Game Review: Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein by Iain Lowson from Cubicle 7

Somehow over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with alternate histories. Though I love learning about history, I’m not a huge fan of reading alternate history fiction simply because it’s too much like work. However, I enjoy coming up with alternate histories for roleplaying games and reading games that use them well. Go figure.

But that brings me to Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein by Iain Lowson which makes alternate history intriguing enough to consider playing in. This book manages to take a simple what if and transform it into one of the darkest, most interesting game settings I’ve read in years. Sure, Caladon Falls from Savage Mojo presented an awesome opening act with the heroes running for their lives in a fantasy setting. But Dark Harvest seamlessly merges the political climate of the late 1800s and early 1900s (pre-World War I) and the ideas found in Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein.

You might be asking “But what is the ‘What if?’?” – and it’s simple. What if Dr. Victor Frankenstein didn’t die in the Arctic Circle as written in Shelley’s book, but survived and continued his research to return to Europe a few years later? Imagine if Dr. Frankenstein, with his genius and the secrets to everlasting life, sought to create a brave new world where he could continue his experiments but have the protection of an entire country at his beck and call? Wouldn’t the rich and powerful come flocking to his side? Everyone is afraid of death, so why wouldn’t those who could afford it buy into a limitless future?

Welcome to Promethea. A place where King Frankenstein rules with his noble peers and they have the military might to protect their borders and secrets from prying eyes. What little information
that escapes to the outside world is troubling… Mistreatment of the peasantry. An army of strange soldiers with even stranger weapons. And a seemingly ageless yet brilliant madman in charge of it all.

Within the 220 pages of Dark Harvest, there’s simply an amazingly complex yet realistic power struggle detailing the strata of Promethean society. From the high-ranking families to the working class, everyone literally has skin in the game. Scientists and engineers are encouraged to test the bounds of modern knowledge and theory. And even failures are celebrated if they provide insights through the use of the scientific method. Add to that the fact that Promethean leadership also seems to understand the power of education and the hope for upward mobility. Intelligence is to be cultivated in the people of the upper and middle classes, from craftsmen and soldiers to scientists and political figures.

But as you might suspect, not everyone shares in the glory of this enlightened state. At the bottom is the working class – laborers in the fields, factory workers, and so on – and though they may be paid well when compared to the rest of the world, they have little to show for it and an abysmal quality of life. With no freedom to travel within or without Promethea, they cannot seek to better themselves here or elsewhere. They are limited in where they can go to shop, what they can buy, and even when they must be off the streets. A state-mandated curfew keeps people indoors from 10pm to 6am every day. And unlike the upper strata of society, education is largely ignored.

On the opposite side of the equation is the Resistance. And who else would be leading the charge against Dr. Frankenstein, but his original experiment – The Creature himself. He knows the dangers of the Doctor’s work firsthand and doesnt’ want its dark taint to spread beyond Promethean borders. Though the Resistance is gaining members as the nobility takes it upon themselves to treat the working class as their personal hunting preserve and collection of spare parts, they are being pursued by the Ministry of Information and Dr. Frankenstein himself has a dedication to wiping their efforts and The Creature off the face of the planet.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Image via Wikipedia

Promethea is like a rotten fruit that looks tasty on the outside, but is rotten to the core. And though dark, the first nearly 50 pages reads more like well written non-fiction about a real country in history than a setting. It is without a doubt the best world description I have ever seen and I was sold from the first page. The next 60 pages are just as interesting as they describe the country in great detail, with individual maps, geography and climate details, as well as five separate pieces of short fiction that show just how brutal life in Promethea actually is. (I thought the two stories – “Magdja’s Runner” and “Witness” – were particularly well written and powerful.)

So even if all you read is the setting for story ideas or are just looking for a well-written adventure setting, Dark Harvest is worth reading just for that.

In addition to all the amazing history of the setting, there’s also an entire RPG system described in the second half. Apparently they’re a slight revision to the Cubicle 7 “Heresy” system used with Victoriana. Though the setting got the best part of my attention in this book, the dice-pool approach of the RPG system itself seems flexible enough to handle just about anything thrown at it. If I had one request, I would have liked to have seen some sample characters with completed character sheets or a complete walk-through where the reader could see the character creation process done step by step and then see a completed character at the end.

That said, both the combat system and character creation sections were well-written with plenty of examples built into the text. With only seven major steps to character creation, it should be simple enough for players to sit down with a GM one session and put characters together after they’ve all had a chance to read about the setting. As I was reading, I had several ideas for characters, from an escaped experiment gone to side with the Resistance to an officer working as a double agent trying to keep innocents from being used as guinea pigs. The whole concept of a nation of nobles seeking to “augment” themselves by stealing body parts from those of lower social standing made me side violently with the Resistance, so I couldn’t imagine playing on the side of Dr. Frankenstein. Count me in with the Creature!

Beyond the amazingly well-written background, stories, and rules, I found the layout to be beautifully simple and the artwork to be inspired. The cover art from Corlen Kruger summarizes the Victorian era and Frankenstein’s influences beautifully and the interior art from Kruger, Kim Roberts, Scott Purdy, and Rowena Aitken was both gorgeous and disturbing, as you might expect a world to look when being eviscerated while still alive and suffering the procedure exists. Oh, and I can’t forget the great index at the end. Yes, it has an index and I bet you can probably find what you’re looking for in it!

The world of Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein would make a fascinating setting to explore for the right group, but it’s not going to be for everyone. The cruelty inherent in a world where the strong prey on the weak and the powerful can take what they want may be a tad bit serious for some. It’s a bit like exploring the dark world of Nazi Germany during World War II, with thoughts and images you may rather not deal with. However, if you had a serious group of roleplayers seeking something philosophically deeper than your usual dungeon delve, then I’d strongly encourage you to check it out!

For much more on the game and the world, I’d encourage you to check out the Dark Harvest website, which offers downloadable maps and character sheets and posts about ongoing work in the series. The PDF is available at RPGnow, and you can order the book (both PDF and hardcopy) from the Cubicle 7 store.

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