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Bifford the Youngest (Sam)
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History of the RPG

The original book on the Maelstrom was written by Alexander Scott in 1984 and in part ran off the success of Fighting Fantasy as it looked similar on the shelves so people picked it up thinking it was the latest in the range of FF gamebooks. Once people started to read the book however it picked up its own momentum and soon became an extremely popular RPG in its own right. The extensive information on Herbs, for example, proved a main selling point as did its "LifePath" character creation.

Paul Baldowski wrote an extremely good "Share a game...Maelstrom" article which goes into more details about this game.

In 2008 Arion Games took over the rights to the game with Mr Scott's blessing and the PDF sold well enough for them to create and sell a number of add-ons to the game that addressed the short-comings of the original book.

Then in 2013 Graham Bottley, of Arion Games, threw out the idea of a Kickstarter for an updated version with an all new setting and enhanced ruleset. The Kickstarter for Maelstrom Domesday asked for a mere £1,000 but romped home with £6,556. As such Graham has also done an "Investigator's Guide" for the players to handle and also a adventure module called "The Beast of Ledsham."



Maelstrom Domesday Overview


Whereas Maelstrom based itself in 16th Century Europe, Maelstrom Domesday jumps backwards to 20 years after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. This period of time was unsettled, with the Saxon Thanes either being killed off or forced into what was effectively exile. Life for the Anglo-Saxon's was tough already and had become even harder under the often iron-fisted rule of the Normans, though there were a few exceptions.

This book gives the GM and players a wealth of knowledge regarding this period in England's history and I have learnt a massive amount from proofreading the core rulebook for Graham.

Domesday uses "Lifepath Character Generation" to make your players' characters, and these are run-of-the-mill folks for the most part. So you may end up with a peasant who has done nothing in their life but plough their field, or you could find yourself playing a fisherman who has been forced into becoming a outlaw or beggar for one reason or another. Maybe you'll roll or choose to be in the militia and end up as a man-at-arms? There's also the possibility that your character will me Magick-touched and know something of the Maelstrom, that is the plane outside of our own existence where powers lie that bleed through into our lives and cause varying levels of havoc.



Each of our players has witnessed something unexplained that has caused their friends and families to denounce them and their lives to change radically. A rich Norman patron hears of these things and hires the characters to look into other Maelstrom-linked events based on this 'prior experience'.

Life in Domesday England is brutal and often short. In Maelstrom Domesday a hit by a weapon can be lethal, taking an arm or a leg or killing a person outright. Finding ways to evade that risk should be uppermost in any players mind, even those with battle training!


The Maelstrom (Magick System)

The Maelstrom and its resultant magics are not like those you have met in D&D, LotR and the like. The power of the Maelstrom lies in its ability to affect probability and chance. A small affect of the Maelstrom may even go unnoticed as it would be something as small as a person tripping over when they perhaps would not have if magick had not been involved. A larger affect would be something happening that might cause an eyebrow to be raised as it was unlikely to have happened, for example a cup falling off a perfectly flat table when nothing bashed the table. The big magick affects are the ones which have caused each of our players to be outcast from their friends, families and lives and to be in the market for hire from a Normam Patron. Things such as every metal item in an area rusting instantly, or a dead man walking for 24 hours, in other words the things that can't just be explained away by mere chance.

Maelstrom and Maelstrom Domesday are fairly unique in that there are no predefined rules for magick. If a player has one of the abilities that allow them to use the Maelstrom (Hedge Magick; Low Magick; High Magick) then they can simply tell the GM (or Referee as MD calls them) what they want to do. The player firstly rolls to see if they know the correct incantation to make it happen, they then roll to see if the magick works. This roll will be based on the difficulty and their level of knowledge of magick and may involve more than one roll. This 'Freeform' style of magick is simple and brilliant as it is not limited to a list of spells that can be cast.

One thing a Maelstrom user needs to be aware of (but may not realise if they are a lackwit or hedge magick user!) is that each time they use magick there is the chance of a "Breach" occurring. This is where the Maelstrom bleeds through uncontrolled and causes something unusual to happen. Such breaches vary in probability depending on location and circumstance and what strength of magick the character tried to cast. If a breach happens its outcome will be completely random however so a small use of magick may set off a small event or even a massive event that has an entire village beset by maelstrom-induced plague. Conversely a large spell that created a huge probability change may lead to nothing more than a tree becoming seemingly blessed for a few years.


Setting Depth

Due to space limitations the original Maelstrom did not really give much information on its setting. Graham has rectified that shortfalling with Domesday and the information available to the reader is thorough. Even before chapter 8 ("Life in 1086") details of how people lived, who ruled them and what they would do on a day to day basis is explained, which means the setting filters in to the readers subconscious slowly rather than in one big hit. Character creation provides examples of several characters and their lives and in so doing explains the basics of the setting of Norman England.

