VAE Interviews The Masterminds behind Unhallowed Metropolis
Jason Soles is a tireless creator driven to pursue his passions beyond health or reason. By day, Mr. Soles is the lead designer of Privateer Press’ award-winning WARMACHINE and HORDES miniature combat games. His evenings are spent sculpting, writing, and plotting. Among his most successful nightside endeavors, Soles is the co-creator of the Unhallowed Metropolis, the gas mask chic role-playing game of Neo-Victorian horror.
Nicole Vega, co-creator of Unhallowed Metropolis with Jason Soles, is a creature of unwholesome science. When not propounding the mysteries of Unhallowed Metropolis, Nic is cloistered in her Boston laboratory, working tirelessly to defend humanity against the coming Plague.
Simon Berman is a professional game writer, developer, and social media director. Somehow, Mr. Berman has managed to trick a number of people into paying him to write about wizards and zombies for a living. Mr. Berman lives in Seattle where he presently works as a staff writer for Privateer Press’ award-winning WARMACHINE and HORDES miniature combat games. His evenings are spent writing for Unhallowed Metropolis and working on several as-yet-unpublished, but very weird personal projects.
Unhallowed Metropolis™ is the gas-mask chic role-playing game of Neo-Victorian horror.
It has been two hundred years since first the outbreak of the Plague, when the dead rose to feed on the flesh of the living. Countless millions perished in the chaos that followed. It was the dawn of a new dark age.
London, the capital of the Neo-Victorian Empire, is a vast, densely crowded city. Beneath the towering walls and crackling Tesla towers, where the fallout of a thousand crematoria darkens the streets, ten-million souls live in squalor. Predators, human and inhuman, stalk the slums and rookeries, preying on the unwary and the helpless.
Beneath the haunted streets, resurrection men and body snatchers hock their grisly wares at blood-stained meat markets. Their clients are degenerate ghouls and amateur anatomists who practice the outlawed science of reanimation.
Driven by an insatiable hunger for immortality, physicians search tirelessly for the elixir vitae, the fabled alchemical solution that promises life eternal and a cure for the Plague.
Above it all, the aristocracy looks down, pristine and enduring behind their walls of privilege, but preyed upon by dangers more insidious than those that infest the streets.
Even in this time of darkness there are those with the strength to fight. Undertakers, Mourners, soldiers, and scientists do battle with the horrors of the age, keeping a solemn vigil over the Unhallowed Metropolis.
Set two-hundred years after the advent of the zombie Plague,Unhallowed Metropolis™ is an apocalyptic Neo-Victorian dystopia written by Jason Soles and Nicole Vega. Inspired by the works of Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and painstakingly researched by the authors, Unhallowed Metropolis provides a rich role-playing experience steeped in alchemy, mad science, and undeath.
Victorian Adventure Enthusiast~ For new players would you be kind enough to give a brief introduction to the world of Unhallowed Metropolis?
Jason: Unhallowed Metropolis is set in a dystopian Neo-Victorian future two hundred years after the population of the world is nearly wiped out by a zombie plague in 1905. Having survived the Plague Years, the British Empire has risen anew; its cities protected by towering fortifications lit by crackling Tesla towers and their streets darkened by the fallout of countless crematoria. The fearful population is haunted by the constant threat of new Plague outbreaks and the predations of monsters, human and inhuman. It is a world rich in the sciences of alchemy and reanimation of the dead. Humanity itself is protected by those few sentinels willing to rise up against the darkness: animate-hunting Undertakers, solemn Mourners, vampire-slaying, half-living dhampiri, Deathwatch soldiers, and a host of other less likely heroes.
The setting is extensively researched and realized, well-steeped in real-world Victorian history and period fiction. We drew inspiration from the likes of Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allen Poe.
Nicci: Also H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Dickens. We wanted to build something that evocated the scientific wonders the Victorian age dreamt the future would hold, contaminated by the horrors of unbridled industry and a stultifying class system. We’ve been describing Unhallowed Metropolis as “the gas-mask chic game of Neo-Victorian horror,” and I think that sums up the feel of this world.
VAE~ What are some of your favorite aspects of the game setting?
Nicci: Science and superscience! We’ve tried to make sure that the science is internally consistent and detailed enough to allow our players to generate their own hypotheses. What is the nature of the wastelands? Why do people spontaneously reanimate? It’s a world that’s designed to be explored.
