Today I have another review for you! This time it is the Player’s Handbook from the 1879 RPG by FASA Games. They were kind enough to let me check out the PDF version and I was pretty impressed. Hopefully the Untamed Dice crew ill get a chance to run a one shot of this soon. In the mean time, here is my review!
The story behind FASA’s 1879 is, in my opinion, freaking awesome. The 1879 RPG is similar in style to Shadowrun, a claim I was eager to look into. This is true in that it will appeal to a similar audience. 1879 is an alternate history style game, like Shadowrun, but in almost every other way it is different. I am going to do my best to avoid making the comparisons, but they will pop up. The world of 1879, as obvious as it might be, does not take place in modern times. Instead we go back to another era, over 100 years ago. It is the titular year of 1879 and the location is Great Britain, at least in part. The world that this game takes place in is one manipulated by magic reborn and technology ahead of its time. Look at it this way: if you want a game that takes place in a Victorian setting that has a significant steampunk feel, this is definitely the game for you.
One of the key features to 1879 goes beyond the steampunk aspect. It even goes beyond the idea that magic is in the world. This game centers around expansion of the British Empire into the Gruv. The Gruv is an alternate world that can be accessed via a Portal. There live the Saurids, a variety of dinosaur folk who practice shamanism. They aren’t the only ones though. You see, the Babylonians of ancient Earth had their own portal and since disappearing from our world have been living here. These folk are much more advanced with things like railguns and other more sci-fi tech. Nevertheless, the British Empire wars with them for territory within the Gruv. Finally, and this is one of my favorite parts of the story, is the way that the world references Alice In Wonderland. Similarly to Shadowrun’s orks and trolls, the 1879 RPG has fantasy races that were once human. Among these are things like dwarves, elves, and snarks. They are the result of a sickness known as Looking Glass Fever. Not all survive and those that do are not always changed, but some are. Of course, alongside Looking Glass Fever was the growth/return of magic and this all happened when the Portal opened. Oh, did I mention the Portal is also called the Rabbit Hole?
The 1879 RPG presents a wonderful alternate history set piece. We get to experience a world that is less modern and a time in which mystery and exploration were still some of the greatest aspirations. It makes its mark on the RPG world by taking cues from Shadowrun, but by being completely set apart. This game is pulpy, its magical, and its steampunk. There is a feel to this RPG that some people will love and isn’t provided by many games. The options for character play are incredibly varied with magics, lots of skills, and professions that have enough range to play multiple styles of campaign.
In order to figure out the mechanics of 1879, and because this is a Player’s Handbook, I decided the best way to go about this was to not just read but to make a character. I have to tell you I was incredibly amazed with how it went. The book clocks in at almost 600 pages and I was fairly worried that things would elude me or be difficult to figure out. My experience was better than it has been with other games. First of all, the section on character building lays out the steps you will take and then, in the same order, takes you through them. Something I appreciated was the fact that things are laid out in a useful, pragmatic order and then the dedicated chapters to things like skills and spells follow. For example, the game has you pick a profession before a race. The reason is that some races don’t have those professions. The book explains this, as well as other concerns, as you proceed. This gets you to think in terms of a large picture as you pick out each small thing.
The character sheet for this game is intimidating. I have found that it is often a good indicator of how complicated the rules will be. In this case I expected a large variety of mechanics and some complicated equations. In regard to the former I was mistaken. For the latter, I was correct. However, these equations are background. While they are described so that they may be used and understood, there is a table for what an attribute score represents at the end of the equation. There is no need to do that complicated math yourself.
As for working things out at the table the game is fairly simple. First you have a Step at which you perform actions. This step may combine skill ranks and attributes or they may be damage values. Whatever they are all the steps equate to the same thing, a certain combination of dice rolled. The higher the step the more and larger the dice and the higher you can possibly roll. These are then compared to target numbers which are described by character stats or enemy stats, or by the skill being used. Exceptions to this mechanical rule are the ways damage can affect you (physical vs stun), armor ratings which reduce damage, wounds (and thresholds), and how you recover. In fact, things are designed for speed to the point of having a social defense from which to base social encounters without new mechanics.
All in all, the core of the mechanics is sound, simple, and consistent. All the potential things you can do have their own considerations within the book. Explanations, tables, and suggestions are all there. The game hold a complexity to the rules but centered around that core causes it to be strong and unintimidating. While I have a feeling players will have to search through the book regularly, this will come from unique circumstances and items will not be difficult to look up.
Presentation of the book is something I always appreciate and look at. Things are forgotten, questioned, and mistaken. Looking them up will be necessary. I should first mention that the digital format is bookmarked. Luckily this is not limited to just the chapter titles or the chapter sections, but further. Things like tables are also marked for quick access. As I mentioned above the character creation is laid out well and the bookmarks only improve this. Additionally, the book has a good layout overall. It begins with basic information such as character types, the basic information on mechanics and tests, and concepts within the context of the game. Following that is story information: history, calendar, races, locations, etc. Then we move into character creation with skills, spells, and professions. There are also specific chapters dedicated no just to spells but enchanting, engineering, hacking, and being a scoundrel. Finally we get chapters on organizations and major locations to further flesh out the game. Overall, the Player’s Handbook is wonderfully laid out.
My main problem with this product is some of the smaller design within that layout. Don’t get me wrong, I love the explanations and reasoning provided. I also love where and when they explain things. What I would have preferred would have been sidebars or distinct boxes, some way to pull out and show these things. What is a design note versus a consideration beyond the specifics? Those are there, but I enjoy when they are “pulled out” of the text. Worse than this, and probably the worst thing about the format, is the way that tables are presented. Tables are incredibly useful, especially the ones provided for FASA’s 1879, but damn are they hard to read. Most tables I see have a color layout that alternates rows with a darker or lighter shade. This helps follow the row to needed info without a ruler, pencil, or piece of paper. It also helps prevent you from going cross-eyed. I would LOVE to see that amended. This is especially true with the appendices. These amazing sections include a skill reference table and a variety of slang! However, they are full page tables and take a little effort to read.
Finally I have my first big complaint of any game. While games like those Powered by the Apocalypse benefit from having playbooks online for space and design reasons, 1879 has a standardized character sheet. This sheet is needed. Keeping track of all the things in this game, even with its strong and simple core, needs a well laid out character sheet. I was able to easily download one online, but the book doesn’t have it. As a two page sheet it should be sitting right at the back, especially as a full sized book of almost 600 pages. Yes, it is a small thing but come on!
I am very glad to have had a chance to look at this game. The world of 1879 appeals to me greatly and I would love to play a game in it. I think the rules would be easy for my group to pick up and the options for play are endless. To me the rules will not make or break this game for you. They are simple but are capable of great depth based on my current view. It is a system that can easily work for many setting and game styles. What really determines whether or not I suggest this game to you is how much the world appeals to you. If the alternate history, steampunk, Victorian feel doesn’t do it for you it probably isn’t a great choice. Otherwise it is absolutely worth checking out. It is well designed and laid out with almost no problems. Keep in mind, though, you will need the book for the GM. While this book teaches you almost everything, even I would prefer to have some in depth stats and GM material. Definitely head over and check it out!