"Best of Friends," for Malefex, Whetton and Armstrong

Pros: Pared-down rules; some good scenario material
Cons: Audience issues; plot holes; contradictory information; flimsy binding
Rating: 3 of 5

First posted 1/17/2001

You may wish to read our review of Principia Malefex first to get a feel for the game system.

The Concept

“Best of Friends” is a brief introduction to Principia Malefex, a quick-play supplement designed to allow you to play and get a feel for the game without needing the main rulebook. It contains pared-down, simplified rules and a couple of scenarios, all of which are simplified versions of games contained in other Malefex rulebooks.

As I see it there are several purposes for such a book, from the player’s point of view:

  • To provide simplified rules, so that gaming groups who dislike complex rules can play the game.
  • To allow a gaming group that isn’t sure it wants to play Malefex to try out the game and make a decision before shelling out the cost for the main rulebook.
  • To allow a gaming group to easily play with only one copy of the main rulebook, by providing players with their own simplified versions of the rules to carry around with them.

Obviously from a gaming company’s point of view, such a product would probably be seen as advertising. You hope that people will be willing to purchase something small and simple where they might resist buying a main rulebook, and then once they’re hooked they’ll buy the main rulebook.

Let’s see how well it fulfills these various possible purposes.

This book does provide a simplified set of rules. No long pages of wound infection rules; no huge tables detailing when characters act during combat. However, while it pares down the rules to simplify them, it does not actually change any of them. Thus, any rules that remain complex when pared down to their bare essentials (such as the die rolls) remain complex. So this book may not entirely satisfy the first group of gamers.

This book sort of works as an introduction to Malefex for those who haven’t played it before. There are no character creation rules (probably because there was no way to make them simple without outright changing them), just four pre-made player characters in the back of the book. This means that unless you have four players or less who are satisfied with the given characters, then you may have trouble playtesting the game. On the other hand, this booklet does give a very good idea of what the main rulebook is like. It gives some idea of the complexity of the rules set, without your having to read through all of the rules. The scenarios span the various sorts of plots the game covers quite well. And since some of the same problems are evident in this book that I noted in the main rulebook, you’ll have a good idea of what the main rulebook is like as well.

This book would be partially useful to a gaming group that already has the book and doesn’t want to buy more than one copy. It contains right up front some of the information that can be tough to find in the main rulebook. On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t have all of it, so you’d still need to pass around the main rulebook now and then. And it contains scenarios, locations, and GM characters, so it’s clear that this booklet isn’t meant to be handed out to players.

The Details

This book by necessity carries over some of the things I disliked about the basic game, so I’ll only touch on them briefly. The combination of different types of rolls for different things is unnecessarily complex. This is a gripe with the basic system, though, not with this book in particular.

The quality of the writing in this book is a bit spotty. It, like the main rulebook, could have benefited from a sharp-eyed editor with professional experience; there are still a number of typos of the sort that won’t be caught by a spell-checker.

As with the scenarios in the main rulebook, I felt that some of the scenarios here were more appropriate as side-plots to an ongoing adventure rather than whole, separate games to be run by themselves. You’ll need to flesh things out a bit before you run them, which in a “quick-start” book is a little unfortunate. My preference in such a book would be to have things ready to run after a brief read-through.

The scenarios don’t have enough notes on how to get the player characters involved, and there are no notes at all on how the four given player characters in the back of the book are supposed to have known each other. As in the main rulebook, very little attention is paid to how the group comes together. I assume this is because the writers are from the school of roleplaying in which characters get together and stay together because it’s a roleplaying game and that’s what they’re supposed to do, but it would be nice if they provided more information for other sorts of roleplayers. The “PC Plothooks” given in the first adventure are very sparse, and don’t make any attempt to specifically draw in the characters given in the back of the book.

A Brief Aside About Confusion…

I have the impression that the authors couldn’t quite decide on the purpose of their quick-start booklet. They couldn’t decide whether it was meant as a collection of simpler rules for people who already had their game, or as advertising to people who didn’t have the game yet. So they leave the “PC Plothooks” section vague, in the interest of allowing the GM to work in any group of characters, yet provide player characters in the back, so it can work as advertisement.

They really needed to decide which this booklet was meant to be. If it was meant as advertisement, they could have done more to connect the given player characters together and work them into the plots, so that a random group of players would feel that this was a more coherent game and could run with it without having to do as much work first. If it was meant as simplified rules for people who already have the book, then they could have really simplified things instead of just paring them down a bit, and concentrated on providing plot hooks for a wider range of pre-existing parties.

Back to the Scenarios

The scenarios still have some plot holes, inadequate motivations and explanations for behavior, and contradictory information, particularly in the first scenario, “A Friend in Need.” One of the things I disliked about the last supplement however doesn’t seem to be here: the habit of mentioning things off-handedly before explaining them, so that we’re confused at the random details popping up. It’s nice to see that cleaned up!

As before, some of the bits of fiction are absolutely chilling; others wander and confuse.

The second scenario, “Hostage,” doesn’t provide enough information. I’d like to see more information on the bank robbers, so that the GM’s depiction of them (and thus the entire solution to the scenario) becomes less arbitrary. This scenario is a great concept, however: the idea is to get all the characters into a tense, stressful situation where they can’t help but bind together a bit.

The third scenario, “Ghost in the Machine,” is by far the best. The confusions and plot holes are minimal. It has a wonderful spooky air, and makes very good use of both supernatural fright and real-world fright. Once again, however, the information on involving the PCs is minimal and inadequate, and depending on your party, perhaps inappropriate as well.

“Best of Friends” demonstrates many of the flaws of the main rulebook: confusion, assumptions inadequately checked, and a pervasive inability to explain how your average RPG party is to become involved in the scenarios. On the other hand, these stories are fun, and with a little work they’re certainly usable. I like the pared-down rules, although I wish they’d also simplified a few things like the die rolls.

If you’re still trying to decide whether you want to buy the main rulebook, then definitely get this! As an example of both the pros and cons of the Malefex system, this booklet serves remarkably well. If you enjoy this book, you should enjoy the main rulebook. If this book irritates you, the main book will probably irritate you too.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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