Thursday, 1 September 2016

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: A Review For RPG.Net

Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo, 1862 (tr. Norman Denny)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
System: System-neutral/free-form
Setting: French social realism/pre-steampunk

Let me just start with the elephant in the room: If you like GM-PC characters; if for you the whole point of Forgotten Realms is to rub elbows with Elminster, and you would willingly mount a campaign in the world of Conan even though it means the characters are either going to be Conan or someone who isn't Conan, then "Les Mis" is your bag.

The pachyderm in question is Gary ValStu -- sorry, I meant Jean Valjean. He strides through this sourcebook, soaking up attention in every scene he's in. And make no mistake, in spite of the system-neutral descriptions, he's clearly 18 Strength:

"In physical strength Jean Valjean far surpassed any other inmate of the prison. On fatigue duties, or hauling an anchor-chain or turning a capstan, he was worth four men. He could lift and carry enormous weights ..." (p. 99)

But the stat carnival continues:

"His dexterity was even greater than his strength" (p. 100)

So, 19? Book learning-as-dump stat aside,  he's a super-high level rogue who climbs walls like a staircase, bowls people over with force of personality, and survives death plunges. His disad's are many but they're of the kind that only add to his cachet: some kind of helpless dependent or other, false identity, wanted, hunted, and above all a nitpicking adherence to Chaotic Good alignment.

But is alignment really a disadvantage when the book lays out ways and means to weaponize it? Yes, if you stick to your Good behavior even when it would do you great harm - even when your beneficiary is a scoundrel - even when they are actively trying to rob you - even when doing the right thing would ruin thousands of people - Hugo describes benefits ranging from forced alignment change in the target, to confusing and paralyzing adversaries, even to the point of suicide.

Valjean, then, works best as a benefactor for hard times, striding in, doling handouts and plot coupons - but you can't escape the temptation to put him in the hands of a player, if only for the fun of seeing them play him "sensibly" and never attain the full potential that's sitting under their noses.

Then we have the arch-villain NPC, Inspector Javert, Lawful Neutral over into Evil. Say one thing about this guy, he's the absolute right way for the GM to handle a persistent adversary. As much as he's unbelievably skilled and lucky at hunting down his prey - he finds Valjean twice from a cold trail in completely different cities of France - he also will make that little fudgey mistake that lets the players get away, assuming they haven't made any serious mistakes themselves and don't actually (like Valjean) want to get caught.

There actually aren't that many other NPCs for a 1200 page book. This is due to Hugo's habit of having coincidental meetings pop up routinely, so this new person is "none other than" someone we met 200 pages before. Paris and indeed all of France thus behave in Hugo's hands like a village of a couple hundred. Corny as it may seem, at the table this is actually a great way for both GM and players to stay emotionally invested in the developments. Frankly, too, it's easier to remember a plot with six or so recurring names than with thirty-six of them. Those that are described, in more or less detail, are very good - the Patron-Minette gang, with its varied characters and capabilities, almost begs to come to life as a player character party.

Fortunately, the characters, their doings, and other things "storyline" take up only about half of Les Misérables. The rest is great sourcebook material: minute descriptions of buildings, neighborhoods, and historical adventure sites like the Battle of Waterloo, the 1830 barricades, and of course the sewers of Paris; long essays about politics, necessary if you're going to understand 19th century France with its parade of monarchies, empires and republics; and quirky sidebar material like the analysis of convents in France, or the description of Parisian thieves' cant.

Pretty much all the locations are gameable, whether as sites to loot, PC hideaways, or places of intrigue (the scenario where PCs have to help a convent carry out an illicit burial and at the same time help Valjean escape is a tense masterpiece.) Infuriating, though, to see a complete lack of maps and illustrations - the GM will have to dig up historical ones or rely on the "theater of the mind's eye" to fill in. Fan material online can't quite compensate for this crucial flaw.

More of this, please.
Overall, while Les Misérables is a worthy sourcebook, it also takes a lot of work on the GM's part. I understand the limitations of system-neutral, but at times it seems the author feels the need to narrate rather than describe happenings in a systematic way the GM can use.  Less plot railroading, less of the author's own political rantings (fortunately, these are contradictory, half pro-Republic and half pro-Napoleon, so it's not as annoying as it could be), multiple system stats, and above all maps and encounter tables, these would take this product to five-star territory.

Style: 2
Substance: 4


  1. Great review of a bit old (over century old, in fact) sourcebook!

  2. Roger, your genius continues to delight. Thank you!

  3. Is there a system you would recommend for running a game in this setting? D20 Modern might work, for accommodating the "antique" firearms...

  4. I hear the LARP has been very popular, and even spawned its own soundtrack.