Written by Iain Lowson
Published by Cubicle 7
Released in 2011
Flesh is freaky. Humans are sacks of meat and offal suspended from frames of articulated bone. Diseases make us leaky. Old age makes us creak. The natural world contains abundant tools to dismantle our frail chassis. Human ingenuity has invented many more. So it’s no wonder that we are afraid of our bodies. We wouldn’t feel physical pain if we didn’t have bodies. They’re embarrassing. Sweaty, noisome and oozing. No matter the effort we invest preserving them, they slowly give in to decrepitude and ruin, then death. In a word, our bodies are treacherous. This is the sticky, throbbing heart of Dark Harvest.
If the rules are dry, the setting is oozing in thematic gore, in a way that is in part a literary “what-if”, and part alternate history. Pen and paper RPGs drink deeply from the established literary genres, borrowing tropes left and right to build their worlds, and many wear their heritage proudly on their sleeve: Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf, 1992) is a love-letter to Anne Rice, Dungeons and Dragons (Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, 1974) is neck-deep in the oeuvre of Robert E. Howard and Tolkein, and Traveller (Games Design Workshop, 1977) continues the visions of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Dark Harvest is a shade peculiar. It explicitly continues the tale of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but translocates the good doctor forwards a century and puts him in charge of a country on the eve of World War One. What emerges is compelling and rich with horrific potential, but it’s hardly connected to its source material.
With Frankenstein’s genius unbound from financial and ethical constraints, every perversion becomes possible. The most pervasive of these is the titular Dark Harvest. The citizens of Promethea do not own their own flesh. Using the same technology that gave Frankenstein his unnatural lifespan, it is possible for members of the ruling class to claim the choicest body parts from the people below them on the social ladder and add them to their own bodies, swapping away their blemishes, weaknesses and flaws. Lucky peasants will get a defective spare as a replacement, while others are left to die. This is simultaneously a hammy horror conceit and an astute metaphor for power dynamics in a capitalist economy.
There are more gauche excesses. One extreme form of capital punishment is evisceration, a mix between torture and Damien Hurst art installation. Victims are mounted to a frame and then treated with Frankenstein’s life-extending serum. Then they are dismantled, piece by piece, still quite alive. This extreme body-horror is a little bit 1980s. Historical regimes have been capable of similar excesses of brutality, but for an element in a horror game it is a little troublesome. Once the evisceration is out of the bag, what have you got left to shock with? (This is perhaps the questions that The Human Centipede (2009) was attempting to answer).
The positive aspect to Promethean science is in Augmentations. These are biological super powers arising from body transplants. Your character might have the eyes of a hawk or the strength of a bear, gills, or venom glands. You may be pursued by a biologically engineered huntsman with an unnatural sense of smell and the strength of ten men. A lot of intellectual energy has been invested making these an easy, plug and play element of the system, which is good and bad in equal measure: good, if you like to mix horror, pulp and awesome powers, and bad if you already sick of games that say they are about political intrigue or psychological horror but invest half their page count into lists of superpowers (for reference, see the entire publication library of White Wolf Publishing). Dark Harvest would be an excellent starting point if you wanted to play a game set in the Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) universe. Similarly, the ability to create wolfmen and hunchbacks ensures Promethea is roaming with every stock monster in the Gothic library.