"Nocturne," for Principia Malefex; Armstrong, Retallack and Whetton

Pros: Improvements since Malefex in editing, confusions, integrating the characters, and so on; interesting scenarios
Cons: Missing information; inadequate explanation; confusion; some passivity of player characters; arbitrary PC restrictions
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

First posted 6/19/2000
Review book courtesy of Malefex

“Nocturne” is a short book of adventures for the game Principia Malefex. Within it you will find three adventures, a write-up of a detective agency, and some further notes on gamesmastering for Malefex.

In many ways Nocturne represents a noticeable improvement over the main Malefex rulebook. If their books continue to improve at this rate, they’ll be quite worth buying. First of all, the idea of a small, inexpensive book of adventures is wonderful; it’s what Archangel’s Supernumerary tried to do and failed. The lay-flat binding is quite helpful, especially when photocopying the character sheet. The binding and cover are inexpensive and won’t last for years, but who cares? Few people run adventures over and over, so the tradeoff of production value for low cost is exactly right.

General Commentary

Nocturne has some of the typo problems of Malefex, but it has improved. The typos occur less often and tend to be less glaring. There are fewer confusing, wandering paragraphs – the writing makes more sense.

The main problem that has carried over from Malefex is the tendency to mention things offhandedly that haven’t been brought up yet, to leave out bits of information, or to mention plot twists or developments without adequately explaining them. Still, this isn’t done to the extent to which it appeared in Malefex, so even this has improved.

This time the question of how to integrate player characters into the scenarios was addressed – this helps a lot. However, most adventures seem to assume a new group of characters every time. That is to say, they search for character possibilities within the framework of the story. They don’t address how to integrate a pre-existing party into the adventures, which tends to be the real problem.

Some of the fiction bits, similar to those in Malefex, work very well to get across the feel of the world. Some of them are confusing, however; it can be difficult to tell what is going on. Parts sound very awkward. Again, characters tend to go almost entirely undescribed and faceless; I find this frustrating.

The Scenarios

The scenarios are interesting, fun, and well worth playing. They each lack something – I’ll go over the details below – but a little time and some imagination will fix that. All three are capable of being run as very entertaining adventures with a little start-up time.

1. The Site

In this adventure, an archaeological site experiences odd visitations, and the archaeologists are ordered to clear out to make way for a new road. I thought I would like this adventure the least when I read it. It lacked some useful information and explanation. There was a distinct need for an opening summary of the adventure – it would have made things much less confusing.

Also, in some ways the adventure looked too easy. By this I mean that if the characters happen to think of the right thing to do, the plot ends without much effort or preamble. It would be nice to see a few more complications suggested for such occurrences; otherwise the adventure could seem very anticlimactic.

I must say, however, that this adventure played out beautifully in playtest. We had a very entertaining and enjoyable afternoon with this one. I occasionally had to flip around a bit to make up for the fact that it was a bit confusing, but because it was a short adventure that didn’t take up too much time. Even though the original Malefex playtest had left my players a bit dubious about the game, they came out of “The Site” wanting more.

2. The Lost

After a woman’s funeral, an unusual visitor makes his presence known. This adventure has a downright creepy feel to it, and contains plenty of information, as well as a good introductory summary.

I don’t like being told that the players should be bystanders in this adventure, however. No player enjoys feeling that they’re just standing still watching things happen around them. Luckily, there’s enough information provided that you can ignore this instruction. It’s okay that the final “solution” happens through someone else’s intervention, simply because it’s so beautiful and creepy that I doubt most players would notice (much less mind). But that doesn’t mean that the player characters should be entirely superfluous.

3. Violent Nights

This is an interesting story of an unusual specimen at a pharmaceutical company, and some strange occurrences in a quiet town.

This adventure doesn’t give enough rationale for some of the actions the player characters are supposed to take, and it seems unlikely that they would ever figure out what was going on. Some groups will find this frustrating, particularly because they won’t necessarily have a way of knowing that the adventure is “done.” This could have been solved by making the adventure a page or three longer, adding additional material to allow the players to solve the rest of the mystery. Luckily it can also be solved by a creative GM willing to make a few things up as he goes along, so this adventure may still be the source of a very enjoyable afternoon.

The Detective Agency

The agency is not an adventure, but may be worked into any adventure where you need some detectives. They would make fine allies, employees, rivals, or antagonists. The characters have a lot of personality and history to them, which means they’ll act wonderfully as a source of plot complications.

Notes on Gamesmastery

Nocturne contains an addendum to the Gamesmastery notes present in Malefex. Apparently Malefex is meant as a game about the middle-class. I can undersand the reasons stated: that the rich have too many resources, and the poor might have already picked up the skills they need to survive (and have less to lose, thus making them more dangerous). However, I believe that the author has chosen the wrong solution for the wrong problem.

Trying to limit the range of characters to be played will simply restrict yet further the potential customers for this game. It is also entirely unnecessary. Rich characters can’t solve everything with money. Plenty of poor people have more to lose than their lives, and don’t know how to use weaponry. Just because it may be seen as easier for players to abuse these types of characters does not mean that they should not be allowed. Plenty of GMs can handle these sorts of characters, and plenty of players can play them well.

Luckily, these restrictions are not built into the system in any terrible ways, so they can be easily ignored.

Similarly, Nocturne says that characters who are eager to learn magic should be killed off, which I again do not agree with. Wonderful tales can be spun of those who delve into things they should not, and either take it too far or realize what they’re doing and try to back out of it – perhaps too late. Again, you will find this direction easy to ignore.

Some Additional System Notes

We had an observation on the original rules system to make after the additional playtest:

The method of random generation for statistics (basic things like strength, willpower, initiative, etc.) didn’t make us entirely happy. I can get past the fact that each statistic requires a different roll simply because it’s at least easy to look up. However, because most statistics are generated on a single die roll, it’s easy to end up with extreme statistics. Since the largest single die roll was made on a d10 and the statistics are usually tested against on a d20 (and may go higher than 20), this means that characters are surprisingly likely to end up with extremely low scores in some of their statistics. Characters become ridiculously unable to do things when they have a couple of 1’s in their statistics.

I would probably solve this by rolling statistics on multiple dice (for example, you’d roll 2d10 instead of 1d20, 3d4 instead of 1d12, 2d5* instead of 1d10, etc.). It makes it more difficult for characters to end up with extreme totals on either end of the scale.

My guess is that the author was trying to leave room for advancement of statistics over the period of game-play without characters becoming ridiculously powerful. I would instead make it so that players are less likely to raise their statistics at all. This reminds me of the fact that first-level characters in D&D can be killed by almost anything because they’re so puny, but really high-level ones could practically withstand a nuclear blast without any help. Better, I think, to make statistics relatively constant, but higher to start out with, especially in a game that seeks to emulate the real world as much as possible.

*The Malefex system sometimes uses fractional die rolls.

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