Sunday, 14 July 2013

Maelstrom


MAELSTROM

Alexander Scott

Reviewed by Mark Lain

Puffin’s Adventure Gamebooks series included this one-off full RPG rulebook set roughly from the 15th to 17th Centuries (although the system is freely adaptable for any historical era) which, whilst not particularly well-known when published in the early 80s, has developed something of a cult following in recent years with a re-release plus various add-on modules and adventure scenarios published by Arion Games from 2008 onwards.

In an era when RPGs were quite expensive (I remember each of the Dungeons & Dragons Rule Sets costing £9.99 each in the mid-80s), not to mention requiring multiple purchases of expansion sets to continue games into higher levels, an entire RPG in one single book was a very good idea, even though you needed to invest in some specialist dice (and some miniatures/environments should you wish to add a visual element) etc to be able to play this, but dice were hardly going to break the bank and if you were into role-play chances were that you already had some anyway. But this is a different approach to RPGs from the usual monsters, dragons, treasure, etc of most game systems, in that it is a historical game set in the real world (medieval England is presented in the book, but the system is usable in any country) where you assume historically-accurate characters from nobles, through priests, rogues, thieves and assassins, various types of traders and craftsmen, travelling players, etc and you must behave appropriately to your chosen character type. There is scope to also be a mage in conjunction with another trade as, given the superstitions of the era, publicly using magic would be pretty suicidal, so you have to be under cover.

The way characterisation is handled in this game is both a massive success and a big problem in that it would be hard to play a character accurately and also get something out of the experience if the player was not actively interested in the history of the era and, probably more so, have at least a passing knowledge of the period. Indeed, to referee this game would require a fairly in-depth knowledge of the period of play, otherwise adventures would either be fairly dull and one-dimensional, or factual gaps would be filled with impossible fantasy elements that could annoy the players who want to play a historical game, as opposed to an all-out fantasy game. In many ways, this is almost the sit-down table-top version of things like the Sealed Knot and similar battle recreation groups that, again, make no sense unless you are very into the history you are re-enacting and know plenty about it to understand the motives and ideas behind what you are doing. For a group of keen historians, this RPG system is probably the most in-depth and realistic of any RPG I have ever seen. Character types follow strict rules of behaviour and approach, and many stats exist to determine success or failure. For example, should a priest wish to escape a situation by preaching to his assailants, a saving throw is made against his Persuasion stat to determine if his preaching has had the desired effect. The game mechanics are largely based around similar saving throws being made against various other realistic stats with the added possibility of critical successes or failures with either over-the-top or disastrous results – again, this is very realistic. The combat system is equally realistic, allowing for modifiers based on weapon used, combat prowess, armour (and whether the body part hit is covered with any), etc which is way beyond what many systems can cater for. Likewise, unconsciousness, exhaustion, loss of limbs, and the amount of time wounds take to heal are also taken into account (including the option for months of bed rest making wounds heal faster, but that would hardly make for a fun adventure). On the one hand, the sheer number of saving throws involved in this game can make it seem that all you ever do is make saving throws, but it is balanced out against creating a very real feel to the game. As with traditional RPGs in the D&D vein, Experience Points are gained allowing characters to develop over time, rather than existing for a moment in time that lasts as long as the adventure in hand (as with FF) which can be unsatisfying and remove the feeling of “being” a character. Age also comes into play, along with periods of training/apprenticeship, meaning aspects of slowing over time etc can be incorporated, as well as limits being set on stat levels dependant on age, plus older characters are more vulnerable to disease. Again, this is very realistic.

Disease and its cures are incorporated in the context of the era the game is set in. In other words, various quack medicines and herbal remedies (some still correct eg poisons and some discredited centuries ago) play a large role in treating both disease and wounds. Again, this is made as realistic as possible, with seasonal variations on availability and price of herbs from sellers, as well as variant effects (eg coma or madness if not used correctly), plus the added element of particular remedies rocketing in price in times of heavy demand (and epidemics were pretty common in the eras of the game, so this is a nice touch as well.) The herblore appendix is based on an actual treatise on the subject from the era, making it as realistic and as contextually arcane as is possible and there’s every chance that this has had more than a passing influence on the herblore that plays a large role in FF #53 Spellbreaker, as there are definite similarities.

