Inferno is a role-playing game set in the world of Victorian fiction. A world where one might encounter the creations of Charles Dickens, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne or HG Wells. A world where Victorian engineers and scientists have achieved successes beyond their wildest imaginings, a world of steam planes, difference engines and intercontinental pneumatic train lines.
Inferno is a theatrical game played out on a grand stage. Characters are larger than life, villains are dastardly megalomaniacs, conspiracy is piled atop conspiracy and the fate of the world hangs by a thread.
Protagonists in Inferno might find themselves exploring lost continents by steam powered zeppelin, enlisting supernatural aid to track down a master criminal, restoring the rightful prince of Ruritania to his family throne, or leading a revolution against the tyrannical rulers of a Mediterranean island. *
The thread connecting all these exploits? The Inferno Club.
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The Inferno Club
The protagonists of Inferno are members of the Inferno Club, a secret society dedicated to controling the world for the good of mankind.** It meets once a year, in London, on New Year’s Eve, in absolute secrecy. The Inferno club selects only the most exceptional individuals as members, and organises them according to their talents into four elements, each comprising three houses.
The Element of Air
Comprising the houses of ♊Gemini – the rulers, ♒Aquarius – the manipulators, and ♎Libra – the arbiters, members of the air houses are concerned with society, politics and culture.
The Element of Earth
Comprising the houses of ♑Capricorn – the scientists, ♉Taurus – the inventors, and ♍Virgo – the steam lords, members of the earth houses are concerned with science, the natural world and increasingly, the organisation of society.
The Element of Fire
Comprising the houses of ♈Aries – the adventurers, ♌Leo – the generals, and ♐Sagittarius – the warmongers, members of the fire houses are concerned with the martial and the military spheres.
The Element of Water
Comprising the houses of ♋Cancer – the conjurers, ♏Scorpio – the enchanters, and ♓Pisces, the magi, members of the water houses are concerned with magic and the supernatural.
In Inferno you play a member of the Inferno club. They might be famous and influential, or secretive and powerful, but they will never be unremarkable. Inferno is a game played on the grandest of stages. If you want to play a character based on a historical figure, or one drawn from Victorian fiction, go for it.
Character art by Sam Manley
Characters in Inferno need ambitions. A character’s agenda might include things like
- Becoming the Prime Minister of Britain
- Overthrowing the house of Bourbon
- Launching a new artistic movement
- Discovering the route to the centre of the earth
- Inventing a steam powered space ship
- Summoning the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte
And as you can imagine, character’s ambitions can easily become fuel for dramatic exploits.
Inferno is a game with room for everyone. The Victorian era did not have room for everyone. It was an era in which efforts to put people in their place, and define what it was and was not acceptable to be as a human were commonplace.
Players of Inferno are encouraged to create characters of any sexuality, race, religion or gender they like, and assign them any position in society, under the assumption that they will be accepted there, and encounter no prejudice in their daily lives.
A good session zero in a game of Inferno will include a discussion of how much historical prejudice you want to include, with “none” being the default. Some players might find the idea of playing a female scientist fighting the prejudices of her male counterparts invigorating. If that’s you, go for it. On the other hand, if the player of the Marquis of Somerset wants his character to romance the Comte de Boulogne but doesn’t want to role-play dealing with 19th century homophobes, then leave them out.
There are some problems that were so structural to the Victorian era that they can’t be avoided, principally, colonialism and slavery. The game will include guidance on how to deal with these issues in a respectful manner, and in particular urges players to avoid turning the victims of these outrages into set dressing. Getting this bit right, is going to be one of the toughest parts in writing the game.
You can read more about the direction of the mechanics and the scope of the game over here.
The origins of Inferno
Inferno began life way back in 1996 as the society game of the Oxford University Role-playing Game Society. In the first game forty or so players took on the role of the Bavarian cell of the Inferno club and rampaged across Europe. In the second game sixty players took on the role of the European cell and made it as far as the Moon, Mars and Venus. I’m indebted to Matt Marcus, the original creator of Inferno for letting me revive his ideas for this project. Inferno also had a second incarnation as a play by mail game under the auspices of Mo Holkar of Undying King Games. Again, I’m grateful to Mo for his support.
* Or the characters might be master criminals seeking to evade capture, or the benevolent rulers of a Mediterranean island plagued by anarchists. The Inferno club requires many talents.
** Probably. The club can be a little vague about its ultimate, but doubtless altruistic, goal.