In the image you can see some of the information given regarding houses in Norman Britain. The depth of information is not extensive but it is certainly enough for use in a roleplaying game, and if more detail is required then the book gives a number of sources and books that you should read. Chapter 8 gives information on the governance of England, how the law works (though not the laws themselves), warfare, basic information on villages, towns and cities and on into such things as lighting and food/drink. It also explains about crafting and trade, entertainment, family and travel. Because the Herb references were always a strong point in Maelstrom a fair bit of detail is given regarding medicine, diseases and the like. There is a nice appendix with a set of example diseases and it is made quite clear that a good number of these were fatal or else life-long once contracted. There is also 100 herbs with images, details about how rare they are and where to find them as well as example costs of fresh and dried batches.

This period in history was heavy on its religion and so Domesday goes into some detail with regards monastic orders and their ways of life, including how the normal man on the street would be expected to interact with these folks. It certainly wasn't the sort of life I'd want to lead!

Lifepath Character Creation

Character generation starts with a player having an age of 13, and 40 points in each of the following attributes:

Attack Skill
Missile Skill
Defence Skill
Knowledge
Will
Endurance
Persuasion
Perception
Speed
Agility

4 of those then get boosts by +1d6 points and 2 of them take a hit of -1d6 points. This means everyone starts off on a slightly different footing than the others.

The player then rolls for Racial Type, Social Class, and Characteristics. You get three Characteristics and these could be such things as Hedge Magick; Mender; Charmer; Beast Friend; or Survivor. Each of the results will provide bonuses to rolls or situations based on the trait.

Once that is done a 1d100 is rolled for the Starting Career, which will initially depend on your Social Class, so a result of 47 will make a Peasant a Fisherman, but a Noble will be a Squire. The player finds that careers entry and makes the adjustments written to his character, including the length of time this career segment lasts. Each career also gives the possibility of earning a few items specific to that life, so a squire might gain a sword or kite shield for his service.

Once that is done another roll is made to find out if their lifepath creation ends or whether they move on to another career (or possibly the same one again). In this way it is typical for a player's character to have 3 or 4 cycles in the lifepath creation. At certain times a player can chose to end their lifepath here, though there is no guarantee it will.

Ending the lifepath creation earlier means a character is less likely to fall foul of symptoms of "old age" but also means they have less experience, whereas being older provides more experience and more chance to have gained useful things, but also brings the possibility of their body starting to fail them more.

Each lifepath segment provides certain roles to the character, so you might become good at Farming, or Herbalism. Each time you get a professional ability you go up a rank from I - VI and these in turn provide bonuses to rolls or automatic successes on certain things.

For an example character creation, written by the designer, Graham Bottley, visit this forum link. I have also added my own trial character creation to the end of the thread.

Lifepath character creation is a lovely way to produce a character as it is completely natural and fluid and gives a totally random result every time. You can of course approach the referee (GM) with a idea of your own and force the path of the creation to your own designs, but that is something to discuss with them.


System Mechanics

I am a fan of Mongoose's Legend system, it's relatively simple to learn and use, and when I started to read Domesday I realised they both use pretty much identical systems, which for me makes life much simpler!

Domesday uses percentile dice for its target figures, so roll equal to or under your Perception score on a d100 to succeed, with Criticals and Fumbles possible at either end of the scale. Criticals are 10% of your score (rounded down), so if my Perception was 46% I would crit on a 1-4 and fumbles are always on a roll of 96-100. Modifiers are applied to your base score depending on the situation and professional career. So a fisherman at level I gains +10% to fishing checks for example.

Consequences could be on any dice from a d2 to 3d10, so you will need a full range of dice to play Domesday.

Players who get into a fight check their success/fail level against the opponents and consult a table that explains what bonuses the winner gets. So for example if the attacker gets a critical success vs the defenders fail, that is two levels of difference and the attacker gains "Serious Wound & Double damage". So not only is the damage doubled but they get to roll a 1d100 and consult the "Serious Wound table" and apply that damage too. Eg: On a 66-82 result from a sharp weapon - "The character has collapsed from the shock of this blow and is considered prone. Each turn (including this one), the character must make an Endurance saving throw to recover and thereafter fight normally."

As well as the serious wound tables for sharp and blunt weapons there is also a critical wound table for sharp and blunt weapons, and these ramp up the consequences even further. There are also "Fumble Tables" for hand-to-hand and missile weapons. Fighting is Domesday can be lethal, and quite accurately replicates life in 11th Century England, so players really should consider the alternatives before jumping in to a fight.