Putting the era of play into context is key in the successful design of this system, be it through the medical theories of the time, the inclusion of town guilds/reputations and the like to direct how character professions can or cannot behave, the influence of religion and superstition (priests can be either very powerful or hunted down as heretics depending on the pervasive view at any one time), and beliefs in such things as magic (the use of which can be lethal) and such fantasy beings as changelings, witches, fairies, etc. Again, the supernatural is handled very well and it is possible to actually warp reality when casting dangerous spells (the Maelstrom of the title) with various unpredictable results.

Magic is an interesting aspect of this system as no list of spells is included as would normally be expected, the idea being that anything is possible by using magic (again, very in keeping with the beliefs of the era.) The referee is left to judge on the achievability level of a spell that a player may wish to cast and then determine whether they are a) experienced enough to cast it, and b) what the outcome is. Basic things like use of the equivalent of Jedi mind tricks are not too difficult (especially as many people in the era would probably be easy to fool into believing just about anything anyway), whilst inconceivable things (which were of course perfectly conceivable at the time) such as raising the dead, changing the weather, flying, etc are much harder and therefore unlikely to be pulled-off by anyone other than very experienced characters (again, more realism, which balances the era’s fantasy that these things were fact with the reality that they were not.)

Whilst this system is exceptionally well-designed and therefore as realistic as it could get without making it so reliant on dice-rolling and planning that you would never be playing anything and having any fun, the option for adventuring seems a little limited to either daily activities (if the everyday professions such as traders or people who make things are used) or acting out actual historical events, some of which would be far more interesting than others, of course – court intrigue, whilst well-documented and it makes good TV drama may not be very exciting to play, but witch-hunting or assassination is probably quite fun, if a bit repetitive after a while. This is where I maintain that this game is best enjoyed by those with an active interest in and knowledge of the era of play. Understanding the motives of an adventurer in a regular RPG is easy enough as time and place are purely conceptual, but thinking like a real historical character type in a particular century is much harder unless you understand what made people tick at the time. To make it easier to envisage how to play this game, two sample adventures are included. The first is a standard move from one section to another solo scenario of 160 paragraphs helpfully entitled A Solo Adventure (that seems to be the blue-print for FF #29 Midnight Rogue) where you are hired as an assassin to sneak into a rich merchant’s house and poison him. It all turns out to be a big ruse to prove your worthiness just like in Midnight Rogue and there are even unreachable paragraphs to prevent cheating just like in that book, plus trying to play with anything other than an assassin results in you immediately arriving home and nothing happening, followed by being instructed to actually roll-up an ASSASSIN this time! Other than meeting a few NPCs, finding various keys, and getting caught in the rain/mud in a maze, there isn’t really much to do, but the atmosphere of night-time, mystery (and rain) are all laid-on thick and this is a fun, if short, introduction to how to handle one of the more playable and potential-filled character types. The inclusion of a lot of unreachable paragraphs (and several “you are an idiot”-type instant failure sections) makes it seem like there’s more to this than there is, but it’s still a nice introduction and is a good way of filling a spare half-hour or so. Further into the book, we get the second adventure, imaginatively named An Adventure, which is a full multi-player RPG scenario and much more representative of how Maelstrom is intended to be played – there is a lot of travelling, a lot of incidental encounters with everyday life, plus a few bits of skulduggery (as would be expected in the era) to give you something to actually adventure through. In some ways, it’s a sort of Canterbury Tales affair where a mixed-bag of character types (all with different motives) are travelling together through Hertfordshire to London. The main aim is that of several of the players who are taking someone to London to hand him over to the authorities (which gives the referee a NPC to play throughout as well.) Various minor things happen along the way, but nothing that has the “meat” of a fantasy adventure, which, again, gives the impression that history buffs would get more out of this system than traditional fantasy gamers.

