Kickstopper: Swirling Through History

Arion Games, the small press RPG publisher operated by Graham Bottley, has become something of a haven for games which you can think of as being part of the “British old school”, as Joe from Uncaring Cosmos often talks about – a swathe of games published in the UK primarily in the 1980s that reflected the gaming subculture as it developed here.

Specifically, as well as landing a licence to reissue and significantly expand the Advanced Fighting Fantasy line, Arion Games is the new home of MaelstromMaelstrom is notable mostly for its core rulebook having been released by Puffin – the Fighting Fantasy publishers – as part of their gamebook line in. There is a strong argument to make that, in fact, the RPGs with the most widespread commercial reach in the UK in the 1980s were Fighting Fantasy (in its basic and advanced forms), Tunnels & Trolls, and Maelstrom, because whilst all other RPGs were published by specialist game design companies and largely only available through specialist shops except for a few toy shops stocking the D&D Basic Set, the other three games had their core rulebooks published by major children’s publishers and stocked in conventional bookshops and libraries across the land.

It’s particularly notable that whilst the Tunnels & Trolls rulebook came out through Corgi in order to support its associated line of solo adventures (which Corgi had wisely realised presented a ready-made source of gamebooks they could simply reprint in order to present some competition to Fighting Fantasy). Likewise, Fighting Fantasy and Advanced Fighting Fantasy were RPG rulebooks that existed as adjuncts to the gamebook line. Maelstrom, however, was a one-and-done affair, with a short solo adventure slipped in just so that it could be presented as a gamebook but otherwise the emphasis is 100% on the RPG aspect.

The complete lack of supporting material meant that it was overlooked by many, but it gained enough of a cult following to be well-remembered, and the default setting of Tudor England was different enough from usual RPG fare to stand out and be notable (and also, I suspect, got it stocked in school libraries). Part of the reason for the lack of support was that its original creator, Alexander Scott, had been a 16-year-old school attendee when he wrote it, and naturally moving on to university and adult life made him shift his priorities and he didn’t go in for RPGs as a career path, opting to concentrate on his academic pursuits instead as far as earning his crust went.

However, just because he didn’t go into indie RPG publishing himself and didn’t produce new material for Puffin doesn’t mean Alexander Scott has lost all affection for the game. After Arion Games got the licence from Puffin to reprint the game and produce new material, Scott has reportedly been kept in the loop by Bottley about new developments and ideas for the line in order to ensure he broadly approves of what’s been done with the game.

But would Arion Games’ Kickstarters based on the game be an aid or a detriment to the game’s legacy? Let’s see…


Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign(s)

For this article I’m going to cover two projects: Maelstrom Domesday and Maelstrom Rome. These are two games in a new Maelstrom range, with the first one – Maelstrom Domesday – inaugurating an updated version of the system. Essentially, each game in the new range (along with its associated supplements and support material) is associated with a different time period, applying the system and overall design approach of the original Tudor-themed Maelstrom line to other eras. (Another game in this line, Maelstrom Gothic, wasn’t the object of a Kickstarter; it’s based around solving spoopy mysteries in the Victorian era, so it’s sort of a Maelstrom answer to Cthulhu By Gaslight.)

Maelstrom Domesday had its fundraising campaign in June-July of 2013, picking up 155 backers and £6556 in funding. That’s not a huge amount by RPG Kickstarter standards, but Arion Games were only going for a £1000 funding target – Bottley having a fairly realistic idea of the appeal of a briefly-available niche RPG from the mid-1980s that may well have been more widely read than actually played.

Maelstrom Rome had 141 backers and picked up £2199 in funding. That’s about as much as Domesday had, but less money – largely, I suspect, because unlike the previous campaign Maelstrom Rome really didn’t have any higher-level reward tiers, Bottley having perhaps learned that including such things just complicates the process of delivering a Kickstarter.

In fact, the project ran without any stretch goals whatsoever – Bottley preferring to keep everything nice and simple – which meant that once the £1000 target was reached with a healthy buffer, there really wasn’t any need for anyone to pledge unless they wanted to indicate their support for Arion Games, or wanted to be among the absolute first to receive the rewards; the project didn’t offer anything to backers which non-backers couldn’t get by waiting for the material.

