By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 15 May 2019
Urban Fantasy is a genre of RPG I’ve reviewed on this site multiple times over the years, and for good reason: it’s an interesting premise, especially when done right, doubly so because it’s familiar. I’m sure we were all raised with hearing ghost stories, seeing horror movies set in our time, and learning all of the urban legends of our respective homes. It’s one of the reasons why I got into so many RPGs of the genre; it’s easier to explain “it’s the modern day with magic and monsters” than having to condense a large fantasy or sci-fi universe into easy-to-consume bits.
With that, when Liminal crossed my path, I knew I needed to add it to the collection. Sure, I already had reviews finished or scheduled for Dresden Files Accelerated, Scion 2E, Part-Time Gods 2E, and City of Mist, so many would think I had the bases for this sort of thing covered. Well, I’ll say that you would be sorely mistaken if you think I’d really overlook Liminal just because I had a few other similar books in hand!
“A roleplaying game about those caught between the ordinary and the extraordinary.” These words presented on the back of the book for Liminal sum up the game rather nicely. Liminal is best pitched as an urban fantasy game based on those caught between the world of the supernatural and the mundane, but not fully belonging to either.
For long-time fans of the genre, I would describe it as “World of Darkness meets Neil Gaiman in London,” and that would just be the tip of the iceberg.
==What You Get==
As a PDF, the aptly named Liminal weighs in at 286 pages, with the last eighteen pages dedicated to sketches and concept artwork for the game. The rest of the book is split into smaller chapters spanning about 20-30 pages each, covering the rules, magic systems, character creation, the world, factions, how to GM the game, and a pair of adventures.
Mechanically, the game is a 2d6+skill, with a base difficulty of 8, mods based on the situation, and relies on various advantages and “fiddly bits” to provide all of the supernatural elements.
Aesthetically speaking, Liminal is hauntingly beautiful. The artwork really does capture the details of reality with the ephemeral nature of the supernatural. I really can’t help but gawk at some of the landscapes, or the attention to minute details on character designs, even for the simple ones. The art alone is well worth gawking at and seeking the subtle clues within, and the artist deserves a great deal a credit for this work.
As someone who reads these books on the regular, I find long chapters to be tedious at times. Liminal has everything broken down into bite-sized chapters, spanning about 20 pages on average. This not only makes it easy to do a cover-to-cover read (and have clear “break” points when on the go), but it also means that information is MUCH easier to find. Having to flip through to find something, even without using the PDF hyperlinks, was a simple task due to these smaller chapter sizes.
Finally, the mechanics are rather simple and friendly. Due to only needing 2d6, most players already have everything they need to get started with playing. Additionally, thanks to a simplified skill-base mechanic (instead of requiring stats) and deriving everything from those numbers (Athletics + X is your “Endurance”/HP, skill + 8 is the passive difficulty, etc), it’s exceptionally easy to pick up, jump in, and grok. Additionally, with a simple “Trait” mechanic, you gain bonuses to rolls or unlock an entirely new type of action (read: magic). Simple, effective, and efficient!
In all honesty, the biggest concern I have is actually the mechanic. While it is simple and easy to grasp, as written, it begs to be broken. As it is a simple “roll + mod”, and there is nothing against stacking most bonuses, some characters can have certain skills set up to almost always succeed. Sadly, like most games, this only gets worse with magic being tossed into the mix, as some abilities seem to stack, making some challenges almost laughable with the right magical tools.
With that in mind, I’m wary about what later books are going to provide, if we get later books at all. I say this due to my experience with Unisystem: the core books are mostly workable, but once you start adding expansions for All Flesh Must Be Eaten or Witchcraft, the stacking and crunch gets out of control. As Liminal functions on a very similar mechanical vein, this is well worth mentioning.
Beyond the mechanical aspects mentioned above, there are two things I can’t quite decide if they are good or bad.
The first is the setting, oddly enough.
On one hand, I love the themes we’re presented with. Multiple supernatural factions at odds with each other, humans that have powers but don’t quite belong in either world, and the poor mortals stuck between them all. It has all of the necessary tropes for a setting within this genre, and limiting it to London makes things feel a bit more local.
That said, the limiting factors just feel, well, limiting. The setting quite frankly feels like everything must exist within this microcosm, and while it is relatively vibrant, it’s not lush enough to keep my attention for terribly long. We have an order of wizards, but there’s just a little more than a dozen of them with strict rules for joining that will be beyond most PCs. We have two major organizations of the Fae (and why they hate each other), but little about the Fae organizations for the world at large (i.e. is there a global structure, like Seelie vs Unseelie?). This trend continues on.
While this is interesting in some ways, as it promotes a game that is literally set “at home,” I find that its restricting for any group that wants to do movement, and that the information we have will only take us so far before needing to be tweaked, changed, or added to, which may lose some of that feel (and appeal) of the game.
In the end, I find that the setting is about on par with Part-Time Gods 2E and Tales From The Loop, and is drastically cleaner than Witchcraft, but it is slightly lacking compared to Scion. Comparing it to The Dresden Files would be cruel, as one should not compare a single stand-alone RPG to an ongoing series, and trying to compare the setting of Liminal to the World of Darkness is too much of a headache due to the long nature of the game.
The second middling point is, strangely enough, the magic system.
There’s a part of me that really enjoys how magic is codified in the game; it promotes specialties, the cost and dedication needed to learn, and the magic isn’t terribly too over-the-top. In fact, most “mundane” characters can handle the same situation, albeit in different ways according to narrative, but mechanically still the same.
Yet the magic does have limitations, in that it’s not “obvious” or “spectacular.” The magic in this is more on the subtle side of things and is ideal for an investigative game, which Liminal strongly lends itself to, but reskinning the game to other similar settings (such as The Dresden Files, or Iron Druid, or Nightside, or Anita Blake, or…) will be a bit of a challenge due to the lack of verbose combat magics. Honestly, outside of hurling a specialized curse or summoning a lightning bolt (severely limited), what we see as “combat magic” is largely missing. This is absolutely fitting for the game it’s marketed as, but if you were going to grab this to fulfill a different setting that has similar themes, you might be at a loss if combat magic plays a big part.
While skipping through the veil and poring over tomes, I’m giving Liminal a respectable 3.5 buns, and with a proper Fae bargain, I’d be willing to to nudge that to 4.
As a book, Liminal is a hauntingly beautiful experience. The artwork is solid, the pacing and size of chapters is ideal, and the writing is crisp (even with the errant typo). Liminal delivers a simple, easy to grasp game mechanic that has enough moving parts to be interesting, but is basic enough that most new gamers can grasp.
Sadly, Liminal doesn’t bring too much “new” to the genre for old hands, and the game may be a bit too easy to break for any number cruncher that is dedicated enough to make it happen. Granted, this is a case-by-case basis, so your mileage may vary.
Liminal was written by Paul Mitchener and was created thanks to a successful Kickstarter. The PDF and a black and white print-on-demand are currently available on DriveThruRPG for $14.95 and $29.95, respectively, with full color copies of the book being made available by Modiphius in the near future.