"Principia Malefex," Whetton, Rettallack, Armstrong

Pros: Potential; inspiration
Cons: Presentation; complexity; assumptions; editing
Rating: 2 out of 5

First posted 6/12/2000
Review book courtesy of Malefex

“Malefex” is a game with promise and potential. It contains clear nuggets of pure inspiration, but it also has serious problems with poor presentation and overly-complex rules. With another rewrite and some hard work it could become a fantastic game, but it needs that work.

The opening story and most of the bits of fiction come off rather Lovecraftian, in the best tradition of “dangerous knowledge” stories. Magic exists, as do supernatural creatures (sort-of demons) and unnatural creatures (things such as Cavewights, Vampires, and “Hunters”). Yet, it is meant to be a game of reality, which takes place in Britain; Malefex tells us that the supernatural should only rarely touch the game. The first scenario consists of a random court case between two entirely ordinary parties.

Combat will almost never happen, and is deadly when it does. The world is dark, cynical, and depressing. “There is rarely a distinct enemy,” Malefex tells us. If the characters perform illegal acts, they’ll likely go to jail. I think some will love this; others will hate it. It’s a rather extreme view of roleplaying that will appeal to a limited audience.

Presentation

From the outside the book looks gorgeous. No slick cover art could thrill more than the enigmatic black hardback with the simple words “Principia Malefex” in ornate gold lettering. I’ve longed to hold something like this in my hands since I was nine years old. Black ribbon bookmark and cream-colored pages add to this feel. The lack of artwork also adds – art would have disrupted the style of this book.

That’s where the good presentation ends, however.

The writing shows some raw talent; the ending of the opening story held me fast wondering what would happen next. Some of the bits of fiction spread throughout felt positively chilling. However, the writing also showed a distinct lack of experience and professional distance. Sentences meander or cut themselves off in the middle. Punctuation mysteriously goes missing, and a good spell-checker would have caught a number of problems. A keen eye would have caught the spelling problems of the can’t-be-caught-by-a-spell-checker variety. Some paragraphs wander so confusingly that I had to sit for five minutes to figure out what they wanted to say – occasionally I failed. Pronouns often don’t link back to a specific subject, so it can be difficult to tell who does what. Contradictory statements abound. The book says at one point to avoid absolutes, but it’s filled with them.

I suspect that the authors never put this book in front of someone who hadn’t played the game. I found many confusing bits, or places where assumptions go unstated, that would have easily been caught by anyone who hadn’t played the system before, particularly in the rules sections. In some places information has been left out entirely.

As for the fiction, the author needs to describe characters. We never know what the narrator in the opening story looks like, and even gender remained unstated (or at least inobvious). The author left certain details of the narrator’s life for a surprise, but I believe that this was a mistake. It simply made some of the narrator’s comments confusing, and made others seem contradictory; this sort of thing pulls the reader out of the story. Rather than making us wonder what’s going on with the narrator, it makes us wonder if the writer made a mistake. As the surprise doesn’t add anything to the story, it would have been better simply to divulge it early on and avoid the whole problem.

The World

The book needs to offer a brief cosmological overview early on. The supernatural, which played such a strong role in the opening story, doesn’t surface again until page 90 – this feels like a bait and switch. Anyone who reads the opening story will think it’s a highly supernatural game, and yet the game supposedly plays out primarily with “real” plots. I’m all for using “normal” antagonists, plots, and conflicts (I too have always thought that newspapers and magazines made the best sources of plots), but Malefex goes overboard for my tastes.

Of the characters, Malefex tells us:

[The characters] are … rarely going to get involved with magic or the supernatural … They are ordinary people, but that doesn’t stop them trying to take on a large corporation to protect the local environment. It doesn’t stop them getting involved in organised crime, or becoming swindlers or muggers.

I’m dubious. In general, ordinary people with ordinary lives don’t run around doing “anything.” Normal people don’t solve everybody else’s problems, or get involved in lots of “plots.” Most parties need at least a little reason to believe that it’s their responsibility to get involved in things. While I fully believe that it’s possible to have Malefex runs of the sort stated that work out fine, I also think that over the course of many characters and many campaigns it would stretch believability. I also think that, once again, those players who were pulled in by the opening story will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

I wouldn’t make a huge change here, just a subtle shift in point-of-view. I think that normal people and plots are fine, but that a less inflexible view would draw more people to the game. (For more on this subject, see It’s Okay for PCs to be Special.)

