TL/DR: Buy it – it’s great!
Ghastly Affair Player’s Manual & Presenters Manual by Daniel James Hanley
I’ve not played this game. The review is based on a read through of the manuals only.
Ghastly Affair is a horror role playing game set in the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth century. It takes its inspiration from the gothic novels, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, written in this period. It is obviously a labor of love. The author has created a great game with mechanics that reflect the source material well.
At first glance, this looks like another “OSR clone”. The stats are the same, characters have levels, classes, and so forth. That’s not the case. Hanley has redesigned the underlying mechanism to be a roll-low system. Actions are based on a character’s statistic and the player needs to roll below it on 1d20 to succeed at a task. It reminds me of Flashing Blades in many respects. There is also a system to resolve “opposed actions”. This requires reference to a table where stats are compared to come up with a modifier to the die roll. Given how light the rest of the game is, this seems a little over-engineered. Maybe a system where you compare margin of success would be simpler for a house rule?
Character classes are evocative and based on archetypes in the source material. For example, you can play a mad scientist, grave robber or true innocent. There are even options in the appendices to play a vampire or werewolf! As characters gain levels they become better in combat: hit points rise and they gain bonuses to damage. I’d probably house rule some of this away as I am not a fan of gaining HP with levels. I think I’d give the classes more “oomph” for their base skills as they rise in level too. For example, the “fighting classes” would gain bonuses to hit in combat, while mad scientists would get better at their “science” skills (maybe level/2). Stats are rolled in the 3d6 range, but there is an option for an “allocation” system. Finally, there are advantages and disadvantages that give the characters bonuses or penalties to specific actions. These are really excellent additions to any OSR game.
The magic and mad science systems are fantastic. Magic doesn’t use the “Vancian” system common to most D&D games. Instead the character loses temporary hit points (simulating exhaustion) when casting a spell. There are systems for talismans, pacts and rituals as well. I think this is my favorite implementation of magic for any OSR game I’ve read. It’d be easy to port over to a more traditional fantasy game as well. Mad science also makes use of the “spell list”, but the trappings are different. Does Dr. Ivanovich to use a galvanic rifle? You can replicate it with the Lightning Bolt “spell”. At first blush, it feels like mad scientists get the short end of the stick as far as “goodies” go since they are limited to a items based on their level. It’d be easy to house rule giving them more stuff or allow them to create all kinds of monsters and devices, but rule that they can only carry items up to their level and the rest of it stays “in the lab”.
Monster statistics will be familiar to anyone that knows D&D and it is straightforward to import creatures from other “monster manuals” into this system. I feel the creature list is a little bloated. Hastur only knows when I’d actually need combat stats for an albatross! Outside of mundane creatures like bears and wolves, you are also treated to faeries, revenants and many other “things that go bump in the night”. The monsters are interesting enough that most can serve as a basis for a scenario.
The default setting of A Ghastly Affair is in a fictional version of earth where monsters prowl the night and cultist conduct foul rituals. Hanley does a great job of providing the GM with enough detail to run a fun game without becoming lost in minutia. Scattered throughout the book are “sidebars” with examples of the times including some really interesting (and disturbing) facts. What really shines are the year-by-year timelines that pull together historical and strange events. This thing is chock-full of scenario seeds and makes me want to try and wade through my Dad’s copy of the Complete Works of Charles Fort again. The author regularly updates his blog with NPC write-ups, random tables and information about the Highdark Hall manor. It’s great stuff! I’m keeping my fingers crossed for some proper scenarios to make getting into the game a little easier – maybe we’ll see another book soon?
The illustrations are very nice. It’s amazing when a one-man operation pulls together some really appropriate art instead of just searching for public domain images on the internet. It shows how invested the author is in this project to see him pony up for decent art to support his game. The full page illustrations are excellent (I think the one with the werewolf is the only one I don’t like). The silhouettes are really cool (and in a twisted way kind of period authentic) as well.
Layout is clean and easy to read. This is the first set of books I’ve picked up from this Amazon self-publishing program and they look like they’ll hold up to gaming use well. They’re at least as good as anything I’ve gotten from Lulu or RPGNow.
Buy it. Even if you are not into horror, the Player’s Manual has some really great ideas you could use in any OSR game. Even better – both manuals are on sale through Xmas 2016!