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Liminal RPG – Review and Introduction

Hello, readers of the Fandomentals. Today I bring you a review of the Liminal tabletop role-playing game, written by Paul Mitchener and released by Modiphius. What is Liminal, you will ask? It’s an urban fantasy role-playing game, that presents a hidden world next to ours – filled with magic and supernatural.

Our characters are the titular Liminals. It’s less of a solid definition and more a catch-all term for all people who exist in-between the two worlds. These include magicians, mortal humans who know the truth, werewolves, people with blood of the fae… neither here not truly there. Without further ado, let us dive into different aspects of this game.

Presentation

Let’s start at the top. What does the game tell us about itself? My main point of comparison inevitably ended up the Chronicles of Darkness, formerly the New World of Darkness. They both, after all, portray a world with a hidden side to it and let us play on both sides of the “veil”.

And yet, it’s different. Liminal doesn’t rely quite so much on horror, for one thing. It’s an urban fantasy game, not a horror one. Furthermore, all the different denizens of its world are under one roof, as opposed to Chronicles having a book for each of them. It is also easier for mortals to interact with the supernatural without being helpless victims.

The default group of player characters tends towards being a motley crew, though it’s by no means a requirement. Thus, Liminal places some emphasis on binding a group together. The default “crew”, as such groups are called, consists of various misfits who fell out of favor in their original factions and backgrounds. A separate chapter describes creating a crew, together with its own goals, assets, and relationships.

Mechanics

The game’s mechanics tend on the simpler and easier side, though not as much as some systems. The basic resolution mechanic is a roll of 2d6 + any appropriate modifiers. A test’s difficulty either depends on the individual opposing it or the situation. The standard difficulty of the latter is 8. According to the book itself, this means a skilled character should pass it most of the time.

Beating a roll by more than 5 lets us select from various benefits while rolling 1 on both dice makes our failure more acute. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary here.

Creating our character begins with their drive, typically enough. It’s what keeps our character going and what they try to accomplish. The next step is selecting a focus – we can be tough, determined or a magician.

The first two give us a bonus to our physical toughness and willpower, respectively – as well as grant us access to several traits we can purchase. Magician gives no such bonus, but it obviously lets us learn various magical arts. Emphasis on arts – a supernatural being need not have this focus. It applies to actively working magic, whereas more innate powers are traits.

This might seem a little odd. Might we not have a non-magical character who stands out by being quick or clever? Or charismatic, perhaps? Though I suppose charisma is part of willpower here. Odd as it may seem, those three options hardly define our character – our choice of skills and traits does the heavy lifting.

Note that I said skills and traits, not attributes. That’s right, Liminal doesn’t really have those as most RPGs do. The “attributes” section simply lists Endurance, Will, and Damage. The first two depend on skills and gain a bonus from the above Foci, while Damage is entirely situational, depending on the weapons we use. Endurance helps us withstand physical harm, while Will lets us resist more esoteric kinds and let us push ourselves. It also fuels magic.

I must say I like this. Far too many tabletop games include attributes as a matter of course. And they frequently end up a formality. The skills and traits we buy tend to define what our character does anyway, so attributes become an extraneous layer. Not so here.

The meat of character creation will, therefore, be skills and traits. The former are a straightforward affair. We get a pool of points that we can spend on them and our value is added to any relevant rolls. Traits give us various special and extraordinary or outright magical effects.

Magical arts are a separate category of traits. Learning any given style costs trait points, which we can further spend to acquire more effects we can accomplish. The styles include wards, geomancy, necromancy… interestingly enough, there’s a lack of being able to straightforwardly zap someone with magic. The closest is being able to call on lighting to strike from the sky with weather magic.

World-Building

Liminal focuses its world-building efforts on Britain and Northern Ireland. It lists cities, towns, and villages, as well as landmarks. Each gets its description and listing of some supernatural (or possibly so) features. The list is by no means exhaustive, of course, and more material is promised to appear in supplements. Instead of nailing things down, the book instead gives the GM hooks and ideas to work with.

Major emphasis is instead on supernatural and knowledgeable factions that operate in the United Kingdom. These are both mortal and supernatural organizations.

We have the Order of Merlin, an organization of magicians that dates back to ancient times. The Mercury Collegium is one part rebels and one part thieves, dealing with magic others would rather they didn’t touch. There’s two primarily mortal organizations, namely Order of St. Bede and the P Division. The former is a church organization keeping magic secret from the population, while the other is a supernatural division of the police.

Then we have the fae, organizing themselves into courts, such as the Queen of the Hyde Park or the Scottish Winter King. Then we have ghosts, who don’t really form groups, as such, but have their own realms. As well as vampire societies and werewolf gangs.

The book describes a number of smaller factions and gives example NPCs for them. The brief section about the Hidden World outside of the British Isles includes organizations that function there, as well. Liminal makes it clear that the player characters’ crew will need to interact with those factions in one way or the other. They might be part of them, formerly or presently, be at odds with them or simply need their help now and again.

Gameplay

As I said in a previous section, Liminal focuses on the player characters being part of a “crew”. That is to say, a small group of people making their way between the two worlds. Creating the crew is a communal process, with every player taking part.

Not unlike with characters, the first step is to figure out a concept for the crew. Are they an investigation business? Do they work together to defeat a common enemy? Or maybe they’re in the employ of someone powerful? They also need a goal to look forward to accomplishing. The crew also needs a reason to go and take cases – though this step may not be necessary, if it’s already part of their concept.

A crew also gets assets, which range from equipment or facilities to connections and relationships. These are narrative rather than mechanical, but they represent advantages the player characters have, maybe something that allows them to undertake the work they do at all.

Having players come together and create their group, rather than just individual characters, is valuable. Different systems have different levels of “buy-in”, as it were. Dungeons & Dragons, for all the grief I give it, has an undoubtedly easy dynamic. You’re a group of adventurers on an adventure, that’s all it needs to be (but it can be more if you want). Other systems can be trickier. It’s an issue I ran into with Vampire the Requiem. Having the game up and ask the players “so, why do characters stay and work together” is helpful.

The game is built on the basis of “cases”, which start with a hook the players can’t or won’t ignore. This gives Liminal a bit of an investigatory bent by default, as the baseline assumption is that the player characters will be “working a case”. The book gives the GM advice on how to keep the players’ goals and drives in mind and involve various factions, rotating them to keep things fresh.

Accessibility

Tying it all together, how accessible is the game to players? I would say reasonably so. Liminal’s structure helps the players build their crew and the GM to create a case they’ll work on. The game’s mechanics are on the simpler and lighter side, so creating your character is easy enough.

The flipside to this is that there’s not as much variety among the player characters as in some other games. Unlike with Chronicles of Darkness, you can create magicians, vampires, werewolves, faeries or mortals with the basic book and play them in the same group. But their powers will be ultimately represented by the same traits, rather than the different power sets of Chronicles.

One major upside here is that it’s much easier to play “clued-in mortals” as the game terms them, in Liminal than in the Chronicles of Darkness. The only Chronicles game to really give mortal humans agency is Hunter: the Vigil. Here you can play them alongside supernatural beings and magicians.

All in all, if someone wants to play an urban fantasy game about characters who exist on the boundary between worlds, solve mysteries and play politics among centuries-old organizations and groups, Liminal looks like a fine choice that won’t bog down an unexperienced group, or one that prefers story to mechanics, in details.

Images courtesy of Modiphius Entertainment

Michał
Written By

Michał is a natural meddler, driven to take fiction apart and see how it works. In The Fandomentals, he examines fantasy and gaming with a critical, and somewhat cranky, eye.

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