Under such circumstances, I have to feel that the Maelstrom Rome Kickstarter picking up about as many backers as Domesday did, despite not raising as much money, was an important vote of confidence for Arion Games from the backer community, and suggests that they may well have succeeded in growing the Maelstrom fanbase somewhat.

What Level I Backed At

For Maelstrom Domesday:

Get the pdf as soon as it is available and a strictly limited and numbered hand bound copy of the book, printed on parchment paper. In addition, get yourself into the setting section of the book! Backers at this level also get themselves added as a significant NPC (in conjunction with the author) in the setting complete with an Illustration of YOU as the NPC!

(Several stretch goals also got added to this.)

For Maelstrom Rome:

Print Book Code: As soon as the print files have been printed and approved, you will be sent a code to allow you to order a colour print copy of the book direct from DTRPG. You will be responsible for paying printing and postage costs at the time you order, but it will be your choice when to order and whether you prefer a softcover or hardcover version.

Although we cannot yet say exactly how much printing will cost, a Softcover version is likely to be about £7 and a Hardcover version about £11. The final price will depend on how many pages the final book has.

Postage will of course depend on your location, but could be between £4 or so for the UK or USA, £5 for the EU or £6 for Australia. It will be possible for you to combine the postage for this book with other DTRPG orders to reduce P&P costs.

You will also receive a Pdf copy of the book.

Delivering the Goods

Estimated delivery for Domesday was October 2013, I got my rewards in January 2014. Estimated delivery for Maelstrom Rome was February 2019, I actually got my print code in May 2019. That’s a consistent 3-month slip in both instances, which by the terms of RPG Kickstarters is not perfect but is far from major, and in both cases decent levels of communication were kept up.

Reviewing the Swag

Maelstrom

Before I get into the actual Kickstarter rewards themselves, let’s take a step back and look at the precedent for all this: the original Tudor-period Maelstrom.

Written by Alexander Scott whilst he was still at school – according to him he was 16 when he started the process – Maelstrom emerged in 1984. Thanks to the Fighting Fantasy boom earning significant profits for them, Puffin Books were extremely keen on the whole gamebook concept; when Scott approached them with his work, they greenlit the project as a means of expanding their range. All Scott’s editors demanded of him was the inclusion of a solo adventure (which is rather brief and not very interesting, but thankfully doesn’t eat up too much of the page count) and a setting with broad appeal – after some back-and-forth, Scott and his editors agreed on 16th Century England as a setting (Puffin apparently didn’t think a pure fantasy or pure SF setting would be especially accessible), and the rest was history.

The titular Maelstrom provides the metaphysical underpinnings of magic in the game – those who use magic can tap into the powers of the Maelstrom, a force of turbulent change that exists outside of the universe but can act within it. Via the device of the Maelstrom, Scott also sneakily suggests a range of other potential settings for the game by noting that the Maelstrom’s forces can fling characters to other locales and times. However, the core game is very closely tied to the social order of Tudor England. Character generation, at its most basic, is a simple process of assigning a pool of points to your major attributes (which are presented as a percentile scale) and selecting a living for your character. Aside from mages, who masquerade as members of other professions in order to avoid social disapproval, all the jobs available are grounded in history; if you want to play a professional fightery-type, then a mercenary’s life for you, if you want to play a cleric then you’re talking playing an actual priest, monk or nun and your supernatural abilities are limited to casting out spirits and appealing for divine intervention, if you want to play a thief then a range of criminal professions are open to you.

However, the selection isn’t just limited to the sort of adventuring careers suggested by Dungeons & Dragons and most other fantasy RPGs. In fact, an incredibly broad range of careers from more or less every strata of society are available (though notably, nobles are assumed to be travelling nobility with no particular responsibilities in court). You can not only be a merchant, you can specifically be a butcher, or a grocer, or a fishmonger, and so on. You aren’t just a rogue – you’re a thief, or a burglar, or a beggar (with multiple specialisations available based on the scams actual Tudor beggars used). Do you want to be a party of travelling players? Sure you can! And each career comes with its own particular specialisations and so forth. (A particularly standout career is the herbalist, which is supported by an extensive appendix on herbs which is so interesting and evocative that the appendix itself has circulated widely on the Internet as a general resource for herbalism in RPGs.)

