Game: Etherscope
Publisher: Goodman Games [Site Info]
Series: Etherscope
Reviewer: Wyrdmaster
Review Dated: 19th, December 2005
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10   [ Really good ]
Your Rating: [ Log in ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00

Etherscope is a brilliantly original game. The cooperation between Goodman Games and Malladin’s Gate Press has produced a game with strong and powerful contrasts.

Etherscope blends Victoriana with a fusion of cyber and steampunk. It’s hard to imagine that cyberpunk and steampunk are anything but mutually exclusive or perhaps only possible through time travel or technological differences between planets in a space game. Nevertheless, Etherscope has neither time nor space travel and is, in fact, set in the 20th Centaury.

Imagine that the world did not abandon research into Faraday’s concept of “the Ether”. The concept of the Ether, either as the fifth element, was investigated alongside the Law of Entropy. Etherscope gracefully ties in the exploration of “the Ether” with other names and concepts until in 1874 Harold Wallace finds Etherspace. Etherspace is a new dimension. That’s 1874 and we’re playing with a new dimension. By tapping into this dimension man – the British – has a powerful new energy source and ways to create powerful and impressive new machines. Technological advances run rampant but the Victorian class system does not evolve.

The British, the New Reich of the German Empire and America are the super powers of this world. The British did nothing to stop the expanding German republic as they did not consider Germany to be any threat at all. America sailed to defend Japan when Japanese expansion annoyed the British navy. The largest city in Britain the Great Metropolis, the city is fusion of Liverpool and Manchester, and not London. London remains capital of the Empire, though.

It was an invention from America which opened Etherscope even further. In the 1950s an American discovery allowed the transfer of human consciousness to the Ether. Passing into the Etherscope is a common pastime for the rich and famous now but the devices required to do this are restricted in Britain.

We’re told that America is a shining example of equality and technology. There’s the suspicion, though, that this may not be the case. Themes in Etherscope encourage us to look under the surface and the RPG talks later of an “uber plot” which will expand in future supplements. For now, though, whatever the American truth is the new world provides a juxtaposition to the inequality of the Victorian style Britain.

In Etherscope the poor are very pool. The introductory short story introduces “coffin flats” as apartments with enough room to lie down in and then very little more. The poor lucky enough to have homes might live in coffin flats. There might be gas lights outside. Levitating Hackney cabs might float on by outside the multi-story buildings as they take the rich from one exclusive venue to another, just as exclusive, venue.

Eugenics are a core element in Etherscope.

One of the key events in British history which ensured that Etherscope’s United Kingdom did not evolve was the massacre of disgruntled and rebellious workers by British soldiers in powered armoured suits. So severe and draconian was the British’ purge and execution of any worker (or family member) who might have had a touch of rebellion in them that the country began to suffer from a labour shortage. A labour driven recession would affect the rich and that simply would not do.

The secretive Eugenics League provided the British with an answer. A genetically engineered population could be provided to supplement the workforce. For years the Eugenics League had been carefully breeding in their own circles, mixing the best of their own bloodlines (note that the New Reich is a super power in this world) and refer to themselves as Alphas. The rest of mankind are known as Betas. The first of the new workforce are known as Gammas and have elements of rodent DNA. By 1984 we also have Deltas and Epsilons, with canine and equine DNA.

The eugenic options are available at character generation. You can play an Alpha (for an experience point penalty), Beta, ratlike Gamma, doglike Delta or horselike Epsilon if you like. Also present at character generation are the hugely important elements of wealth and social position. It’s vital we see these elements including at character generation and ingrained as a game effecting attribute in the players’ eyes as they are so key for a Victoriana setting.

The name “Etherscope” comes from the ability to transfer consciousness to the Ether. Here we have a cyberpunk-esq element of the game. The Etherscope is akin to an advanced cyberspace/internet. It has gone beyond simply filing large quantities of data and to a virtual world. In the Etherscape dimension there are entire cities which provide sanctuary for explorers and protection for important data. It is possible to construct drones and gremlins, automated programs sculpted for the Ether, to help protect your own cache. Etherscope’s combat system includes rules for combating drones and other conflicts in the Ether.

We have another quintessentially cyberpunk offering to – cybernetics. Etherscope calls the merging of man and machine cybernaughtics. With Etherscope we could well have scenes where an agent of the Reich uses the Etherscope to track down some sensitive British data only to be tracked down by British agents with cybernaughtic enhancements.

In fact there is a whole extra level to Etherscope. This is not just a game which cleverly mixes steampunk and cyberpunk in a Victoriana setting. Etherscope is also a horror game.

The Etherscape is a hell dimension. An entire civilisation has already been destroyed to close the connections between “Prime” and the Ether. Lemuria fell to ensure that the secrets of the Etherscope were buried and gone forever – and now they have returned.

Players can be created as Fey, descendants of Lemuria, as characters. Player characters can wind up facing demons in the Ether. There are actual and very real horrors in the Etherscape and this is neither a well known nor widely believed fact even among those who pass through the Etherscope.

This extra element is another wonderful twist to Etherscope. There are an awful lot of layers for a GM to explore and weave stories through. Since there is so much to Etherscope it is easily possible to leave the demonic element in the background and introduce it slowly. If players haven’t read either the Etherscope PDF, Etherscope book or this review then the presence demons and the fact that the Etherscape is a Hell Dimension could be a real surprise.

Another, possible, real surprise to introduce at this point is that Etherscope is a d20 based OGL RPG. This is not a traditional d20 game insofar as it does not feature the d20 logo, is entirely standalone, and makes significant modifications to the rules. It’s also worth noting that Etherscope is based on d20 Modern rather than d20 fantasy. The use of d20 Modern is certainly something I would have expected from Nigel McClellend and Ben Redmond. We have basic classes and advanced classes. The design of the basic classes includes far fewer levels than normal and the goal here is to encourage multi-classing. I’m now quite fond of being told by the game world creators whether multi-classing is appropriate to the theme or not. As appropriate for d20 Modern we have talent trees to follow as well as feats. In addition to the cybernaughtics we have magic and the occult too.

Our basic character classes are The Broker, The Combatant, The Enginaught, The Pursuer, The Savant and the Scoundrel. Advanced character classes include the Cybernaught, Explorer, Tab-Jammer, Thief, Industrialist, Occult Investigator, Program Crater, Scope Rider, Scope Warrior, Spy and Street Mercenary. There’s a lot of flexibility there.

Etherscope’s strength is its fantastic feel. This game manages to get the best of a foggy London street where Jack the Ripper might feel at home and merge it with cyberpunk highlights and then merge it again with an occult-based demonic horror game. Where necessary the standard d20 rules are enhanced to protect or strengthen this theme. There’s a saving throw for death rather than the count down of hit points once the PC hits zero or below. This allows for dramatic recoveries but also for the chance of death from a wound a high fantasy hero might expect to be saved from.

If you’re beginning to tire of d20 (or if you’re tired of it already) but do not really want to venture out into an entirely new mechanic then Etherscope is for you. If you don’t care about the system then Etherscope is still for you. If you’re a d20 fan and are willing to escape the traditional fantasy approach then, yes, Etherscope is still for you.

Let’s hope there is supplemental support for Etherscope. These days new d20 based settings benefit hugely from the support of a few accessories and expansions. The downside is also that the game suffers if there’s a flood of supplements which players struggle to keep up with.

It’s late December and Etherscope is a good contender for d20 game of the year.

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