I’m very pleased to present an excerpt from the introduction of The Kerberos Club, a massive Wild Talents sourcebook of superhuman roleplaying in Victorian London.
Written by Benjamin Baugh (six-time Ennie Award-nominated author of Monsters and Other Childish Things andThe Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor) with illustrations by Todd Shearer (Delta Green: Eyes Only, Grim War, This Favored Land) and Lanny Liu, The Kerberos Club is a thorough treatment of Victorian society in its every particular, especially the incredible and sometimes awful changes that supernatural influences called “the Strangeness” come to wreak on Queen and Country alike. It gives the GM and players every tool they need to play in an era that is at the same time familiar and alien, made more of both by the Strangeness that grips it.
I hope you enjoy this taste of The Kerberos Club.
Arc Dream Publishing
By Benjamin Baugh, (c) 2009.
As Victoria’s Empire grows larger and more Strange, the well-bred beasts of Science and Industry mate freely with the ill-tempered curs of Occultism and Myth, begetting uncanny marvels that demonstrate the most pernicious mongrel vigor. As Her divinity becomes indisputable, and Her government is shown how to once again properly bow to a true Monarch, the Empire teeters on the brink of chaos. The prosperity brought by Industry and the Might of Her Armies are both transformed by the Strangeness which has touched the world.
In famine-ravaged Ireland the roads to Faerie open and the wonders and horrors of the Otherworld spill out, mingling with man and politics, with magic and Church. But good English will, good English steel and brave English soldiery push into the Lands of Tears and Honey, where the old bones of the Celtic gods are home to their weird kith and kin, arisen from their flesh as it dying became starlight. Through the colony of New Birmingham, Victoria Divinus asserts her Rights and Prerogatives to the Summerlands and the Winterlands, and names as her subjects all the races of the Fae, from the least phooka to the greatest Lord.
Armies are raised against Her, and the gods and powers of old march with their human comrades, but as with the Indian Rebellion, they are smote soundly by Her legions, and the sometimes unsettling weapons of Strange origins they bring to war. Lovelace’s mechanical servants become mechanical riflemen. Albert’s gift of wolf-belts from his native Coberg becomes Her Majesty’s 13th Lupine Rangers. The skies belong to her Aero Navy and its airships carry exploding bombs and fighting-craft perfected from Félix du Temple’s Albatross design.
The pace of change is unsettling, and many have marked that which would have been witchcraft in their father’s age, and would have been deemed impossible just years previous, is now commonplace. No sooner is one innovation or uncanny revelation or Wonder of the Age accepted and become familiar than another arises, more perturbing than the last.
In January of 1860 a man sprouted whirring hummingbird wings and flew from his home in Middlesex to his offices in London as if borne by angels, outpacing the express train on his way. Slowing only to fetch down a kitten from a roof, he arrived at his place of work hardly out of breath. He was lauded in the headlines for a week, then began selling a patent Lifting Tonic promising that the “Seventeen effusions and potent compounds of exotic and mysterious origins” would grant a “lightness of step and mind which if practiced diligently would grant wings of spirit.” But at 5s 5d a bottle it only served to lighten his customers by relieving them of the weight of their silver. By the first of March, he was already defending his reputation in the courts, and fighting prosecution under an obscure Act governing the practice of witchcraft to “cause a public skeptycal in purpose to profet unjustly” — proving that there are few things so wondrous and awe-inspiring that London pragmatism can’t reduce it to its basest element.
In short, the Empire is Touched, and so too are its citizens. The wonders of Science and the horrors of its misuse walk alongside the great mysteries of the elder ages, Oriental religions and cults grow in popularity beneath the veneer of Christian England, and London, always faintly pagan even before the Strangeness, has become something else again.
When Victoria rose to the throne in 1837 the Strange was upon Her already, in small ways, and it was upon her Kingdom as well, though hidden and mostly unknown. By the middle years of Her reign, when her Divinity is revealed by the bleeding wounds in her side and hands during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 — stigmata which only healed when the rebellion was put down — the Strange has entered the public consciousness, and is reported in the news. The lines between Invention, Occultism, God, Monster, Magic, Mesmerism, Science, and Industry become blurred, and there is only the thrumming engine of Progress to which society clings with white-knuckled hands. The Future is Now, and the World is remade daily. There is no shortage of news for London’s dozens of papers. By the end of Victoria’s reign the pace of change and the Strange wonders she portended have become oppressive and crushing. It is impossible to bear Her gaze any longer without falling down and weeping, so She remains out of the public eye. She has made pets of Parliament, the Lords are her parakeets, singing whatever tune she wishes, and the House of Commons her beaten cur.
And then there is the Kerberos Club, refuge for the Empire’s monsters and broken heroes, those who have gazed too long into the darkness, and those who have been Touched and remade by the Strange. Early on, the Kerberos Club guards the gates of hell, keeping ordinary folk ignorant of the Strangeness, then as the Strange becomes known, they marshal to confront those weird menaces that are too much for ordinary authorities. In the last years of Her reign the Club is at the height of its power, working against enemies foreign and domestic to bring the full force of its Strange potencies against them: The Three Heads of the Kerberos Club.
