Classic RPG Review #16: Maelstrom

1st edition softcover
by Alexander Scott
1984 Puffin Books, Harmondsworth UK

When Alexander Scott started writing Maelstrom, he was only sixteen years old. Still at school. Somehow he got himself invited by Pinguin publishers to write a game in a paperback. The publishers had no idea what he talked about. “Role playing what? No idea what that is. You're the wizkid who can do it? And you say this will sell? Euh, okay.” But, they said yes. And this gave Scott a lot of freedom. Perhaps because of his age, and this freedom, he made something unexpected, different and special.

The setting of Maelstrom is a cross between the medieval world of Chaucer – pilgrim's progress – that of Dickens, and that of Remi, Alone on the World. It's nearly realistic, but with a touch of magic. Very undefined, low key magic. But magic nonetheless. It's the real world with a hint of the supernatural. Closer to literature than to fantasy. Closer to Penguin publishers than to DAW paperbacks.

And that's actually cool. If you ever contemplated studying medieval literature, or ever stood in awe of the British library or any cathedral, you'll understand the appeal of this game. You can play a traveller, a guildsman, a scholar, a craftsman, a clergyman, a noblewoman, a rogue or a military – and much in between. The rules are fairly simple, percentile based – a bit like Runequest but easier and with less emphasis on combat. Building your character is simple, and you'll learn your character's age and some of his or history in the process of creation. And not just about the character's history, but also something about real history. As said, the game is fairly realistic. And thus good for serious students.

Magic also touches on the real. There's an excellent index of herbs and plants, with their medicinal uses. And not made up, but real. If you use Maelstrom just for this index, and nothing else, you won't be the first. Again, realistic. So is there some fantasy left in this game? Yes. It's in the name: Maelstrom. The Maelstrom is a magic vortex that can draw you anywhere, any place, any time. You might end up as Catweazle, in the present time of the players. And the likelyhood of encountering this vortex becomes greater as you use more magic. Scary for mages... don't use too many spells or you're in trouble. I liked the idea so much, that I took up using something alike in the Dark Dungeon 2nd ed. game.

How does it play? Well, that's where it starts to fall down a bit. There's a good solo game to start you off. Follow the numbered paragraphs and don't stray off the path, or you may end up reading signs like: “Reading Paragraphs at Random brings Bad Luck”. Then there's a whole adventure traveling on the road to London. But then what? It remains too scetchy after that. We had no idea how to proceed from there. There is no cool backdrop with a clear conflict. There's no party of evil to fight. There isn't even a mention of Cromwell and his men, or an earlier Queen Elizabeth, Wars of the Roses or a potential Spanish Catholic invasion. Not that I remember anyway. So... we forgot about the game.

Shame, though. Because the game has a lot to go for it. Given the right background, and a clear conflict in the setting, it might have become a true classic. Now it's mostly... a gem in the rough. So if you think you can make up your own campaign, have a look. It's worth it.

(rules are elegant, simple, fairly realistic - especially in character creation -, percentile based, somewhat resembling the RuneQuest set of rules, with a scetchy but innovative way of looking at magic)
(the game uses a realistic late medieval backdrop, which resonates strongly if you have a historic interest – though it lacks a central conflict, or choice of conflict, to use as a campaign theme)
(the game plays fairly easily with the sample scenarios, but failing a clear goal or backdrop of the whole game, and failing a clear adventure format, it regretfully fizzles out)
(a complete game in a small paperback, a nice scetch of late medieval society, a fairly realistic low fantasy setting, an inspiringly real index on medicinal plants and herbs, nice sample adventures)

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