Tabletop Review: Colonial Gothic: Rulebook Second Edition

Colonial Gothic: Rulebook Second Edition
Publisher: Rogue Games
Authors: Richard Iorio II, Graeme Davis, James Maliszewski
Page count: 284
Price: $9.99 (PDF)
Where to get it:

Colonial Gothic: Rulebook Second Edition is part of an ongoing series of reviews for the game Colonial Gothic, which has just received another treatment of its core rules by Rogue Games founder Richard Iorio II.

For earlier reviews in this series, check out The Ross-Allen Letters, Organizations: The Templars, Locations, and The French-Indian War.

Twas a Few Weeks Before Christmas

Anyone who pays attention to the Rogue Games website may have noticed the “12/12/12 12:12:12” announcement that something was coming on that date. Well, my friends, that something was a splendid gift of the second edition of the core rules for Colonial Gothic. I must say that it looks great, and everything has been really nicely re-worked and situated as a whole. Clocking in at 284 pages, this version is actually a few pages less than the revised version of the first edition rulebook (released in 2009), however, it remains a bit larger than the first edition of the core rulebook (which I actually have in print) at 211 or so pages. I think one reason this second edition is a little smaller than the revised edition is because they removed Jennifer Brozek’s flavor text intro, which was extremely similar to the exchange found in The Ross-Allen Letters, and overall trimmed other unnecessary or odd bits here and there. Sections of rules have also been rearranged and organized differently.

Needless to say, I am quite pleased to see a second edition of the rules here, and the book shows how far Rogue Games has come since Colonial Gothic‘s release in 2007. The table of contents is tighter, more succinct and professional-looking, and in the PDF is hyperlinked! That’s always nice. The layout is slick, I really like what they have done here. Headers have a nice font, and the body text is nice and readable. Each page has a textured background that is not at all intrusive or distracting, and the pages remain clean. I do have one gripe about the page background, but that will come later. You can read more about what Richard did with this edition at the Rogue Games blog, which includes a bit of an embarrassing tidbit about one of the reasons for this new edition: he couldn’t get the old layout files for the previous version to open. Well, Providence favors us this day, for one game designer’s computer issues have brought the gaming world a much improved product in the form of Colonial Gothic Rulebook Second Edition.

What Do I Like About Colonial Gothic?

Okay, so I’ve been doing a series on the game and ranting and raving about this and that, but why do I actually like this game and what are some cool things about the system? I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a thing about dice. I like it when games use non-standard (i.e. non-D6) dice, and a role-playing game using regular six-sided dice just doesn’t feel as fun to me. I know, it’s stupid. FUDGE dice are okay, but they are still six-sided. It would be awesome if there were such a thing as “SUPER FUDGE” dice that had eight sides and some funky symbol on each side that could be as easily interpreted as the simple plus and minus symbols. My point is, Colonial Gothic uses not one, but two 12-sided dice. This mechanism of rolling 2d12s against a Target Number (you want to roll under the TN) is called “12 degrees” by Rogue Games. They are also using this system in their fantasy-themed game Shadow, Sword & Spell.

Another thing, and this is probably what I like the most about the game, is that it is full of theme, the theme is unique and interesting, and the design focuses on this theme. This is not a rulebook for a universal game system like GURPS or Palladium’s system, this is a book that is dedicated to a certain cause, and the game is stronger for it. The setting is from the Colonial period of America, a few hundred years before the Revolutionary War, to about forty years after the war. In the first edition of the rules, the time period was meant to be just before the war, when tensions were high and a lot was going on; this is mostly still the case, but it is up to the GM if they want to put the game somewhere else. I personally think the pre-war period is really an interesting and exciting time to set a game in, as there is just so much going on and so much opportunity for players to get mixed up in something.

The third thing that I would say tickles my phant’sy about the game is that it is not too crunchy. It has some math, some sort of archaic calculations and such, but lets a lot of little things go to discretion. There are not rules for every little thing, there are overall guidelines and structures. The book gives rules and information for helpful areas, then lets the GM come up with anything else that is needed. 2d12 is enough dice to be interesting without the dice pools and modifier complexity of, say, Burning Wheel.

So, those are the main things I like about the game. Mostly, I just really enjoy that there is a game dedicated to horror-tinged historical fiction in the Revolutionary Colonies.

It Puts the Chocolate in the Peanut Butter

Ah, but this is not simply a historical game. More precisely, this is a historical game that wants you to incorporate fictitious elements, thus making it a historical fiction game. Not only do you adventure in early America, you deal with the occult, the strange, the dangerous and the mysterious. You may help put down a Royalist uprising in Plymouth, or you may be pelting a horrendous beast that has just appeared from a dark forest with musket balls. You may be seeking an agent of a dangerous occult sect, or you may be running a letter accompanied by a vial filled with a strange substance from New York to Boston. Something weird is happening in the Colonies, and it is up to the GM and the players to decide what that is and how they deal with it. I really appreciate that the danger and wonder of the New World is mixed in with the danger and wonder of the supernatural in Colonial Gothic. Of course, how much all of it works depends on the imagination of the participants, and whether or not they are into historical situations and the Colonial period. Seriously though, who could not be interested in hanging out in the Colonies just before the Revolutionary War?

As far as character creation and game mechanisms go, it’s pretty simple, though Richard has added some mechanisms that have become popular in some games in the last few years. Characters have abilities and skills, like in many other games, though the names are a bit different and streamlined. For instance, abilities are Might, Nimble, Vigor, Reason, and Resolution. Characters also have a Sanity score which is basically how much strangeness they can handle before they start to suffer from disorders. Characters also have “Hooks” which are like Aspects in Dresden Files, little phrases or sentences that say something about who the character is or what they believe. Action Points are the in-game currency that anyone can use to help them pass a test in a pinch, even after they have failed the roll. Beyond that, when you make a test, you just add the skill you are using to the attribute tied to the skill, and then add or subtract any modifiers. That gives you your Target Number, then you roll the d12s and see whether you succeeded or failed and by how much. That’s basically it! Of course, as with most games, there are spells, equipment, a bestiary and all that stuff that give hard numbers for the players and GM to use. Really, the fun is in getting everyone into a story.

