Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 15 October 2011

An Elizabethan Whirl

On occasion I want to delve into the extensive library/ludography upstairs and pull out a classic or an item of interest and review it. If all I did was review games, then it would happen, but the truth is that there is never quite enough time to review games from the here and now, let alone review those from the past. Yet the reflective nature of the twenty-first century and our yearning for late twentieth century nostalgia has led to the games of our yester years actually being made available once again just as if they were appearing on the shelves all that time ago. Such is the case with Maelstrom.

Originally published in 1984, Maelstrom was something of an oddity. It was a full RPG, but not one that was released not by a hobby publisher, but by Puffin Books, the imprint of Penguin Books that was, and remains a major publisher of children’s books. This meant that an actual RPG appeared not just on the shelves of your local games shop, but also on the shelves of your local, and thus any, book shop. Now this sounds strange, but in 1984, the hobby in the United Kingdom was at the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze. Titles in the solo game book series were selling very well, but Maelstrom was a very different beast, a semi-historical RPG set in the late Elizabethan Age, that came not only with a magic system and potentially, a treatment of the supernatural, but also a solo adventure and an adventure written for multiple characters. Further, its characters were not the traditional warriors and wizards, but nobles, professionals, craftsmen and artisans, tradesmen and labourers, as well as mercenaries, priests, mages, and rogues.

Now Arion Games have brought it back. It still comes as a thick, slightly over-sized paperback with the terrific snow scene of a man defending a cart and his companions from members of the soldiery. Inside the book is still split between two parts, one for the players and one for the referee, with a solo adventure in the players’ part, and an adventure to run in the referee’s. The book still has the heavy ink illustrations that do so much to give it a heavy atmosphere and a historical feel. Everything looks about the same as my now somewhat shelf worn copy that I bought back in 1984. The question is, how do the game’s rules and the game itself stand up to scrutiny with the benefit of twenty-five years’ gaming experience?

Maelstrom uses a percentile system, with characters having to make rolls or Saving Throws against one of nine attributes that define each character. So for example, to parry a sword thrust, a character must roll against his Defence Skill, whereas to work out the state of a noble’s household accounts, a clerk would roll against his Knowledge Skill. If this sounds simple, then it is. Even the complications only add just a little more to account for critical results, combat, and magic.

So in a fight, the blows of the combatants go back and forth with rolls on their Attack and Defence Skills with damage from successful hits rolled according to the weapon type, which often requires the use of six-sided as well as ten-sided dice. One interesting aspect of combat is that whilst all damage is recorded against a character’s Endurance – who will fall unconscious if he suffers damage equal to his Endurance – each wound is recorded individually. So for example, Alfred, waylaid by thugs, is beaten several times with their cudgels for a total of sixteen points of damage, which is recorded blow-by-blow as 5/5/2/4 (16). Wounds are recorded this way because each heals individually, at a rate of one point per week if resting or one point per month if pursuing a normal life, so that in our example, after a week’s bed rest, Alfred’s wounds are reduced to 4/4/1/3 (12). This makes for a dangerous combat system, but the issue of a character falling unconscious after receiving damage equal to his Endurance is problematic in that it is not necessarily deadly. Delivering a mortal blow is technically not possible, at least in the basic rules.

The rules for magic continue Maelstrom’s simplicity, requiring a Knowledge Skill roll by a mage to recall the correct incantation and a number of Will rolls equal to the desired effect’s difficulty. The game does not come with dedicated spell lists and the referee is expected to determine the rolls needed for the effect that the player mage wants. Again, critical successes and failures are possible, and their effects also need to be determined by the referee. In casting a spell, a mage taps into the “Maelstrom,” a dangerous and chaotic force that can, at the referee’s option, act independently for or against the mage, or even serve as a strange dimension that the mage and his fellow player characters can be cast into and out of, perhaps to end in some strange place or time.

Creating a character in Maelstrom involves assigning fifty points between nine attributes, each of which starts at a base of thirty. After that each character requires a Living, representing his past prior to going adventuring. Each Living determines a character’s age, appropriate skills, and possessions. The given selection of Livings is diverse, from Noble to Labourer, and includes Professionals (Architects, Clerks, Doctors, and Scriveners – lawyers), Craftsmen and Artisans (Armourers, Blacksmiths, Bladesmiths, Masons, Tailors, Tanners, and Wood-carvers), Traders (in everything from fish and fruit to wine and groceries), Travelling Players (musicians, minstrels, and players), and Herbalists. The latter are usually pacifists that collect and prepare herbs for medicinal purposes, knowing in which seasons herbs are available. The Herbalist Living is supported with excellent appendix detailing the herbs its practitioners work with.