It’s a low-combat world, with a heavy political agenda on the author’s part that sometimes gets in the way. I was one of the people who believed that White Wolf’s “Wraith” game was a lot of fun, rather than depressing as many people thought, yet in places I found Malefex to be a very depressing world. I think that most roleplayers won’t consider this game to be fun unless their GM plays up the supernatural and plays down the depressing worldview.

The Rules

My impression of the Malefex rules is that the author spent a lot of time in gameplay fine-tuning everything. On the surface this seems like a great idea. However, if you spend too much time in the design of an RPG rules system and don’t remember to come up for air now and then (and to get outside opinions once in a while), you lose yourself in the rules. You go on improving them, making little changes and fixing imbalances and making everything just right – and suddenly, you have something that’s needlessly complex and confusing, and you don’t even know it. A whole new group of players will look at the system and bounce. Also, a rules system that has been fine-tuned for one group of players may break down when played with a different set of players (with different strengths and weaknesses).

Example…

Allow me to give an example of the system’s complexity. Look to stage 3 of character creation, Profession. You choose your career, then you check your career’s listing to see what sort of dice you roll to increase your statistics (basic, innate abilities – pretty much your standard strength, willpower, perception, etc.). If you increase them by less than 10 points, you must note how many less. Then there are skills listed next to each profession. In each of these you must add 50 points to your current level (but not to Sixth Sense, which is special). If you increase less than six skills (not including Sixth Sense), you must note how many less than six.

Next comes Stage 4, Personalization, in which you get a number of points to spend as you see fit. But first, you take the result of your subtraction from 10 from your statistics increase and multiply it by 10 – these are bonus points to spend. Then you take the result of your subtraction from 6 from your skills increase, and it seems that you multiply it by 25 for another bunch of bonus points. I say seems because it never explicitly states this – you divine this from the example, which states that if a sample character had increased only five skills, he would have gotten 25 bonus points.

Back to the Rules…

Malefex contains many other needless complications, ambiguities, or missing pieces of information. It doesn’t help that these are all described in paragraph form, with few summary charts; it’s tough to remember all the details of a complex rules system unless you have a few summary charts for quick reference. If you need to re-read all of the detailed paragraphs every time you use a particular rule, you’ll swiftly grow frustrated.

Calling one of the statistics “skill” while calling other things “skills” makes for some confusing statements. Some rolls have automatic fail boundaries but not automatic success; others have both. Some can go higher than the die roll associated with them; others can’t. This kind of inconsistency will make it difficult for people to remember things. There are a few phantom rules, such as “reaction time.” It’s mentioned in the combat section briefly but never explained, and only reappears much later in the book – and is not a necessary mechanic. There are easier ways to accomplish the same thing with the mechanics provided.

The skills system is pretty neat, and works better than most I’ve seen at conquering the specialty and generality problem. It allows for separate development of specialties and general fields, while rewarding players for creating specialized characters. Very nicely done. The designation of “special” or “rare” skills, however, seems rather arbitrary. I’m uncertain why astronomy must be rarer than law, or why first aid is rarer than medicine. Also, while I understand the wish to restrict the presence of Sixth Sense in this game, tying it to career seems odd. I think that having a Fear mechanic to handle the idea that sometimes characters get frightened silly while their players don’t is great; I think that having separate “fear” and “terror” statistics is unnecessary.

Some of the temporary derangements and permanent insanities provided are nice ones, and most do not easily lend themselves to the stereotypical “cute” insane character, which earns my respect. As a minor niggle, however, most psychiatrists these days do not perform psychoanalysis, and the idea that a single session of analysis could cure a derangement or insanity is laughable.

The optional “declining skill” mechanic provided in Malefex does the best job of any such mechanic I’ve heard of so far. It allows for the degeneration of character skills over time, without forcing characters to spend unrealistic amounts of time honing their skills.

During playtest, one of our players asserted that creating a character was like doing your taxes. It reminded him a lot of the sort of “and take your total from line 13 and multiply it by 5 and subtract line 12 in order to get your total for line 15a…” thing that shows up in American tax sheets all the time (ouch).

