Here's some general info on the Victorian-era gameworld we play in.
Our characters live in London, England. (Yep, we're a buncha' Anglophiles.) Several characters have been made that were born in other parts of the world (including America, Russia, and Spain, to date) and moved to England.
We've also visited Africa a couple of times and gone to China once. Steam-powered seacraft makes these trips go pretty quick.
As far as the specific date, our characters started in the year 1867. (Otherwise, Jared's Canadaman character doesn't make sense.) We're not really super-finicky about the date though, just garden-variety, late TL5 is fine with us. If your character wants to buy a gun that was made in 1881, go ahead and buy it; you won't hear us bellyache about it. Any equipment or weapons with 'TL5' next to them is fine.
All characters start out as semi-Literate (the 5-point version). A character can be fully literate by spending 5 points on Literacy or get 5 points by being illiterate.
Any character who needs to take a Social Status disadvantage will get the points for it, but they does not count against the 40 point disadvantage limit. Several examples are given in the rules for appropriate 19th century Social Status disadvantages, including females (Social Stigma), and Native American Indians in white-man's territory (Outsider). Other non-Anglo characters would probably have either Minority Group (probably the case for Africans or Turks) or Social Stigma (probably the case for Irish, Welsh, Gypsies, and possibly others). Many European or Anglo-descent characters could reasonably live in England (especially a big city like London) with no Social Status disadvantage, including Italians, Swiss, Spanish, Americans, Canadians, Australians, and many others. Bottom line: use your best judgement and when in doubt, get GM approval.
As an alternative to a Social Status disadvantage, a character could take the 'Secret' disadvantage, the secret being that they are disguising or covering up their ethnicity / gender. (For female characters, this is known as "The Shakespearian Method".) Note that if the Secret gets discovered, it should probably revert to an appropriate Social Status disadvantage. (Possibly with an added 'Bad Reputation: Deceitful'.)
We play in a late TL 5 setting, but when we delve into more Steampunk adventures, there is a possibility of picking up higher-tech items. Thus, we dabble in TL5+1, but, like the fantasy section above, we don't usually start out at TL5+1 (although we do like to visit).
We play in a low-mana world, meaning that magic use is somewhat limited and magic objects usually need to be pretty high-powered to work at all, but magic is still allowed. The 'Hidden Lore - Fairie' or 'Hidden Lore - Mana' skills can be used to find areas in the city that have localized concentration of higher mana. Said skills could also help the characters to find a portal that could lead them to a tangent world that has a higher mana level (i.e. Oz or Wonderland).
We do not play an expressly "cinematic" campaign; characters start with 110 points and PCs use the same combat rules as NPCs. We do allow some "extra effort" rules to allow PCs to squeeze just a little bit more out of an attribute or skill (typically with an accompanying fatigue penalty) but "extra effort" really isn't cinematic.
Having said all that, we do allow characters to have skills and advantages labeled as "cinematic", and if the situation calls for it and we're feeling light-hearted, we don't have any problem with using some of the "swashbuckling" rules (like Fast Talk in combat or Rapier Wit), or even some of the "silly" rules (like "Bulletproof Nudity").
Given that we play with regular and cinematic skills, that means there are sometimes two forms of the same skill. So which form do we play with? Answer: both. For example, we play with both forms of the Meditation skill as described in the Compendium I. These are simply referred to as the "greater form" and "lesser form". If you want to get the 'greater form', it probably requires an Unusual Background (more on UB requirements below).
We play an excessively lighthearted campaign. The most important trait a character can possess is a high "silliness" factor. A high emphasis is placed on humor and entertainment. Silliness will get out out of tight situations, allow you to perform super-human feats, and win you points from the game master.
For guidelines on how to design a character with a high silly factor, see Victorian Voices, and The Quintessence of Quirks.
Per the Victorian RPG Themes listing, we tend to begin adventures in the more reality-based themes (Literary, High-Seas), and as the adventure evolves we often enter into some of the more fantastical themes (Steampunk, Fantasy, Scientific Romance, etc.). This means that it's entirely possible to end up in Captain Nemo's submarine, or to go to Wonderland with Alice, but we dont start out in any of those places.
Another way of saying this is: We don't live in the gameworlds of Castle Falkenstein or Space 1889, but we do like to visit those gameworlds once in a while.
We don't play in a 100% historically accurate gameworld, nor is our gameworld particularly mundane. Read on for the rules we have to govern it.
Characters can start with Psionics, Magery, Esoteric Skills, Paranormal Advantages, and Advanced Fighting Skills, but must purchase a 10 point Unusual Background. Same goes for starting with skills that wouldn't normally be found in 19th century London.
