Rivers of London; Giving it a London Once-Over

Rivers of London

Author: Paul Fricker, Lynn Hardy, and Friends
Publisher:  Chaosium
Page Count: 402
Available Formats: PDF, Print Forthcoming
PDF (DTRPG) – $29.99
PDF (Chaosium) – $29.99 (price will be applied to forthcoming print)

Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the “London once-over” – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like BASE jumping or crocodile wrestling.

– Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in USA

I have a basic familiarity with the Rivers of London series—you can find my review of the first novel HERE. Alas, I’m not an expert—many of the books are in my to-read pile. However, when the opportunity presented itself to review Chaosium’s RPG based on just that property, I was quite eager.

One of the fascinating aspects of this game is the author, Ben Aaronovitch, is quite familiar with roleplaying games. Interestingly, he describes himself as a terrible gamemaster and also not a “particularly brilliant” player. But he speaks quite fondly of worldbuilding and how when he began Rivers of London, he had the possibility of it being an RPG in the back of his mind.

So if you’ve never read any of the novels, what’s the ten-thousand-foot view? (My own introduction to HP Lovecraft was through the Call of Cthulhu RPG, after all). I’d describe it as police magicians in London. Magic is real, though most people are happily unaware of it. Players are members of the Folly, the magic division of the London Police Service. A division that most of the police are not even aware of. At the start of the novel series, there is just one member, with the novel’s protagonist, Peter Grant, joining to make it two. As magic becomes more prevalent, more members are needed—members like the player characters. I view it as “what if Harry Dresden was a Chicago police officer?”

At the time of this writing, only the PDF is available. It’s a gorgeous book, 402 pages in length. It’s full color though most of it is on easy-on-the-eyes black and white with good use of whitespace. The book strikes a good balance, with lots of whitespace to avoid being crowded while also avoiding the feeling of sparseness. The book is fully illustrated, along with many easy-to-read tables and charts.

If I were to give a one-sentence impression of the game, it would be “Call of Cthulhu lite.” And I mean that as a compliment. The rules are an adaptation of the BRP rules that Call of Cthulhu uses, but a bit lighter. The game involves facing off against the supernatural, but it is not a horror game, significantly lightening the tone. And in a glorious “introduction to collaborative storytelling,” the series’ protagonists sit down to play Call of Cthulhu. “‘So the aim of this game is to go insane?’ Nightingale asked after I explained the sanity rules.”

Solo Adventure

The rules are introduced via a solo “choose your own adventure,” which has you both dynamically building a very basic character (not using all the rules but more as a means to introduce concepts). And while you are building the character, you are also going through a modified adaptation of the Rivers of London short story “The Domestic.” It’s an interesting approach “oh, at this point, we need to decide whether you know this magic spell or this one.”

Character Creation

If you’re familiar with other Chaosium games, the rules for Rivers of London will be very familiar to you. They are most similar to Call of Cthulhu (to the point it wouldn’t be all that hard to adapt scenarios from one game to the other—differences in tone would present a more significant challenge than one of mechanics).

The character generation chapter very early on discusses “Considerate Gaming”—while the Rivers of London series has funny moments, they also deal with darkness and may include themes some players might not want to deal with. The game advises discussing these matters before starting play and maintaining an environment where everyone, including the GM, is comfortable.

Like Call of Cthulhu, characteristics are in the 1 to 100 range, though there are only five in Rivers of London—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Power. Players allocate a pool of 280 points to determine their characteristics. Like other BRP games, high characteristics can bring bonuses—like a damage bonus for high strength. Unlike those other games, those bonuses must be purchased as an Advantage (detailed below), but certain minimum characteristics are required to purchase a given advantage. Every character starts with two advantages, though the Magical advantage, required to cast spells, counts as two.

There are three types of skills in Rivers of London:

  • Nine common skills that all characters begin with a percentile rating of 30.
  • Two combat skills, Firearms and Fighting, begin at 30%.
  • Expert skills that default to a rating of 0.

Characters in Rivers of London belong to an occupation. Each occupation has a list of required skills and suggested skills that will come into play during skill selection. During character creation, players will improve any six skills to a rating of 60, with their profession requiring some and suggesting others.

One thing that differs from most BRP games is how damage and hit points are handled. Characters have four wound levels—Hurt, Bloodied, Down, and Impaired. Therefore damage is listed in wound levels, with a single point being the most common.

Basic Rules

When making a skill test, characters normally attempt to roll below their percentile rating—or half that rating for hard tasks. Characters have Luck Points allowing modification to task rolls and the ability to “push” a roll, getting a second chance at a failed test at the cost of accepting negative consequences if the second test fails.

Advantages, disadvantages, or some other influence allows for adding a bonus or penalty die. In both cases, three dice instead of two are rolled when making a test—a ones digit and two dice for the tens digit. With a penalty die, the higher tens digit is kept; with a bonus die, the lower one is kept.

Characters improve with Development Points, typically earning one per session of play. Skills are improved by development points—10% per development point for lower skill ratings though as a skill increases, it becomes more expensive to improve it. Characters can also buy new Advantages or master spells.

Combat is an extension of the normal basic rules. When attacked, a character can do nothing, dodge/dive for cover (potentially giving up their action), fight back (triggering an opposed roll), or flee (run away, run away!).