Combat

The descriptions of different types of damage do a good job, although sometimes the scale seems a bit off. It takes one week of normal activity to heal one point of damage, but tripping causes D3 points of damage. At this rate it would take a week to heal a stubbed toe. Also, a character with a head injury automatically sustains a concussion. I’ve seen plenty of people get head injuries in my lifetime, and very few of them turned out to have a concussion, so this too seems off. I applaud the attempt to make combat dangerous, but I think it’s a little out of proportion.

I get the impression the author is at least passingly familiar with medicine, and wished to make the injury and healing process as realistic as possible. Again I applaud the effort, but I believe that the fine-tuning has caused the system to grow too complex. An entire page and multiple different die rolls encompass the possibilities of wound infection, where I believe a couple of sentences and a quick rule of thumb would have achieved the same goal.

Despite the look of the huge “action times” table (I groaned when I first saw it), figuring out when characters should take actions during combat is simple and elegant. A combat turn is five seconds long. You look up your speed statistic down the side of the chart, and it lists all of the times during those five seconds that you go. For instance, at speed two you’d act at 1.7 seconds and 3.3. During playtest players also groaned when they saw it, but everyone agreed after running a few combats that it worked well and easily.

Hand-to-hand combat consists simply of trying to damage people, and trying not to get damaged, unless you want to work with special moves. Few special moves exist, and those that do are easy to keep track of and pretty inclusive. Melee works similarly, except that not all special moves can be used with all weapons. The combat system gets bogged down in places by needlessly complex write-up, but at its heart it’s fairly simple.

Accuracy again gets in the way of ease of use here. There are enough things to keep track of already in a gun combat (range, damage, shots) without lots of other things getting in the way (recoil, jam, clear time, reload time – each different gun has its own numbers for each). A lot of these things could have been covered, again, with simple rules of thumb rather than lots of additional details.

Malefex also needlessly complicates dice rolls. It uses fractional die rolls, 200-siders (rolling a 20 and a 10 and combining them in odd ways), etc. Many statistics use unique die rolls as their bases during character generation. Ranged combat uses a different die roll than melee and hand-to-hand, which I couldn’t see the point in.

In summary, the combat system is okay, but not great. Most of its problems come down to complexity or confusing write-up. As with most of the book, with some work it could be a good thing. Also, as Malefex contains no index and the table of contents does not provide page numbers, rules and details will take forever to find during game-play. (Thus, it fails the Quick Reference test.)

Toward the end of the book, the author takes much more of a “here are some guidelines and use your common sense” approach than earlier. I wish this had spilled over into the basic rules system.

Combat Playtest

In playtest we uncovered one thing that we see as a serious problem. Strength figures into combat in three ways: it is the basis for your Damage score (how much damage you can take before going unconscious or dying). You add it in to the damage you do when you hurt someone, and you subtract it out of the damage someone does to you when they hurt you. Because of this, a small amount of Strength has a huge effect on combat.

We ran through a number of combats, and found that if two people have similar levels of skill with a weapon, then the one with the higher Strength will always win, barring act-of-God level luck. In fact, we played two characters off against one another in combat after combat. One had a Strength of only one point higher than the other and he always won, until we gave the second character a weapon skill significantly higher. We do not believe that a single statistic should have such a disproportionate effect on the outcome of combat. Because of this, the outcome of combat will almost always be pre-determined, which takes away much of the suspense and fun.

GM-Player Relationships

The person who wrote this book obviously had to deal with some very annoying players; many of the hints for dealing with players fall under the heading of antagonistic. While some players need to be dealt with this way, not all do (I’d dare to suggest that the majority do not). Treating players with this kind of harshness right from the start can result in otherwise good players growing into an antagonistic relationship with the GM. While I agree that a few “if your players misbehave in this way, you could do this,” suggestions can be helpful, it should not be the baseline for GM-player interaction.

While the book contains a section for first-time GMs, I would not recommend this game for someone who hasn’t GMed before. A GM needs experience before he tackles a game this complex (or this obfuscated). A first-time GM would be better off with a simpler game that has been around longer, been battle-tested by more people, and gone through at least one rewrite/new edition to work out the kinks.

Some of the information here, however, would be useful for any GM. In fact, some of it is downright gorgeous: “If the characters are huddled in a room hoping that the thing scratching at the front door down the hall won’t get in … have them discover the scratch marks are on the inside of the front door.” I particularly appreciate the entreaties to give the players their free will – this is an issue that I too have strong feelings about. (For more on this subject, see our free will articles.)

