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So I've been working on a number of RPGs for many years, and one of my oldest projects is now coming close to completion: Hidden Empire, a game of Victorian Adventure.
To give you a short overview of what Hidden Empire is:
You are members of GALLANT (the Gentlemen and Ladies' League of Adventure and Noble Triumph), a private social club and paramilitary organisation whose members are devoted to defeating the darkness inherent in the world, and having some damn fine dinners.
It's set in 1896 in a world rather different to our own. Back in the 18th Century Empress Elizabeth of Russia made a deal with the devil and became immortal, before engaging in a Great War with the rest of the world. Her forces of darkness and despair were finally defeated, but at great cost... and nothing was ever the same again.
The world of Hidden Empire is one of multi-dimensional shenanigans, horrific beings from beyond time and space, the wonders of homoeopathy, Zeppelin pirates, tigers infected with medusarism, and perhaps a little too much brandy. It's very intensely Victorian, but engages with the source material in a cinematic rather than realistic fashion.
I hope you enjoy it. The appendices will be finished up soon (it's the sample adventures which are slowing me down).
Why should you play Hidden Empire over another game? I think Hidden Empire gives you an unusual blend of fantasy, steam punk, and historical adventure that's hard to find elsewhere. Though it has fantastic elements, the core of the game evokes authentic Victorian mores and interactions. Its a game where having a meal with at least four courses and brandy afterwards is essential to spend experience. It's a game where you can play an elderly priest with a flamethrower who has to hire an urchin to carry it for him. Its a game where you can solve complex problems just by being the Earl of Richmond and damn well telling people to sort it out.
Going to be giving this a look over (hopefully you're still lurking/subscribed to this thread). I'm really tired and busy, but I've got just enough time to go over this.
I like the XkY/flexible TN mechanic, but I think you may want to look into reversing the role of skills and attributes, since I get the feeling that skills are cheaper and more plentiful than attributes you could wind up with a situation where it's very cheap to keep all your dice.
You have a ton of skills, and it can lead to over-saturation. I don't see any glaring duplications, but it's a lot to fit on a character sheet. You get a lot of disambiguation between the appropriate things in play, but you also wind up with a lot of "what fits best here" moments. I'd also caution against giving female characters a mechanical bonus. Perhaps point out that sexism can go both ways, with women receiving unexpected benefits from being underestimated or patronized rather than give a significant boost (about an eighth more attributes than men receive).
Some of the life paths are undoubtedly better than others; this may encourage good roleplaying but also has the side-effect of making certain characters be at a disadvantage relative to others. Not necessarily unrealistic, but potentially undesirable. In addition, there's a certain degree of determinism in there; consider the fact that only people with Novus Material Engineering can get Inventor, then look back at sources of NME. Again, this is likely realistic, but it also somewhat mitigates the point of having branching paths if too many options are blocked off. Likewise, consider that some paths taken many times could create unforeseen consequences even with diminishing returns. I'd suggest making these have a longer tenure and greater rewards, rather than having many short repeatable paths, and saving short options for ones that represent individual, non-repeatable, life events.
There are a lot of times when you reference stuff that we don't know anything about (for instance Major and Finisher protection on armor). This isn't necessarily a huge problem, but it is a little daunting.
Your tone goes from cautiously optimistic and lightly fantastical with Novus Material and homeopathy, then suddenly goes really, really dark with sorcery. There's a general sort of disconnect between the lighter elements of the setting and then the really grim, explicit, Gothic elements.
Things I think you absolutely should add:
Reference d6's explicitly in the opening. Exploding on a 6 sorta does this, but there are theoretical cases where you could be rolling d20's and explode on certain results because your game designer thought it would be fun.
There are a lot of references to age and a connection between that and attributes, but I don't see any table or chart, nor any solid rule, that specifies that.
I like the effect based combat system; it's unique and fun, though it's also a little more clunky than hit points.
Are fear tests roll fear rating, keep fear rating minus willpower, or both roll and keep fear rating minus willpower? The sentence on 124 seems to only mention kept dice as having a minimum.
Some revision stuff (note that I'm off my game, so this is far from inclusive, and should not be treated as a comprehensive line edit):
Fonts change throughout within various paragraphs, which is a little disorienting. This may just be Google messing with me. On page 11 you write "imply" instead of "simply" for how one keeps and rolls dice on attribute tests. Top of page 14 the title "Empress" should probably be capitalized, also it should be "invigorated" and you don't need the comma between "Russian army" and "and" (yes, I am a future English teacher, why do you ask?). Page 66: Garbled text under the Homeopath section. Page 85: "and" should be "an" during the description of how Miasma makes disease spread. You repeat information in the final paragraph of the introduction of Admantium on page 86. Page 100: You probably mean "discern" rather than "concern" when speaking about looking into the future. Page 112: Under Substitutions, should be "your ally" rather than "you ally". Page 121: Under Nightshade, "which I rather..." should be "which is rather..." Page 127: Should be "of a blessing" rather than "of blessing" where you talk about teaching the game. Page 136: Under Portals, you have "when through" where it should be "went through". Page 140: "feeds of pride..." may be intended to be "feeds off pride..."
I've only skimmed the core book (looks promising! Hopefully sooner or later I'll have the time to give it a more detailed reading), so I cannot reflect on the systems in details. But I agree with Kyle (kylesgames): there are major tone shifts! First it's all a bit slapstick, lighter stuff (come on, GALLANT - the Gentlemen and Ladies' League of Adventure and Noble Triumph?!), which isn't necessarily bad, but HOLY SMOKE! then you reach the Sorcery section with entry level badger sacrifice... Are the players (who, as GALLANT members stand against "horror, madness, and destruction"? Or is it some other way?) supposed to use it?
But I have to admit, I really like the Sorcery. This dark and grim take on magic can be very interesting and the debt pay off system holds it all together (you managed to "put numbers to it" without breaking the atmosphere!).
And adding homeopathy instead of some standard "alchemy" really fleshes out the setting.
The tonal shift problem could be solved by adding a "Setting the mood of your game" sort of section to the GM, maybe?
One formatting thing: how about organizing the Contents into two columns? With clearer distinction (font and size-wise) between chapter titles and sub headings.