Sunday, June 01, 2014

Maelstrom - an RPG review

Maelstrom is an RPG published in 1984. Yeah it's old and this review is thirty years late, but give me a break, we didn't even have the internet back then!

The physical format of the game is a perfect bound novel of 304 pages. The games genre is rather original, it's set in 16th century England and the PCs have some rather unusual role choices.

As the genre suggests the game does not cater well for the normal fantasy tropes, and although you can play a thief or a fighter, don't expect to be meeting Orcs or casting fireball spells.

This book came out during the 80's craze for gamebooks such as the Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf series and appears to be inspired by that, in fact it includes two "scenarios" that are presented in that style (turn to entry 10 if you want to fight). In these adventures you learn to use the system, any fights are played out using the system and so it seeks to teach you the system.

Oh dear, where do I start laying into this.

Characters can be Nobles, Professionals, Craftsmen, Traders, Labourers, Mercenaries, Thieves, Priests, Actors, Mages or Herbalists. Quite an odd mix. I was puzzled about this as it doesn't suggest high adventure if your PC is a simple Stone Mason. Reading further into the book though it started to become clear. The "world" of Maelstrom is almost the real world of 16th century England including  all of the misery, poverty and poor health, and the average person there doesn't ever leave their home town let alone go on adventures. So the focus of this book, is travel. A journey from one town to another in the company of fellow travelers who stick together for safety. Hence you play the parts of people who would be making such a journey.

Being a product of the 80's, character generation is somewhat of a drag, there are huge tracts of text describing each of the backgrounds for your character trades, each of which really plays no part in your final character. It also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining why your character must be about fifty years of age before they can start to "adventure" (which means walk to the next town).  This section was such a drag. It was not written to empower your character, but rather to limit them, hold them back, and beat on them. Too much realism of the "period" was written in here. Sure its background material that lets you get into the period, but your modern roleplayer doesn't want to read a text book on history before he even starts rolling the character stats.

If you want to play a female character, change your mind. This book explains at length how women can't do this, do that, have one of those, go anywhere, look up, speak or ... breath without permission. Sure, perhaps a realistic fact of the period, but no fun for gaming.

So lets assume you want to play a more flamboyant character, such as a mage! I wouldn't bother. You're old, crippled, immenesly wise and can maybe reach to heady height of a Gandalf-spell such as "Ignite Pinecone".

Or how about playing a mercenary?  That sounds fun, right? Sure you're good in a fight, but no one will like you or trust you, and get injured and it's bye bye bye.

Seriously, I got depressed reading this book. Everything was about how un-empowered you were, how you're held back, how you can't do this or that and how miserable life was. The book has a rather dodgy cover showing what appears to be the end of rather tame fight and that aptly suits the content of the book, which all about taking a story and wringing any fun or excitement out of it.

I know people have played this game, and even enjoyed it. I suspect that was despite the book, not because the rules enabled it.

ZZZZZZZ...Oh... you're still here. There is more. The skill/attribute system is percentile based and making a skill check is called a "saving roll" for some reason. Doesn't make sense to me. Want fix an axle on your cart, that's a saving roll. Want to harvest some potatoes, that's a saving roll. Want to block a sword blow, that's saving, hang on that actually makes sense.

To summarise, I won't be playing this game, playing in this background is too depressing. I might well play a game set in a 16th century, but not this one. If you see this book going cheap, sure pick it up have a read and see how games were written back-in-the-day, but don't expect to play it.

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