RPG Reviews – Liminal

Liminal – by Paul Mitchener

Available from Modiphius.

“Ghosts in the doorway, and dreams underfoot.”

It’s been a long time since I last saw Canadian modern fantasy author Charles de Lint mentioned in a roleplaying game. I’m sure he was listed as inspiration in White Wolf’s Changeling: The Dreaming, but can’t actually be certain. Despite the myriad of excellent authors mentioned in this book, the inclusion of de Lint strongly piqued my interest.

Sometime around the age of 12 or 13, my parents gave me a novel for Christmas. Not the first, not the last, but one which had a significant impact. It was purple, featuring a forest as a background and a coyote-person facing the reader; the book was Spiritwalk by Charles de Lint. My parents thought I would like it because it featured mythology and magic and it was set in our city.

The notion of reading a fantasy story featuring places I knew and went to on a regular basis was novel. We didn’t live in New York or LA, Toronto or Montreal, or London – this was the quiet national capital, where it felt like little actually happened. And yet here was a story where First Nations and Celtic lore intertwined, where the Manitou and realm of Faerie met in the wild spaces and city streets of Ottawa, Canada. The concept alone made Ottawa more interesting. Little did I know how gameable it would become.

I had yet to really venture beyond D&D but the first White Wolf game to really grab my attention was Changeling: The Dreaming, and once I stepped into modern fantasy role playing games I never left. When we did play games like Changeling, Mage: The Ascension, or Witchcraft, we set them in our own backyard. We had faeries and nightmares lurk in our public parks and wizards in turn-of-the-century houses and condo buildings.

Canada doesn’t often show up in the setting lore for many RPGs. We are usually represented as a client “state” in a future incarnation of the United States, and save for very specific games like Tribe 8, Canada as a setting doesn’t get much gaming love.

Most urban fantasy games are very linked to their own meta-setting and while I love a lot of them in their own right (and I do love them), none have given me a very specific feeling I’ve been looking for – the feeling of actually having spirits and faerie in my neighborhood. The fantasy Ottawa of de Lint’s books had a very personal magic behind it. There was a pulse of living mythology, with the city as a major beat.

Now, decades later and calling an entirely different city and country home, I believe I’ve found that particular modern fantasy game, that existed only in my head and heart, in Liminal, which is set nowhere near where I grew up.

Part of the connection I feel could be due to the close history between the UK and Canada. Liminal feels so close to home because it’s a love letter to the diversity of British folklore, history, and culture, and how they manifest in the modern day. The supernatural forces in this setting, with their subtlety and mystery, feel like they belong in the novels you find in the back of a used bookstore, not in a big-budget movie. In Liminal you can believe in a London Below, in Books of Blood – or even a Tamson House.

Disclaimer: This title has been provided for purpose of review.

How to get by in the Hidden World

The rules to Liminal are simple and straightforward, giving the game a clear structure on which to function and adjudicate challenges fairly, while allowing character interaction and role-play to move to the forefront.

To resolve tests, roll 2d6, add your skill level, any circumstantial bonuses, and if you equal or exceed the Challenge Level the test is a success. Consideration is given to exceptional rolls (both high and low) so you do have more breadth than just binary results. There are minor meta-mechanics to let players influence their roll further, and roleplaying mechanics that allow you to refresh that same ability to adjust rolls.

I like having rules for Social Challenges so am happy they’re included. It’s nice that there are suggested penalties for the loser too, rather than having the result be pure GM fiat. I really appreciate the guidance on how to use them during a battle as I feel that’s an underserved and legitimate way to resolve physical conflict.

Combat reads like it’s very easy to run, allowing some amount of strategic play while still remaining in the boundaries of Liminal‘s framework, without getting bogged down by unnecessary elements. It’s not detailed in massive depth – you won’t have the brutal tactical combat of Mythras or Mutant Chronicles. Instead conflict will be something like Chronicles of Darkness – a means to resolve lethal situations before continuing with the story.

Magic, obviously an integral part of the game, is presented in a variety of styles. All have a basic set of functions and can be customized/specialized through the purchase of related traits. The styles of magic are generally on the subtle side. Players have access to Blessings and Curses, Divination, Geomancy, Glamour (illusion magic), Necromancy, Shapechanging (doubling as Lycanthropy), Ward magic, and Weathermonger (weather magic). Your characters won’t be throwing magical blasts around, so most uses of magic will require planning and some degree of preparation. It can be very powerful, if you’re careful with how you use it.

Through the mirror magically

Player characters in the game are known as “Liminals”. They are clued-in to the supernatural but maintain an element of humanity, so they are humans (with or without magic), changelings (instead of full Faerie), werewolves, and dhampir (instead of full Vampires).

