Ahead of you stands one of the great gates, inset into the massive walls surrounding the city. Deathwatch soldiers look down at you, their massive galvanic weapons ready to spit electrified death at the slightest touch. The only sounds you hear are the screech of the gates opening and the hissing rasp of your breath passing through the gas mask. Thousands throng the streets ahead of you, reduced to mere blurs in the dense smog.
“Animates!” someone yells from the parapets, and immediately the watch acts, the gates halting their movement, then closing rapidly, no one caring which side of the gate you are one when it shuts. You rush in, and then look back, catching a glimpse of a few hundred shriveled corpses rushing the walls, toothless jaws agape in maddening moans. They must have sensed you as you traveled the wastes. Now the only scent in the air is ozone as the Death Watch obliterates the zombies with their electric arms.
The year is 2105, and London stands nearly alone, an island of ‘civilization’ amongst the wasteland of zombies and worse.
Welcome to the Metropolis.
Unhallowed Metropolis Review Part 1: Setting
Post-apocalyptic settings have become a rather overused trope this past decade or so, in nearly all forms of media. I am Legend, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead, Half Life 2, the Matrix, Aeon Flux, heck, even Wall-E are just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve commented in the past about the difficulties or creating a unique setting for urban fantasies, but really that is easy compared to standing out in the post-apoc arena. This is especially true when any form of zombie or vampire is involved in creating said apocalypse. Unhallowed Metropolis, a fairly recent pen and paper available from Hallows Eve Designs, (http://www.hallowsevedesigns.com/) manages to not only distinguish itself, but incorporate nearly every beloved staple of the Gothic/Victorian era of writing. Elements of Mary Shelly, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, even H. G. Wells, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and Robert Lewis Stevenson all are lovingly interwoven into the setting along with a strangely compelling mix of Victorian ideals and fashion with latex/rubber bondage and other decidedly less mainstream ideas. It’s been called gas-mask chic, Neo-Victorian horror, steampunk, though none of these quite encompass what UM is.
So what lies at the heart of Neo-Victorian London? Where does their world go so horribly wrong? Amazingly the rulebook includes nearly 100 pages of history leading up to 2105, a detailed alternate chronology of stories, accomplishments and timelines fully fleshed out. It actually starts out with a number of things that really happened, key events of our development. The first is in 1791 with the discoveries of Luigi Galvani concerning “animal electricity” controlling movement in muscle and nerve, being one of the inspirations for Frankenstein not quite thirty years later. Edison, Tesla, Bell, all the great inventors of the late 19th century appear, as does the advances of Queen Victoria’s government. Many people would dismiss these historical facts as irrelevant, but I believe that it was brilliant to include them. How can one create a game world in a Neo-Victorian setting without understanding who the Victorians were, beyond the small amount most of us know of Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens? (Both Doyle and Dickens influence the work as well, btw) This was a time of massive change, seeing electricity, phones, recording devices, anesthesia, and the theory of evolution springing up almost overnight.
Interestingly the initial event that separates their world from ours is only mentioned in passing. This is the idea of the luminiferous aether. Essentially it was an idea of late 1800s physics, saying that since sound needs a medium to travel through (water or air for example) so too would light, and since light travels through vacuum the vacuum must be made of luminiferous aether. (Meaning simply light bearing medium) Albert Michelson and Edward Morley famously disproved this in 1887, for which Michelson wins a Nobel Prize in 1907. 1904 is when things diverge, as Michelson and Morley publish a retraction, new results quickly duplicated by other laboratories all over the world as the aether is proved to exist. It is the last major scientific advance for decades.
Without warning, the dead began to rise and feed on the flesh of the living. The effects of the Plague can scarcely be overstated; overnight the cities of the world were overrun and survival became the primary human occupation. The very natures of life and death were utterly and irrevocably altered the evening of 9 December 1905.
