Middle-Class Malefex

A while back in the comments, Joe from Uncaring Cosmos mentioned Principia Malefex as an example of a British-made RPG. I’d never heard of it, but poking further I thought it sounded rather intriguing – a horror RPG emerging during that strange time period in British RPG publishing which saw other up-and-coming small studios producing material like SLA Industries or Tales of Gargentihr, a product of the era in between the folding of Games Workshop and the rise of the D20 boom and the range of companies that reinvigorated the British RPG market by skilfully riding that wave. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. What I found was… hm.

So, to provide more context: Principia Malefex is a self-published indie RPG which emerged in 1997, had a small trickle of supplements coming out for it, before a final burst of publishing activity occurred in 2002 prior to the game largely going dark. Poking around Google Groups to get this timeline straight showed a number of connections with Bath University, so if I had to speculate about where this game came from my informed guess would be that Alison Whetton, its primary designer, and her collaborators were members of Bath University’s tabletop games club, got the core book out in a burst of studenty enthusiasm, made a last bid to make a commercial success of the game when they graduated, and eventually came to the conclusion that this was a hiding to nowhere and moved on to other things.

1997-2002 puts the game before the boom in indie RPG publishing of the early-to-mid-2000s, and in particular before really solid advice on RPG self-publishing was widely circulating thanks to the efforts of The Forge and others. As a result, some of the production decisions here are… odd. The book itself is a faux-leatherbound volume, the title embedded in gold on the front cover and spine, with good-quality cream paper on the interior and a nice ribbon bookmark; in other words, the sort of production values which get applied to nice Kickstarter-exclusive “deluxe edition” copies of RPGs these days – and bear in mind that RPG production values have gone up remarkably in the last two decades. By the standards of the market in 1997, this would have seemed like a Seriously Big Deal, at least from the outside.

On the interior, there is absolutely no artwork and the book has very obviously been written up in Microsoft Word. Most of the text is in Times New Roman, the layout is a fairly basic single-column presentation, the actual layout job itself is competent enough, but it’s very obviously taken straight from Alison’s word processor to the page. Later supplements in the game line would have some rudimentary illustrations, but not this. Someone literally shat this out from a word processor into a book – which is another thing which makes me suspect a university connection since that’s the sort of thing you do to produce the library copy of a doctoral thesis, not a mass market product that you intend to sell to the general RPG-buying public.

In terms of the system… oh, dear. It’s very, very obviously the product of the prevailing mid-1990s attitude of “system doesn’t matter” which was promulgated by the likes of White Wolf, and whilst, yes, it is tremendous fun to sidestep away from the system and do some pure roleplaying in a session when the moment is right, the downside of that is the moment really does have to be right and everyone needs to be on the same page, and a good system not only helps you get on the same page to begin with, but also provides a useful resolution mechanism to use when you aren’t, or when the group’s less in the mood for pure roleplaying and more in the mood for a more game-ish experience.

Specifically, it’s sort of a Call of Cthulhu heartbreaker system. Stats are based on a 1-20 scale and are rolled against on D20, skills are based on a 1-200 scale and rolled against on D200, entirely pointlessly. (Like, if you have D10s available already – and you would need them to roll D200 to begin with – you may as well just do a D100 roll. The boost in granularity from D20 to D100 is very signifcant but the extra granularity from D100 to D200 doesn’t add much at this point.) You get bonuses to some skills based on your choice of character occupation and a pool of points to boost things with. So far, so familiar.

The thing is, starting characters in this are terrible. Granted, it is at least possible to produce a very incompetent starting character in Call of Cthulhu, but you’d have to work at it a bit – and even then, you probably have enough points to go in your career skills that you are at least baseline competent in those. On the other hand, many characters in Malefex will end up failing over half the time even in skills they have invested heavily in. At most, you might have one or two skills you can raise to the point of passing fairly consistently, whereas in Call of Cthulhu you actually have to work at it to avoid having at least a few skills above 50%.

Apply a similar level of slapdash-ness to the rest of the system and you’ve pretty much got Malefex down in system terms. One thing which is quite notable is that the selection of professions is a bit eccentric, with jobs ranging from spies (who get some pretty excellent skills, including enhanced Second Sight for spotting weird shit) to architects (who get a set of competences not really compatible with doing much in the way of occult adventure or intrepid investigation).

There’s not much rhyme or reason beyond them being fairly middle-class occupations; Whetton would later, in the Nocturne supplement (more later), explain this as a deliberate design choice, on the basis that well-heeled upper class characters in a realistic modern-day UK setting would have too many ways to get rid of problems by throwing money and privilege at them, whereas working class folk (she uses the term “lower class”, which is unfortunate), being used to more tenuous circumstances, aren’t going to get themselves as deep into trouble as middle class people. This is a more tenuous argument and seems to be based on an assumption that working class people are not going to have roots and community links prompting them to get involved in a situation, and an assumption that because working class people are in a more precarious economic situation they’re automatically tougher, though I agree with her that at the extreme low end of the economic spectrum, homeless folk are going to be more likely to just up sticks and leave than get involved in local trouble.

