Liminal is one of those games that caught me by surprise. It was funded on Kickstarter back in February 2018, a little factoid I was completely unaware of. Only discovering it after watching a video review of it around the same time, I found myself sitting in a virtual pub with none other than Paul Mitchener, the designer of Liminal. The rest is history. Since my copy arrived, I have eagerly read it cover to cover and managed to play in one session with an experienced gamemaster at the helm.
So, what is Liminal? The answer is two-fold, it is both a comprehensive set of rules that govern gameplay and an adaptation of our modern world, a parallel reality to our own in which magic is real, and the Hidden World is just as real as our mundane world. I’ll cover the mechanics in detail in the next section; here, I want to focus on the setting because this is where, for me, the game shines brightest.
There’s a little bit of a backstory, so bear with me. In the 1990s, I tried my hand at several of the White Wolf games. Though I enjoyed my time playing (never the storyteller), I found their settings overdeveloped and rather limiting in the types of stories I wanted to be part of; too much detail presented too many barriers. In the end, they just didn’t allow enough freedom for the types of stories I like to create or be part of. Liminal, on the other hand, has just the right amount of setting development as it relates to themes, politics, or the many factions and organizations that exist while leaving plenty of room for groups to create their own stories.
Much like the White Wolf games, the world of Liminal mirrors that of our own. Two worlds existing in parallel—the mundane world (England by default) and the Hidden World. In the mundane world, most people are oblivious to the fact there is a Hidden world where magic is real. A tiny percentage of the population is even aware of this fact. Some seek to exploit this knowledge for power and prestige; others make it their life’s work to protect ordinary people from the truth. The Hidden World is a place where legends, lore, and fanciful stories are real. Page 12 provides a snapshot of the Hidden World; I have abstracted those points below.
- Magic is real, and so are magicians. Two prominent magicians’ societies exist—Council of Merlin- rich and traditional, and the Mercury Collegium—tricksters and thieves.
- Vampires are real. They’re ageless bloodsucking monsters. They have schemes, and most of them belong to an organization called the Sodality of the Crown.
- Werewolves are real. They hunt and roam in gangs.
- The Fae are real; most appear in human form, but some are monsters who lurk in darkened places and under bridges. The Fae serve various courts, each ruled by a noble. The two most powerful Fae lords in the country are the Queen of Hyde Park and the Winter King.
- Ghosts are real. Most are invisible, but older ghosts can take on bodies and become powerful spirits of malice or obsession.
- The myths and beings of the world of Liminal are often international in origin, sometimes due to the metaphorical (rather than literal) ghost of the British Empire.
- Some in the Church know. The Order of St. Bede, made up of both Anglicans and Catholics, is out there both to protect the everyday world from the supernatural and to cover up its existence and the existence of magic, which they regard as a sin. Their Islamic ally, the Open Knot, shares similar aims.
- A few people in the police know. There’s a national division, P Division, which takes on strange cases, and its elite members know about the Hidden World. There are even a few magicians in P Division.
Liminal provides details on the various organizations and factions prominent in both the mundane and Hidden worlds. These organizations’ high-level treatment provides a rich and evocative overview while only setting a few hard lines that should be adhered to. Their concise entries give readers what they need to know, which allows for new stories to be told without the fear of “breaking” any established canon—unlike the feeling I got with the White Wolf games.
Signs of the Hidden World are everywhere and aren’t hard to find if you know what to look for, and you’re in tune with it. Not everyone is in tune; for every magician or supernatural being, there are thousands of everyday people that are not. It is the far rarer magicians, supernatural beings, and those with connections to the Hidden World, Liminals, that take center stage in Liminal stories called cases.
Connecting the setting to the mechanics are the characters, Liminals. These are people at the boundary between the Hidden World and the mundane reality. They have an interest in both worlds. Take, for example, a mortal detective that is clued in to the real strangeness out there, or perhaps a werewolf who continues to have ties to ordinary people, or maybe a gutter mage seeking to claim her rightful place among the elite.
Liminal creation is fast, with several decision points along the way, allowing players to customize their Liminal to suit their vision. Liminals are comprised of several attributes, skills, and descriptor statements that form a complete character. A Concept is the type of Liminal character, such as Gutter Mage, Werewolf, Clued-in investigators, etc. The concept helps to inspire the character’s Drive—what they seek to do or accomplish. All Liminals need a Focus (tough, determined, magician); the Focus gives Liminals access to a certain range of Talents. Skills represent a character’s training and natural abilities. Traits are specially trained or innate advantages which stand apart from Skills. They often give bonuses to Skills. Lastly, Liminals have a series of attributes that are all derived values, meaning they are not rolled—Endurance, Will, and Damage.
The Player Characters in Liminal, regardless of their individual backgrounds, belong to a Crew who works together, sharing a common goal and place in the Hidden World. A Crew is greater than just the sum of its parts. It has assets which benefit all of its members. For many Liminals, their Crew is their family.