The career system in Maelstrom has been cited as an influence on the much-beloved original version of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or WFRP), which is infamous in gaming circles for being a game where you could viably start out as a rat-catcher. The similarity looks even closer if you use Maelstrom’s optional rules for adjusting attributes based on characters’ careers. WFRP’s system, however, has a fairly detailed skills list, specified ways in which characters progress in careers, and exit routes for characters graduating from their initial basic career into advanced careers (or other basic careers); none of these are present here, where the assumption seems to be that a player character will spend more or less all their life in the career they entered during character generation (which is perhaps a little more historically accurate).

Another WFRP similarity is the task resolution system, in which you roll percentile dice and try to get equal to or less than the appropriate core attribute to accomplish any non-trivial task and your profession and training at most gives you bonuses to particular rolls or opens up options unavailable to folk without your knowledge and skills. Where the game is particularly reminiscent of WFRP is how low your stats tend to be at game start; there’s 9 attributes (including separate Attack Skill and Defence Skill) which all start at 30%, and you have a total of 50 points to distribute between them as you wish – but you can’t raise any above 50% at the start. Once you’ve picked a profession, if the optional rules for career-based attribute modification are in effect one or two of your attributes might go up from 1-10 points and one or two might go down 1-10 points.

This means that on most rolls in the game, when your character is starting out, you’ll have only a 30-50% chance of success – especially if your GM does not use the optional rule of providing bonuses to rolls when circumstances in your favour. In a quick playtesting session I ran, indeed, I tried to be generous about such bonuses, since as far as I’m concerned the “game” in role-playing game revolves a lot around making good use of the information you’re given to come up with convincing plans of action, but even then lots of rolls were failed.

In the long term, this situation is likely to gradually improve thanks to the game’s experience system. Taking a leaf out of Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system, Scott uses a process whereby when you do something particularly notable or something particularly interesting happens to you, you earn an opportunity to roll against the appropriate attribute (or several of appropriate attributes if more than one are appropriate) and if you get higher than your current score in the attribute then it goes up. Where Maelstrom differs from Basic Roleplaying is that your attribute only goes up by 1, rather than a variable amount – and that you get to make your experience roll as soon as the immediate crisis is over rather than waiting until the end of the session. This means you can conceivably increase the same attribute multiple times in the same session – especially since you can make multiple rolls at once on the same attribute.

For instance, if you are involved in a fight you automatically get to make rolls to improve Attack Skill and Defence Skill, and you get a bonus roll on each for each person you killed in the fight. Furthermore, whereas in Basic Roleplaying you only get an experience roll if you succeeded at a skill roll, in Maelstrom there is no such requirement that you actually succeeded in any roll whatsoever – indeed, you get Endurance experience for taking and surviving wounds above a particular severity in combat. So long as your referee is reasonably generous with the experience rolls, your character is likely to gradually become more competent as the game progresses. (An upper limit to this is provided by the fact that most attributes, with some exceptions, have a cap that decreases as your character ages.)

At the same time, the pace of change is likely to be sufficiently slow to be frustrating, and doesn’t really counter the general incompetence issue. Nor is it likely to change the glacial pace of the default combat system; by separating out attack and defence rolls, not only does the game double the number of rolls made in combat compared to, say, rolling against a static target number or making opposed attack rolls to see who gets the upper hand, but a success on a Defence Skill roll cancels out a successful Attack Skill roll entirely (rather than, say, reducing damage, or only saving you from the attack if your success was of a greater magnitude than the attacker’s). With most weapons not doing very much damage and large amounts of damage having to be inflicted to actually put down an opponent, this makes combats tedious and slow, to the point where my playtest group and I gave up partway through the first fight we ran. The advanced rules include some additional combat rules which, eyeballing it, would seem to help this, but one suspects that few gamers ever turned their attention to those.

