Friday, November 4, 2016

Empire of the Dead Overview

Pax Britannica! Ushered in by Wellington's triumph, the apogee of this gloriously British century was no doubt the latter reign of Queen Victoria. The power of Her Majesty's servants not only stretched to the far corners of the Earth but was practically irresistible everywhere. Empire was not then a dirty word, or at least not such a dirty word as we now assume. And even despite everything that could be (and regularly is) said against the Victorians, it is impossible not to take some inspiration from the romantic image of their lives and times.

For me, such inspiration can be boiled down to a few names: Dickens, Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Verne, Wells, etc. Their work is unanimously haunted by darkness. Indeed, it is the prerequisite for the Victorian hero: "There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in contrast." The predominating tone therefore must be dark and superstitious. Certain interpretations of these men's work especially evoke their basis in the uncanny - and manage it with subtlety:


Empire of the Dead (hereinafter "EotD") definitely embraces the fundamental darkness of Victorian literature, although it is influenced toward the techno-fantastical by Alan Moore and the steampunk vogue. To borrow Tolkien's icy phrase, I cordially dislike steampunk. Colonel Moran's air rifle is quite far enough for me, thank you.* Alas, steampunk is a core conceit of the EotD setting: The mysterious element "Infernium" (I think we Americans call it Ghost Rock, no?) drives a new industrial revolution. And of course the mystical forces push back. The result is begoggled bobbies deploying Gatling guns against werewolves amidst fog and cobblestones.

A rather tired concept, honestly. It is nonetheless what one might call "Strange Aeons by Gaslight" - that is, a low model count skirmish game with a robust campaign system. As someone more interested in the unfolding story than the gameplay in se, this is fast becoming my preferred 'scope' of miniatures gaming. But I am a gamer, after all, so I do care about mechanics. Along those lines, EotD seems sturdy if unoriginal.

EotD is played in turns each comprising four phases: maintenance, initiative (roll off), action, and combat. Movement, ranged attacks, sorcery, etc., all occur during the action phase on an IGOUGO basis, unfortunately. Melees are fought in the combat phase in an order specified by the player with initiative. Given how few models make up each side's warband, the tried and true (and boring) IGOUGO structure is not a deal breaker. But, for the very same reason, I'd prefer a more complex structure- maybe one built around reaction mechanics?

A starting warband comprises around seven to ten figures. You have 150 shillings to staff and outfit your warband, where the most basic unequipped figure costs 10 shillings. More powerful figures cost 15-35 shillings before equipment. Each faction has an equipment table plus there is a generic table, which all factions can access, and an exotic table accessible to some types of characters. There is an excellent granularity and variety of mundane equipment (e.g., a crossbow has different stats from a hand crossbow) plus the VSF/steampunk gear not only has neat effects but some items can also hilariously malfunction.

Each figure is defined by nine stats, and they are exactly the ones you would expect: Move, Combat, Marksmanship, Strength, Fortitude, Attacks, Wounds, Bravado (i.e., morale), and Arcane. The "standard human" statline appears to be:

This will set you back 10 shillings.

The highest base combat stat in the game seems to be 7 (the top-tier Werewolf and Vampire heroes have Cbt 7 and Arc 7 respectively). To do most things, including hitting in combat, you need to roll over a target number (more specifically, melee combat is an opposed roll) on a d10, adding the relevant stat and any modifiers. Some people say the d10 is better for skirmish gaming than the d6 but is the ability to modify rolls by 10% rather than 17% that important? This is not a rhetorical question. I suppose it also allows for finer tuning on the statline, although the significance of that is also questionable.

In any case, whether an attack inflicted a wound is determined by reference to a chart (Strength versus Fortitude). Ho hum. As soon as the figure takes its last wound, the severity of the injury is determined by reference to another chart, rolling as many dice as the number of wounds the figure took. Only the most severe injury result counts.

The range of injury results is a good balance between simple and interesting. The figure might be unaffected or might be removed from play - but it could also become Discombobulated or, worse, go Down. Without going into detail, both conditions limit what the figure can do in subsequent rounds, although an already-downed figure that rolls another Down result is automatically removed from play. Downed figures have a chance to recover during the next maintenance phase and, if unsuccessful, subsequently. Figures automatically recover from discombobulation at the beginning of the next maintenance phase.

Figures removed from play or who end the game Down must roll on the Campaign Injury table. There is a 30% chance of no serious injury and a 5% chance of death. There are ten other possible results, including some that require a roll on a further chart. For example, the figure may end up psychologically Unhinged and, there is a 10% chance that the condition could eventually worsen to the point of meriting commitment to Bedlam. This is what I mean by a robust campaign system.

And there's much more to it than getting hurt, going insane, or - yes this can happen - being deported from Great Britain. You can also capture enemy characters and sometimes even convert them to your cause. You can visit doctors for healing, although some of them are just quacks that will make your ailments worse. You can sell loot to pawn brokers. Your characters can even get better, earning better stats and new skills - the grunts can even be promoted to heroes!

There is also a solid scenario creation system: a table of five missions and a table of five locations - plus some minor rules differences depending on whether the game takes place during the day or night. (Most EotD vampires don't care for the sun.) Finally, players can buy "Unusual Occurrences" to affect certain aspects of the scenario, including rolling in the notorious London fog and riling up an angry mob.

This is where EotD really shines. This kind of campaign support is far more important to me than whether the fundamental mechanics are novel or, God forbid, actually innovative. (Too many rulesets are falsely advertised and reviewed as "innovative.") As far as the setting, and therefore the miniatures, go ... I find steampunk repellent but EotD does not lean so hard on those tropes that I can't overlook it and even, to some extent, get into it. The idea of man-portable Gatling guns is acceptable in a setting where gentlemen sorcerers can summon a mob of Victorian zombies. The seemingly obligatory "Tesla Projector," however, is pushing it. Thankfully for me, EotD is more about Gothic horror than strapping superfluous goggles onto everybody.

With all that in mind, how excited am I about playing EotD? I think this speaks for itself:

This will set you back considerably more than 10 shillings.

* But what about the Nautilus? In his place and time, Nemo's technological achievements were the exception rather than the rule. Steampunk assumes the reverse, which is exactly my objection.


  1. Nice review. How do you feel this campaign system compares to Frostgrave or the GW Specialist Games campaigns (I.e. Necromunda, Mordheim, Blood Bowl)?

  2. It's certainly closer to GW's games than Frostgrave. The most importance difference between EotD and FG along those lines is that, in the latter, you only develop one member of your warband - I think that is a little shallow for camapign-driven game.