Scenarios

I hold the opinion that if a main rulebook provides only a few scenarios, then most if not all of them should be useful for a first-time run. Neither of the complete scenarios here would make a really good introductory run. One is too mundane and boring – the first run should grab the players and make them want to keep playing, and I would only use this scenario as a side-plot. The other requires a fully coherent party that already works entirely together – it could never be used to bring a loose party together. All of the scenarios and scenario ideas toss around references to things that haven’t been discussed yet, or refer to something happening with no explanation of how or why it happens. There are instructions like, “The conversation should be steered toward certain subjects,” with little solid indication of which subjects. Some idea-descriptions jump around, failing to explain off-handed comments or plot twists.

In our playtest we discovered that the author’s tendency to make unstated assumptions has had a strong effect on the scenarios as well. It becomes obvious after a while that the scenarios make the assumption that the players will work together and get involved in everything around them simply because they’re characters in a roleplaying game. Little attempt is made to come up with reasons why the characters should involve themselves in things. This is a legitimate way to roleplay, but not everyone plays this way.

Magic and the Supernatural

My first thought upon reading about the supernatural in Malefex was: “Uh, vampires? Where on earth do the vampires come in?” This is one of the many reasons why this book needs an early overview of the cosmology.

You will, however, find some true gems in the “Creatures” section. The fictional musings of a captured vampire come to mind, as do the Shadow Hounds, and the variety to be found in vampire physiology and in shapeshifter (“Were”) physiology and psychology. Now, if this isn’t incredibly amusing and the seed for an absolutely terrifying plot, I don’t know what is: “Astral conjunctions, although rare, can also trigger [shapeshifting]. In some cases these conjunction [sic] may occur only every several hundred years, resulting in a number of otherwise normal people having a very strange night.”

Hunters, odd supernatural entities that feed on the life energy of others and change slightly with each kill, are a truly creepy invention – I can’t wait to introduce one into a game.

I find that the “unnatural” creatures (vampires, Hunters, etc.) hold my interest much more than the “supernaturals” (spirits, demons, etc.). They have more in the way of motives, weaknesses, interesting strengths, and plot possibilities than the supernaturals. The supernaturals get a bit repetitive, have very few motives to play with, and tend to be giant clubs with few weaknesses for the characters to exploit – either you have the one magic ability that will get rid of them, or you’re dead meat. I can understand the desire to keep their motives mysterious to the players, but if the GM doesn’t know what they want then it’ll be harder to create interesting plots involving them.

I found the bit of fiction at the end of the “Creatures” section absolutely chilling! Many of the fiction bits, despite the grammar problems and typos, show real talent and inspiration. I enjoyed the interesting approach to magic (there are two major types, Malefex and Helix, with the weaker Aegyptic just below them, and even weaker magics below them); it was nice for once to see a system in which all magic wasn’t made to fit into some over-arching uber-system. I particularly appreciated the fact that tomes of magic usually hide their secrets in allegory and story, rather than providing recipe-style spells.

Tidbits

The book spends a lot of time talking about such concepts as hate, love, forgiveness, guilt, etc. I’m not entirely certain of the purpose of this. If it’s to set the mood, there are better ways to do so, such as more of the marvelous fiction bits. If it’s to explain things like hate to us, I think that most of us already have a handle on it. Those who don’t aren’t likely to look at the section and think, “oh, finally, someone’s going to explain hate to me,” so it won’t help anyway.

As a very odd note: one section suggests using arcane words from a 1920s dictionary to evoke mood. This is the first mention I saw of the 1920s! Either I missed a small sentence somewhere that explained that this is not a modern game, or…well, something is very weird. I’m assuming that it was an entirely random comment, since one of the potential careers was a computer “hacker,” thus implying strongly that the game takes place in modern times. This is another argument for that early-on cosmology overview I asked for. If we were entirely certain what sort of world the game took place in, comments like that about the 1920s dictionary wouldn’t sound confusing.

The book provides some wonderfully useful information on British companies, the British court system, British politics, British education, etc. A GM who wants to run a game of any type set in Britain who isn’t familiar with the country would find it useful.

“Malefex” is a promising game with some intriguing concepts, marred by a seriously flawed execution.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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