The Club welcomes any who’ve been Touched, and early on this egalitarianism is itself more shocking than the rumors of dark dealings, blackmail, pagan practice, sexual perversion, and smoking in the company of women. Within the walls of the Club’s main house on the Square of Saint James, just off Pall Mall, no member is forbidden any access or denied any privilege because of race, creed, class, color, sex, or predilection. This shocking transgression of the natural order of things might seem the hardest of the Club’s many eccentricities to accept, but it only seems this way because one has not yet seen the Blue Chamber or the Atlantis Room, or sat down at table with Doctor Archibald Monroe and heard Darwin’s theories of Speciation and Natural Selection so perfectly and amusingly explained from the lips of a chimpanzee ape. The doctor is quite proud of his waistcoats, which he has tailored by Mertoy and Sons in colors to inspire thoughts of Birds of Paradise, and a compliment will surely win his friendly attention.
The Kerberos Club is where the Strangers come to relax, have a meal, read the paper, and socialize with those who truly understand the burden , the power , and the duty that the Touch of Strangeness imparts. And of course, to engage in the sorts of dilettante meddling by which the Kerberans address some of the Empire’s gravest and subtlest threats.
Special Branch, Victoria’s steely-eyed secret police, despise the Kerberos Club, and would happily see the lot of them banged up in irons and locked in a hole where the sun never shines (assuming the Kerberan in question wouldn’t find that treatment quite delightful). But Victoria dotes on the Kerberos Club, even if She never publicly meets its officers in any official capacity. She likes Her creatures to remain strong and occupied, and some harmless exercise from rivalry can only serve the good of all. When She needs clean, fanatical, reliable, and rigid, her Special Branch will do. But when she needs a Stranger’s abilities or warped perspective — when she needs the insights of a controlled evil to understand a loosed one — then the three-headed dog is the beast she whistles for, if the clever monster isn’t already on the right trail.
There is every good reason for the club’s motto:
How to Use This Book
The Kerberos Club is a setting sourcebook for the Wild Talents roleplaying game. It presents a view of the Victorian period as transformed by Strangeness, the euphemistic expression used to describe every manner of weird and uncanny influence, inspired by the gothic horror, scientific romance and fairy tales of the day, the superhero genres of the modern era, and by the real history of the period made Strange at every step, and growing increasingly so as the century progresses.
This book presents three distinct eras of play, each offering a different style of adventuring. The eras also correspond generally to the Early, Middle, and Late Victorian period, and so each has a slightly different social and political landscape. It is entirely possible to run (and frankly, would be awesome to play) a campaign from one end of the century to the other, encompassing each era and style into a single game.
Early on, the Strangeness is relatively subtle, something people may have heard about but with which most have no direct experience. In the middle, it is breaking out into the public awareness and becoming indistinct from the other wonders of the age. By the late era things have come totally unstuck, and almost nothing is too Strange to be loosed in the world.
In Wild Talents Terms
In terms of Wild Talents’ “Building Superheroic Histories,” the world of the Kerberos Club can be defined like so:
Red (Historical Inertia): 3
Superhuman Strangers can easily change history, but a conceit of the setting is that while many of the details change, the general shape of Victoria’s century remains the same. For example, in 1861 Prince Albert, having become increasingly concerned that Victoria’s transformation is driving her mad, mysteriously vanishes so as to join an occult revolutionary society with its origins in the University of Berlin. In our reality, he dies of typhus.
Gold (Talent Inertia): 3
The superhuman are no different than the merely human in the world of the Kerberos Club. Change comes to some and not to others, and some actively fight against it. But the world itself is changing, and changing dramatically, so elements of Future Shock play into this. Can you change enough to keep up with the changing times? The rate of this acceleration itself increases as the century wears on, and the forces unleashed in the 1840s will not be put away again.
Blue (The Lovely and the Pointless): 2, Then 3, Then 5
The “Blueness” of this world increases as the Strangeness becomes more prevalent.
EARLY. In the early years of Victoria’s reign, things are BLUE 2: The Strangeness exists, and has begun to spread and infect, but it has not yet become common knowledge. What is known is generally considered unseemly, foreign, or the purview of the Great and Good (or the Base and Fallen). In this mode the Kerberos Club operates to keep a lid on these things, to see that they don’t get too out of hand and upset the delicate sensibilities of the growing middle class.
MIDDLE. In the Middle Victorian era things begin to heat up pretty seriously. The setting becomes BLUE 3, and the Strangeness can no longer be ignored. Victoria has shapechangers in Her army, and her heavy cuirassiers wear the Lorica Victoria, bullet-proof armor for rider and horse alike. Now the Kerberos Club contends openly with weird threats and menaces, and things begin to resemble a street-level superhero setting in many ways.