The level of detail we’ve brought to the monsters. We drew from literature and folklore, building biology and taxonomy on that framework. We’ve laid out the physiology of the animate dead in loving detail, from first bite to shambling husk. The other unwholesome creatures, including vampires, ghouls (cannibalistic degenerate semi-humans), and thropes (a super-soldier experiment gone awry), have been given as much of the same treatment as we could manage without turning this book into an anatomy text.
London itself. Writing this, we had to figure out how Britain would fall during a zombie apocalypse, and how it might build itself back up again. We had to decide what that society might look like, and what kind of city it would build for itself to ensure its survival.
Jason: I enjoyed exploring the effects of a zombie plague on late-Victorian/Edwardian society. Particularly, I had a great time writing the section on Neo-Victorian death ritual. Not only is it a defining aspect of Victorian culture, but it was novel to explore this subject so fully in a roleplaying game.
In the revised edition, we got to go back and further expand the setting. I am happy with the broader description of the outside world and its implications on the political climate of the Neo-Victorian World. Now I can’t wait to go back and explore the likes of Eastern Europe and America in greater detail.
Eliza Gauger’s fashion section is also a great read. She did a thorough and entertaining job of establishing two hundred years of Neo-Victorian fashion. I am also in her debt for having a thorough awareness of the photos we were getting for the book and making sure they would have a consistency within the setting… She made sure that there would be no doubt that our tattooed and leather clad models had a place in the setting.
I am also blown away with the art and the photography. I think the book came together in a very atmospheric way. Just skimming the art in the book is a damn good introduction to the setting. As a creator, I could not ask for more.
Simon: I came late to the project; after Jason and Nicci had already published the first edition corebook for Unhallowed Metropolis. When I first read the book, I immediately started mulling over the implications for Europe and the rest of the world in the aftermath of the Plague. The original edition left things a little vague for Central and Eastern Europe, so when it came time to revise the game I was excited to expand on the Balkans, Prague, and in particular, the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
VAE~ What sets UM apart from other Neo-Victorian/steampunk styled games?
Jason: I believe it’s the realism and depth captured by Unhallowed Metropolis. We set out to create a fully realized setting with a physics and life all its own. We wanted to create something that was internally consistent and believable, if fantastic. A setting so detailed that a reader could to smell the ozone and blood on the streets of our shadow London.
In order to create Unhallowed, we drew together an incredible team of contributors. For example, as Nicci and I initially researched every aspect of the setting, we bounced our ideas and concepts off of Melanie Strong, our historical consultant, who was working at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London at the time. Our editor, Jennifer Shaiman, went far beyond the call of duty further researching and fact checking the most minute aspects our work. Her tireless (and occasionally oppressive) labors kept us honest and true to the setting we wished to create.
Nicci: For me, the most pronounced factor is the dystopian nature of our world. Neo-Victorian and steampunk games tend to be gaslight romance or pulp adventure —genres I really enjoy, but there is this tendency to gloss over some of the inequities and unpleasantries of life in the Victorian era. We went the other direction, drawing heavily on our historical research to supplement the fictional terrors of Unhallowed Metropolis with the very real atrocities encountered in the Victorian age.
Simon: I’m with Nicci on this one. I find the Victorian era endlessly fascinating because it reveals savage world from which modernity arises. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the excesses of the industrialists wrought some terrifying results. The nineteenth century was so rich in tragedy and horror that it’s almost comically simple to mine history for inspiration in Unhallowed Metropolis. Just scratching the surface with a seemingly innocuous research topic like “Victorian children’s toys” will quickly lead you to the Victoria Hall disaster and 183 dead children. The period is a treasure chest of nightmares.
VAE~ Browsing through UH one might be lead to believe that it’s going to be a sort of victorian zombie apocalypse game… and then you start reading about Corruption and how it affects your character. What’s your “nutshell” description of Corruption and why did you include it in this game?
Jason: While central to the setting, Unhallowed Metropolis is not truly a game about a zombie apocalypse. It is a game about identity, survival, and pervasive corruption—spiritual and physical as well as metaphoric. The Victorian age was time in which virtually everyone strove to present a virtuous facade to maintain their respectable reputation, and for good reason. One’s reputation equated to both station in life and the potential for upward mobility. However, human frailties and desires undermined such illusions, creating an oppressive climate in which the Victorians had to hide or deny those parts of themselves deemed unacceptable by society. We took these hypocritical notions and fused them with a national psyche shaped by alchemy and horror and realized that corruption was at the heart of the setting. It is this corruption that causes the dead to rise, that fuels the factories spewing ash and smoke into the skies, and that infects the hearts of men.