Another aspect in which the game is a little ahead of its time relates to the magic system. In contrast to most previous games, which provided lists of clearly delineated spells for magic-using player characters to choose from, Maelstrom offers what might just be the first “freeform” magic system, offering a clear precedent for the sort of magic system which would later see use in games like Ars Magica and Mage: the Ascension. Instead of picking a spell from a list, mages in Maelstrom simply tell the GM what magical effect they would like to accomplish, and the GM ascribes it a difficulty grade based on how unlikely the effect in question is to occur by chance anyway and how much of a violation of the laws of nature it is. The more subtle your desired effect, the more likely you are to accomplish it, whilst flashy fireballs and other such overt uses of magical power which would be par for the course in other game systems are the most difficult spells to accomplish of all.

It’s a rough system and depends a lot on the referee and the players seeing eye to eye on just how unlikely a particular effect is, but it does mean that as a magic user you can’t reliably and repeatedly use a particular effect, but equally you could conceivably accomplish just about anything. Unfortunately, the poor starting attribute scores and the harsh magic rules mean that even very competent player character mages will fail to cast even the most basic spells around 80% of the time – and even NPC mages are likely to struggle unless they are given downright obscene stats.

Between this, the poor combat, and the palpably unequal nature of the livings (some of which give you heaps and heaps of stuff which has obvious direct uses in adventuring, some of which give you membership of the tailor’s guild and the ability to sew a pair of pants in a week), I suppose Maelstrom’s greatest weakness is that it lacks a clear focus of gameplay. It’s very concerned with evoking the atmosphere of the period – and it’s there where most of its charm is found – but it often throws in features without much consideration to how people would actually use these ideas in an actual game. Many of the professions offer no real incentive to go out and do adventurous stuff (unless “Fruiterer” is just the cover story your mage or assassin uses), and whilst conceivably you might use Maelstrom in some sort of tabletop life simulation exercise, the process would feel more educational than entertaining.

Taken as a whole, Maelstrom feels a lot like what it is – a fairly simple, rough-about-the-edges RPG designed by a talented amateur, with some off-the-wall ideas and a system which is best ignored. The combination of the system’s novel features with the ever-popular Tudor setting made it a mild hit in its time – it even merited a Japanese translation – but Puffin would later decide to focus their gamebook line exclusively on Fighting Fantasy, and as a result Maelstrom lay fallow for decades until the recent revival kicked off by Arion Games.

The reprint of the old core book also spurred the creation of a few new bits and pieces before the work of producing an entirely revised edition was made. As I mentioned at the start of the article, although Alexander Scott is satisfied with bowing out of game design as a career he retains enough interest in the game that Graham Bottley reportedly consults with him on new additions to the line. The best of these latter-day supplements for the first edition is probably 2009’s Maelstrom Companion, penned by Bottley. Rather than focusing on a single theme, it instead provides a grab-bag of useful bits and pieces to help you get the most out of the core book.

As well as providing some nice new tools, like rules guidance on handling particular situations, additional professions, and providing a really extensive price list, the Companion offers extensive further guidance and clarification on the core rules, written in the light of 25 years or so of hindsight. Some of the additions are really quite excellent; in particular, there’s optional rules on magical specialisation, like divination through astrology or creating illusions or the like, where you get a nice chunky bonus to spellcasting if the effect you want fits your specialisation and a penalty to everything else – given how difficult getting even basic magic effects off is with your starting stats, this is a tradeoff which could be genuinely worthwhile. There’s also a useful essay on the Tudor-era Church, which is an obvious source both of period flavour and exciting plot. The prize of the supplement, though, is the extensive description of Tudor-era Bury St. Edmonds, providing an instant setting for use in Maelstrom purposes.

By comparison, I really didn’t like Paul Baldowski’s Maelstrom Beggars’ Companion. Whilst the possibility of playing a beggar was a standout feature of the original Maelstrom, and in principle the concept of playing a group of characters who are all connected to the rich, booming subculture of beggars who existed in Tudor England as a result of factors like the social safety net of the monasteries being kicked over, at the same time I find that Baldowski’s treatment of the subject sets my teeth on edge. Within the first few pages he asserts that Tudor-era beggars took to that life “purely out of laziness and greed”, and declared “Like some human-scale form of the resilient cockroach, they conspire to find their niche and live on”, which is generally an unacceptable way to talk about actual human beings.

