Game: Dragon in the Smoke
Publisher: Heresy Gaming
Review Dated: 10th, December 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 15
Average Score: 7.50
A successful British RPG publisher once wrote “an unsupported product is a dead product” – or words to that effect. It wasn’t Heresy Gaming. Heresy Gaming are British though, they’re still new and their first RPG and they’re supporting it. Victoriana is too good, in my opinion, to become a dead product. It is pleasing to see Dragon in the Smoke. This pre-written adventure is the first supplement for Victoriana.
Although I’m far from the world’s greatest fan of pre-written adventures I do have several friends who make the compelling argument that one pre-written adventure from the original authors is important as it illustrates exactly how the game should be played, paced, themed and flavoured. If we just accept that argument for now then it becomes apparent the first, official, pace-setting adventure has a really tough task. Dragon in the Smoke is daring. The adventure introduces new, at least, previously understated, aspects to Victoriana. Dragon in the Smoke manages to extend Victoriana whilst also underlying the core of the game. You could say that it manages to get the best of both.
It’s an adventure. If you read any further then you’ve entered the dread realm of spoilers. If you want to play the game then turn back now. Turn back!
You guessed the Asian connection already, huh? Was it the Dragon in the title? Thought so. A rather nice touch is that one of the locations in the adventure is a club called “The Smoke”. Hence Dragon in the Smoke.
There’s more than one way to get involved in the adventure too. The supplement presents the two most likely ones; the players already are connected to the family involved with the dragon or the players encounter the Gnome Detective hired to investigate the case and get roped in that way. In truth, like all good adventures, the PCs and enter and exit at many points throughout the storyline and any GM who’s properly read the game should have an easy enough time. Although the adventure is presented in the typically linear way (but not terribly dungeon crawl so) there are the independent NPCs with their own goals, actions and inactions that will have their own consequences and this is typically the structure needed for a good non-linear scenario. Dragon in the Smoke manages to get the best out of both worlds again.
The Jade Dragon is an evil and magical artefact. It gets shipped over to London by an unfortunate importer. Don’t feel too sorry for the guy. This is at a time where the British Empire was horribly ruthless at exploiting China. This exploitation is typically Victoriana; it’s one of the themes. The Tongs want – need – the statue back. Dragon in the Smoke points out exactly what the Tongs are, a family, and how they’re not the Triads. The Tongs hire some local help. The local help kidnap the importer’s children. The whole style of the kidnap and “help” the local gang offers the Tongs leaves the Chinese horrified. This isn’t what they wanted at all. The PCs are most likely to get involved in the attempts to rescue the kids. That’s just one part. There’s also the kick in the teeth in that the Jade Dragon is malevolent, has taken controller of the importer – the father – and will compel him to perform blood sacrifices. Well, unless the PCs can stop it. An evil idol won’t be too much of a surprise for experienced (or cynical) players though.
On just a few occasions the PCs will be useless. Dragon in the Smoke sees this as a GM taboo. It is. The PCs should never be useless and should always believe they have a chance – and that’s how the adventure attempts to portray these cut scenes. These scenes are effectively movie style cut scenes. The PCs won’t, for example, be able to catch the ratman who takes a shot at the gnome detective. GM’s don’t have to run that scene though. Hmm. Its a necessary evil, I suppose, grumble, but I think its an easy and serious pit trap for new GMs to fall into.
Dragon in the Smoke is designed for new GMs; it’s also designed for experienced GMs and all GMs in between. It’ll be very tough for new player and engaging for experienced players; it’s easily scalable to suit the PCs’ abilities but is written for a fairly fresh party. There’s a good mix of action and investigation. There’s also a good mix of high society and low society – so there will always be a clash of cultures. A group of entirely high class characters will find the low society scenes tricky, a group of entirely low class characters will find the high society scenes awkward and there will always be the odd character out in mixed groups. I’m not going to object to Dragon in the Smoke’s claim that the adventure is good for inexperienced and experienced GMs, I just think it’ll be a rather more stale adventure in the hands of the inexperienced. I do think the adventure needs players who are willing to be active. Dragon in the Smoke looses much of its attraction if the players need to be led around by their nose.
I am disappointed in the physical product. No one likes floppy dragons. I wish there was a little more card in the book’s cover. The page paper is awfully thin too. That said there is remarkable value for money on a price-per-word scale. Dragon in the Smoke is 56-pages long, the text size is small and the density high. There are illustrations, hand-outs to photocopy and chapter heading pages but there isn’t any real white space problem in the book. US $12.99 is a bargain for all of this.
GameWyrd has a preview of Dragon in the Smoke.