Other Cool Bits and Final Thoughts

Combat, physical and social

Combat is straightforward, you take the skill you are using (archery, brawling, melee, etc.) and then roll against that, plus the attribute, as your Target Number. If you succeed, you hit, and the degree of your success measures damage. However, there are conditions and tactics you can use to affect how hard it is to hit, and you can try to avoid damage. There are tactics like Charge, Aim, Defend, Take Cover, and a few others. Basic, but even those add a little flavor to combat instead of just whacking the opponent. The book says that combat is meant to be swift and deadly… and it definitely can be. I would personally disregard the short section on movement during combat, as it does not appear to make any sense, especially since earlier in the book Richard defines a round as a very amorphous time period (giving a rough definition of five seconds), however in the combat section a round seems to be quite long. How else could I move fifty feet in a round without running? I can’t say I’ve ever seen movement rules during combat that I liked AND that had hard numbers attached to them, and I don’t understand why this section seems so strict when many other parts of the book are free-flowing.

There are also rules for social combat, which were part of the Revised edition but have now been refined a little more. Essentially a person’s disposition toward you affects how difficult it is to use one of your social skills to influence them to your point of view. Dispositions now have modifiers attached to them, so that if you are trying to chat up someone who is antagonistic towards you, you will have a tougher time with them than if someone were simply unfriendly or neutral.

Magic and Alchemy

Naturally, in a world of the supernatural and the occult, there must be some strange practices occurring. These are largely going to fall into the realm of magic and alchemy. If you didn’t know, alchemy was a sort of mystical term for a long time before modern science. Alchemy involved everything from extracting the essence of a juniper berry to purifying precious metals. Alchemists might have sought legendary things like The Philosopher’s Stone or Solomon’s Gold, and some were crackpots and some were legitimate scientists. In Colonial Gothic, alchemy is very much a legitimate art that can yield chemicals and elixirs, the equivalent of potions.

Magic is rather self-explanatory. There is a list of spells in the book, put into Common and Arcane categories. Common spells are easier to learn and cast, and have a shorter duration with less powerful effects. Arcane spells are more powerful and long-lasting. Thematically, magic is not widely accepted in the Colonies, and everyone more or less knows of its existence. Unlike in Dresden Files, where most of the populace might not even be aware that the supernatural is happening around them, magic is accepted as being completely real but considered dangerous and largely repressed. If you are a magic user, casting spells is going to cost you Sanity, which instantly reminds me of Arkham Horror.

Setting Information and Gamemastering Advice

There is some information in this book about the Colonies, what was going on and where it was happening. Timelines of events, religion, even libraries are discussed. This is a great resource for the GM, especially one who doesn’t know a lot about the time period. Even if you do know, this section sums up a lot of information very nicely, as the series seems to do a lot. Still, it’s not exhaustive, and I would definitely recommend picking up other books in the Colonial Gothic line, like the Gazetteer (keep an eye out for a review upcoming). There is a good chunk of information about the various Native American tribes in the area, which is great, and it does not lump them into simply Native Americans but identifies each tribe separately and talks about them in detail.

The other section that I like is the section on being a Gamemaster. Richard has some great advice, and it is obvious that he has run his share of sessions. The curious GM will have pages and pages of advice to read through on various subjects, including history, villains, running a horror campaign, and just going with the flow. Even for veteran GMs this kind of stuff is always a good reminder.

Final Thoughts

Whew, there is a lot of stuff in here! I like almost all of it. This manual will define Colonial Gothic for the next few years, if not more. I hope the production of this book carries through to future releases, as everything looks great. Even the clipart and images that I have complained about in other books really look nice and sharp in this PDF version, and everything is laid out wonderfully. My one complaint about the background of the pages (did you think I forgot?) is that when I printed them out, they were way too dark! I was surprised, because the background looks so light on the screen, but even with only black and white settings and the fast draft option chosen and all that, the background looked like a dark gray with graphics in white boxes. I don’t know enough about digital publishing to know if that is a problem on my end or something with the PDF. I think it’s something with the PDF, since I just printed out a bunch of stuff for another game and it was totally fine. I would rather try to get a print copy of this book when the softcover is released in a few weeks than read the PDF anyway. I assume it is softcover, since Rogue Games focuses on affordability and none of their other products come in hardcover. By the way, did I mention there is a creature builder in the bestiary section? There is, and it is pretty cool.

For any fan of the game, this book will probably be a must-have, but it is not strictly necessary if you already have the Revised first edition book. There are rules changes here and there, skill specializations are gone, and various other tweaks have been made in the re-write that Richard feels makes the game better and more streamlined. However, these are tweaks, not major revisions. Those still holding on to the first edition (not the Revised) should finally upgrade. You might expect a revised version of this book in a few years, but I think Colonial Gothic has finally reached a plateau of refinement and maturity. I just hope the production values in future books are consistent with the ones seen in this volume. Three cheers for Rogue Games and the team that supports it, you guys have worked hard to get this game to the community, and I’m sure they will be grateful!



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One response to “Tabletop Review: Colonial Gothic: Rulebook Second Edition”

  1. roguegames Avatar

    Thank you for the review. I am very happy you liked the work.

    I did not realize the page background printed dark, when I printed it out at home, it was fine. I will try to tweak the PDF, and worse case, I will drop the page background for the interior for the PDF only version. The printed book looked great with the background.

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