“Getting involved in local trouble” seems, so far as I can tell, to be the intended action of the game. The setting and assumed themes and general focus of gameplay feels, again, like a sort of Call of Cthulhu/World of Darkness heartbreaker, except the supernatural stuff is toned down – no, more toned down than that, no, more than that, even more low-key than you’re thinking, no, even more toned down than that – and the action takes place in modern-day UK suburbs and council estates and the like where the player character stick their noses into local problems.

What examples are we given of scenarios? Well, the three fully-developed sample scenarios in the core rulebook are as follows:

  • A situation where the PCs are drawn into one side or the other of an extremely mundane legal dispute between a builder’s firm and one of their former clients. There is nothing supernatural happening here.
  • A scenario where the PCs discover that the folk of a small town regard a reclusive woman who lives there as being some sort of witch or monster. She isn’t and there is nothing supernatural happening here.
  • A sort of long-term between-scenario running thread you can drop into your game where a strange lady haunts one of your PCs. This is supernatural but the scenario specifically states that the PC can never really discover anything meaningful about it.

I call these “fully-developed sample scenarios”, but I’m potentially being over-generous there; they more resemble fairly basic notes outlining a scenario without much evident of extensive development of playtesting to consider how the initial seed of an idea can be improved on or taken to the next level.

Even so, from this sparse material I get the impression that in Malefex we are getting an insight into a localised roleplaying subculture – maybe localised to the Bath University-connected scene, maybe localised even more specifically to Whetton and her social circle. There seem to be a range of underlying assumptions going on here which are explained to the reader at best briefly, at worst not at all, characteristic of people who assume that the way they do things are more universal and generally understood than they actually are.

For instance, there seems to be no baseline assumption that player characters will be operating as a party, or even on the same side, at least at game start. It is suggested that you instead look to their individual careers to figure out ways they could be involved in the scenario, and it seems like the game is entirely amenable to player characters working at cross-purposes. (They could weigh in on either side of the builders’ firm dispute, for instance.) In general there’s an admirable commitment to giving the PCs a free hand in who they end up siding with which is rare in RPGs of this vintage.

What’s also rare in RPGs of this vintage is how keen the game is to throw wholly mundane scenarios out there. The problem is that many of these scenarios inevitably end up feeling rather dull. It’s not that a story needs the supernatural in order to be exciting – it’s just that minor legal disputes tend not to be that exciting or high-stakes to anyone who isn’t one of the immediately involved parties. I think the intention is to present a game where you can come up with a scenario concept just from glancing over the nearest newspaper – the book specifically suggests this as a way of coming up with ideas, in fact – but I feel like 99% of people who sign up for a horror game of the sort Malefex bills itself as would feel dissatisfied with being tasked with meddling in a petty lawsuit.

With respect to the setting details, in broad brushstrokes it’s a standard horror RPG “basically the modern day, only there’s supernatural stuff hidden away”, except the supernatural aspects are rather thinly developed beyond a glum little magic system. Whereas most such RPGs put a lot of focus on the supernatural stuff (because, after all, the participants are residents of the modern day and have widespread access to source material on it), Malefex decides that its audience really needs to have the modern world explained to them and spends a lot of energy on that. This is particularly irksome when one considers that the likely audience for Malefex, at least early on, are likely to be British gamers deep enough into their exploration of the hobby to be aware of niche indie releases like Malefex and to have the spending money to blow on a leatherbound hardback.

The setting information includes great gobs of material which no British gamer would ever need because we happen to live in this society, gamers from overseas could work out with a near-trivial amount of research and may well know already if they’ve had any exposure to British media, and in several cases are almost certain to have no real bearing on the outcome of a game. (Since when did the fine distinction between a Private Limited Company and a Public Limited Company really have a crucial effect on an RPG scenario?)

In addition, very little of it is explained in sufficient detail to persuade me that it reflects lived experience – it feels more like a student doing an essay on a subject they’re unfamiliar with. That’s another thing which makes me suspect the University of Bath connection – this feels like a book that a clever undergraduate who’d had a slightly uneventful upbringing might write, the sort of student whose idea of what society is like is still largely rooted in wherever it was they happened to grow up and hasn’t had enough breadth of experience to really depict other people’s lives convincingly without resorting to mass media stereotypes. (I can just about remember being such a student myself, which would have largely coincided with when Malefex came out come to think of it.)

