Review: Liminal

Liminal, a Role-Playing game by Paul Mitchener, distributed by Modiphius

I was always a fan of the X-Files.  Well, at least about the first four seasons.  I had fun watching Mulder and Scully peel back layers and discover truth beneath the veneer of the ordinary.  The idea of “looking deeper” always seemed to resonate with me.  It’s what originally led me to games like Conspiracy X (from Eden Studios), World of Darkness and Hunter (from White Wolf/Onyx Path) and even Secret World Legends on the PC (Free To Play).  And it was what piqued my interest when I first ran across the description for Liminal.

Written by Paul Mitchener and Kickstarted in March of 2018, Liminal is a game that attempts to zoom in on both what made the World of Darkness setting so rich and at the same time, simplify the mechanics down to where you didn’t need multiple 300+ page rulebooks to make that richness crash together in a splendid tornado of mystical chaos.  You play as Liminals, people who are clued into what is known as the Hidden World.  Some are ordinary mortals, either those with mystical powers, those who are part of old secret societies who have known for a while of worlds beyond our eyes, or those who were lucky (or unlucky) enough to brush up against that Hidden World and are now in danger from it.  Some are vampires, or rather, almost-vampires called the Dhampir.  Some are changelings from the realm of the Fae.  Some are werewolves.  All are just trying to make their way among the minefield of the overlap between the Hidden World and the one we see around us today.

As much as I enjoy the idea behind this setting, I almost immediately struggled with something as I read: Character Creation.  While not the worst chapter on character creation I have ever seen, it is far from the best, but could be improved with a simple example walkthrough on creating a character, and the decisions that you have to make to do so (and in what order it is most efficient for the understanding to do so).  There is also no character sheet provided in the book, though there is one available from Modiphius for download.  While this is not necessarily a problem (trust me, I have made more D&D characters on lined paper than I would care to remember), an actual character sheet guides the flow and the focus of character creation particularly to help a new player know where they need to focus and what things they still need to do.  With that said, characters in Liminal are quite flexible, and tend toward the narrative end of the spectrum when paired with the mechanics (which I’ll discuss in a moment) rather than the simulationist.  Each of the example characters has a couple of paragraphs of flavor followed by the same 11 groups of character items (stats, skill groups, class features, etc…).

In addition to the individual characters, Liminal introduces a Crew/Faction mechanic that helps to both tie characters in the party together and then tie them into the dynamic of the greater world (and the Hidden World) around them.  This allows them to devise a simplistic “base of operations” with some resources to assist them in their chosen goals.  It also allows the GM a bit of a framework to help keep track of the way that the other major power players in the world see and interact with the PCs as a group.

The dice mechanic is a simple one.  2d6 + a static rating versus a standard target number of 8 with some room for that to move based on a situation or with bonuses or detriments to the roll (or if you prefer, the challenge rating/target number) based on narrative conditions surrounding the test.  If you beat a roll by 5 or more, it is a critical success.  If you roll two 1’s it is a critical failure (unless you spend Willpower to avoid it).  You can use Willpower (one of your characters “attributes”), to modify the dice roll result directly in a point-for-point fashion for when you really need that success.  If the test is not against a “thing” but a “person” it is an opposed test and is made against a target number of 8 + their rating in a relevant skill.  For example, if you are shooting a gun, you roll 2d6 and add your Shoot skill against a target number of 8 + the target’s Athletics skill.  There is not much nuance to the whole thing, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as both Joann and I are big fans of not rolling the dice unless there is meaningful dramatic tension that should be introduced in that moment.

The book gives a couple of chapters on factions and other power players in the world as well as descriptions of things that go bump in the night.  The base setting of the system is the British Isles and Ireland and it spends a chapter detailing that both for those who are not familiar with the locales and to give a basic concept of what in those areas is different because of the interaction with the Hidden World.  I actually like when game designers do this because it give you an immediate built-in hook to the setting concept, not just a location.  This setting description is not the British Isles, it is the British Isles as it has been impacted by the Hidden World.  This is much the same as Seattle in Shadowrun, or Chicago in Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage, or Boston and Hunter.  It allows you to step in right away and hit the ground running as both a player and a GM.  There is a chapter on running the game specifically for GMs and the last chapter of the book contains two sample “adventures”.

The artwork in this book is beautiful and evocative and adds to the overall presentation very favorably.  The 285 page book is hardbound and of quite good quality, with an included ribbon as a bookmark.  The pages were only mildly slick and the ink seemed to hold very well.  The copy we received was used, but even then, it had been taken care of well and the cover is sturdy and does a decent job of resisting impact.

Now, do I recommend this game?  Potentially.  If the vastness of source material in World of Darkness is overwhelming for you, this is probably a decent alternative, but I would recommend playing with a somewhat experienced GM first.  There is more material coming based on the success of the Kickstarter, 7 additional books and a series of Case Notes (or adventures).  The first book, Pax Londinium, has already been released and is a London Sourcebook for the setting.  It can be obtained through Modiphius.  This game is right up the alley of those who enjoy reading things like the Dresden Files or watching shows like Supernatural as it sports that Urban Fantasy “vibe” that such media seems to capitalize on to great effect.  All in all, Liminal is a fairly solid offering, with potential to become even more so with the additional supplements.  Though those seem to be fairly slow in coming, the author is, at least, staying fairly transparent on Kickstarter with his updates and showcasing some of what is being worked on (there is a February update with a spread image from the Werewolf supplement).  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

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