Without this corruption, the alloy of humanity would be pure and the search for the fabled elixir vitae, for immortality itself, would have ended long ago. However, instead of possessing immortal and incorruptable flesh, humanity is constantly faced with the nightmare of the reanimating dead.
While the corruption system, which dictates potential roads to destruction for all characters, may seem inherently oppressive, it also provides players with built-in character arcs. It gives them something to struggle against, flaws in one’s nature to overcome. Unhallowed characters are designed to be the contemporaries of Victor Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. Iconic, if imperfect, men of their times. They may be flawed, but they are in bloody good company.
Nicci: There should be a struggle within the character. The parts of them that want to stay true to some ideal of what it means to be good, to be human, battle the bleak necessities of survival in a world that is corrupted at the core. Corruption keeps you alive in this world. It lets you grab second chances out of thin air, outlast the forces that would otherwise destroy you, but there’s always a price.
VAE~ The world of UH is grim, to put it nicely. Do players ever claim of burning out on the darkness?
Jason: I haven’t heard of anyone getting burned out on the darkness of Unhallowed Metropolis, but I have heard some players complain that they cannot play truly “good” characters. And that is, of course, by design. You can play a morally upstanding and virtuous character, but your character will still be touched by darkness. After all, what is the value of virtue untested? What does it mean to be good without human weakness? This is the heart of the corruption system.
That said, I certainly do not feel that the most oppressive aspects of the setting are for everyone or that the game should constantly focus on them. There are many different ways to play Unhallowed Metropolis, and players can accomplish true and lasting victories. Your players may not necessarily find a cure for the Plague, but they can bring villains to justice, destroy inhuman threats, and guide the hopeless to salvation (or at least relative safety). The game need not, and for my money, should not, focus entirely on the futility of life in the metropolis. Survival horror can certainly be fun, but Narrators (Unhallowed game masters) have many options for different types of play including investigative mysteries, stories of courtly or criminal intrigue, and exploration.
Nicci: I’ve heard the same from people who want to play a pure, good character. Here’s the thing: the heroes of this world aren’t innocent. Player characters in this world represent the few, rare people who might have within them the strength to fight in a world where so much has gone wrong. The best among them are bloody but unbowed; the worst are a hair’s breadth away from becoming a monster themselves.
I’ve also heard from people who want to have a way to “fix” the world and save everyone. Unhallowed Metropolis is unapologetically a game of horror. Because this is a horror setting, there is no guarantee of a happy ending. There are no gods, no angels or demons, nothing out there to appeal to or make pacts with that can come in and interfere with the merely human atrocities rampaging through the world. Our universe is indifferent to the fate of individuals, and mankind is cast out alone to survive or fail as it will. Some people are uncomfortable with that. But that’s the nature of the setting, and people for whom that fails to resonate will probably find the game beginning to wear on them over a long campaign.
Jason: I wanted to add that we have not forsaken religion in the world. Faith and the institutions of religion are important not only as parts of the social structure but also in forging the strength of will required to survive the horrors of the Neo-Victorian World. In Unhallowed Necropolis we introduce Exorcists who literally call upon their faith to combat the malicious spirits plaguing the metropolis. Though the source of their power ultimately stems from their unshakable wills not from the Almighty, their faith has a palpable effect on the world around them.
VAE~ What are are the nuts and bolts of Character creation? Do you feature character classes? Random stat generation? Point built Character design?
Jason: Character creation is point based. It starts with selecting a Calling, which is essentially a career that helps define the character’s role in the game. The Callings in the book include the Aristocrat, Criminal, Deathwatch Soldier (the first line of defense against rampaging animates besieging the metropolis), Detective, Dhampir Vampire Hunter, Doctor (think mad scientist or reanimator, not necessarily a general practitioner), Mourner, and Undertaker. Mourners are skilled bodyguards and watchers over the dead hired by aristocratic families to ensure that their fallen kin remain in sleep eternal, rather than rising as animates. Undertakers are bountymen who confront the horrors of the metropolis for a price. There are also rules for creating custom characters that can meet any other concept a player may have for his character.