Some might question why we require such a low-cost UB for potentially world-stomping powers. The biggest reason is that (as already mentioned) the gameworld we play in isn't particularly mundane and it actually isn't all that unusual to find people with strange and exotic skills and powers. Ours is a gameworld where people like Daniel Douglas Home and Helena Patrona Blavatsky were real mediums possessing real Psionic powers. That being said, it is a little unusual for someone to have exotic powers, hence the 10 point UB pre-requisite to represent rarity.
There are some other guidelines that we ask players to observe when creating characters with unusual abilities:
We make a specific exception to the Unusual Background requirement for esoteric / paranormal / cinematic skills under the following conditions: If you are only taking one or two esoteric skills (no more than one or two) and they fit within the concept of the character, go ahead and just take 'em. I.e. if you're making a "scientist" character who has normal, mundane skills, but you've included in his list "Weird Science", that's just fine by us.
We figure the cost for an Unusual Background is calculated into most paranormal advantages and disadvantages, so we do not typically require a UB as a prerequisite for things like Spirit / Fairie Empathy, Lifebane, etc.
A character who wants to play a Werewolf or Vampire character must purchase a 10 point UB though to represent rarity. It is possible for a mundane character to become a Vampire or Werewolf after generation if he's not careful...
If you want to take any of the advanced fighting skills that require Trained by a Master, Weapon Master, or Sharpshooter, you are not required to purchase an Unusual Background as well because these advantages are specialized forms of an Unusual Background. This is (partly) why the *Master advantages are all priced very high (especially TBAM - sheesh!) because a UB is already calculated into their cost.
A Victorian character with knowledge of Karate or Judo may have spent some time in China learning Aincient Chinese Secrets(tm).
If you have a character with the Higher Tech-Level advantage, he needs a 10 point Unusual Background, espeically if he came back with any futuristic equipment or high-tech skills unavalable at TL5.
For an Unusual Background story, maybe you have a character who stepped inside H. G. Well's Time Machine and visited the people of the future, where you gained some incredible scientific knowledge.
If a character has any level of Magical aptitude and knows any spells, he needs to buy a 10 point UB. A spellbook can be part of the UB to allow new spells to be learned post-generation.
If a character starts with a magic object, he does not need to buy a UB because those objects are so expensive, we figure the cost of a UB is included. The character should have a story that describes how he got it.
Likewise, Knacks are very expensive (they use the same formula as M.O.s) and a character with a knack doesn't need to buy a UB; the UB is already factored into the cost.
If you want to make a character who has Magery but no spells, it costs you a 10 point Patron who can teach you the spells. If you have a whole lot of spell books or you're on the Necromancer's Book of the Month Club AND Magery, then you pay a 10 point Unusual Background. (Either way, you end up paying the 10 points.)
For a Magery-related Unusual Background, maybe you have an Alice-type character who has already visited Wonderland many times in her life and learned many magically strange and interesting things while there. An explorer character, may have spent some time in Africa learning Voodoo magic. If you're making a Gypsy character, she might know how to put a hex on people while growing up in the Gypsy camp.
Characters with Psi powers and skills are allowed, but they must purchase a 10 point UB.
If you have a Psi power but no skills (i.e. you are a latent and are unaware of your abilities) that doesn't require an Unusual Background. This is essentially how the Danger Sense, Empathy, and Sensetive advantages work.
Psionics have, to date, been a more popular choice than magic, probably because we play in a low-mana gameworld.
A Psi character could have any number of Unusual Backgrounds. He could feasibly have been a member of the Society for Psychical Research (started in 1882). Maybe the character has worked for Mr. Dark's Traveling Pandemonium and learned some rare telepathic hypnotism skills. Maybe the character spent time in India or Tibet learning Hindu Mysticism. (In the "Far-East Mysticism" cases, the character would probably not know that his powers were Psionic, nor indeed have any notion as to what Psionics are, he just thinks its "Mysticism".)
If you have a Psi power or Magic ability and want to learn new Psi skills / spells after generation, you can just say that a spell book (or similar) is part of your Unusual Background. (Hey, you're paying for it, it should give you something.) If you want to learn a Psi power or spell that you don't know and don't have access to a trainer / spellbook, that probably requires an adventure where you have to find someone who could teach you.
As mentioned earlier, a mage character could say that a spellbook is part of his Unusual Background and learn new spells from there. However, if a character met and learned from a Master Magician as part of his Unusual Background, and wants to be able to learn new spells from him, buy components from him, and get other help from him, the Master Magician should be bought as a contact, using the rules for Contact or Patron. In other words, an inanimate object (like a spellbook) can be part of a UB, but not a living person.
Alternatively, the Game Master might allow you to spend earned points on a new esoteric skill, aquire a magic object, or gain a new Psi power. The GM would only award this kind of thing if it was apropos to the adventure, the player roleplayed well (i.e. he earned it), and the GM felt like it (Benevolent Tyrant, whim-by-whim basis, etc).