Kismet's Review of
Victorian Lost: A Maze of Smoke and Hedge
Gustave Dore - Houndsditch
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First, a summation: I like this book despite any problems I have with it, and it has already inspired me in a number of ways, so I don’t feel like I have wasted my time. I purchased it with a gift certificate I won several months ago and saved just for this, and I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily wasted it on something I will never use.
No one is more surprised by this than I am. When I first heard that White Wolf was going to put out a Victorian Changeling book, I was instantly conflicted. I love Changeling: the Lost wholeheartedly and I buy everything I can for it. But the Victorian era didn’t seem like a strong setting choice for changelings to me - though the authors have convinced me to change my mind on that initial assessment.
Now, let’s get to it: It isn’t until you get a printed copy in your hands that you realize just how short a book Victorian Lost is, and that sums up my greatest criticism: it’s just too brief to give enough support for such a meaty setting. By my count, 15 of the book’s 84 numbered pages are fiction (which is about as long as the fiction interspersed throughout the entire Changeling core rulebook). Parsing it down to about half that amount and making more suggestions for outside sources would have left room for information that would have made this more of a resource.
The artwork is decent, and the picture of a rudely interrupted garden party on page 21 encompases the incursion of the Fae into the Victorian world wonderfully. A number of charming (and real) antique advertisements hem the fiction, and I have no complaint about them whatsoever. They help give a good dose of Victorian feel to the book. But there are just thorns and gears on the covers and the blurb on the back cover makes the whole thing sound like it’s going to be as dry as toast, so I can see how people might pass on it before giving it a chance.
Class differences are key to the whole book and they influence the system as well as the setting. The changes to New Identity and Vainglory 3 make even more sense when you get a taste of the stratified and rigid nature of Victorian society. Even your place in space - whether you’re of the city or the countryside - denoted a sort of class distinction. Not only do class divisions reinforce a very historical difference in perspective, but they also build in further elements of conflict - and I’ve got to say, I like this focus a lot.
The Wizened Inventor kith was something that was needed earlier and which failed to be manifested by the blessing of the Smith, so overall I have few complaints about it. The Darkling Lurker kith, while based in a historical image, could just as easily fit into the modern world. The reason for its disappearance comes off as unsatisfying and flimsy. The fact that there are only two new kiths in the book also feels unsatisfying. While it might be difficult to come up with solid concepts that weren’t covered in previous books, a little more research and brainstorming would have gone a long way.
The Contract changes and the new goblin Contracts are just fine overall, and some of them could be used in modern times (recent news of yellow fogs in China made me think about Smoke Stepping, and Riot could apply in nearly any era). The cost for such a broad-effect Contract as Sabotage seems rather low to me, however, particularly given the prices for previous high-level goblin Contracts. But YMMV.
The Anti-Gentrification League has the seed of an interesting idea embedded in it, but instead of being granted a full treatment as an entitlement, it’s given a sidebar with vague hand-waving as to real, working details. Since a character will gain a penalty if they’re outed as a member and this is a sourcebook, a sidebar just isn’t enough. Another entitlement, The Honorable Order of the Third Hour, is fleshed out later on and is thematically in keeping with the era. It also rounds out any discussion of entitlements.
The coverage of the various seemings and Courts is just fine, and the focus on literary types and themes in Chapter Four is Victorian enough. There are two chronicles outlined in Chapter Five (each with a hollow statted and described) for those who use premade chronicles and/or want some thematic ideas for where to start a game. Chapter Six is a collection of scenes and fully statted characters (complete with their own pictures). The Appendix presents the members of the Back Stairs Mob, who are ready to pick up and insert into a chronicle.
What is missing from the book is support for those who don’t know enough about the era and need the kinds of history and details that will truly set their game apart from modern chronicles. There is no timeline and very little about common technology; the scattered material about the period and the culture best serves as a reminder to someone who already knows a decent amount about the Victorians. And although much is made of London and some of its freeholds are mentioned, there is little information about the city itself.
While some gamers have no use for extensive historical background and will do their own research regardless, for Storytellers like myself, these gaps are disheartening. For most of the year my free time is very limited, so I look for gaming books that offer more so I have to do less groundwork regarding system and setting. Of course I end up doing my own research, but whatever helps me need it less is what I’m going to favor. I want a book I can keep at my right hand throughout the process and use plentifully.
I can already tell that my reference to this book will dwindle quickly as my process goes on, given how much goes unaddressed, even when it comes to mechanics. Victorian Lost has no advice about how skills have changed, no character sheet, no details about weapons, and nothing about tokens, trifles, and oddments in an era known for its obsessive desire and fascination for things. The Victorians were famous collectors, determined cataloguers, and amazing exhibitors. Knowing that and knowing Changeling, I had been hoping for more on this score. And knowing and loving Damnation City as I do, I had been hoping against hope that the authors might use it to sketch the city and some notable locations.
I didn’t want this book at first. I freely admit that I was initially going to buy it only to support any and everything for Changeling: the Lost, as I always do. Since I never developed the fixation on all things Victorian that my fellow English majors did during college, I didn’t even want to want Victorian Lost. But out of five writers and 84 pages, I am left with the impression that it needed stronger direction and greater expectations. I am also left with an overwhelming desire for more on almost every score - which is both a credit to White Wolf and a challenge regarding their future releases.
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