Once a player selects his character’s Calling, he spends points to fill out his characters attributes and starting skills. Characters also gain Stunts that help to further define their talents and capabilities. Each Calling has a particular skill that grants the character Stunts. For example, a character with the Doctor Calling gains a Black Bag stunt for each level of the Medicine skill he possesses. Black Bag includes Stunts like Heal Thyself, which enables the Doctor to operate on himself, and Reanimist, which enables him to re-roll failed rolls to alchemically reanimate the dead.
Players can further personalize their characters by selecting Qualities and Impediments. These traits strengthen or hinder the character in amusing and stylish ways. For instance a character could begin with the Business Quality, which enables him to start the game in possession of, say, a pub or apothecary. Or he could start with the Incorruptable Quality, which makes him utterly immune to all diseases, including the Plague itself. A character with the Plague Kissed Impediment is certain to rise as an animate at the hour of his death. Qualities and Impediments cover Social, Physical, Mental, and Supernormal ailments and capabilities, with Impediments also encapsulating mental illnesses. With the Qualities and Impediments in mind, our contributor and Marketing Director, Simon Berman, once accused us of creating a “bad person generator” rather than a traditional character creation system.
VAE~ What were some of your inspirations for Unhallowed Metropolis?
Jason: While Victorian-era fiction had a huge effect on the setting, we also dug extensively into history and the texts of the era. While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had a huge impact on us, so too did Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.
Nicci: Victorian science fiction and its heirs: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, all the way up to James Blaylock, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, the Foglios with Girl Genius (I got my very first goggles from them at a Norwescon years ago).
Weird fiction, especially from the Victorian age and around the turn of the century (Arthur Machen, Abraham Merritt, and H.P. Lovecraft; even Sax Roehmer and H. Rider Haggard). The impression they managed to convey of fleeting glimpses of some terrible cosmic truth underlying the world we know, horrors half-seen and never fully recognized is crucial to our vision of the world of Unhallowed .
The science and especially the pseudoscience of the Victorian age were hugely influential on us. Obviously we have a great love for Tesla and for the theory of the luminiferous aether, and for Darwin and his ilk. It’s impossible to talk about science gone awry without mentioning Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau, both of which are delightful takes on Meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. The Theosophists left a considerable body of pseudoscientific literature (C.W. Leadbeater’s Occult Chemistry is particularly fun) that really enjoyed exploring and repurposing. That area will be more thoroughly explored in the next book.
VAE~ A quick look through the game reveals some striking (and mood setting) art. Who are some of the artists featured in the book?
Jason: We have a lot of fantastic artists helping to shape the look of the Neo-Victorian World, including Eliza Gauger, Raven Mimura, Robert Tritthardt, Samuel Arya, Trent Tynes, Brian Snoddy, Chris Walton, Melissa Uran, and Aron Dittbrenner. Aron’s watercolor and ink illustrations had a particularly influential effect on the game since he nailed early on the visual look of the world we conceived.
VAE~ Unhallowed Metropolis uses a lot more photography than other Neo-Victorian games, why did you opt for that route?
Jason: We knew early on that we wanted the game and the setting to be as immersive as possible and photography seemed to be a great way to make Unhallowed Metropolis seem as real as possible. I knew instantly that I wanted George Higham to do the cover for us, and he agreed without hesitation. George is as much a photographer as a sculptor, so I knew his work would be a doorway into the Neo-Victorian World. The idea really took off the day after an early Unhallowed Metropolis contributor party when Eliza Gauger and I looked over the photos taken the night before and realized they could be every bit as compelling as the artwork we already had coming in. We gathered together some amazing photographers and models and went to work creating the distinctive feel of the setting. The work of Angel Ceballos, Mark17, Bloodengel, and all of our photographers had a profound effect on the look of the game as well as in cementing a contributor community around Unhallowed Metropolis. Our photo parties have become events unto themselves that draw people together and energize the continuing development of the game.
Nicci: Later, we started talking about the possibility of a live-action game, and the photography really played into that. We want people to be able to open the book and say, “That’s what my character can look like. I can do that”.
Simon: Photography is also such a touchstone of the Victorian era that its inclusion in Unhallowed Metropolis feels natural. So many of our preconceptions and ideas about the nineteenth century stem from photographs, and it’s fascinating in that it was the first time in all of history that accurate visual records were available for posterity to view see how things really appeared, even if it was through a sepia-toned filter. Photography in Unhallowed Metropolis allows us to take a virtual peek forward at our Neo-Victorian future.
VAE~ Why a second edition of the game?
