Sunday, June 23, 2024

Liminal RPG: what you need to know to pass between worlds

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“In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between them, there are doors.”

— William Blake
Liminal book cover

Peer through the veil, step beyond the threshold, and slide between worlds, turning the mundane into the extraordinary. That’s the basis of Liminal, an urban fantasy RPG designed by Paul Mitchener and published by Modiphius. You play as Liminals, people with one foot in our normal worlds, and the other in the Hidden World, the world of magic, the Fae, and things that really do go bump in the night. These characters are too deep in the supernatural to be able to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but are too far from it to be accepted fully by the inhabitants of this parallel realm. Along with other Liminals, you will form a Crew, whose aim is to solve mysteries — called Cases — that straddle the line between the Hidden World and the ordinary one.

Why Should I Play Liminal?

  • You’re looking for a modern-day fantasy setting, and love weaving folklore, fairytales, and urban myth into your world.
  • You prefer your mysteries to follow the slower track of a European police procedural, rather than the more hectic rush of an American episodic drama (like Buffy or Supernatural, in which case you probably want Monster of the Week).
  • You like simple, yet robust, rule systems, built around classless characters who are free to develop their skills as they wish.
  • You enjoy art. The rule book is just gorgeous, it’s impressive.
  • You want the experience system to represent characters progressing towards their goals, not just how many foes they’ve defeated.
  • You’re a fan of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaranovitch, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susan Clarke.

If these possibilities interest you, then follow me through this portal, good friend, as we step into the world of Liminal.

What is Liminal?

Liminal takes place in the modern-day United Kingdom, though you could easily adapt it to any country with minimal work if you wish, with the biggest difference likely to be adapting folklore to your local customs, and reevaluating the accessibility of firearms. Everywhere you travel in the world is hiding secrets: portals to the Fae Realm, stores with potion ingredients and spellbooks under the counter, ghostly hauntings, any supernatural occurrence or being you can think of could reasonably be found lurking around a corner.

These secrets are guarded however, by various secret societies and cabals. During your case solving you’ll be able to befriend, or antagonize, these factions. Being friendly with the musty traditionalists of The Council of Merlin might give you access to arcane research you wouldn’t have otherwise, however they may require you to help them deal with rough elements of the magical criminal syndicate, who are rivals with a local werewolf gang. Depending on your Crew, you might even have one of these factions as a patron, such as the paranormal division of the police force if you’re crew is into more “official” work.

It’s a game that provides a lot of possible depth, and values players being involved within the world. Their actions will have consequences on the world around them, through the interplay of factions and alliances, and the mysteries that they’re investigating are grounded in local myth and legend. If this sounds daunting to you, don’t worry, because the rulebook provides a lot of helpful background information on the towns, cities, and countryside of Great Britain, to provide you with plenty of adventure hooks, and there are now several “casebooks” providing you with well written and condensed mysteries to help you run the game.

How Does It Work?

Liminal is based on a simple d6 dice system. All tests are resolved by rolling 2d6, adding your relevant skill score, and compare the total to a target number. The target number is is either set by the GM (generally a baseline of 8 for anything that requires a “professional” level of skill in the subject), or equal to 8 + the opponents skill level, in the case of an opposed check. If you don’t have any points in the required skill, then you still roll 2d6 (plus zero, since you don’t have any skill level) but you increase the target difficulty by 2. That’s it. Simple yet effective.

If you succeed by 5 or more then it’s a critical success, which allows you to chose from some extra special effects to add to your victory (with a few different options depending on the circumstance, such as if you’re making a normal skill check, or if you’re in combat). In case of a failure, the GM describes what happens, which can just be failing on the roll, but also has the option of letting you succeed at a cost. This unlocks the possibility for the GM to allow players to fail forward, moving the story onwards, which is a major boon in a game about solving mysteries.