It’s not all bad, mind. There’s quite an interesting section on dealing with difficult content in RPGs, including a discussion of rape which actually manages to be substantially more grown-up than any treatment of the subject of a similar vintage in RPG books I am aware of. Whetton clams that rape is rare (which statistics would suggest otherwise), but after that misstep goes on to give a fairly reasonable discussion of why you should be goddamn careful about including it in a game and if you have any doubt as to whether your group is interested in exploring the topic and whether you can handle it appropriately, you 100% ought to leave it out. She also offers a testimonial from a player who discusses a situation where their PC was raped by someone else’s PC for no apparent reason whatsoever – the player of the rapist then being very surprised when their PC got killed and their victim’s PC did fuck all to save them. It’s quite clear that Whetton has put a lot of thought into this subject and other aspects of so-called “dark” games, and in some respects the game was ahead of its time.

However, in other aspects the setting material is outright mishandled. In large spots it seems largely informed by the media, especially Britain’s horrible, trashy right-wing press (that “open a newspaper for a scenario idea” concept comes back to bite hard), perhaps with a side order of right-leaning action movies. Yes, this is a modern-day horror setting, so a pessimistic portrayal of the modern world is unsurprising, but the particular pessimism involved is reminiscent less of the richly gothic atmosphere the game seems to want to evoke and more of the rant of a cab driver who’s spent too much time reading Murdoch-owned newspapers.

Sometimes this comes down to particular talking points – the book is positively obsessed with the idea of people getting sent to jail for violence allegedly inflicted in self-defence, framing the idea in terms which are recognisably the way the UK press would tend to frame such stories. Sometimes this extends to more general themes – to stay in the realm of criminal justice, for instance, the idea that the courts are rigged and criminals get away with it without their just punishment and so on is riddled throughout the book.

It is possible that this doesn’t represent Whetton’s actual views, but simply reflects an ultra-cynical take on the world that is deliberately chosen for the purposes of presenting a grimdark setting. On the other hand, the grimdark setting here doesn’t seem to have anything to say beyond “people are shitty”. Behold this prose:

Adult mortals do not use the word enemy in these times, for it is too true for them. They cherish those they loathe and use hate to excuse their treachery. When liars are esteemed and thieves made heroes then only the strongest can afford honour, and they have all but forgotten it.

Should their interests lie elsewhere the friend who guards your back may be your truest foe. Fate may demand an alliance with those you despise, where the word of an ally is the blade of an enemy.

You cannot fight directly, for it is uncivilised. The knife in the back is the order of the day. Your foes are ruthless if crossed and will not hesitate to drag you down. Tread carefully, conceal yourself and hide your feelings. Be subtle. Use what you can and who you can. Kill with a smile, for mercy is costly. Needlessly cruel, blind to other’s needs, your enemies, those you can find, surely deserve their own downfall and you have the power to bring it. A word in the right place and they can fall. They’re only human. Like you.

That’s from the intro section; here’s another quote from the start of the setting section, in case you thought that was an aberration:

There are very few good people in the world. There are very few that are actively evil. But there are a great many who are evil merely because they do nothing, the ones who will cheat and lie because everyone does it, because they do not think that this is evil. These are the people who know that evil happens but who close their eyes, close their minds to it, for the sake of a quiet life. The characters will most likely fall into this third group. And the tragedy is that they do not even know that it is wrong.

This kicks off a long section in which it is declared that the country is in an absolutely hopeless state, no political party will get us out of the shit, but also that simple apathy is just as evil as active participation in the evils of society. (This sounds disturbingly like the start of the sales pitch for various forms of extremism – and in the UK now as in the 1990s, the extreme right would be playing this tune particularly loud.)

Now, there’s the kernel of the idea of an interesting game in there – a sort of bleakly cynical soap opera RPG, a sort of Eastenders take on Fiasco, in which ordinary British citizens do horrible shit to each other in the midst of their petty squabbles. That’s certainly the sort of game the “meddle in a minor legal battle” scenario suggests. On the other hand, it’s not the sort of game that the sample fiction or any part of the game relating to the supernatural suggests, which is much more “ordinary people confront mysteries” in intention. As is so often the case with RPG heartbreakers, the problem with Principia Malefex is that it seems to include a whole bunch of stuff because it’s under the impression that horror RPGs must include those features, rather than grabbing onto its central novel idea and making that the cornerstone of something designed to support and build on that idea; it’s worse here, though, because Malefex doesn’t even seem entirely sure of what that central idea is.

The support line which came after it is not much help. So far as I can tell the first supplement was Nocturne, a booklet with a print quality reminiscent of a cheap free handout at an academic conference. Microsoft Word is still the interior aesthetic, there is no interior art, it’s even spiral bound rather than presenting a more professional-looking binding. It includes a brace of adventures, some extra rules, and a two-page spread of further explanation of the intent of the game which emphasises that there are no supernatural puppetmasters in the game, and the point is that people are entirely responsible for their own actions and must bear the consequences of them. “The one thing, however, that this game is never meant to do is to glorify evil,” we are told – though if the game is spending all its time calling you a fucking asshole for being a typical human being rather than some saintly saint, that’s hardly more appealing. (This is also where we get the clarification that the PCs should be middle class.)