Millions perished in the nightmare that followed as cities and towns fell to the walking dead. Within a few hours of its initial appearances, the infection had spread far beyond the possibility of containment. (UM p. 10-11)
Faster than anyone would like to believe possible the world descends into an era so dark it makes the first Dark Age look positively enlightened. In less than three years it is believed 18 million British citizens have perished, despite the fact that England fares better than practically the entire world. The cities devolve into blasted, smoldering wrecks home only to the dead, and refugee camps fall one by one, starvation claiming as many as external (and internal) zombie attack. The world, unhinged by the return of the dead, grows ever more strange and twisted. Ghosts, psychics, even vampires emerge in the chaos, but through it all the Britons remain undaunted. Eventually London herself is reclaimed inch by bloody inch. It takes 20 years and more than 30,000 lives, but London is fully reclaimed by 1959. Even then constant vigilance is required, as any who die might spontaneously reanimate, while those who are bitten are almost assured to die and return in short order.
As happy as this all sounds, it is hardly the worst of the changes wrought by the New Dark Age. The earth itself grows twisted, huge swaths of land unable to support any life not similarly sickened and diseased. Scientists, striving to improve the human condition, more often than not create monsters easily rendering Frankenstein’s Monster gentle and harmless by comparison. Whole Burroughs of London are sealed off rather than risk spreading the Plague during outbreaks, leading to near total losses. The government itself creates monsters, uncontrollable shape-shifters called Thropes. They were created to combat the animates safely; instead becoming a worse threat for any who venture beyond the city walls. Cremation is mandatory for all but the most wealthy, creating a massive black market for cadavers, both for medical research and illegal resurrection experimentation, often acquired ‘fresh’ by evil and callous criminals. The smogs in London, an issue even before the Plague, becomes a plague in its own right, whole days lost entirely in the black, an entire populace forced to wear gas masks outdoors constantly.
I’d imagine many of you feel a bit less than compelled to play in a setting so dreary. Unhallowed Metropolis is not without it wonders however, the horrors of the Plague driving industry and science in ways we can’t fathom even now. Massive arrays, based on Nikola Tesla’s ideas, broadcast energy wirelessly to the entire city, enabling electrical power to reach even the most remote area no matter how physically cut off from the rest of the metropolis. Galvanic technology, powered by the Tesla Array, brings unimaginable power to create and destroy to those who can afford it, helping ensure London’s safety from outside attack. Life-spans are increased with new medicines, allowing youth and vigor to last decades, life centuries. Reliable contact with the dead is established through mediums, allowing some of the veil of death to be thrown back. Genetic engineering becomes a (somewhat) reliable science, able to cure diseases as well as create awesome monsters, Psychic detectives protect the city, not only reading criminals minds and remotely conducting surveillance but predicting events before they happen. The reclamation is over, and many believe immortality, the elixir of life, and unlimited power is just one experiment away.
Granted, this is not a RPG for the timid. (Nor for the kiddies) Unhallowed Metropolis deals with very adult ideas, and is certainly one of the bleakest dystopias I have ever seen. What makes it so intriguing, so fascinating, for me is the potential for amazing story telling, in so many different ways. A group wanting a mystery to rival Sherlock Holmes himself would find themselves right at home with this game, as would another looking for a dark political thriller. Combat is gritty and brutal, a far cry from the abstract hit points and healing magic of most RPGs. There is even room for a Frankenstein obsession; the pursuit of creation itself. It’s a unique world, filled with scarred “Undertakers” living off of bounties for animates and vampires, sly and tricky criminals, doctors with more in common with butchers than healers, and professional mourners ready to decapitate the deceased at the first sign of infection.
The next section will deal with the bones of the game, the mechanics of play and die rolls. Be sure to drop me a line by comment or e-mail if you have any specific questions about the game you would like answered.
[tags]Unhallowed Metropolis, Unhallowed Necropolis, New Dark Age, Pen and Paper RPG, Role Playing Games, Hallows Eve Designs, Steampunk[/tags]