Jason: It has been nearly six years since the inception of Unhallowed Metropolis, and over that time we identified a great deal about the game and the setting that could be improved and expanded upon. Ultimately, the move to Atomic Overmind Press gave us the opportunity to polish the game as never before. We added new art, expanded the setting, cleaned up awkward rules mechanics, and generally streamlined the game.
Honestly, I think “revised” is a much better description of the game than “second edition.” It is an updating rather than a full revision.
Nicci: “Revised” is the right term. It’s had a lot of bugs beaten out of the rules and setting. This is a more polished, more fully realized version of the game we envisioned six years ago.
VAE~ For fans of UM what’s changed? Will they have to learn a whole new rule-set? Will they still be able to make use of products released for the first edition?
Jason: The changes to the rules of the game are subtle. Players familiar with the game will have little trouble making the move to Unhallowed Metropolis Revised. Combat is a little deadlier, the rules are more streamlined (especially with regards to the Miracles of Science), and character creation is easier. Calling Stunts have been expanded, adding many more options to characters. We’ve also added the Deathwatch Soldier and Detective Callings to the book.
With a little bit of work it should be pretty easy for anyone familiar with the revised edition to make use of previous product releases. That said, we will be updating all of our old free PDF offerings, like the Rogues Gallery and introductory scenarios, to the current system in the coming weeks and months.
Simon: We’ve also taken pains to rearrange the hierarchy of chapters. It’s our hope that the book is now more intuitive for the reader, particularly in the way that character creation information has been presented.
VAE~ What new products are planned? Should we expect an epic campaign of some sort?
Jason: We have a lot of new material in the works, including scenarios, setting material, and core books. The next major release will be an expanded and updated Unhallowed Necropolis. Unhallowed Necropolis is the supernormal sourcebook for Unhallowed Metropolis. Originally only released in a limited run of a hundred books, Necropolis covers the rules for the ghosts, psychics, and mediums of the Neo-Victorian World. It will also feature the Parapsychologist, Exorcist, and all new Alienist Callings. In addition to the same clean-up and streamlining that Unhallowed Metropolis received, we will also be adding a new Narrator chapter and lots of new art to the book. Unhallowed Necropolis will be released in Spring 2012.
We are also working on a live-action rules set and many other projects, great and small.
Simon: To support our plans we are adding a lot of new talent to our stable of contributors, including noted gothic novel author Leanna Renee Heiber and some fresh faces to tabletop game writing.
Nicci: Keep an eye on the Atomic Overmind site for downloadable materials and announcements. We’ve got a lot in the works!
VAE~ Will future products be focused on electronic releases or will they continue to be physical books?
Jason: We have both new PDF releases and physical books in the works. Our major new works will be released both as hardback books and as PDFs, with approximately one hardback coming out each year.
Nicci: Smaller releases like scenarios will be released electronically, with possible limited print runs.
Simon: We have a number of small supplements in the works right now including scenarios and content useable by players and Narrators alike. We’ll be releasing new material on a roughly monthly basis, some as free downloads, others as pay-to-download supplements through www.rpgnow.com and our publisher’s site, www.atomicovermind.com.
VAE~ It’s becoming more common for RPGs (especially the basic book) to include a PDF of the game with purchase. Will Unhallowed Metropolis Revised include a PDF?
Jason: PDFs of our books are available through DrivethruRPG. When we offered Unhallowed Metropolis for pre-sale through our publisher, Atomic Overmind Press, we also offered an advance PDF of the book at half price.
VAE~ Did you ever consider naming this edition Unhallowed Metropolis Resurrected?
Jason: No, but that does have a nice ring to it.
Nicci: It really does.
VAE~ Beyond table top gaming products what’s the future of Unhallowed Metropolis? Books? Video games? Apps?
Jason: While we have considered taking Unhallowed into a variety of other media, so far we nothing is sufficiently far along to make any announcements… So we’ll have to leave you guessing on this one.
VAE~ Any final words of advice for gamers?
Nicci: When we were writing this, we were making the game we wanted to see. Now our monster is lying on your slab. Take it apart. Stitch it back together and set it shambling, hungry and hollow-eyed, toward your unsuspecting local populace. Take the reins of a terrible science and turn it to your purposes. Triumph in your discoveries, revel in your victories, and enjoy battling the insidious pull of your corruption. And, along the way, have fun killing the zombies.
Jason: I don’t have much to add to that. I think Nicci nailed it.
UNHALLOWED METROPOLIS FROM ATOMIC OVERMIND PRESS: