Friday, 3 June 2022

Review: Maelstrom

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

Maelstrom is a British old-school game written by Alexander Scott and published in 1984. The subject of this review is based on the current edition published by Arion Games.

System Summary
  • A lot of the more fiddly or detailed mechanics are presented in the Advanced Rules chapter. To differentiate these from the "normal" rules, I will use blue text.
  • There are 9 percentile attributes (the average score is about 35-40). The attributes are Attack Skill, Defence Skill, Knowledge, Will, Endurance, Persuasion, Perception, Speed, and Agility. Characters begin with 30 in each, then 50 further points are allocated in total.
  • There is a separate Arrowskill introduced in the advanced Rules to handle missile attacks.
  • The maximum value for attributes is 95 minus age over 30.
  • The maximum value for Will is 90 minus 1 per 5 years over 20. For Knowledge, it's 40 plus age over 20 (up to 95).
  • The core resolution system uses saving throws (d100 roll equal or under an attribute). Rolls of 01-05 critically succeed, while those of 96-00 critically fail.
  • If a die roll comes up maximum, instead of using the max result, you re-roll two dice of the same size (e.g. if you get 3 and 6 on 2d6, you re-roll the 6 twice, say, 4 and 5, and then you get 3+4+5=12). This rule is recursive but isn't applied to d100 rolls.
  • Temporary reduction in attributes is commonly featured in the game; lost points return at a rate of 1 per 10 minutes.
  • Background and profession are combined into Livings, of which several are detailed in the book: Noble, Professional (clerk, doctor, architect, scrivener), Craftsman/Artisan (armourer, blacksmith, bladesmith, engraver, mason, painter, tailor, tanner, wood-carver), Trader (butcher, fishmonger, fruiterer, grocer, mercer, vintner), Labourer, Mercenary, Rogue (beggar, thief, assassin, trickster, burglar), Priest/Nun, Travelling Player (musician, minstrel, actor), Mage, and Herbalist.
  • Livings determine how old the character begins (chance is involved, but in general Mages and Priests are older than Rogues or Nobles), what equipment and how much money they start with, and what kind of skills they have learnt.
  • The Advanced Rules detail the possibilities of having two (or more) Livings, the restrictions and benefits thereof. There are also more detailed rules for some of the Livings.
  • Livings also have an impact on attributes: each Living increases one or more attributes by 1d6 each (subject to the dice convention explained above) and decreases a like number of attributes by 1d6 each in turn. For example, armourers increase their Endurance and decrease their Knowledge, whereas thieves increase their Agility and Speed but decrease their Knowledge and Attack Skill.
  • Items are given an Encumbrance rating, the total of which is simply called he character's Encumbrance. When making a physical saving throw and the roll is below this value, the character temporarily loses 1d6 points of Endurance due to tiredness. Furthermore, when a tired character succeeds at a physical saving throw, they must make another roll against their Endurance — if it fails, they actually fail their original roll as they are exhausted. This also affects attack rolls in combat. If Encumbrance exceeds Endurance, the character loses a number of Endurance poitns equal to the difference every ten minutes while carrying all that weight.
  • There is no set spell list. Instead, the GM decides on a grade of difficulty (from 1 to 5) based on the spell's effects (1 for simple magic tricks, 2 for unlikely minor accidents, 3 for highly unlikely accidents, 4 for wildly improbable things, and 5 for things that would normally be impossible).
  • To cast a spell, the mage must roll Knowledge (minus 10 per grade) to remember the incantation. Then they need [grade] number of successful Will rolls to cast it. Lastly, their Will is drained by 1d10 points per grade of the spell.
  • If the initial Knowledge roll fails, the spell cannot be cast at all. However, if the Will rolls required to cast the spell fail, the mage loses 1d6 points of Will per failed roll.
  • Critical successes and failures on the Will rolls to cast affect the outcome, too, but these effects are up to the GM.
  • Combat is handled in 5-second long rounds. Participants act in descending Speed order.
  • Attacking requires a successful Attack Skill roll, after which the target may roll Defence Skill - if it fails, the attack connects and deals damage (called wounds). Incoming damage may be reduced due to armour.
  • When fighting multiple opponents, Defence Skill is reduced by 10 for each enemy beyond the first (but the modifiers apply against all).
  • Blunt weapons deal damage to Endurance and only cause wounds above damage 10 (e.g. a damage roll of 13 with a mace reduces the opponent's Endurance by 10 and deals a 3-point wound).
  • For each hit received in combat, make an Endurance saving throw. On a failure, skip your next attack. Also, reduce Endurance by half the amount of damage ablated by armour (the rationale is that it's tiring).
  • Bleeding is handled twofold in the Advanced Rules. First, any physical action (except defending oneself) results in the loss of one-tenth of total wounds from Endurance. Furthermore, all wounds above 10 points are increased by 1 point. Bandaging the wounds avoids these complications (but physically strenuous activities may re-open them).
  • A critical success on Attack Skill results in an automatic hit (i.e. no Defence Skill roll), while on a critical failure the attacker drops their weapon (and it takes their next turn to recover it). A critical success on Defence Skill would mean that the defender knocks the weapon out of the attacker's hand, whereas on a critical failure the converse happens.
  • Critical results in the Advanced Rules are handled differently, involving d100 tables for fumbles ("bodges") and separate edged and blunt critical hits.
  • Wounds are recorded separately, but if their total exceeds the character's Endurance, they fall unconscious. If the total exceeds 100, the character dies.
  • Attacks against unconscious characters always hit (except on a critical failure) and they obviously cannot use their Defence Skill. A regular failure results in normal damage, whereas a success deals normal damage and may instakill the character (they have [total wounds] % of dying).
  • Retreating characters cannot use their Defence Skill to block incoming attacks, but the enemy still only gets a single attack (and it takes up their turn as it normaly would).
  • Wounds heal separately at a rate of 1 point per week of bedrest or 1 point per month of regular activity.
  • Weapons are given in broad categories (e.g. sword, pole-arm, club), but multiple damage values (and prices) are given within each category (e.g. a club may deal either 1d10, 2d6, or 3d6 damage). Armours are similarly given varying prices and protective values.
  • The Advanced Rules assign various modifiers to Attack Skill and Defence Skill depending on the weapon.
  • Weapons with an edge have a Sharpness rating that begins at 5. It decreases by 1 after each combat. At Sharpness 5, the weapon deals +1 damage. At negative values, the weapon's damage is modified by Sharpness. Anyone can sharpen a weapon up to Sharpness 0 on a whetstone, but professionals are required to make it Sharpness 5 again.
  • Advancement is handled by experience rolls: if a d100 roll is over the attribute value, it increases by 1 point. When a character becomes eligible for these rolls is mostly up to the GM, but a handful of cases are outlined: for taking part in a fight, per person killed, every time a wound of 6 or higher is taken, for every spell successfully cast.
  • On a critical success on an experience roll, improve the rolled attribute by 1 point, then roll again. Conversely, on a critical failure, reduce the attribute by 1 point.
  • For each week of training gain two experience rolls with the trained attribute, but also reduce another attribute by 1 point.
Things I Liked
  • I have grown to really appreciate percentile systems for their transparency.
  • Nobles, by default, start with a loyal retainer (either a PC or an NPC).
  • There are plenty of examples illustrating how the rules work (and even a 4-page example of play). However, the examples are usually hard to identify by just looking at the page as they are embedded in the paragraphs.
  • A little wall-of-texty by today's standards, but the advice on how to approach playing your character or GMing a game of Maelstrom is generally good.
  • Each Living is given a fairly detailed treatise in the GM chapter, discussing not only mechanical bits but also their place in the setting and their strengths and weaknesses as player characters.
  • An appendix detailing 61 herbs includes all relevant mechanics and an illustration for each herb.
  • There's a sample solo adventure (sructured like a gamebook) after the players' section. I haven't played it through, only because my first attempt ended after two entries: First "Are you an assassin? If you are not, go directly to paragraph 44 without reading on. If you are, you may continue reading." Then "You reach home safely, without incident. This adventure is meant for an assassin, and no other type of character may partake of its mysteries. Generate an assassin and try again." Hilarious (almost spilt my coffee) but also a little frustrating.
Things I Disliked
  • A handful of minor typos and inconsistencies (such as the text saying wound totals exceeding Endurance result in unconsciousness, while the example saying "greater or equal").
  • I am not terribly fond of the visual design of many modern games (I don't necessarily not like them, but I am fine with text-heavy older games as long as the sections are easy to identify), but here the paragraphs often flow into each other, and the examples (of which fortunately are plenty) are indistinguishable from the explanatory text by a glance. I know it's an old game, but the text could've been tidied up just a little. Fortunately, the latest variants of the Maelstrom system (to be reviewed later) have fixed these issues.
  • The example saving throw combines Endurance and Speed (first rolling for Endurance to move a log, and then Speed to see if it was done fast enough), which makes sense at face value - but combined tests greatly decrease the probability of success (even Endurance 40 and Speed 40 only results in a 16% success rate at combined tests). It's not a dealbreaker, but GMs need to be wary of overusing this mechanic.
  • Casting spells uses a fairly large number of rolls, rendering magic a very unreliable solution to most things. On the one hand, I like the atmosphere it creates in the setting; on the other hand, I know many players who aren't willing to take gambles more favourable than this to begin with.
  • I didn't expect a detailed guide on 16th century England, but the three pages dedicated to the setting only touch on the basics (granted, all the details mentioned are important for adventurers, and there's a bibliography at the end of the book for those seeking further information).
  • The encumbrance rules look too punishing to me, especially given the rather high encumbrance rating of many items compared to the average Endurance score. It's arguably realistic, which I appreciate, and I'm not sure if it actually is as severe in extended play as it reads (granted, it greatly depends on how often the GM calls for a roll).

Overall, I don't think I would run Maelstrom as is, but it's valuable both as a historical artefact and as a framework to build simple d100 systems comparable to but also distinct from Worlds of Wonder (1982, Chaosium) or WFRP 1st edition (1986, Games Workshop). The presentation didn't age well (I personally prefer a textbook style writing where rules, examples, and fluff are clearly separated), but the rules themselves are all right if a little punishing (and it might actually appeal to those really into low-level D&D).

The currently available version — a facsimile edition of the original — is published by Arion Games (Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2E, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk, Vikingr, among others), and available through DriveThrurpg in both PDF and softcover; it's also on their website.

No comments:

Post a Comment