Liminal (def. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold) is a modern fantasy roleplaying game, featuring characters on the edge of – but not quite part of – a world of supernatural beings and a few human institutions fighting against them. There are wizards (both high and gutter), vampires, werewolves, fae, holy orders, and secret police divisions – but the characters stand next to supernatural factions, not within them.
Liminal is set in the United Kingdom, and a variety of these factions are defined, so the GM doesn’t have to come up with them. The Queen of Hyde Park rules over the fae of London. The more-sophisticated-than-thou high wizards form the Council of Merlin. And the Catholics and the Anglicans work together through the Order of St. Bede to combat the supernatural. That sort of thing. The supernatural framework of Liminal is, to some extent, specific to the UK. For example, it doesn’t really matter for the vampires, but it probably does for the fae. The fact that its in the UK affects the mortal framework as well – players are probably used to modern games where characters tote guns around everywhere, but in Liminal firearms are generally limited only to the police or military.
So, if characters aren’t part of these high-and-mighty factions, what are they? There are three broad categories. First, there are characters who are supernatural, but are removed from what might otherwise be their factions – academic wizards, gutter mages, and werewolves. Second, there are characters who are touched by the supernatural – changelings (children of fae and humans, or humans raised in a fae realm) or dhampirs. Third, there are characters who are standard humans, but who are clued in to the supernatural – street criminals, eldritch scholars, investigators, diplomats, soldiers, bodyguards, and clergy. Notably for a game about various types of supernatural creatures, however, none of these has direct mechanical impacts.
Mechanically, characters start with a focus – determined, tough, or magician. Tough characters have more endurance (the equivalent of health levels or hit points). Determined characters have more will (which is spent to fuel various effects). Each of these foci gain access to a particular subset of traits (for magicians, access to the fully array of magical style traits is their mechanical effect; there are more magical styles than tough and determined talents put together).
Characters have skills and traits (note that Liminal does not have attributes like strength or intelligence, just skills). Characters will be able to start with 3-5 traits, depending on the strength of what they select. Characters can get a couple extra points for traits by taking limitations. It’s these traits and limitations that define what (if any) supernatural features a character has. Some of them are pretty obvious – you can’t be a lycanthrope without taking shapechanger and most dhampirs will probably have weakened by sunlight. Others lend themselves strongly to the type, such as a lycanthrope having rapid healing, vulnerability, uncontrolled rage, a changeling with glamour, or a vampire with night sight and presence. Yet others are mundane, yet could be used to represent an aspect of a supernatural character, such as a brawny werewolf, a vampire with quick reflexes, or a changeling with words that bind. There are also entirely mundane traits and limitations – being rich, a bookworm, or obliged, for example. And traits that can give a slightly supernatural zing to an otherwise mundane character – being able to counter spells, not being clearly visible on recordings, or the ability to see notice the supernatural when hidden, for example.
Magicians will, presumably, take magical style talents, which (reminiscent of a D&D Player’s Handbook) take up a lot more space in the text than anything devoted to the non-spellcasters. There are eight styles of magic – blessings/curses, divination, geomancy, glamour, necromancy, shapechanging, wards, and weather magic. Magicians can then take further traits to enhance or specialize within one of these eight realms.
Skills, on the other hand, will be use to attempt actions. Characters could spread out their starting points and be trained in almost everything, but that seems unlikely (although not having a skill at all is punishing, so spreading out might not be a bad idea). Most of the physical skills are pretty standard fare – athletics, melee, shoot, survival, that sort of thing. Mental skills too – art stands out, but honestly it’s kind of nice to have a clear skill option for doing art, instead of trying to figure out whether it falls in expression or craft or something else. The social skills, on the other hand, are a lot more fragmented than you might be used to. It’s not just persuasion, empathy, and intimidation (in fact, of those only empathy is a skill). Instead there’s charm or conviction or rhetoric depending on how you’re trying to persuade someone, plus high society for high tea and taunt if you want to be a kender (I kid, taunt is actually a broader version of intimidate). Many traits give bonuses to some skill rolls, and there is also an option to specialize (spending a skill point to get +2 to some uses of a skill instead of +1 to all uses).