The system for determining what happens during a Maelstrom Breach is also 1d100 based. If a breach is formed the player rolls 1d100 to determine what the breach is and then reverses the dice result to determine whether the areas base chance of further breaches increases or decreases. So if I rolled a 28 the effect of the breach would be "A Faerie of some sort passes through the breach and takes up residence in the area. This Faerie is often malevolent or at least mischievous, and a way must be found to return the Faerie to its home." I then reverse the 28 to 82 and find that the chance of further Maelstrom breaches goes down by 30% (Whew!)

As with everything, if a specific event would disrupt the game play the Referee can of course change the outcome to something that fits better. Right at the start of the book Graham says that if something doesn't sit right or you don't like a rule - change it!


Referee Advice & Bestiary

There is a nice chapter on advice for the Referee (GM) which starts with ideas and alterations to character creation and goes on to mention possible changes to the basic rules, combat and magick. It also gives good advice on creating plot hooks and scenario ideas, changing the setting and running the campaign with a single character type (eg all military). I found this section a very nice read with plenty of ideas to bounce off of.

The Bestiary isn't the largest gathering of animals in the world, but it will suffice for most games, and if more beasts are needed then there are plenty of sources elsewhere to pull from, with the stats being easy enough to adjust to fit. Provided are some 'mundane' animals such as horses and hounds, but also a handful of 'Minor Creatures' such as Barguests and Trolls, and 'Major Creatures' like a Waugh and Dragon. In other words there is more than enough to be getting on with, but a more extensive selection would be a nice addition later in the products lifetime.


Village and Town Details and Plot Hooks

For me the best addition to this book, by far, was the list and information given for a large number of villages in the York area. There are 37 villages fleshed out, and each entry gives the annual income, how many households and plough-teams there are, any noticeable features (Church, woodlands, meadows, fisheries etc) and also a description and some of the local folklore.

Even without the local folklore entries there are enough plot hooks and scenario ideas here to sink a battleship. Throw in the folklore and you have enough gaming ideas to keep any group busy for years. I think this section is of the most value to think core rulebook, and if other RPGs were to do similar it would be a major help. RPGs such as Exalted have these plot hooks, but they are buried within a wall of text and can be hard to find, whereas with Domesday you can flip to chapter IX and have two villages per page to give you ideas. Nice.

There are also bigger entries for the Town of Selby, and for the City of York itself which provides information on some of the more colourful characters in York as well as information on the gilds (guilds), alehouses, taxes and craftspeople. All of these provide yet more plot hooks for the discerning Referee!

Lastly, there is a small description for each of the Norman Lords and Barons who might have been chosen as the character's patron for the game. This includes a list of their main estates and how many they hold in total, along with information such as who appointed them and why.


Summation


It is not often I will read every word within a RPG game book, but because I volunteered to proofread Domesday for Graham I did just that, and it was worth it. The mechanics are relatively simple, with the magic system being remarkably easy to catch hold off, and the sheer wealth of information present made it a joy to read through.

The drawings are all fairly simple, but it will print well on a home printer and is easy on the eye with everything in a logical layout. Hopefully the PDF will get hyperlinks so you can jump from the index/contents to specific pages more easily but that is a minor problem.

It is also possible to buy several sets of cards for Domesday, one pack for the Herbs, another for the Character Lifepath options and a third for combat manoeuvres. I have bought one each of the Herbs and Lifepaths and three sets of the combat cards so that the Referee can have a set as well as some for the players. This should make combat more interactive as we can each choose a card but keep it hidden then reveal it at the appropriate time, meaning a person can't change their actions on the fly. I think this will be a good addition to the game, as the Referee can hand out herb cards as a player picks or buys them.

Maelstrom Domesday brings together a number of great features (LifePath character creation, free-form magick, tons of herbs) into one RPG and rolls out a great little book full of ideas and plot hooks all based around a nice simple game mechanic. What's not to like? While some of the information is not completely historically accurate it is well within tolerated limits and for the total history buffs it would be easy enough to alter those parts to fit more accurately.

My recommendation is to buy Maelstrom Domesday and have a good read, enjoying the information within, then go have a quick game with your group. It won't break the bank like some RPGs and will be a good addition to any bookshelf library.

I'll be setting up a PBF game based on the supplemental scenario "The beast of Ledsham" in a moment if you wish to join me 'at the table'.

And for the folks who like a score - I give Maelstrom Domesday a 9 out of 10.
(It doesn't get a ten because it's not perfect, and I don't think any RPG ever really can be. There's always something that can be improved.)
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Eric Dodd
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Great review! Looking forward to reading my copy once I get through the next few items in my list...
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Blue Tyson
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Thanks!
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Graham Bottley
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The pdf is now available at DTRPG: http://www.rpgnow.com/product/120361/Maelstrom-Domesday
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Graham Bottley
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The MD softcover is now available via DTRPG: http://bit.ly/1faveee or webstore: http://bit.ly/1aB7xeY
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