Most other aspects are abstracted, so as not to get in the way of the narrative evolution. For example, distances are described as close, near, moderate, or far, so as not to bother getting bogged down in accurate measurements, any modifiers come down to a simple addition to your dice roll (for example, cover provides a +2 bonus to defense against ranged attacks). Again, this keeps things moving along nicely, and fits with the simple mechanics at the heart of the game, making it easy to pick up and play. Speaking of which…

How do I make a character?

Liminals have access to all sorts of power
Liminals have access to fantastic abilities

Character creation is simple. You chose among three foci: tough, determined, or magician, which provide certain bonuses, and also open up access to some focus specific talents later on. The tough focus gives you more endurance and makes you more hardy in a fight, determined focus provides extra will points (which can be spent to boost dice rolls, and also are drained by supernatural powers), and the magician focus lets you choose magical talents to cast spells with.

You then spend your number of allowed skill points between the 21 skills available (7 skills in 3 categories: Physical, Mental, and Social). At certain levels in a skill, you can also spend points to unlock specialties in even more specific areas for an extra boost. You then do the same thing, spending your talent points to unlock special abilities that you can use (such as supernatural abilities like casting spells). Finally you can decide to take on extra limitations (such as weakness to sunlight). This isn’t obligatory, but taking a limitation allows you to take extra talents.

That’s pretty much all there is to character creation, it can be done in a matter of minutes, and if you need extra help then you can simply grab one of the character concepts provided in the book which provides you with a solid character build right off the bat without having to make any choices. These concepts include everything from Eldritch Scholar to Gutter Mage, Investigator or Knight, or even supernatural creatures such as a Werewolf or Changeling.

How Does It Feel To Play?

Liminal focuses on fluid narrative gameplay, backed up with simple mechanics. While creating your character, you’ll have to decide their drive, which is what pushes your character to get involved in the Hidden World, and why they’re willing to take the risks involved in doing so. Their drive could be revenge against a monster that wronged them, defending innocents from dangerous magics, or trying to figure out why the Fae Courts have decided to keep using your as a peon. After creating your character, you’ll also create your Crew, along with the other players. The Crew will also have its own drive and overarching goals and motivations.

Liminal art by Jason Behnke

It’s these drives that will push your character onwards, to take risks, to investigate mysteries, and that will orientate the stories that you tell around the table. You’ll also be rewarded experience for accomplishing these drives and moving towards your goals, rather than simply from how many goblins you’ve clubbed over the head. The system doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is what is most important in Liminal.

The importance of narrative is also displayed in the terminology used. The term “scene” is used to describe the length of any encounter, which means that effects that last a “scene” are variable, but above all, it means that the mechanics of the game are subservient to the narrative flow. The game works well together, with its different elements complementing and reinforcing each other. There are lots of little ways that the narrative is enforced by the mechanics. For example, if you want to cast Fae magics, then you use the Art Skill check, rather than the usual Lore skill used by more Academic magic skills. This little quirk in the system exemplifies how the way Fae magic works in the world of Liminal, without having to go into a lot of detail describing the lore of how it works.

What do I need to play?

If you’re interested in diving into the world of Liminal, then you’re in luck, because you need very little to get it to work. In the core rulebook (available on Modiphius’ site) then you get everything you need to play, including two Cases that can be used by the GM to run a test game or two. You also get all your character creation needs, plenty of lore to flesh out the world after your players have gone through the Cases provided, and a ridiculous amount of amazing art, all in one very well laid out book.

The Pax Londinium supplement gives you a deeper look at the City of London

If you’re still looking for inspiration, then on the website you’ll also find plenty of other cases for low prices, and an extra source book covering all the wonders of the city of London. Of course, if you’re not ready not jump directly into the core rulebook, you can pick up the Quickstart guide for free, which will allow you to jump right into the game with minimal prep, and will help the players by providing a basic crew to play with.

If you want to pick up your copy, you can go through the Modiphius Entertainment store or Drive Thru RPG, and of course you can grab it at your FLGS. For more details on the game, you can check out Michal’s review here.

Images via Modiphius Entertainment and Jason Behnke

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