This section also explains the scenario design ethos, which is of presenting a situation which you as the referee then do the work of working your PCs into rather than providing a predetermined role and assumed route for the PCs to take. That’s fine and a step above 1990s rote railroading, but at the same time that doesn’t excuse failing to provide really interesting scenarios. Take a look at the adventures provided here – you have:

  • A scenario about a contentious road-building project and an archaeological site threatened by it. Nothing supernatural happens, it’s basically exactly as mundane as the “fuck with a lawsuit” adventure in the core book.
  • A scenario with an actual investigation into a mystery with supernatural aspects – and whose conclusion is as railroaded as any low-tier World of Darkness scenario from this era. (The section on assigning experience points actually says “The characters will be little more than by-bystanders in this adventure” – I assume they mean “bystanders” but given that the scenario consistently calls one of the characters “Cartrer” when “Carter” would be a much more natural-sounding British name, it’s evident that it hasn’t enjoyed much in the way of proofreading.)
  • An awkward mess where it’s clearly got some railroady intentions but is rather muddled as to what route it intends the railroad to take, or how half the information in the scenario is supposed to come out.

Later multi-scenario supplements would include a similar mix of drearily mundane scenarios and more supernatural investigations; Fool’s Paradise, a set of scenarios set in the drab British suburbs, and Best of Friends – a quickstart booklet containing basic rules, a truncated reprint of one of the Fool’s Paradise scenarios, and a couple of scenarios from upcoming supplements that never saw release – offered such joys as “Finding out a friend is in trouble with a loan shark”, “Getting caught up in a mundane bank robbery”, and “Generic supernatural mysteries which feel somewhat underdeveloped”.

Late in the game line – in other words, in the early 2000s – a couple of single-scenario booklets were put out which presented situations with somewhat more development – Family Ties and Wolf’s Head – but these still felt like paltry (and astonishingly cheaply-produced) offerings even by the standard of indie releases of the time. They also have some major lapses of research – Wolf’s Head grossly misrepresents the state of British divorce law at the time (and presently) by suggesting that there is such a thing as a “no-fault” divorce in British law (there isn’t); in context they seem to be using the term to mean an amicable, mutually-agreed divorce with a minimum of legal fuss and fighting involved, but that is very much not the same thing. That’s nitpicking, but by being as rooted in modern-day realism as it is Malefex practically invites this sort of scrutiny.

Ultimately, despite making a brave attempt to keep the game line going well beyond the point it should have been apparent that there just wasn’t that much interest in the game, Principia Malefex feels like a game which never quite hit its groove. There’s clearly some very specific ideas going into it, but the design tools used to explore those ideas don’t quite deliver on it and it keeps second-guessing itself as to what it’s supposed to be about. A comprehensive redesign taking into account modern indie RPG and storygame techniques might help, but that would require a firm decision to be made about what the game is actually about, and the redesign necessary would be so wide-ranging as to effectively be a whole new game.

Astonishingly, Whetton and pals seem to still be paying the bills on Malefex’s web-hosting, despite the game line having been effectively on ice for 18 years – no new material came out for it since 2002 (a supposed 2010 supplement, Scholars and Criminals, seems to be a compilation of freebie material available on the website since 2002-ish), and as of 2010 Ragged Angel had been tweeting about shifting production over to Lightning Source, which would allow them to produce Malefex material on a print-on-demand basis, but this seems to have largely been in the interests of serving the “long tail” of interest in existing materials rather than producing anything new.

Perhaps there is some slim chance of a resurgence in the future, though Ragged Angel largely seems to have moved on to different interests. In 2014 they announced a partnership with OneBookShelf, though I don’t seem to be able to find the Malefex product line on DriveThruRPG at all so it seems like something stalled their. Their corporate Twitter has been silent since 2016. Their Companies House registration has been kept up, but that is far from evidence of there being actual ongoing activity.

There might be a mystery there. But it’s too drab and dull to motivate me to look into it, much like Malefex itself. By the time the game line managed to get someone contributing art, the pieces they produced tended towards grey, dreary landscapes, which matches the overall style of the game line’s prose perfectly. Principia Malefex, at its worst, is as dull as a phone book; at its best, it’s so bitingly miserable that it’s hard to see where the fun is. Somewhere in between is either a Call of Cthulhu heartbreaker or an interesting “vicious middle class Little Englanders backstab each other into oblivion” game, neither of which manages to be realised.

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