Baldowski tries to argue that he’s not referring to those who ended up homeless or impoverished through factors such as illness, injury, or physical disability, but to what were referred to as “sturdy beggars” – the sort who were able-bodied but nonetheless were held to take to the life of a beggar by choice, using various means to trick people into thinking they were disabled because otherwise people wouldn’t show them any charity. The problem I have with this is that Baldowski is being a poor historian here, buying into the assumption made by the Tudor chroniclers who estimated the beggar population at the time as numbering thirteen thousands that “sturdy beggsrs” voluntarily took to that life when if they had made the effort they could have found legitimate work. This sounds to me about as tenuous as the idea that everyone who is unemployed in the present day simply needs to attend more job interviews and send more resumes and eventually they’ll get a job they can pay their way on – in other words, it’s reactionary tosh which fails to imagine how economic and social circumstances can create a situation in which an able-bodied individual cannot find work.

That isn’t to say that the colourful array of cons which are often attributed to the sturdy beggars of the period didn’t happen – it certainly seems like with, social attitudes being as they were, such fakery would be a matter of survival. Nonetheless, it makes the portrayal in the supplement of the beggars of the period ring false to me, and between that and the rather lacklustre and sometimes muddled writing, the supplement ends up being better in concept than in execution.

Lastly, the Classic Fantasy Toolkit is an attempt by Bottley to adapt the Maelstrom system to support a more D&D style of fantasy, an exercise which I consider to be largely pointless. Maelstrom is flavourful and interesting precisely because it’s almost nothing like D&D and other action-oriented RPGs in tone and style, and anyone who’s a big enough RPG fan to want to explore the Maelstrom supplement line in the first place already has numerous options for playing a D&D-like game, including D&D itself (in multiple editions, many of which have some form of their rules or a clone thereof available for free online) and an enormous pile of RPGs who thought they could compete with D&D on its home turf. There’s really no need to turn Maelstrom into yet another one of those.

Maelstrom Domesday

The idea behind Maelstrom Domesday is twofold: firstly, to consider a major update of the Maelstrom system (and a much-needed update, if my playtest is anything to go by), and secondly to fulfil Graham Bottley’s long-time ambition to make a game set in the aftermath of the Norman invasion. By default, the game is set in 1086; the big news in England is William the Bastard Conqueror’s declaration this past Christmas that he wants a complete survey done of the Kingdom so he can get a handle on who owns what (and, perhaps more importantly, who owes what in terms of taxation). This survey would become known as the Domesday Book – hence this game’s title – and of course you would expect that in examining their British holdings the Norman overlords will discover problems that need addressing.

The specific conceit of Maelstrom Domesday is that the player characters are individuals who, due to prior supernatural experiences, have become specialists in investigating supernatural occurrences on behalf of a Norman patron. In other words, you’re working the Domesday Book era’s X-Files. The supernatural aspects of the game draw heavily on the idea of the Maelstrom, as enunciated in the previous edition, the Maelstrom being the omnipresent force from which magic derives its power and through which other times, places and dimensions can be accessed.

One spot where the rules have been extensively overhauled to support this is in character creation. By default much more randomised than previously, it is also set up to yield more competent characters than the previous edition offered; all character attributes start out higher on average, and then characters advance in a lifepath-style system which shows the influence of games like Traveller and WFRP in its execution. Every time you take a term of service in a career (ranging from beggar or outlaw to knight, with just about every social stratum in between represented), you get a boost to your attributes, some useful items, training in various abilities which make certain tasks easier, and a randomised event which could be beneficial or harmful. After resolving each term a roll is made to see if you can take another term of training by rolling percentile dice and trying to get under your character’s age (each term lasts a certain number of years based on the career in question), and if you do get another term you roll to see if you stayed in your former career or shifted into something else. This goes on for up to a maximum of 6 terms.