LATE. In the Late Victorian era things unravel, and jump right to BLUE 5 (things are briefly BLUE 4 at the transition point, but they keep changing faster and faster). In this era the Empire is like a top, nearly spun out, wildly gyrating before flying off the table onto the floor. Fleets of airships, the Hollow World explored, dinosaur cavalry, and superhuman adventurers fighting openly. Here the Kerberos Club is like a big public super-team in many respects, and their battles with malevolent Strangers can sometimes level city blocks.
Black (Moral Clarity): 2
The world of the Kerberos Club may get Stranger and Stranger, but it doesn’t get any more morally clear. It’s about hard decisions, and about consequences. In a sense, the British Empire is presented as the “good guys” in this game, in that the Kerberos Club (and its members) for the most part do their particular take on “duty” with regards to Queen and Country. Often, they find themselves forced to make choices between a little evil and a big one, or to make choices with no clear idea where the Good lies. The real history of England saw intense classism, crushing poverty, science in the service of racism, the disenfranchisement of women, sensational crime, and war war war. Add to this the reality of the superhuman. It’s a tough world, and sometimes the only thing you can be is badder than the bad man, more deceitful than the devil, and more poisonous than the snake. At the end of the day, is knowing you did your duty for Queen and Empire enough to let you look your own reflection in the eye?
Who Are the Characters and What Do They Do?
The primary assumption of this book is that players will take on the roles of members of the Kerberos Club, and one major goal in writing it has been to make this prospect as attractive as possible. The Kerberos Club is many things, but within the setting it is the vanguard against the Strangeness which is transforming the world: the Empire’s first and last defense against menaces too weird for ordinary people. As a facilitator to play, it is a perfect excuse for characters of radically different social background and class to mingle and work together as equals, something which can present a problem without this conceit in the context of the Victorian social order.
The Kerberos Club is a refuge for the Strange. It counts among its members Indian mystics, fallen women, gentleman adventurers, occultists, and those who meddle with the outward limits of what is scientifically possible, seeking to transgress those limits at any cost. All its members have been Touched. As Kerberans, the player characters stand somewhere at the nexus of Hero and Monster, and as the Club becomes more public knowledge, they are equally lauded and despised. They possess unnatural abilities which defy reason and a perspective which defies morality. They cast a lurid glow that casts the period’s social landscape in sharp relief.
Within the walls of the Club’s London house all are equal and treated as such (and those who can’t adapt to this don’t long last on the Club’s rolls), but outside the walls, they find themselves thrown back into the same struggles, preconceptions, and expectations as everyone else, and subject to the mistrust and resentment of ordinary folk who envy and fear their freedom. In this way, they are both within and without proper Victorian society, subjects of admiration and envy, sometimes revulsion, but always fascination. And as much as Society would wish it were not so, the Kerberos Club is needed.
What characters do is as complex as who they are. The pursuit of personal agendas is entirely acceptable. A detective may consult on cases unrelated to the Club’s business, and a physician may seek cures for weird diseases. An inventor invents, an explorer explorers, a woman fallen to vice, free thinking and the study of the occult has plenty to occupy her time. But if one visits the Kerberos Club’s house often enough, one will inevitably be asked to look into certain things, handle certain business, have a word with this person or that. The Kerberos Club’s officers (whoever they might be) never assign jobs or duties; rather all members are obliged to look favorably upon the humble requests for assistance made by their fellows. Likewise, the characters have this same privilege of asking for assistance, information, and specialized services from other members.
The currency of the Club is favors done and favors owed, and though there is no official tally, most members are scrupulous about keeping track of who they owe and who owes them. Offers of assistance, if accepted, are indebting as well. The Club’s grand tradition of meddling in affairs which don’t concern it sees Kerberans on the trail of many menaces and threats even before an official request for aid comes down the convoluted channels separating the Club from the Queen. Such requests follow a path like Louis Pasteur’s torturously twisted glass tubing, which keeps wandering microbes from inoculating his broth while still allowing air to pass through. Communication without contamination.
Victoria’s Empire is under assault constantly from all quarters. In Ireland the Fae grow restless with the Queen’s rule, and their discontent with Her rulership mirrors that of the Irish people. In India, the legion of native gods and demons and divinities, asleep for ages, has begun stirring again, seeking new epic stories to play out upon the societies of man. In Europe, France and Prussia clash, and beyond them, Russia grows increasingly aware of its might. In the Americas, the broken Union is heading to war. Spies, anarchists, criminals petty and grand, Faerie contagion, industrial transformation, blasphemous science run amok, strife within the Church over the Queen’s apparent divinity, and all the mundane evils of poverty and desperation and injustice push the Empire to the boiling point. Assailed from without by enemies on four continents, corrupted from within by Progress run mad, it is held together only by the increasingly inhuman will of Queen Victoria Divinus.
The Kerberos Club has plenty to contend with.