If you haven’t already experienced Clockwork Dominion, you really should read the full review of the Clockwork: Dominion Core Rulebook. Two years after I wrote it, my opinion hasn’t changed, but for a speedy summary, this was my opening paragraph:
“Clockwork: Dominion is billed as “Steampunk roleplaying in a Victorian world of gothic horror.” It has some incredibly unique mechanics and builds a beautifully detailed world that seamlessly blends legitimate history and period writings with the fiction of the game. Drawing from traditional-Abrahamic and apocryphal religious texts, world folklore, and all manners of Victorian writings from scientific to fiction, Reliquary Game Studios has managed to create a completely authentic feeling steampunk version of 1896 England.”
It’s just luck that the Clockwork Dominion Core Rulebook was a spring review. It was mostly luck that Cabinet of Curiosities went up almost a year later. As I write this, I’m right in between the two but have somehow gotten ahead of schedule and you’re reading this review several weeks afterwards. (I blame the extra apocalypse isolation time.)
Highland Spirits was a bit of a surprise to me. I knew it was coming out, but I THOUGHT it was just a setting sourcebook. While it does have a huge amount of setting resources, it also has a nine-instalment series of adventures that take place in and around that setting.
I won’t spoil the adventure when we get there, but let’s start with the setting stuff. Before the setting comes up though, the book needs to talk about Player Characters. The coming adventure has some specific necessities for how characters are built if the players don’t want to use one of the pre-generated ones. To some people, this is a horrible thing that somehow limits their creativity. But in reality, it’s just another way to ensure that the Narrator is able to guide players through the best possible experience. I’m usually happy with a pre-gen, but if a person wants to create their own characters I can see how it might feel a bit more restrictive. At the end of the day, it really isn’t when compared to specific adventures in other games. The nice thing is that this section also delivers a bunch of new character options, including some specifically for Narrator Characters, that can be used outside Highland Spirits.
As I mentioned, there are six pre-gen characters included in this chapter, that are supposedly designed for this adventure. I ran on the assumption that my copy was one of the earliest print editions, and that some updates have likely happened because there were some discrepancies. Although, nothing so disastrous that they can’t simply be adjusted when Players decide who they want to be. Even without these glitches, some adjustments may already need to happen as one of the players will need to take on a specific role within the story, that I won’t mention here, which may require some minor adjustments. The only “issue” with the existing characters is that they are all required to be Members in the Order of the Tattered Veil, which is listed as part of a character’s Assets. Membership is only listed for two characters and at the first level, where those same two characters are mentioned having a higher rank elsewhere in the section. Membership, and the different levels of membership, in the Order also has certain skill requirements and some of these characters seem to be lacking some of those requirements, without explanation.
Starting with the second chapter the book moves away from anything “player-facing” and is intended solely for the Narrator. Because of that, I’m going to be leaving a ton of information out here, to remain SPOILER FREE.
For the record, my benchmark for “Spoiler Free” is usually nothing more significant than plot points revealed on the back cover or other marketing material. The description is exceptionally brief on the back cover:
“Caught in a web of ancient politics, the characters must travel from the Highlands of Scotland to the edge of the Outer Darkness, where their alliances and allegiances will determine the fate of reality itself.”
bum bum buuuuuuuum
So we, the uninitiated public, know from the start that we will be visiting the Highlands of Scotland (The title, Highland Spirits may also have given a small clue about that.) If you are someone “in the know” you would also be aware that Clockwork Dominion takes place in an alternate history, steampunk, Victorian world of gothic horror, circa 1896.
The first setting we explore in this book is, I hope, rather obviously the Highlands of Scotland. Beginning with a quick overview of the surrounding region, then centring in on the town of Dingwall just long enough to let players get a sense of where they are. Then we focus in even tighter Balloch House and the surrounding estate grounds. There is a room-by-room description and an introduction to the residents and staff there. Some of the rooms conveniently have a very easily noticed box showing the results of some exceptionally common actions in that particular room. (Doing research in the library and such.) The descriptions of the estate are similarly laid out.
There are three areas around the property that take players to [redacted spoiler] and the next area of the story. One is unlikely to be used, one is not at all surprising if they find it, and one brilliantly creates an incredible mental image.
Many games would put these details within the adventure text, but by splitting them off it allows for a much better sandbox effect. All the information is grouped together with less having to flip between pages when the players make an unexpected choice. It also makes using these locations for something other than the included story much easier. This is even more true with the later locations that I won’t be talking about in any detail. All I’m really going to say about them is that if this book included nothing but those setting details, it would be worth it. Reliquary Game Studios could put out a full-sized, standalone, sourcebook about these areas and I’d have to block off extra time for the review to savour it and soak it all in. It is one the most interesting and evocative settings I’ve come across in a very long time, and I want more of it.
When you first move into the adventure portion of this book there is an important reminder on how Clockwork Dominion organizes such things:
An “installment” is a single game session, usually broken up into chapters and scenes that carry through a book. A “book” is a full story arc, and is made up of multiple installments. A “series” is a sequence of books that completes the whole story; it’s akin to a longer campaign or adventure path in other game systems.
Highland Spirits (the adventure) is made up of nine instalments over three books. Each chapter of the installment is written to be the skeleton of the story, with the Narrator and Players fleshing it out as the game goes on. If you have an experienced Narrator this makes for a brilliant experience. The combination of very open play and more restrictive character selection creates an interesting counterbalance to each other. The world is the Player’s sandbox, but their characters are going to be personally driven in a way that keeps their focus where it belongs (or at least where the Narrator wants it to be). For me, however, a more detailed and rigid storyline works better for my process, so I wish there was a bit more to it. On top of that, the loose structure can make it a bit harder to judge how much real-life time each installment might take. One group might spend hours exploring every option and another might burn through two or more installments in a game session.
Depending on how the series ends for your group of players, there are some ideas for the narrator to build on this story in future installments of their own, either with the current Player Characters or with new ones.
The last section of the book presents the stats for all the Narrator Characters that are encountered, along with a note on what page their bio appears on, what installments they appear in (including page number), and how much of a threat the may pose at a glace. Having the NCs collected (and split up) in this way has its own pros and cons, but it definitely works well for the format and flow of the rest of book.
Getting to delve into Clockwork Dominion is always a highlight of my reviewing schedule. There’s no way to, or reason to, deny that. The attention to historical and mythological detail is second to none. Even if you find you don’t like the unique gameplay mechanics, there’s little not to love in the lore they have built.