The superhero genre has been steadily deconstructed since the 1980s. Arc Dream’s This Favored Land supplement for the Wild Talents RPG is a form of superhero Reconstruction, taking the old ideas about superhuman powers and placing them in an entirely different time and place. What is it like to have superspeed or mind-reading powers in the 1860s? Perhaps more importantly, what is it like having supernatural abilities in an era of brutal oppression and intolerance?
This Favored Land posits an alternate history in which strange dreams portend the arrival of bizarre powers, giving abilities most people see as sorcerous or even Satanic to previously ordinary humans. The Dream and the Gift are tied together. In this world, you don’t randomly get weird powers from swimming in radioactive waste. Some higher power seems to be granting these abilities, and they always reflect some aspect of the grantee’s life or personality. Sometimes it’s ironic (someone with a water phobia gains the power to control water and breath in it); sometimes it seems more like the granting of a wish (a slave who has spent her entire life under the control of others gains mind-control powers).
An enormous percentage of this book is devoted to developing the world. In fact, a sizable chunk is basically a historical overview of the U.S. Civil War and the years surrounding it. Important battles, political events and personalities are detailed. This Favored Land is constructed in such a way that you could use it to run any kind of RPG scenario based on a Civil War setting. No superhuman powers are necessary. Even the powers themselves are more subtle than most superhero adventures (the alternate history suggests they were so subtle and well-hidden that history has failed to record their existence at all).
There are some crunchy rules sections, with new powers, archetypes and flaws for character creation. In general, the powers are not especially flashy, in keeping with the overall theme. The book is capped by a complete adventure called “Broken in their Violence.” This carries a group of anti-slavery characters into the grim, violent events that foreshadowed the Civil War itself – the border dispute known as Bleeding Kansas.
This leads me to the observation that campaigns set in This Favored Land might have a tendency to get uncomfortably “heavy.” There is a casual intolerance prevalent in even the most progressive circles in the 1850s to 1870s, while any campaign set in the South will come face to face with slavery and the abhorrent racist ideas that allowed it to exist. This certainly makes for some truly villainous villains. For example, one of the shadowy antagonist groups is devoted to the murder of any black person exhibiting The Gift. There’s also the inescapable horror of 19th-century warfare (there’s an entire chapter on amputations). The authors suggest several ways to work with or around these darker themes, but they’ll always be there. As a result, a campaign could have the potential to be powerful and transformative, but it might not make for a light evening’s entertainment for some gaming groups.
The modular layout of Wild Talents is carried on in This Favored Land. Optional rules sections are clearly set aside in differently shaded boxes, along with explanations on how adding or removing certain rules could affect the overall balance of the game. The thoughtfulness behind all the rules is very evident. Unlike many RPG setting supplements, the authors did not simply create a list of people and places to plunk the original rules into. The entire setting is crafted around new rules and rules modifications intended to create a certain atmosphere and type of game (in this case, fairly low-powered with a lot of attention to themes of social injustice).
I think the biggest strength of This Favored Land is its adaptability. If the heavier themes don’t interest you, you could abandon powers and play a group of skilled commandos infiltrating Confederate lines to steal battle plans and sabotage the Grey. You could ignore the war and play a group of investigators delving into urban mysteries, along the lines of a Caleb Carr novel. There’s an entire section that proposes alternative histories to This Favored Land’s alternate history (what if the South had won at Gettysburg? What if the French had invaded New Orleans? What if General Lee had joined the North?). The Civil War is what you make of it.