Game: In Dark Alleys
Publisher: Vajra Enterprises
Series: In Dark Alleys
Review Dated: 25th, June 2006
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 16
Average Score: 8.00
In Dark Alleys is a horror RPG.
Here’s a sample Supernatural Skill from the 288-paged paperback:
“Birth Servant: The PC must be in a body with a uterus and vagina to use this skill. The PC gives birth to a servant which does a pre-determined task or follows orders. Servants look like bloody fetuses which crawl around on all-fours. It takes at least 4 rounds to estate and give birth to the servant.”
That’s right. In Dark Alleys is not a RPG for your Catholic grandmother to find on your coffee table and to start to read through. To the credit of Vajra Enterprises there is a page of warnings right at the start of the book; violence, sex, horror, drugs, occult and more.
Let’s nip back to the Birth Servant ability. If you think it might be strange that the description has to spell out which biological organs are needed to give birth to the horror then that is because the notion of gender is challenged by the game. Gender is challenged by the first “Secret Life” (character class if you must). By page 11 you’re reading about the Androgynes using sex and the height of passion to open up access to supernatural powers. Androgynes, or genderqueens, can switch bodies or change their own. They can be male, female or neither.
Animists are vanilla in comparison. Only these animists do not contact their spirits by living healthy lifestyles, by mediating or even maxing out on hippy skills. In Dark Alleys animists torture themselves, take dangerous drugs and inflict near death experiences in other to bring themselves closer and more in tune with the spirits of the world. It is often these spirits or “wrigglers” as the perceptive Outcasts call them, which are responsible for many accidents and unlucky moments in life.
Then there are the Cannibals. These are the “good guys”. I use the inverted commas only because the notion that the players are “good” is not really strong in the game. A better way to see the players, despite the “Hero” Secret Life, is in an “Us versus Them” role. Alright! Enough with the inverted commas already! The Cannibals believe in the soul above the flesh. Flesh is not important. The master Cannibals will have lopped off one of their own limbs but can also sometimes manipulate items as if they still had that limb anyway. A final initiation rite, to prove that flesh is not important to you, is to eat some human flesh. One theme In Dark Alleys is that taboos are there to restrict you.
The Faustians share their mind with an entity known as the Dance. It is the Dance which empowers the Faustian, giving them extra powers, but sometimes the symbiotic relationship can become parasitic.
Heroes are people who have managed to tap in the world of In Dark Alleys though special equipment, an ancient artefact or even a familiar.
I like the Lost. The Lost are people who can round the corner and be somewhere else miles away. Sometimes the Lost have memories of travelling through strange places which don’t seem to be anywhere on Earth.
Outcasts are those people who’s Secret Life allows them to see many reflections of what is really going on. The Outcasts can see the Reapers, those dark shapes which harvest souls, and they can see the way the Reapers hang menacingly around Survivors.
Professionals will be a Secret Life that will be hard to integrate into a mixed group. Why? Simply put; the Professionals are assassins who work for the powers-that-be to hunt down those supernaturals who threaten the quiet status quo. Common man should not discover anything about the supernatural.
Scribblers scrawl truths and otherworldly discoveries in the margin of books or in graffiti in out the way corners of cities. These scribbles become bulletin boards where other Scribblers learn more.
Survivors are people who had time not to die after a large crash. Time not to die? Their soul was able to restore their body before the Reapers got to them. As a result, with such mastery over their bodies, Survivors remain extremely hard to kill. They can recover from very nasty wounds. Survivors cannot recover from body destroying injuries or accidents and they are pursued by Reapers determined to cause that accident. Most survivors die alone and asleep. You can’t heal yourself if you are asleep.
Finally, Wonderlanders are those people who had very strong and realistic fantasy playgrounds in their childhood. Once awoken as an adult the Wonderlanders are able to get in touch with that playground again, take power from it and deal with the creatures in it.
The use of the word “awoken” was slightly misleading there. In truth none of these Secret Lives are fully awoken. These are people who are a little more awake than the rest of us. Chapter Three of In Dark Alleys is titled “A History of Unpopular Ideas”. Whereas I’m not sure all of the belief systems covered by the chapter are unpopular I did find the summary introductions very helpful. Page 152 discusses Gnosticism in broad strokes whilst noting that there are variations of the belief. What is Gnosticism? The world is a prison (of sorts) created by an evil and/or insane god or perhaps by mistake. Humans are divine beings descended from the godhead. Sophia is the mother of humanity and in many Gnostic belief systems it was her mistake and her attempt to use creative power which resulted in the evil and insane Demiurge. The Demiurge believes it is the penultimate god. It was the Demiurge who created rules and the fleshy prison we all sit in now.
The meta plot of In Dark Alleys fits most closely, I think, with Gnosticism. The characters, those with Secret Lives, are people who are aware or a little outside of their fleshy prison. This is seen most clearly in the Cannibals for forsake flesh and can still manipulate things, in the Lost who can travel great distances and the Androgynes who are able to change their bodies. In Dark Alleys fits into other systems too but one of the concepts of the game is that it avoids the tried, tested and tired villains of the horror genre. Sure, you could use this game to do vampires and werewolves if you want but that would be an extra step. It’s the unfamiliar which is the horror in the game. It’s the strength not to shy away from the unfamiliar, strange and just plain wrong which defines the protagonists of the game.
You’re over one hundred pages into the game before you reach the end of character development. The next whack of the book is all about character advancement too, this is a character heavy RPG. Later on (not that later on; just 60 pages or so) there is chapter which discusses the secrets of the various Secret Lives. Although it is easy to guess by reading through it is here that we’re told clearly that the wrigglers which the Outcasts see are the same misfortune spirits that the Animists deal with. Much of the games back story is only told this way – in discussion about the Secret Lives.
The rules of In Dark Alleys are nice a simple. A summary would be Attribute + d20 versus difficulty. I’m sure this is a formula gamers will have seen before. In Dark Alleys uses Organic Rule Components. There’s an Organic Rule Components logo at the start and end of the book too. We might expect to see ORC mechanics branded in other books too.
The geographical low-down offered by the book is centred on Los Angeles. This American city is a good choice for a “good enough” setting for readers around the world. I would have preferred London but Los Angeles is good enough for me. I have no idea whether the locations toured in the book are real or entirely fictional. It doesn’t even matter. Any semi-accomplished GM will be able to use In Dark Alleys for any modern city. Ah, yes, that “modern” touch is important. This is not a game which you could use easily as a historic setting as many of the Secret Lives would become invalid.
The book does offer information on supernatural settings as these are worth gold. There’s the deserted city. There’s the machinery and engineers who pin souls down. There are the lands of the dead.
There are also supernatural horrors. The powers-at-be are the rich men who rule the world. The powers-at-be rule because the powers-from-beyond use them to police their will. Angels, for example, are messengers from the powers-from-beyond to the powers-at-be. If a power-at-be step out of line, though, it could be an Angel which smites them down. Once again, the Secret Life of the Professional could be a hard one to integrate fully into a campaign.
I quite like In Dark Alleys. It is different enough to be worth reading. At times it is a little rough and unready but it is an RPG which manages to carry off a little rough and unready. Although I quite like In Dark Alleys it does not blow me away. I see the potential here and wish the book got closer too it.