Crew generation is a short developmental process that is completed after character generation. It serves to bring all the characters together under a unifying banner (the Crew) and gives them purposes and meaning. Crews have Concepts, Drives, and Goals. All of which stand apart and alongside those of their individual members. The Crew works for others, be it the Council of Merlin, a Fae Court, or perhaps P Division, by undertaking cases—Cases are what other games call a scenario. The Crew serves as an entity through which the player characters collectively operate and form relationships with other organizations. Relationships with other factions and organizations are important, especially when the Crew needs an ally or closely held information.
Resolving “tests” in Liminal is very simple and elegant in its implementation. When a character faces an uncertain situation that tests their abilities, the GM will call for a skill test. Every skill test has a Challenge Level, and may be opposed or unopposed, depending on the situation. In an opposed test, the Challenge Level is their skill level plus 8. In an unopposed skill test, the GM sets the Challenge Level, with the average challenge being an 8 and going up or down from there.
To resolve a skill test, roll 2d6 and add the skill level along with any bonuses from Traits. If the result equals or exceeds the Challenge Level, the task is successful. If the result falls below the target number, you have failed. If your skill test succeeds by 5 or more, you have scored a critical success, meaning one of six possible special benefits is activated. Failing a skill test allows the GM to implement one of four possible narrative outcomes. Sometimes failure simply stops your intended action; at other times, it leads to extra problems, either minor or major. On rare occasions, players may be asked to do a skill test for a skill they do not possess. This is possible and is treated as a skill level 0 (2d6+0+trait).
To aid Liminals in their tasks, they can spend Will, this attribute is an expendable commodity. It can be spent to improve die rolls, changing a failure into a success, and success into a critical. These are spent on a one-for-one basis. Some traits and the use of magic require the expenditure of Will to activate. Will points are replenished by activating a character’s Drive during a game session (regain 1d6) or through downtime between cases, again regaining 1d6.
Life and death for Liminal characters is a real thing. Physical damage takes two forms—minor (1d6) or major (2d6). Whenever injuries are sustained, the damage is deducted from a character’s Endurance attribute. If Endurance falls below 0, a character is critically injured. If they don’t receive immediate first aid, they suffer an additional 1d6 points of Endurance damage. If Endurance falls below -10, either because of suffering damage or resulting from a lack of first aid, a character dies. When a character’s Endurance is below zero, they can still act, but not easily. All actions require a player to spend a point of Will.
I’ve covered the mechanical high points, but other rules govern a number of other aspects of the game. Combat rules are explained in detail, as are the rules surrounding the use of magic, character advancement, end of case sequence, and various other situational rules. All of which are concisely explained and easily fit into the core concepts explained above.
As a result of Liminal’s openness as opposed to establishing hard canonical lines, Liminal cases are varied, ranging from modern adaptations of fairytales that come to the modern world to a series of interconnected cases in which the characters must piece together a greater mystery and foil a malevolent Fae Queen’s plans to kidnap countless mundane children. In Liminal, the subject, scale, and scope of the cases are wide open. GMs have the building blocks contained within the book to build their own cases, including guidance on how to work with the players and their ideas. There are two cases, “The Goblin Market” and “The Book of Blood,” included in the book. This gives GMs something to cut their teeth on; several additional cases have been published and are available at DriveThruRPG.
I have only played in a single one-shot Liminal game. I found the gameplay to be a wonderful experience, partially based on the case and the other players, both of which were fantastic. The case was a playtest of an unpublished case created by the gamemaster for his upcoming 2020 Grogmeet-ish session. The cast of players and our Liminal characters were varied and highly entertaining; that is to say, we all gelled personally and narratively for the benefit of the case. Equally as important, I found the simplicity of the rules to be easy to learn. Character creation was snap and left me feeling invested in my Liminal. The entirety of this one play experience affirmed I had made the right decision in purchasing the book.
Liminal, in my opinion, is what I always wanted out of the old White Wolf games. It is mechanically simpler for newcomers and veterans alike, with more of a focus on the narrative. Everything you need to play is contained in a single digest book of fewer than 300 pages. A recently published supplement, Pax Londinium, focusing specifically on London, expands the Hidden World within its limits. It neither changes the complexity of the game nor does it paint GMs into a corner. As a game, Liminal provides the right amount of detail for players and GMs to work with. There is more than enough “blank space” for rich stories to be created and told without contradicting any established canon. That’s the beauty of Liminal.
Liminal is my 2020 Top Pick, and if you haven’t taken a look at it yet, you owe it to yourself to see what it’s about!
Clarification: The gamemaster who wrote and ran the scenario I reference above is Bud of Bud’s RPG Reviews. You can find his video reviews on YouTube.
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