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

Friday, 29 June 2012

An Elizabethan Whirl's Companion

The classics are not always perfect, and so it is with Maelstrom, the Tudor set RPG published in the United Kingdom by Puffin Books back in 1984. There is much to love about the game, including its period attention to detail, its simplicity, and its two scenarios, one for solo play and the other to be run by the GM. Unfortunately the RPG was lacking in terms of certain rules, for example, those for firearms and for two-weapon fighting, and background and setting detail. None of these issues were addressed when Arion Games released a new edition of the game, but fortunately now they have with the game’s very first supplement, The Maelstrom Companion.

The Maelstrom Companion comes as a slim, oversized paperback that contains an array of additions to the game and setting. In terms of rules, the most obvious and simple additions are the new rules for firearms and two-weapon fighting, which are both so simple and easy that the reader is left wondering why anyone had to wait for so long to get them. The obvious answer is that the original RPG had been out of print for over two decades before The Maelstrom Companion was even considered… That said, none of the firearms are named, being merely listed as having differing Attack Skill modifiers, damage ratings, ranges, and so on according to their size, whether a pistol or a musket. This was an omission when it came to weapons in the Maelstrom RPG, and it is one that is continued here.

One of the best aspects of Maelstrom is its Livings, the equivalent of its Classes in other RPGs. From Architects, Doctors, and Scriveners to Beggars, Blacksmiths, and Traders via Mages, Mercenaries, Priests, and Rogues, each of the game’s numerous Livings was presented in plenty of detail. The Maelstrom Companion adds several new Livings, including the Agent, who serves a political patron and works a network of contacts and informants in his master’s service; Alchemists, capable researching certain recipes, such as that for Aqua Vitae, Blackpowder, and Fireproof Cloth; Barber-Surgeons, capable of treating wounds – unlike Physicians!; law enforcement in the form of Beadles, Constables, and Watchmen; Farmers, who can raise crops and stock, handle and treat animals, and tell the weather; Friars, who are monks that actively spend time amongst the laity, often relying upon them for charity; Hunters, excellent shots and trappers who use their stealth as either game keeper or poacher; Sailors, who not only know how to sail and swim, but climb too; the Tavern Keeper, who in the course maintaining his establishment, gains a nose for food and drink as well as for trouble; and the Witch, who understands herbalism and medicines, but also knows curses.

Many of these are supported with new rules and expanded rules. For example, the Alchemist is supported with rules for Alchemy along with numerous recipes. Likewise, the Witch’s new rules for Witchcraft detail the nature of the Contracts that a practitioner enters with certain intelligences from the Maelstrom, be they “Demons” or “Devils” or not; her healing skills, or rather her “country wisdom;” her ability to make Curses and Charms; and her loyal Familiar. A Witch who pursues a knowledge of Herbalism cannot make Contracts or Curses and vice versa. The expanded rules cover magic, allowing a Mage to specialise as an Astrologer, an Elementalist, or a Skryer (a Mage that specialises in contacting and speaking to spirits and more). They expand and divide healing between the three Livings that become available with the advent of The Maelstrom Companion. Wounds are bandaged, internal bleeding is staunched, limbs splinted, and teeth pulled by a Barber-Surgeon, whereas the superior – in attitude, at least – Physician do not, and instead primarily treats diseases and infections. Overlapping between the skills of both is the Herbalist, who can treat minor wounds and diseases. Similarly, the Weaponsmith Living can now be a Gunsmith rather than a Bladesmith, and thus specialise in the manufacture of the firearms whose rules appear elsewhere in the book. Lastly, the Labourer Living is actually given a full benefit in that he can work for a full day and gain bed and board if not wages. Character generation overall is supported with a list of period Christian names, along with a table of distinguishing features, such as Alcoholic, Disconcerting Gaze, and Tall, that can be used to individualise a character.

Much of the contents of The Maelstrom Companion is for GM and player alike, but the GM is not ignored. He receives a supernatural bestiary, covering an array of unnatural creatures from Black Dogs to Robin Goodfellow; a short, if pertinent history that details the Tudor church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries – useful in particular if the setting provided in The Maelstrom Companion is used; and some actual campaign advice. This explores various campaign styles possible in the Tudor period – political, military, trade, business, criminal, and so on. Some of the descriptions of these styles are longer than others, but they are at least ideas and they are accompanied by sample campaign ideas. The reader though, will be left wanting more, and perhaps they could be expanded upon in future supplements.

Where Maelstrom provided information on the places along the road between St. Albans and London, The Maelstrom Companion gives a whole setting to explore and interact with. This is the Suffolk market town of Bury St. Edmunds in the year 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII. Once the county seat, the life of the town revolved around its powerful abbey, but with the break from Rome, the King’s establishment of the Church of England, and the dissolution of the monasteries, Bury St. Edmunds has lost much of its status. Into this power vacuum have moved various nobles, merchants, and guilds, each vying for influence and prestige, and each perhaps looking for a few good men (and women) who might be able to work behind the scenes to further their employer’s ends. The environs and personalities of the town are described in some detail, that latter organised by Living, and a timeline of events are given for the whole of 1540. Some adventure hooks are also given, though no scenario is included. It would be pleasing to see this further supported with actual scenarios set in the town. The Maelstrom Companion is rounded out with various useful game references, such as the Master Living list and quick guides to running both Basic and Advanced Combat.

Physically, once you get past the front cover, The Maelstrom Companion is disappointing. The layout is unsophisticated, even pedestrian. Where much of the artwork in the Maelstrom core rules conveyed much of the game’s feel, here it is murky and disappointing. For the most part, the book is decently written, but it does need another edit in places. It could also do with a reorganisation, so that the sections for the GM are clearly kept separated from those that the players can read.

The production values are this supplement’s Achilles Heel. They give the book a disparate and unfocused feel, which whilst unfair is not wholly unwarranted. For the most part, the new material is decent, especially that which builds upon the game’s primary highlight – its detailed Livings, whether that be the additional rules or the expanded ones. The supplement though points to the need for further development, whether that is in the form of expanded advice for the GM or scenarios, including those that could be set in Bury St. Edmund. Ultimately, whilst there is a goodly amount of useful and interesting information in The Maelstrom Companion, both the information presented and the book itself is let very much let down by its underwhelming production values.