This is a more involved process of character creation than in the original game, but it is also much more flavourful. As I have argued elsewhere, if a character generation process is going to take a while, it had better damn well be fun to engage with in its own right, and the lifepath mini-game here is certainly that. In playtesting for this review we went full random on character generation, and everyone agreed that the results, whilst unexpected, were more interesting and colourful than the characters produced under the previous edition. In addition, all PCs had at least a few attributes in which they truly excelled, so hopefully these characters will actually succeed at stuff a bit more regularly than in previous editions.

My only real complaint is that someone who ends after 1 career term is quite clearly at a disadvantage compared to anyone who had 4-6 terms, and whilst more terms makes it more likely you will have make aging rolls (which have a chance to sap your physical attributes) before character generation ends, this doesn’t quite feel like it really balances matters.

The 1086 setting places the action a full 20 years after the Norman Invasion, and over a decade since the Revolt of the Earls (the last major rebellion against William). The Norman Conquest, therefore, is pretty much a done deal: an entire generation has grown to adulthood knowing nothing but Norman rule, what outlaws and rebels still exist consist of desperate, lonely Robin Hood-style holdouts rather than serious armies, and it’s still about fifty years until the civil war between Empress Matilda and King Stephen throws the nation into disarray. This is as stable an era as you’re likely to find in 11th Century England (which is presumably why William waited to this point until getting his spreadsheets in order), and therefore is a good time to set a game based mostly around investigating strange situations and protecting the status quo from danger. That said, technological progress in the time period wasn’t so rapid that you couldn’t use these rules to run a game set during the Conquest itself, or the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda. (In terms of the cultural assumptions of the character generation, it’d probably fit most post-Invasion periods where “Saxon” and “Norman” were distinct identities rather than being mashed up into “English”.)

With many of the measures in the previously-optional advanced rules now integrated into the combat system to make it less clunky, a better-defined focus of play, and a character generation system which is still steeped in realism but is at least built to support that focus of play, Maelstrom Domesday represents a substantial improvement over the original game.

Your Pal Arthur B as an NPC

I lucked out and got to be the face model for William de Percy, a (real) Norman lord who was the forefather of the Percy family (of Blackadder fame) and was noted as one of the few Norman lords of Britain to wear facial hair, which was more associated with the Saxons. Pretty big deal, all considered.

Investigator’s Guide

This is a truncated version of the introductory and setting material from the book, to provide a handy guide for players. The character generation details offered are actually quite sparse, mainly because character generation is so heavily randomised by default that it’s mostly out of the players’ hands anyway, though there are brief writeups of each of the careers. The setting chapter is mostly complete from the main book, though detailed information about magic and the individual nobles and manors are left out since that’s not the sort of information you’d expect every player character to know by heart.

On balance, this is a player’s guide which would be useful to refer to in play for basic setting details, but doesn’t provide enough system information to help players master the system and so help the referee keep the game running smoothly. In particular, including the full character generation rules in here would speed up that process considerably. Nice to have, in other words, but hardly essential.

Domesday Maps and Charts

A bit of a misnomer, this, in that this is pretty much just a collection of maps – one of England in 1086, one of Yorkshire in the same time period, and a brace of maps of useful generic locations – an abbey, a castle, a Norman planned town, various sizes of village, and so on.

GM Pack

This had to be trimmed back a bit in production. Originally, it was meant to include a pad of character sheets, a GM screen, and three different reference cards (with three copies of each reference card so they can be shared around the table as needed). Unfortunately, costings on the GM screen made it impossible to complete within budget, so it was pulled in favour of distributing a set of downloadable map icons that can be used to create maps in the same style as those in the main book and the Domesday Maps and Charts books, and at the end of the day it was found that the game only really had enough charts to justify two reference cards – one for combat stuff, one for magic. Still, the character sheet pad is pretty nice.

Poster Map

Basically a big, colour version of the England 1086 map from Domesday Maps and Charts. Pretty, but a little sparse.

