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

Friday, 8 November 2013

A Beggarly Affair

One of the delights of Maelstrom, the Tudor set RPG published in the United Kingdom by Puffin Books back in 1984 and then more recently by Arion Games in 2007 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 is presented in plenty of detail. Every Living is interesting and capable, though often only in some small way. The more recent Maelstrom Companion added yet further Livings, expanding especially with a number of legal professions. Now there is a supplement that focusses entirely upon one type of Living with the eponymously titled Beggars Companion.

This slim one-hundred-and-twenty-two page paperback expands greatly upon the beggar and his place in the Tudor England portrayed in Maelstrom. For the player it covers how beggars rose in numbers during the late Tudor period; how they were treated by the state, the church, and society in general; the numerous types of beggars and their ‘tricks’; and the basics of the secretive language of Beggars’ Cant. For the Referee, it covers the beggars’ campaign; a set of beggars and rogues that can be player characters or NPCs; and a septet of adventure seeds as well as a full adventure.

For the player there are a total of twenty-eight new Livings, all of them beggarly professions. They range from the ‘Abraham Man’, who fakes lunacy, and the ‘Bawdy Basket’, who trades in lewd lechery and loathsome falsehoods, to the ‘Whipjack’, who fakes service as a shipwrecked mariner, and the ‘Wild Rogue’, who has known no other profession except that of beggar. Most of these can be taken by a character of either gender, but several are gender specific, such as the female only ‘Bawdy Basket’ or the ‘Father of Families’, a male only Living for which the beggar entreats his audience with tales of the loss of his wife and children. Each is accorded bonuses and penalties to his attributes as well as a ‘Nefarious Knack’, a special ability that is particular to that type of beggar. Thus, the ‘Counterfeit Crank’ is capable of ‘Loose Fall’, so that when replicating the effects of epilepsy, he is capable of falling to the ground without injuring himself.

Our sample character is Eleanor Mathews, a widow who was forced upon the road with the death of her husband, Nicholas. She uses her knowledge of herbs, and more recently spices, to work as a ‘saffroner’, a sell of fake herbs and spices to the unwary. Despite her being a woman, the Brotherhood has accepted Eleanor as she is a skilled healer.

Eleanor Mathewson
Herbalist/Trickster-Saffroner, Age 38
Attack Skill 30
Defence Skill 30
Endurance 30
Speed 30
Agility 30
Will 30
Persuasion 41
Knowledge 45
Perception 40
Equipment: Sample herbs, filler materials, clothes, pouch with 14 pennies, a day’s food, knife
Abilities: Herb Lore, Diagnosis, Assess

What comes across clearly from reading the Beggars Companion is how much of a challenge roleplaying a beggar character will be in Maelstrom. Tudor society looks upon the beggar poorly, seeing him as lazy and greedy and ill prepared to work for a living as every proper, upright, and industrious Christian ought. The state has legislated against the beggar many times, but beggars can obtain licenses to practise their ‘trade’. Such licenses can also be counterfeited. Even so, the law will often drive beggars out of a parish, or worse, punish them by placing them in the stocks, branding them, or have the gristle from their upper ears cut away as indication of their vagrancy. Further, as outsiders, beggars are rarely trusted and as strangers, can be blamed for the cause of manner of ills – diseases, thefts, and so on. That said, beggars can at times call upon the charity of the church, though the degree of help available will wax and wane… Another source of help is the Brotherhood, a fraternal organisation that provides shelter and support to beggars in good stead, but will call upon its brethren to aid in its criminal activities. What this means is that beggars must live by their wiles as well as by their ‘tricks’ of the trade in order to earn them a crust and they need to succeed without being obvious about it. 

Essentially, what this addresses is the issue at the heart of the Beggars Companion – why would the players should choose to play in campaign involving beggars. Besides the detail provided with each Living, the Knack assigned to each Living serves as a ‘roleplaying’ hook, not only something that the character can do and do well, but something that needs to be roleplayed. Not just roleplayed by the player as part of the game, but actually roleplayed by the character in the game in order to do well. Thus the challenge of playing a beggar this historical setting is only extended. Further challenges of increasing difficulty are presented in the Styles of Play, beginning with the Theatrical style that is much lighter in tone and better suited to one-off scenarios and short campaigns. This is followed by the default Historical setting, replete with filth, decay, depravity, and distrust, and then the Dark style, in which the lives of the beggar characters are under constant threat.

In addition to the Rogues Gallery, the Referee’s Section also includes a further Living. The Upright Man is a manipulator of both the beggar and the respectable, hiding behind his own façade of respectability that creates by being seen to work. Where most characters in Maelstrom have no more than two Livings, the Upright Man is a third Living, one to be taken after a previous profession and then life as a beggar. It can also be used as something for beggar characters to aspire to. ‘The Long Road’ is a full scenario, much in the style of the adventure from the core rulebook for Maelstrom. Here the beggar characters follow not just a road, but also another beggar, Old Ted. Once an Upright Man, it is believed that Old Ted amassed a small fortune so as members of the Brotherhood, the characters have been tasked to keep their eye on him. Suddenly he wanders off. Where could he be going, and why? Understandably, this is a linear affair, although given the subject matter of this supplement, it is a pity that the adventure only really allows the player characters the opportunity to practise their knacks at the beginning. Rounding out the supplement are a set of appendices that cover the physical hardships of being a beggar, more herbs, and a bibliography.

The Beggars Companion is a reasonably well presented book. It is lightly illustrated and although it is an easy read, it could have done with a closer edit in places. Overall, this is an interesting little book that nicely expands upon an aspect of Tudor England and Maelstrom. It would be nice to see it supported with more adventures and even a campaign, but in the meantime, there is plenty of detail and background material for the Referee to bring to his game.