The various wound levels begin limiting characters (such as making fumbles more likely, incapacitating them, etc.). It is a bit harder to die in Rivers of London than in other BRP games. If a character takes 4 points of damage in a single wound, they will die if they don’t get medical care within an hour. If they suffer 5 or more in a single blow, they must spend Luck or die instantly.

Newtonian Magic

The most distinct part of the Rivers of London rules is its handling of Newtonian Magic, as seen in the novels. This includes rules for vestigia (detecting the after-effects of magic) and signare (certain characteristics unique to a given caster—though some aspects will be shared with one’s teacher).

Rivers of London has spells broken down into Orders—First Order, Second Order, etc. You need to know two spells of First Order before you can begin learning Second Order spells, two of Second before Third, etc. Additionally, many spells have prerequisites requiring a certain learning chain to be followed. Lower-order spells are basic—producing water, light, moving objects, etc. For example, higher-order spells get more powerful, shooting balls of fire or lightning.

Characters have magic points—their Power divided by 5, with Order One spells costing 1 to cast and Order Five costing 5. Characters can also boost mastered spells—lasting longer, effecting more, etc. Boosting costs additional magic points. Characters who can cast magic start with one mastered Order One spell and one unmastered Order One spell. Spells can be mastered with development points.

Spellcasters in this setting are subject to Hyperthaumaturgical Degradation(HTD), a cumulative illness from overuse of magic, leading to brain damage. HTD is simplified into immediate effects. These can be triggered by fumbling spellcasting rolls, failing an attempt at pushing a spell, or casting spells after running out of magic points. Characters need to make a Power test, with the worst failures being potentially fatal.

Detailing the Setting

After the first four chapters deal with rules, the fifth chapter details the Metropolitan Police, criminal investigations, and campaigns involving them. While the Folly’s role is discussed, this chapter is focused on mundane aspects of policing. Sprinkled throughout is GM’s advice on tone, addressing contemporary problems, etc. Per the text, “Rivers of London: the Roleplaying Game could even be described as “Call of Cthulhu—now with added hope!” As someone with just a passing knowledge of London and next to none of its police force, I found this section very useful and appropriately focused on what would be useful in a game.

Some of the advice deals with emulating the novels while serving the game—such as keeping the players in the center of the game while NPCs like Grant and Nightingale outclass them, especially at the start of the game. Also considered is the makeup of groups, including possible alternations to the normal campaign frame, such as consulting detectives, criminal contacts, etc., as characters

Chapter six, the Rogues Gallery, has statistics for protagonists and antagonists in the setting, from the mundane to the supernatural. It’s nice to see the main characters from the novels powerful but not overwhelming, giving a good idea as to the potential of player characters. The supernatural are in keeping with the setting—Genius Loci. Quiet People, Vampires, etc.

Chapter seven, Welcome to London, covers London primarily from a magical perspective. It also provides details and a floor plan for the Folly’s headquarters.

Chapter eight, The Bookshop, is an introductory adventure adapted from the short story “The Cockpit.” It tells the tale of an old bookshop that has seen a spirit formed in the shop owing to all the knowledge and creativity over the decades within it.


“Call of Cthulhu-now with added hope” is a decent description of the setting. It’s an interesting mix of tones—there is a certain amount of whimsy while maintaining an acknowledgment of the less-than-perfect world we live in, even before acknowledging the supernatural. It’s a great framework for a group looking for supernatural investigations while avoiding the ultimate feeling of hopelessness that the Cthulhu Mythos can invoke (though that can be a selling point of Call of Cthulhu). However, this is from the perspective of someone familiar with the Call of Cthulhu Mythos and its games. If you’ve never heard of HP Lovecraft, this game stands perfectly on its own.

For the most part, I liked the adjustments from other BRP games. I’m a little uncertain about the more coarse wound system, but I’m certainly willing to take it for a spin—and it does provide a good way for investigators to get the snot beaten out of them while not dying. I tend to prefer shorter skill lists, so I like the shorter list of skills found here.

I greatly enjoyed the details on the London Police Service and the details about the supernatural of London. The only negative I felt is the game’s narrow focus—its default campaign framework is clearly being mystical police in London—or civilian contractors working with said police. This is certainly in keeping with the novels—at least the ones I read, so I absolutely cannot fault them for that decision. Yet I’d have loved more discussion about adapting the game for different settings. I find myself wondering about the next book for the game, advertised as “Welcome to the United States of America.”

If you’re looking for a game set in the Rivers of London setting with a focus on the police, as seen in other novels, this game is a superb adaptation. If you’re still interested in the overall setting but want to make tweaks—a campaign in the Americas, for example—the game gives you a lot of what you need, but you clearly have your work cut out for you. I believe you’d find the same if you were looking for an urban fantasy game—a lot of useful material to be mined, but a lot of work to do as well. While there are a lot of similarities to Call of Cthulhu as far as rules, the tone is very different—I think you’d have more luck in bringing in Call of Cthulhu scenarios into Rivers of London, lightening them up a little bit, than you would in reverse.

~ Daniel Stack

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Runeslinger says:

    I am fully-versed in the series and have to say that I amvery pleased with the game as a representation of it. I am also very impressed with Lynn Hardy’s efforts in getting it from pitch to product~

    Liked by 1 person

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