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Friday 28 January 2022

Moorcockian Magic

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions is a Swords & Sorcery roleplaying game—of a sort—inspired by the tales by Michael Moorcock in which the Eternal Champion enters into bargains and agreements with great demons, elementals, and gods and in return receives great power, whether that is the power of the blade or the power of the spell. Written and published by Lucas Rolim, Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy effectively takes the interesting ideas of Stormbringer: A Fantasy Role-Playing in the Young Kingdoms, slims them down to their basics and presents them as a set of mechanics which just about work on their own, but really demand a setting of their own, and if necessary, a setting of their own whose combat and magic system Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy can easily replace with its own. It is a set of mechanics in which swordsmen follows the Path of the Blade and studies treatises and with weapon masters to increase their skill with a weapon and sorcerers the Path of the Pact, studying tomes and making pacts with spirits, demons, and the like, and so gain access to magics.

From the outset, 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is clear that it eschews the standard elements of the roleplaying game—initiative, movement, time, equipment prices, and the like. All of that is down to the Judge—as the Game Master is known in Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy—to determine. Instead, its emphasis is upon its simple resolution mechanic and the two Paths, the Path of the Blade and the Path of the Pact. As a consequence, there is a huge narrative element to the roleplaying, not only with the Judge deciding upon how initiative, movement, time, equipment prices, and the like all play out, but also with the players deciding what Path Advancements their characters are going to learn and what their effects are. Which of course, is in addition to the roleplaying possibilities.

A Player Character is simply defined. He has a number of Health Points divided into three types of Wounds—Light Wounds, Moderate Wounds, and Heavy Wounds, and his Path Advancements. A Player Character starts play with a randomly determined number of wounds and one Path Advancement, either in the Path of the Blade or the Path of the Pact.

Esshian of Toorcaas
Path Advancements:
Path of the Pact: The Draft of Durasthakaraṇaya
Light Wounds 1 Moderate Wounds 1 Heavy Wounds 1

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy has a player roll two six-sided dice and attempt to equal or exceed a Reference Value when he wants his character to succeed at a Task. Tasks are divided into four Difficulty tiers each of which has a default Reference Value which is three times the number of the Difficulty tier. The Difficulty tiers and their Reference Values are Easy (six), Average (nine), Hard (twelve), and Impossible (fifteen). The Reference Value can be modified by a Player Character’s Path Advancements and Narrative Advantages—the latter determined by the environment and situation, typically reducing the Reference Value by one for each. This will give the player and his character a new Reference Value to roll against on the given table. The result can either be a Total Success, Partial Success, or Failure, essentially the equivalent of ‘Yes’, ‘Yes, but…’, and ‘No’. For example, in combat, a Partial Success results in the Player Character striking his opponent, but leaves him open to a counter attack, whereas a Total Success would mean pulling a randomly selected Feat in addition to the damage inflicted.

Feats come into play when a player rolls a Total Success using a Path Advancement. For example, in combat using the Path of the Blade, a Feat might grant the Player Character a second action due to his speed or so weaken his opponent that the damage he would inflict on his next attack is reduced. Similarly, when a Player Character adheres to the Path of the Pact and invokes his patron spirit or demon, a Feat might be that the spiritual connection is perfect and the spell is cast with maximum effect or so deep that the Player Character is rendered ethereal! Actual damage in combat is determined by the result on the highest die and be a Light Wound, Moderate Wound, or Severe Wound. When a Player Character or NPC runs out of Severe Wounds, they are dead, but armour adds to the number of wounds that either of them can suffer. As a Player Character gains more Path Advancements and thus more Path Advancements, he will also gain more wounds of all three types.

Path Advancements are gained when it is narratively appropriate and 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy suggests that it occur two or three times per session. A Path Advancement for the Path of the Blade is by weapon type, for example dagger, broad sword, or darts, reducing the Reference Value by one up to a maximum of three times per weapon type. Like the source material, a Path Advancement for the Path of the Pact is comparatively more complex, and is done per Patron Spirit, again reducing the Reference Value by one up to a maximum of three times per Patron Spirit. Each Patron Spirit has a Domain, for example, Air, Earth, Fire, Water, Protection, Mind, Teleportation, and so on. A Player Character invoking a Spirit Patron effectively casts a spell related to its Domain, but that ‘spell’ or its effects, can only be used once per day. Depending on the Spirit Patron, this might be to inflict or heal damage, grant an enhancement which reduces the Reference Value of another Task, inflict a Curse, and so on. Of the two Paths, there is far more scope for roleplaying with the Path of the Pact.

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy rounds itself off with a selection of monsters and it is here its problems begin. There are just the six monsters, including Goblin, Orc, Spider, and Dragon, all drawn from traditional fantasy and thus uninspiring in comparison to any Moorcockian influenced creations. Only the one, the Orc Shaman, possesses a Pact, that of the Domain of Death with Mortus the Decrepit, and there is no advice on handling that or NPCs in relationship to the Player Characters. Similarly, there is no world building or advice for creating worlds with a Moorcockian fantasy influence, or even discussion of what Moorcockian Fantasy is or what the differences are between it and traditional fantasy. Unless the Judge and her players know that difference because they know the source material, the context of Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is very much going to be a mystery to them.

Another issue is the terminology of having a Difficulty tier and a Reference Value derived from that which is what the player is rolling against. Now the point of the narrative and Pact advantages is to reduce the Reference Value the player is rolling against, but arguably is there any need to have both terms? Would it not be simpler and less confusing to have a Difficulty Value and adjust that with narrative and Pact advantages, rather than what in effect is two differing terms for the same thing?

Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is beautifully laid out in full colour with a well-chosen selection of public domain artwork which give an unsettling and intense baroque feel. Barring the omissions, it is well written.

Although its terminology does complicate what is a straightforward and simple system, the mechanics of 
Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy very much lend themselves to roleplaying in the style of the Eternal Champion. After all, the Player Characters are studying with their weapons and they are entering into pacts with otherworldly creatures for great power, and there are great roleplaying opportunities in that, but beyond that system though, Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy is far from inspiring in terms of its genre and its influences. It is simply, a set of mechanics awaiting a world or multiverse of worlds and the input of the Judge to really bring it alive, but leaves the Judge very much on her own when it comes to the nature of that multiverse and the inspiration behind Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions.


Pacts and Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy – A Minimalist Sword and Witchcraft RPG for Short Campaigns and Quick Sessions is available here in in print and here as a PDF..


  1. As a game, both in terms of rules design and world building, I found it pretty weak and very incomplete. Like many other rules-light offerings, it heavily depends on GM and player familiarity with other games in the same genre. But as a book, when it comes to layout and clever use of public domain artwork, it really shines. And that's what I bought it for, as a nice example of how you get nice visuals with zero art budget.

  2. Interesting stuff (though anything "Moorcockian" tends to pique my interest). Thanks for taking the time to review!