Both playing and refereeing this game would be quite demanding (until you are used to the more commonly-used rules) and the first read-through of the book can leave your head spinning, especially the optional Advanced Rules that are mind-boggling in places, but that, again, do add much-needed realism and depth. Oddly though, two aspects of life are conspicuous by their absence – no mention is made of firearms which were very common at the time, especially flintlock pistols and field cannons (and siege weapons if you are playing in an earlier Medieval period), and animals are similarly absent which is a bigger surprise considering that characters will often have horses and dogs were very common pets/guards. Likewise, cats were witches’ familiars and, whilst it specifically states that you cannot play a witch, these would be common as NPCs. The latter problem was resolved by a supplementary article on animals included in Warlock #6 covering real and mythical creatures (as many fantasy animals such as satyrs, unicorns, dragons, etc were still believed to exist) for inclusion in Maelstrom games. Firearms (gunpowder weapons) were finally added by Arion Games in 2008 in their 161-page expansion book The Maelstrom Companion, along with the less noticeable, but still very setting-pertinent, omitted subject of alchemy, meaning that pretty much everything you’d need to know for the era to be complete was now included. It does state in the original rule book being reviewed here that it is up to the referee to add or remove rules and ideas as they see fit, so there’s no reason why these missing elements couldn’t just be added anyway (it often refers to the need to write your own rules into the rule book itself), although gauging the equivalent damage done by ballistics compared to a sword may not be particularly simple and is easy to over- or under-estimate, given that a miss-hit from a sword can cause a minor graze, whereas a cannon ball explosion will at least maim if not almost always kill outright. Perhaps firearms were excluded because they are so dangerous and were often very unpredictable to even use at the time, the user being as likely to be killed by a backfire as the intended target would be of being hit.

Arion Games, as part of their 2007 resurrection of the Maelstrom concept helped to address the question of just how to go about creating interesting enough adventures to use this system, by producing several add-on adventure/concept modules (like D&D did umpteen times) covering topics such as tournaments, beggars (which would never be simple to write a “mission” for as such), taverns, a more fleshed-out road trip like An Adventure but more interesting, and an investigative mystery adventure scenario. These make the system go much further as we now have a superbly designed historical game system that also has scope for playability beyond the abilities of a referee to extract enough material from real history without straying into standard fantasy RPG territory that would not fit in.

To summarise, this is as realistic as a RPG can get without becoming over-reliant on dice-throwing or so complex that no-one can understand it (and it’s certainly pretty complicated as it stands!) History buffs and/or those with a decent understanding of the era being played in would benefit much more than a casual gamer or fantasy RPG fan, but there’s no reason why, given an exciting and varied enough adventure (that doesn’t stretch the boundaries of reality beyond what was understood to be “fact” at the time, of course), that this could not be enjoyed either way. If you ignore the often baffling rules and bombardment of instructions about saving throws and stat adjustment and just read this as a book, this makes an excellent insight into how the era in question functioned both socially and structurally and Alexander Scott is to be congratulated for the sheer depth of research and information that has gone into creating this RPG. Just how playable it really is I’m not certain, but it is definitely a fully fleshed-out system that attempts to do something different by applying role-playing to the real world.



3 comments:

  1. Nice review! This is actually one of the most insightful reviews of the game i have ever read.

    You may or may not be aware that we have just finished a Kickstarter for a sort of 2nd Ed of Maelstrom (Maelstrom Domesday) that both tightens up the mechanics somewhat and although it shifts a few hundred years back in time, will also provide a players guide to the setting.

    The original game was as you said very sandboxy, with no clear type of adventure. The new version will have a stated play style, but it is of course easy to ignore that if required.

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  2. Thanks Graham. This system has always intrigued me due to its historical accuracy. Looking forward to seeing what Domesday brings to the table

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  3. If you would like to be involved as it progresses, send me your email address (to admin at arion-games.com) and i will share the document with you

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