They have a drive, which summarizes their goals and motivations, a focus, which determines their magical capacity or if they are an unpowered human with great will or fortitude, and then are made up of traits, limitations, and skills. There are no separate inherent attributes, those are all tied into skills. Traits are special advantages that help further distinguish characters and allow access to magic, while limitations give you more points for Traits.

There’s depth to these characters but they don’t take up a huge character sheet, and all their information can be written on an index card. This means little need to reference the book during play, allowing the game to keep moving.

The combination of focuses and traits allow for a wide variety of possible characters. A number are presented as archetypes with a few as full sample signature characters. These concepts range from each of the supernatural species mentioned above, plus a variety of humans like law enforcement, scholars, different styles of magicians, and agents of the various supernatural factions.

Once all the players have their individual characters created, they collectively create their Crew. This is their team and support group in the game. Players determine the purpose of the crew, like an investigator agency or special agents of a faction, the goal of the crew, and take turns creating their various assets like a hideout/sanctuary or special equipment. It’s a great way to form cohesion within the player characters and get a sense of what plotlines the players would like to pursue.

Moonlit paths to the Hidden World

The setting of Liminal is known as “The Hidden World.” It’s similar to ours, only the myths and legends of the world are true, and magic and the supernatural lurk in the shadows. While a few places are touched on worldwide, the main focus is the United Kingdom, and the mythologies of its diverse inhabitants. Regular people can stumble upon the Hidden World by going down the wrong path, but can easily seek it out if they delve into the right secrets.

There’s a nice overview of major locations in the UK and their connections to the Hidden World. Each city, town, or site is described in about a page and a quarter average, with plot and setting hooks given for each. In the age of the internet the latter is probably more important. Anyone can research online so too many mundane details are unnecessary. Give me the ghosts and wizards, haunted buildings and geomantic loci – how it all fits into the game. Supplement books and Google can give me the rest.

One of my favorite parts of the setting section is only about a paragraph and it concerns travel times in the UK. It’s a little thing, and something I could eventually work out on my own, but it’s nice to have it spelled out for me, even in brief.

The factions that aim to carve out their mark on the Hidden World cover most everything you’d want for your game. There’s the conservative vs modern wizarding groups, Faerie courts, clued-in police divisions, werewolf families, religious “men in black”, secret vampire societies – you won’t be at a lack for organizations. One of the fun parts of character creation is that each PC will determine their relationship with different factions – giving them an indication of the level of friendliness or hostility to expect.

Guiding the Crew

Gamemaster’s sections can sometimes be average and sometimes great. I can’t recall one I ever felt was poor, because I figure doing the bare minimum consists of telling the Gamemaster what an rpg is and how to run one in general, and basically every game does that.

Liminal has a great GM section covering everything from working with the players to generate plots and “cases” (Liminal‘s term for “adventures”), how to wield the might of the various factions of the Hidden World, building your personal setting, how to help that setting change and adapt to the rigors of gameplay, and a wealth of other useful guidance. All those elements are presented in a very easy-to-read manner – conversationally and without being too verbose. This means you get a very concise explanation of how Liminal is intended to be played, the pitfalls that may occur, and ways around them. It’s clear that this section was very well-thought through. Frankly, I’d use this content for any game. Two sample cases show the framework in action – one a Gaimanesque horror/fantasy and the other a more occult horror scenario.

The bestiary is pretty thorough, presenting new traits to be used by the foes of the crew, and a bunch of npcs that can be easily modified to become a wide variety of individuals.

I’d like to finish by saying a few things about the actual production value of the game. While I haven’t seen a print copy yet, it looks like a gorgeous book. The art by Jason Behnke is evocative and haunting and I can’t tell if some pieces are filtered photographs or really well-done paintings, which enhances the mystery for me). The color palettes range from soothing and serene to vibrant and wild.

In addition, the text is single-column on the page, due to the physical book being smaller than your regular RPG manual. This actually makes it so much easier to read on a device, as the text is larger and it’s harder to lose your place. While I love PDF gamebooks it can sometimes be really hard on the eyes.

If you’re a fan of modern fantasy or mythology, magic and the supernatural, you should definitely check out Liminal. It blends traditional mechanics with minor narrative mechanics, heavily invests PCs in the setting, and gives you a diverse canvas on which to paint a story of faeries and magicians on the streets and in the wilds of the UK. The excellent gamemastering advice is helpful to newcomers and veterans, and as the game has a very accessible setting and system, this is a game I would keep in my back pocket for pickup sessions as well as full-length series.

You can pick up Liminal from the below Affiliate links and help support this site!

Amazon (Print)

DriveThruRPG (PDF)


One thought on “RPG Reviews – Liminal

  1. Pingback: RPG Reviews – Liminal: Pax Londinium | The Tabletop Almanac

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