930 or so, your heroes (like Pulp Cthulhu, your characters are likely to be a bit more heroic, even if they might not always be nice) might be a wealthy old doctor, or a fresh-faced young woman with more bravery than sense. Making characters is fairly simple. Six stats with percentile ratings. You pick a skill. This is where it gets MUCH more hand wavy than BRP, and feels a bit more like Over the Edge 2nd Ed., because you might pick “Science Skill,” and that covers you. You’re the science guy, now. You can do the science stuff. Is it science related? OK. Roll your skill. It’s not broken out into any specifics at all. So, if you want to play an occultist hero, you just pick Arcane Skill and you’re good to go.
For the most part, the rest of the game and its mechanics are of a similar scale of complexity. The only thing that seems to get very noodley at all is combat, as there is a hit location element, and how that and your character’s health relate is one of the only things that starts to border on complex.
I was especially interested in this game because I’ve been wanting to run one of the big Call of Cthulhu campaigns (Horror on the Orient Express or Masks of Nyarlathotep, probably), but the idea of doing that has been pretty daunting. It’s daunting not just because those campaigns are massive, with a ton of moving parts, and would likely take over a year each (as much as two years, from what I understand), but because characters in Call of Cthulhu are very, very squishy, making replacement characters isn’t super easy, and making sure you’ve got all the very specific skills to solve issues is a challenge. So, I’ve been kicking around different, less mechanic-heavy games that I might plug in. Recently, after playing Alien, I got to thinking that its specific variation of the Year Zero Engine might be a good fit. Yet, there is enough of BRP that I like…, so maybe this will end up being a happy medium. I’m not sure if it’ll work as well as I hope it will. Maybe I’ll try it on a smaller scale game first.
On the technical side, this is a slim book that’s slightly larger than “digest” size, but definitely smaller than the usual tabletop RPG, textbook size. It has a lot of full-color art that’s extremely evocative. The rules are presented well and I didn’t really stumble over anything, except maybe the combat and hit locations, but my brain usually shuts down when reading combat rules for games, anyway. I’ll just have to try it out with my players and see how that goes. I do have a couple of complaints or suggestions for a future edition. Several times there are some lists, like potential character names or locations, that would have been SO MUCH better as numbered lists so you could roll for them randomly if you so chose. This is especially odd, because some lists are numbered with that very idea in mind, but not others. And there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason for which lists have numbers and which don’t. Several that don’t are definitely lists that I’d like to have as random charts for when I’m adventure building and want to spark some ideas. With the name list, particularly, I’d have loved to see it broken down into first names and surnames on two separate D100 lists. The only other thing that bothered me is the character sheet. Due to the physical nature (size & binding), it would be almost impossible to get a good photocopy of it. There’s a note that points you toward a website to get a full-sized PDF to print out, but when you go to that website, there does not appear to be such a PDF, nor is there one on the Nerd Glows On company page on DriveThru. The sheet isn’t super complicated and I could make my own. But I don’t want to. [Edit: Seann has added the character sheet to the page. Awesome!]
In summation, I’m not totally sure that Gentlemen VS Demons is going to be the system I use when I finally run Horror on the Orient Express, but right now, it’s in the lead (Recency bias? Possibly). Even if it isn’t, the game looks like a ton of fun, and I certainly like the genre. It would almost certainly be a good game for some supernatural-themed games to be run in the Halloween season. It’s also super inexpensive on Lulu, in spite of being well produced. So, definitely buy a copy (or get it in PDF).
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