Saturday, July 21, 2012

Review: Initial Impressions of Empire of the Dead

Let me just say this: "Empire of the Dead" is a beautiful book. 

The cover of "Empire of the Dead" as it sits
 on my too-cluttered desk at work.
A full-color hardcover of 150+ pages, it's a delight to the eye, it's sturdy in the hands, and it even smells good.

For those of you thinking TL;DR already, here's the summary. This book is very good. Great fluff, great art, plenty of options for creative modeling and gaming. If you like VSF or steampunk or Gothic Horror, you should buy it. You won't be sorry.

I'll have to review the games' crunchy details later, once I've got a few sessions under my belt.

I do have a couple of criticisms based on my profession as a copy editor and page designer of 15 or so years, but they're minor, and if you don't care about those, skip the next couple of paragraphs.

I didn't like the main typeface chosen for the book. Sans serif fonts are much harder on the eye when used for the main text, and it puzzles me why, when the book does so much on its front and back covers and in its interior art to evoke the late Victorian era in its art and its design, a typeface that looks so modern was chosen for the bulk of the text, especially as much of that text is ostensibly the journal entries of a gentleman's gentleman of the period. I'm not saying the whole thing should have been set in Caslon Antique, but a more appropriate serif font was surely available.

In that same vein, pages 10 and 11 of the book are supposed to be a letter from a lab assistant to his lady love about the troubles that have befallen his master's work. Much better choice here of font, a flowing italic that evokes the feeling of script, but then the letter is set with each line centered. No one is capable of writing like that, since as you're composing a letter by hand you have no idea how long each line is going to be! Even on unlined paper, most people would right flush left, leaving the right margin ragged. OK, rant over, and I know it's nitpicky. That's why I warned you up front. But this touches on what I do for a living, so I have to work to get past these things trying to immerse myself in the world the book is trying to create.

But oh, the art! Lovely, moody, evocative, compelling. I handed the book to my wife who is both a gamer and an artist and she thought the work was top-notch. There are one or two clinkers, but the art is really choice. Excellent job by everyone involved.

I approve the use of D10s as the die of choice for combat and skill usage. It looks like the target numbers and modifiers will be easy to remember. But where this game succeeds most to me is in its setting. It's taken many of the old faction types from West Wind's Vampire Wars and woven them, with new choices, into a wonderful Gothic Horror world with touches of steampunk and plenty of tropes from the horror films, novels and games we all love.

The various factions presented seem well thought out, and by giving the framework of the Gentlemen's Clubs and the Holy Orders, they leave a lot of room for gamers to do their own creating. I love it. I have in mind reviving two old efforts of mine from my earliest forays into Victorian gaming -- the Sisters of St. Lucia as a Holy Order (steampunk nuns!) and the Ladies' Auxiliary, an all-female warband using the Gentlemen's Club rules.

Two of the most fun pages in the book for me were pp. 116-117. It's a list of 10 types of ferocious plant life that could possibly be found in the location The Botanical Gardens of Professor Julius Forbes-Talbot. Just imagine your intrepid adventurers rounding a corner in a dark, humid greenhouse, stealthily hunting whatever miscreant has drawn their ire, when the come face to face with a giant, bulbous, hungry flower bulb. Though the text says it's from the Amazon, I expect to hear it sing, "Feed me, Seymour!"

One surprise was that stats for many of the characters for which we've seen minis produced, including the Cirque du Noir Man Ape, Cedric Hyde, and others, were not included in this book. I don't know if they're on the forums, or on cards packed with the minis, or if they're being saved for a future volume. I'm OK with it; it was just surprise that left me a little disappointed. (I'm in love with that Man Ape mini and can't wait to get my hands on one. OK, maybe two so I can have one with each hat.)

That said, know that I love the book and fully recommend it. If you love skirmish-level gaming, gothic horror, steampunk, or any type of Victorian fiction, you should pick it up. I was a little skittish at the MSRP of $50, but it's more than worth it. I ordered mine from FRP here in the States. If I'd been in the UK, I would've taken advantage of one of the many special deals combining the rulebook, faction minis and some limited edition releases.


  1. OK, I totally missed that the first expansion to "Empire of the Dead" was available as a free PDF on West Wind's forum. "Gentlemen & Jackanapes" has the stats and rules for all those special characters I was talking about, Sherlock Holmes, Watson, the demon chef Mr. Chop, the Man Ape, Cedric Hyde, the Gallows Hag, and others.

    You can also download a pdf to make cards for them. They're all hirable as mercenaries for your warbands, costing a certain number of shillings to hire and a portion of that to retain from game to game in a campaign. Looks like each has an Unusual Occurrence that can be triggered for an Influence point or two.

  2. Nice review. I too am quite impressed with it. Beavering away at making terrain and preparing bands to clash with each other. You'll find the templates and tokens on the westwind site as well so you don't need to try and photocopy your book or heaven forbid cut it up lol. Look forward to seeing what you do/