The Beast of Ledsham

A neat little adventure in which the party has to investigate stories of a nightmarish hound haunting the forests near the hamlet of Ledsham. The hamlet itself is the star attraction here; each individual NPC is detailed, along with useful explanations of how they can each be interacted with in the investigation and what useful information they can provide. There are enough subplots going on to make things exciting without so many that the investigation becomes confused and cluttered. The major thing which bugs me about the adventure is that there’s a major logical leap involved in between discovering the major conflict within the hamlet and working out how that relates to the hound, and it’s hard to see how the player characters are supposed to jump to that conclusion – particularly if they don’t have anyone in the party who actually understands magic, which is entirely possible thanks to the randomised character generation system.

Player Cards

This deck is divided in two halves; half the cards provide very information-dense, no-frills summaries of the details of each career, whilst the other half provide each of the character ability descriptions and what they do at each rank I can see this mostly being useful as an aid during character creation, to avoid flipping back-and-forth in the book to see what each ability does as you make your character, but once character creation is done you won’t need the information on the career cards (though the ability cards might be handy to give summaries of your capabilities without needing to look them up in the rulebook mid-session).

Herb Cards

This is a real treat – a set of cards with a nice full-colour depiction of the herb in question on one side, and the full system information and details on what the herb does on the back. This would be fantastically useful in any Maelstrom Domesday or original Maelstrom game involving a herbalist, since you could simply deal out the relevant cards to the herbalist’s player as they acquire the herbs in question and that would give them all the information they need at their fingertips.

Combat Cards

These provide all the specific combat moves offered in the advanced version of the combat system, which I imagine would speed up combat – simply select and play the card corresponding to the action you want your character to take in the combat round. The inclusion of an “Other Action” card to account for anything which isn’t a detailed combat manoeuvre is a nice touch to make sure that combat doesn’t simply become a matter of picking an option of the list whilst discounting lateral thinking altogether.

Dice

Not much to say about these. It’s a pair of ten-sided dice with the Maelstrom logo in place of the “10” spot. In practice this means that, like all dice with fancy logos on them (a bit of a craze at the moment), they are incrementally less useful than standard ten-siders because you have to remind yourself of which digit has been replaced with the logo when you roll them rather than just reading off the numbers on the dice.

Maelstrom Rome

This is another presentation of the system – including the tune-ups from Maelstrom Domesday – alongside a wealth of information on the Roman era. Much of it goes to a level of detail which is a little beyond that which many Rome-themed RPGs supplements have delivered in the past, and the application of it to Maelstrom is interesting; the character generation process includes random determination of social origin and careers based off that, and largely Graham has done a good job at calibrating this part to reflect the realities of the historical era.

In terms of the form factor it’s a thick old book, about the same height and width as the original Maelstrom but two to three times as thick, and it’s stuffed with details. There’s even a herbalism appendix like in the original game giving details of various herbs – but rather than simply reprinting the original information, Bottley goes back to a Roman-era source, so the sort of herbs you’re looking for and the uses you are putting them to reflects the era’s understanding.

I get the impression from Bottley’s introduction that the reason it took so long for Maelstrom Rome to emerge was a desire to do it right – Graham talks about how he got the idea that Maelstrom might work well in a Roman context back when he first read the original game. The depth of research evident in the text certainly shows this. Bottley has been sensible enough not to launch a Kickstarter for this product until he had the text more or less down, otherwise this might have had a longer wait associated with it; as it stands, it’s a welcome addition to the line and a useful reference book for looking up Roman-themed information (particularly in the region of the 1st Century AD, the assumed era of the game) in general.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

For Maelstrom Domesday, I reckon I should have probably gone Lower. The handbound copy of the book is really nice, but the standard hardcover is probably reasonably decent too and there was a tier where you got one of those and still got to lend your face to an NPC in the book. (I wouldn’t want to go so low as to only get the softback, which I felt was a little flimsy.)

For Maelstrom Rome, I reckon I got my backing level Just Right.

Would Back Again?

Yes, and am doing so: currently there’s a campaign going for The Domesday Campaign, an epic generational saga for Maelstrom Domesday that spans the decades from the immediate wake of the Conquest to the Plantagenet era. (I’m also quite interested in the guidebook to medieval manors that’s being included.)

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