Characters gain advances by learning something new about the hidden world, advancing the crew’s goals, concluding a case, or rolling snake eyes on a skill test (most of these are limited to once per session). Five xp buys a skill increase, a 1 point trait, or a new asset for the crew. That feels like it would usually come every other session.
The basic roll in Liminal is 2d6+skill. The most common target number is 8, although that can be varied based on how difficult the task is. So a minimally skilled character (+1) will succeed at the skill test about 58% of the time. Untrained characters face an increased target number, so an untrained character would succeed at that same task only ~17% of the time. That’s an enormous difference (as noted above, being unskilled is punishing)! There’s the ability to spend Will to improve a roll, but that’s still quite the gap. This sort of wild probability swing is why a 2d6-based system (e.g., everything Powered by the Apocalypse) is really only suited for rules-light RPGs (e.g., almost everything Powered by the Apocalypse). Happily, Liminal falls into this rules-light category.
But one of the things that I like best about Liminal is that failing a test does not mean failing at the action. “Failing forward” is baked right there into the rules. Sure, the GM has the option to determine that a failed check means the action fails – but that’s only one of several options alongside things like taking damage, attracting attention, or the action just taking a long time.
Combat is abstracted. You can move a little and do one substantive thing each round, usually an attack but maybe running or employing a social skill. Range is done in bands – right here, one move action away, two move actions away, or way out there at rifle range (not that you have a rifle). Attacks are Melee or Shoot tests opposed by Athletics tests. There are several situational modifiers (cover, surprise, firing into a group), which give +2 or -2 (as noted above, getting +2 or -2 is a pretty enormous bonus/penalty in this system). Unarmed attacks deal d6 damage and the heaviest firearm does d6+4 – anything bigger than that just kills you (e.g., grenade to the face). Frail characters might only have 8 endurance, while tough ones could have up to twice that. Endurance still at or above zero? Easily healed. Endurance goes below zero? Bad times. If first aid is not immediately delivered the character will die.
Equally important to what the individual characters are is how crews are created. The characters will all be part of a crew, a group of found family where people on the edge of the supernatural can attempt to forge their way, unable to retreat to normality or truly stand up to the major factions. Through the course of the campaign the crew will, however, have a chance to make a great deal of difference to the lives of the individuals around them, most commonly by figuring out what supernatural mess is going on and helping whoever got themselves into said mess.
Crews are created jointly – their goals, drives, and assets. Sometimes this is through discussion (the goal) or through individual selections that have to be melded together (I pick that the crew will have a base of operations, the next player chooses hangers-on, and a third picks medical facilities – so what does that all look like when combined?).
But the thing I really like about crew creation is the crew’s relationship with the factions. The GM goes around the table, and each player picks two factions – one their character has a positive relationship with (+1) and one their character has a negative relationship with (-1). These add up to form an initial picture of how the crew relates to the hidden world – and tells the GM what factions the players are interested and that the game will tend to focus on. If the crew ends up with a +3 with the Sodality of the Crown, then perhaps the crew works for the vampires of London on a regular basis. If the crew has -3 with the Mercury Collegium, then the gutter mages will likely be frequent opponents.
Of course, the Liminal core book as more than just those rules. There’s the detailing of the factions referenced above, some information on the UK in the world of Liminal (and a few suggestions for taking the game outside the UK), a folio of antagonists and background characters, from specific individuals to general types, and a couple of sample cases. The ~280 page core book is available in physical or digital form from Modiphius (or you can check out the free quickstart). And in this review you can see Jason Behnke’s sweet art from the book.
All told, Liminal provides a fresh take on the ‘bunch of different supernatural types all hanging out in the city’ concept, a subgenre where it’s pretty easy to just be recreating the wheel. It’s got a ‘street level’ vibe, but not a gritty one – the characters may or may not be important in the grant scheme of things, but they do have the ability to make a difference in each others’ lives and in the lives of those they come into contact with. There’s some monster of the week vibes, but also the unfolding mystery of Neverwhere (or several other Gaiman works) and a dash of What We Do In Shadows. I really liked how failing forward was baked into the skill tests and how crew creation gives the GM good information on what the players are interested in. I think Liminal is well worth taking a look at.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.