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

Saturday 2 March 2024

The Other OSR: Miseries & Misfortunes III

Miseries & Misfortunes is a roleplaying game set in seventeenth century France designed and published following a successful Kickstarter campaign by Luke Crane, best known for the fantasy roleplaying game, Burning Wheel. Notably, it is based on the mechanics of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Originally, Miseries & Misfortunes appeared as a fanzine in 2015, but its second edition has since been developed to add new systems for skills, combat, magic, and more. However, the underlying philosophy of Miseries & Misfortunes still leans back into the play style of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. For example, the differing mechanics of rolling low for skill checks, but high for combat rolls and saving throws. Plus, the Player Characters exist in an uncaring world where bad luck, misfortune, and even death will befall them and there will be no one left to commiserate or mourn except the other characters and their players. Further, Miseries & Misfortunes is not a cinematic swashbuckling game of musketeers versus the Cardinal’s guards. It is grimmer and grimier than that, and the Player Characters can come from all walks of life. That said, it is set in the similar period as Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, so will be familiar to many players. The other major inspiration for Miseries & Misfortunes is Les Misères et les Malheurs de la Guerre, a set of eighteen etchings by French artist Jacques Callot that grimly depict the nature of the conflict in the early years of the Thirty Years War.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane is the third of the roleplaying game’s rulebooks. The first, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 1: Roleplaying in 1648 gives the core rules for the roleplaying game, and the second, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 2: Les Fruits Malheureux provides the means to actually create Player Characters, and together they make up the core rules. Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane does two things. One is that it provides the rules for learning and casting various types of magic and the other is a set of Lifepaths for both religious and arcane character types. The Game Master can make use of some of the Lifepaths without making use of the rules for magic.

Magic in Miseries & Misfortunes can only be learned through the reading and studying of the written word. This is primarily from grimoires which contain hidden truths far beyond that of the two divine books of Christianity—the Book of God and the Book of Nature. This knowledge is called ‘Gnosis’ and it is required to perform rituals, cast spells, and mix formulae. Through Gnosis, a practitioner can study the physical and metaphysical properties of the world and learn to alter numerous substances through Chymistry; Goëtia to summon and command demons; Necromancy to affect the world, particularly spirits and the dead; Theology to understand and communicate with the divine to invoke prayers of one’s faith; and Theurgy to summon and bind aerial spirits or angels. There are parallels certainly in the study of ‘Gnosis’ and the Mythos of Call of Cthulhu, but with differences. One is that there is no Sanity loss for reading the grimoires in Miseries & Misfortunes, but the other is that where a Player Character will know how much Cthulhu Mythos knowledge his Investigator has, a Player Character in Miseries & Misfortunes does not. Instead, it is kept secret by the Game Master.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane lists some one-hundred-and-forty grimoires. Most have a language requirement to be read, and any attempt to read a grimoire can lead to a successful interpretation or a misinterpretation. The reader who misinterprets a grimoire can attempt to read it again, but the amount of Gnosis he can learn from it is reduced. If this happens too many times, the grimoire actually becomes useless. A reader’s Gnosis also needs to be high enough to be able to interpret the grimoire, which takes time. However, a failure to misinterpret can lead to a long period of meditation without learning anything, the learning of false knowledge, and again, the degradation of the text. The process takes time, whatever the outcome. Another way of gaining Gnosis is through appreciation of great art and beauty, though the Player Character needs to be open to this rather than being stubborn.

Once learned, Gnosis represents the degree of knowledge a practitioner knows, no matter which tradition he follows or studies, each of which has its own skill. Chymistry includes a list of chymical formulae; Goëtia comes with a list of demons, their form and office—the latter the purview of their powers, and Demons can only be summoned at certain times of the day; Necomancy a list of highly detailed spells; Theology divides its prayers between those used by Catholics and those used by Protestants; and Theurgy, a surprisingly short list of Angels and their offices. Notably, each of the practices has its own set of unintended results and catastrophic results, many of which are quite amusing. In addition to the major difficulties of learning and casting, there are social challenges in learning Gnosis. Many of the traditions have been declared heresy and practitioners are hunted by the Inquisition.

The particular tradition that a practitioner studies depends on the Lifepaths they have followed. Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane includes five new Lifepaths. These are Exorcist, Jesuit Priest, Occultist, Protestant Pastor, and Philosopher. Thus, the Exorcist studies Goëtia, the Jesuit Priest and the Pastor Theology, the Occultist both Goëtia and Theurgy, and the Philosopher, Chymistery. All five begin a six-sided die’s worth of Gnosis.

Physically, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane is well presented and written, and although it does include some examples, these feel underwritten in places. It is illustrated with a period artwork and etchings which helps impart its historical setting. If it is missing anything, it is an index, but at just forty pages, this is not too much of an issue.

Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane provides a solid set of rules for adding ‘magic’ to the world of Miseries & Misfortune, although it is not really magic or even as simple as magic. In many cases the practitioners are dealing with the profane and the heretical, so dangerous both metaphysically and socially. It also takes time to research and interpret, so it involves more effort and work than most magic systems, so more commitment upon the part of the players and their characters. Of the traditions, Theurgy does feel underwritten, but the others are nicely detailed, and if there is anything missing, it is a Nun Lifepath and notes for Gnosis studying NPCs. Otherwise, Miseries & Misfortunes – Book 3: The Sacred & The Profane expands its Early Modern France setting both mechanically and thematically adding dangerous knowledge.

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