Our sample character is Henyre Powlett, an architect who has been studying and working under a master architect in Bristol for almost half of his life. He wishes to travel to gain further work and experience. He is a gentleman whose family owns land in the county of Somerset.

Henyre Powlett
Architect, Age 26
Attack Skill 30
Defence Skill 30
Endurance 35
Speed 35
Agility 30
Will 35
Persuasion 40
Knowledge 45
Perception 40
Equipment: horse, dagger, good clothes, pouch with 49 shillings, a week’s food, skin of wine, and architect’s tools

Of the Livings available, the closest in terms to classic types in other RPGs are the Mage, the Mercenary, the Priest, and the Rogue. Mages are generally older as they need to take up a second Living in order to provide a cover for their sorcerous activities and likely membership of a cult. Mercenaries are excellent fighters and know how to use their armour to lessen blows taken and to use their weapons to inflict more injurious wounds. A Priest can exalt those around him through Preaching, and has limited powers – Detection, Warding, Casting Out, and Exorcism – over spirits. Rogues though, are further divided into Beggars, Thieves, Assassins, Tricksters, Burglars, and non-specialists, each with their own particular skills in addition to those general to the Living.

The Player’s Section is rounded out with a solo adventure and some advanced rules. The adventure is relatively short, but still atmospherically grim. It is designed to be played with an Assassin character who is given a target to kill. The advanced rules add encumbrance, attribute modifiers for Livings, rules for making a living out of a character’s Living, more detailed weapons and wounds, and the effects of critical rolls in combat. For the most part, the Referee’s Rules gives even more details on each of the Livings as well as a scenario. The latter describes a road trip from St. Albans to London in which various events occur and comes full of colourful detail. The adventure is well done and serves as a good introduction to the setting.

So far, Maelstrom is an immensely likeable RPG. It is full of period detail, never more so than with the character types which get more coverage in Maelstrom than any other subject, though this information is split between the book’s two parts for the player and the referee. It is also easy to play and run, the rules being simple and easy, but although the game can be run as is, it is not without its problems.

The rules themselves are too simple, especially the basic rules. The advanced rules are necessary to avoid the game being too simplistic, especially for combat, which needs the rules for serious and critical wounds for it to be more than straight fight to a knockout. For an RPG set during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it seems a curious omission that no rules are given for the use of firearms. Another problem with the RPG’s list of weaponry is that whilst multiple damage listings are given for each weapon type – for example, “1-10, 2-12, 3-18, 2-20, 4-24, 3-30, and 5-30” all under sword – the listings do not actually assign an actual sword type to each damage value. Suggestions are given separately, which is anything other than helpful.

Perhaps, the biggest problem with Maelstrom is the lack of adequate background. A little over two pages is devoted to “Background: The Lie of Land,” discussing the period in the broadest of terms. The truth of it is that it not enough. Without more background, the referee is forced to look elsewhere if he wants to write adventures as beyond the wealth of detail accorded the various Livings, Maelstrom is sorely lacking. The Elizabethan Age is a period of religious strife, exploration, treason, and more, all of which is ignored in Maelstrom. The result is that the referee will need to come up with a background and a focus for his game, for Maelstrom lacks a sense of conflict that would provide that focus.

Further, perhaps too much information is paid to the characters and their Livings. You can of course, have too much information, but at the same time, there is the matter of whether a player would chose to play a Fruiterer or an Engraver versus a Mage or a Mercenary?

Physically, this edition of Maelstrom does need an edit and perhaps its layout could be a bit more open and easier to read. Worse, much of the artwork has a slightly faded, washed out look that renders the road map in the adventure very hard to read.

There is much to like about Maelstrom. Its rules are easy, and even with the use of the advanced rules included, the game is still quite light. The magic system is simple, but also flexible, and what is included in the book, is supported with two good adventures. The historical detail is excellent, but it is too focused. It needs more historical background rather the detail about the Livings and perhaps, it even needs a second edition. As it is, Maelstrom is not without charm, but it is without focus.


  1. Interesting. The "Livings" rules remind me of WFRP 1E's "careers" system, though, from what you write, it seems that "once a fruiterer, always a fruiterer." (And I'm amazed that my spell checker didn't grouse at "fruiterer.")

    Speaking of old games, I do wish someone would bring "Tales of Gargenthir" back, perhaps with a more workable rules set to support the setting.

  2. It is possible for a character to have done another Living before starting play, but this does mean having to roll again and add to his age. The only way to cut a characters age is to cut a skill from what is already a skills light game. Beyond that, there is little in way of character improvement beyond attribute increases.

    "Tales of Gargenthir"? Now there is a forgotten vanity project! Probably ripe for re release as a PDF, but re development is another matter.