IT is always good to see a new TTRPG setting on the market, and it’s even better when it’s A) from an established publisher and B) has a really engaging and interesting setting and design.
Rivers Of London: The Roleplaying Game (published by Chaosium) is exactly that – and it’s very good, too.
The setting and the mechanics have been expertly adapted by Paul Fricker, Lynne Hardy, Mike Mason, and friends (with input and contributions from Ben Aaronovich as well!) to create an an engaging, fun, accessible and vibrant new TTRPG.
The broad setting for the game is best explained by the official blurb:
“In Rivers of London: the Roleplaying Game game, players take on the roles of newly recruited members of the London Metropolitan Police Service’s special magic branch, aka “the Folly.” You will solve mysteries, catch criminals, and come to grips with the “demi-monde”—those who have been irreversibly changed by magic.
Build your group of freshly-recruited officers of the Folly with character creation, expand and grow those characters with the complete rules for character advancement, and enjoy playing in the magical alternate world created by Ben Aaronovitch”.
Given the source material is about a branch of the London Metropolitan Police (“The Met”) which investigates crimes involving magic and general otherworldliness, the BRP system is an excellent fit given it’s already set up (via Call of Cthulhu) for investigation and mystery-solving characters, skills, and so forth.
The 400-page core rulebook does a very good job of outlining the world (including an overview of the city of London and key locations therein), and also includes an excellent Choose Your Own Adventure-style single player introduction to character creation and the rules; it’s based on one of the Rivers of London short stories entitled “The Domestic“, but with some extra material. I enjoyed playing through this scenario and found it worked very well as a practical introduction to the game’s world and systems.
What really impressed me was how well the writing and creative team had captured the spirit of the books. The game is set in 2016, just after the end of the events in the novel False Value, and the main characters (PC Peter Grant and Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale) have decided England really needs more than two people, a dog, and a strange housekeeper in its whimsical equivalent of The X-Files – which is where the players come in.
There are a range of character occupations available for the newest additions to The Folly – including police officer, social worker, influencer, journalist, and even tradie – all reflecting the modern-day UK setting of the game.
The character backstory creation elements are excellent – walking players through a range of ideas, including family background, where they grew up, and how they ended up in their current position.
The rulebook design and layout fits the setting and theme nicely too – aquatic colours and references to the books feature throughout (Mr Punch, for example, illustrates many of the Game Master advice boxes and the page numbers are contained within a London Metropolitan Police helmet badge) and I didn’t have any issues finding or understanding the information in the .pdf version of the book used for this review; I have no reason to think the print version (which has literally just been released) would be any different.
Magic features in the world (and is something characters can learn), but it’s not common. Some of the basic spells are essentially cantrips, while more advanced spells have more powerful or impactful effects. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, novice magic use in Rivers Of London: The Roleplaying Game won’t turn the practitioner into Major Toht from the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark – the same cannot be said for any battery-operated devices in the area, though.
While the rulebook is set up to cater for people who are unfamiliar with the Rivers of London universe, it really helps if you’ve read at least the first book (which was released as Midnight Riot in the US, if you’re reading this from that part of the world), and ideally several more. The TTRPG’s writing team have gone to great pains to flag spoilers where they can,
I initially hadn’t read any of the novels, but after having a read through the Core Rulebook I was intrigued enough to head off to the local library to get a copy of Rivers Of London – and thoroughly enjoyed it, too. In fact, it turns out that like Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy thrillers, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers Of London series was exactly my cup of coffee and I stayed up far too late several nights with a nice drink powering my way through the first two books, before realising I really needed to finish writing this review.
But enough of Zulu’s Saturday Evening Book Club recommendations – the point is that coming back to the core rulebook with a knowledge of the characters and universe improved the experience immensely.
For example, there’s an illustration early in the rulebook showing a diverse group of people (and a fox) playing Call of Cthulhu. In itself, it’s still a pretty good introduction to Rivers Of London: The Roleplaying Game‘s zeitgeist, but having read the books it makes a lot more sense when you realise it’s showing Peter Grant (the main character of the novels) as the Keeper of Arcane Lore (AKA the Game Master, AKA the GM), playing with Abigail Kamara (a neighbour of his parents who’s gotten involved in magic), Molly (The Folly’s housekeeper), Indigo (a talking fox), and Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale (head of The Folly) – and you know who those people are and how they fit into the setting.
Given the game is openly based on the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition ruleset (which are themselves running on the Basic Roleplaying engine), if you’re a fan of that, you’ll have no trouble stepping into Rivers of London: The Roleplaying Game.
In fact, one of the big appeals here is for running supernatural mystery adventures here where the player’s characters won’t go insane, die horribly, or both (and not necessarily in that order).
There’s definitely some unsettling things in the world of Newtonian Magic, but they’re not generally of the Great Old Ones Coming From The Stars To End The World As We Know It variety and while it’s not on the front page of The Times that magic and supernatural creatures exist, it’s broadly treated as being similar to real-world Alien encounter stories – in other words, something that a lot of people would not be all that shocked to discover was actually real.
Indeed, several people are (or become) aware of The Folly and what they do over the course of the novels and while many of them are quirky and colourful, none of them are in a padded room in a psychiatric hospital after deciding to sit down with a glass of wine one evening and read through The Necronomicon either.
The whimsical and at times humorous Urban Fantasy setting of Rivers of London also makes it ideal as either a first TTRPG or a transition game for players looking to expand beyond Dungeons & Dragons. There’s just enough familiar fantasy stuff to be engaging, but not so much that it feels tired or cliched.
As if exploring mystical London isn’t enough, the core rulebook also concludes with a teaser for an American setting coming soon – and I’m sure quite a few people will be interested to see what the writing and creative team do with that.
It goes without saying that if you’re a fan of the novels, Rivers Of London: The Roleplaying Game is a must-have addition to the bookshelf, and stands alone in its own right as an excellent and accessible TTRPG with something to offer everyone.