I’m a fan of Rivers of London and have read several books. I enjoyed each one but have not read them all.
As a result, I’ve a particular interest in Chaosium’s new Rivers of London tabletop RPG. I want it to feel like my Rivers of London, but I don’t want it to ruin the series for me.
I doubt I’m alone, and there’s a small risk. In particular, Rivers of London is set after False Value, the 8th book in the series, published in 2020. I’m not there yet. The news that Rivers of London was getting an RPG broke in 2019.
The timeline is important and makes sense. Until that point, the book’s police characters, DCI Thomas Nightingale and PC Peter Grant, start the groundwork for recruiting members of the Special Assessment Unit. Those recruits are our Player Characters.
How helpful of author Ben Aaronovitch!
Some speculation, though. I got to interview Ben over Zoom on a lockdown Friday night. He was very generous with his time. I learned that he specifically wanted Chaosium’s BRP, the Basic Roleplaying System, the stuff of Call of Cthulhu, for Rivers of London. Just how much of “there’s an RPG coming” did Aaronovitch know and react to while writing False Value?
What’s not speculation; Ben’s one of us; he’s a tabletop gamer. He cares. Ben has views, and this isn’t a paper exercise of monetising the franchise. He wants a BRP Rivers of London, and we can see how rich the game is with Ben Aaronovitch. He’s written loads for it.
No wonder this feels like a proper Rivers of London game, not a BRP with Rivers of London stuck on it (not that there was ever a chance of Chaosium doing that).
What is Rivers of London?
As Ben told me, Rivers of London is;
What if Gandalf had joined the Sweeney?
It’s the British class system, and the cops that clash with it, are drawn from it, fight it and navigate it. It’s those cops in beat-up cars with big engines that kick down doors or hit the library books, when appropriate, in a supernatural world.
The rivers, among other things, are diety-like spirits with spheres of influence. In fact, “Influencer” is a thing you can be in the social media sense in Rivers of London, and you could find yourself pitched in a PR battle against an entity with decades of experience manipulating the press.
Monsters are real, some might be your friends, but some most certainly aren’t. The Rivers of London core rules is decorated generously with pictures of Mr Punch, and you only need to read the first book in the fiction series to know how sinister that is.
Magic is real and like the monsters, not always your friend. Cast a spell, and your smartphone’s battery will explode. In Rivers of London, player characters probably have phones with replaceable batteries and with a quick-release set-up to eject the power cell.
Rivers of London isn’t Call of Cthulhu dark, but it can be dark, and it’s a game where you agree on tone collaboratively before starting an adventure together.
What do you get?
The Rivers of London RPG is a complete game. You don’t need to buy three other books first to play this, and you don’t need either previous RPG experience or Rivers of London experience, but both help, and I can’t imagine coming in cold.
The book begins with Ben’s foreward and then an introduction to collaborative storytelling. Like it or not, there’s a discussion around safety cards and wise gaming.
Next, handy if you’re new and fun in either case, there’s an adventure called The Domestic which introduces a solo reader to roleplaying. It’s done in the style of ‘turn to page 13’.
Rivers of London does not use D&D’s 5e system; it uses the Basic Roleplaying System instead, which uses a d100 and two levels of difficulty. To pass a regular difficulty check, to make your character do something potentially dangerous but which they are trained for, you have to roll equal to or below their skill score on a pair of dice designed to give random numbers from 01 to 100. If it’s a hard challenge, you must roll equal to or less than half your character’s skill.
Sometimes you can influence the outcome with luck.
As is common in core rules, Rivers of London, the roleplaying game, does not rush into the skill system. After introducing the concept, and The Domestic adventure, the book helps you build an appropriate character and then goes through all the skills they could have.
Then we learn about the system, which includes such things as pushing your character to do better, combat and luck.
Rivers of London is a game of urban magic, and that aspect comes next, getting a whole chapter of around 30 pages to itself.
At this point, we’re only halfway through the book. If you’re eager to play, then I don’t blame you. I’d normally be, but for Rivers of London, I was still stepping cautiously through my PDF, worrying about spoilers. There are some of those, I presume, since there’s talk of characters I’ve not yet met, but without any context, the spoiler impact seems small, and I don’t consider anything ruined. I do know who is smarter; Peter, Nightingale or Dr Walid.
After the magic system, there’s a similar-sized chapter on bringing Rivers to London to life. This means getting the British police aspects right as well as the game’s mechanics and magic. The following two chapters are related, with a gallery of stats for NPCs, aka characters from the series (spoiler risk increases) and then a generous look at the setting. It’s here we learn about some of the Rivers themselves.
We’ve already had one adventure, but there’s another, one to run for a group and not solo, called The Bookshop and then a host of additional rules, including advanced character reactions or rules on hit locations, creating your own organisation or poison.
Look and feel
This game feels like Rivers of London, which was the most crucial hurdle the game had to cross for me. I don’t regret giving DriveThruRPG and Chaosium more money.
The magic, so fundamental to the setting, feels like Rivers of London. Your PC will be able to sense vestigia.
Rivers of London RPG also feels like a game of which the authors, Paul Fricker and Lynne Hardy et al. have practised and perfected explaining rules to people. This is hard for me to judge; I’ve been reading rules for ages, but that also means I’ve seen good onboarding and bad onboarding of newcomers into games and RoL:RPG does it well.
It looks and feels slightly retro. BRP is a modern system with ancestry and contemporary relevancy: the best of both. However, it does conjure “d100 is how I started” memory with me. The layout is also old-school but solid. That’s to say, we get two columns of text and large tables and don’t tend to flow text around images; we use patterned background textures or icons. If something can be said with words, then Rivers of London uses words.
There’s a lot packed into over 400 pages, I shouldn’t complain, but I’m a sucker for illustrations and wanted to see more.
I don’t need more pictures, though, and it’s a want, a hunger for more. I can’t even ask for better cartography. I think Alyssa Faden’s map of London is mindblowing.
The layout also makes good use of break-out boxes, including some reminders from Aaronovitch.
Rivers of London playtest
I ran a quick one-shot for the purposes of this review. No one but me had read Rivers of London, though one of the three players had read a comic book. It wasn’t a problem; these experienced gamers got the proposition quickly.
The takeaway from the group was that BRP system changes make for a much swifter and easier-to-pick-up game. It’s less county but does not force characters to be too similar. Our academic in the group was very much different from our athletic youngster.
Get used to players being liberal with their Sense Vestigia checks!
I thought the game would take about three hours to run, and it was nearly over in one. Thankfully, the players went down a rabbit hole of a wrong turn, forcing me to improvise for most of the game, and we finished after about three hours. Phew.
Rivers of London isn’t a modded Call of Cthulhu and is its own thing. The rules are crafted for the setting, the character sheets look very different, and Rivers of London fans will be able to step straight in. Chaosium fans won’t feel they’re paying new money for old rope.
If you’re not comfortable in a setting where police are (sometimes) hero characters, then I’ll concede this might not be the setting for you. Yes, police in the UK are different than, say, in the USA, and this is not a game about exploring institutional racism or frequent shootouts, but it’s hardly Rivers of London without the Met police.
The RPG hasn’t spoiled Rivers of London’s plot, but I am aware of some names that don’t appear in the game and have been tee’d up for entities that might be joining the fiction.
The game is rich with Ben Aaronovitch’s magic; and Chaoium’s too.
I’m happy to recommend the game to everyone, and I think it’s most appropriate for gamers. I can see people trying Rivers of London as their first non-5e game.
- Download: Rivers of London RPG.
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