By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 16 May 2018
One of the random things I’ve done after college was to grab any RPG I could get my hands on and read it, scouring it for useful information and ideas to utilize elsewhere. This has been exceptionally useful as I start looking at new editions of games coming out, as well as seeing offshoots of those games (many of which are coming up for review soon!).
When a friend sent me a pile of books a few months ago, I found myself reading many game mechanics from the 80s, and one reskinned to a more modern game.
This week, I visit Maelstrom Domesday.
Maelstrom is a roleplaying game from the 80’s, published by the same publishers are games like Fighting Fantasy. The game was produced in England, was originally set in Tudor England, and is known for it’s free-form magic system.
Maelstrom Domesday takes the well-known Maelstrom mechanic, sets the game in England in 1086 (thus the name Domesday, pulled from the “Great Survey” done that same year). Domesday in particular was an old fan’s (and Arion employee’s) attempt at creating a new life for Maelstrom.
This new iteration is built to be cleaner while sticking with the best elements of the game.
==What You Get==
Domesday comes in at 214 pages, with the book broken down with minor setting information at the beginning, character creation, mechanics, then full-on setting information.
Mechanically, the game is a % game. You roll a d100 (or 2d10) to roll under the designated number, modified by designated bonuses/penalties, such as skill ratings (not having a skill at the appropriate level makes it difficult, while having a high skill could make it easy). Everything works on this core mechanic, from magic to finding herbs.
The tail end of the book goes into detail of life (and history) of the realm, giving a player and a GM all the tools they’d need to get started.
For a game made in the 80s, this has a very modern touch. The rules flow smoothly and are well explained, from the in-depth character creation all the way through the open-ended (but not horribly complex) magic system. Some games are terrible at explaining things, but Domesday does the task rather well.
One thing that stands out with this game is the attention to detail. The entire setting is mapped out, with various locations (and faces) available for characters to explore and interact with, and some parts of this are clear enough to act as a history primer without being as dull as most history books. Granted, you have a touch of the supernatural added in as needed, but overall, it’s solid.
There are also two mechanical elements I absolutely love about this game.
The first is the concept of the magic system. Unlike most games of the time, which had pre-designated spells, Maelstrom focuses on a more freeform approach to magic. “Spells,” if you wish to call them that, are basically created on the spot, and are tied directly to probability; magic is subtle, and therefore throwing the “typical” fireball is nixed for the chances of a particular thing happening.
Of course, the lower the chance of something happening, the harder (and more expensive), it is to make it happen. Making someone slip on ice is a simple effect, but making them slip and fall on a sharp object in the middle of an empty room is going to be rather difficult.
You didn’t see this sort of thing in games in the 80s, and even now, it is still a relatively novel approach to magic.
The other mechanic is the Skill mechanic. In most games, having a Skill (and ranks in a skill) simply increase your chances of success, whether by adding a flat bonus or additional dice to your pool.
In Maelstrom, Skills simply remove the untrained penalty while also granting specific abilities. Some of these are bonuses (like a 5% bonus to bartering), but others cause actual effects that will make your life easier (such as automatically succeeding at a designated task, such as using or finding herbs). I don’t think enough games use an approach like this, and I find it rather interesting as well as appealing.
No product ever escapes “The Bad” part of my reviews, and I can assure you that Maelstrom Domesday is no different.
In some ways, the mechanic has not aged well, and the production of the book itself has that older feel that is less nostalgia and more laziness.
For example, most modern RPGs often have gorgeous artwork, whether color or not. There’s a certain attention to detail that an artist needs to have, and those artists can either make or break a book. The art in Domesday is severly lacking, with simple black-and-white images in some areas that look almost like stock images, while others are pulled from more historic records, such as the image of a “werewolf” being Peter Stumpp, also known as “The Werewolf of Bedberg.”
Having a book pull art from the Public Domain and the original art being unimpressive doesn’t add much to the book. If anything, it makes it less impressive and less worthy of the money one would spend on it, and for the pricetag for this book, the art leaves much to be desired.
Mechanically, the game is clearly a product of the 80s. Early RPGs often used age as a balance mechanism as well as a progression mechanic. D&D included age penalties (and required long training times that most DMs ignored), and other games quickly followed suit.
This whole idea drives Maelstrom’s progression mechanic, and it does so horribly (in my opinion).
When making your character, you start at a “base” age, and each career you take adds on a number of years. You roll a percentile at the end, and as long as you don’t roll under your new age, you get to roll for another profession. Each profession adds more capabilities to your character (more attributes and skills), but you are at the whim of the dice as you must roll for that career, which involves rolling a proper social standing, and for some (like those involving magic) require another random roll on another chart to even see if you CAN get it.
From there, things spiral out of control. After character creation, if you wish to gain or progress in a skill, you need to have your character spend months (or even years) trying to learn what is needed for that skill. Essentially, you’re hoping to get the skills you need early on and never need to raise them unless the whole party is game for long downtime.
Raising attributes is also random, based on a roll whenever there’s “downtime” (basically at the end of an adventure). Sadly, your maximum is based on your age (Stat Max = 110 – Character Age), and after you get into your 30s you start having to make rolls to determine any attribute loss.
So basically, starting characters can either be young and inexperienced or older with plenty of capabilities. If you are young, you can spend time learning skills and raising capabilities as you wish to, but if you are old, you’re basically locked in before things start going downhill.
Talking to a few old school gamers, they simply say “That’s how games were balanced back then.” or “That was made before game theory was a thing being taught.” I’m not a fan, obviously, and I find it uninspired, especially compared to modern offerings.
All in all, I think I’d have to give Maelstrom Domesday 2.5 buns.
The game itself is a bit lacking in many ways, in my opinion. It’s mechanically functional and has plenty of useful information, but the progression mechanics are a bit cludgy for what I like to do, and the “balancing” of the mechanics with age is just something I’ve never enjoyed in tabletop.
Maelstrom Domesday is available for purchase from DriveThruRPG as a $15 PDF, $25 softcover (with PDF), and a $40 hardcover (with PDF), as well as directly from Arion Games and their suggested retailers if you wish to buy a copy.
Those that have been supporting me on Patreon know that I’ve been a bit busy with some new review materials and recent Kickstarter backing as of late. I’ve also been reaching out to a number of publishers to request materials for review here at Sticky Bunton and hope to get more items up for review as time permits.
Which brings me to my current “timeline,” which I am hoping I can stick to as more materials are arriving to my digital doorstep! I alluded to a few of these during my Legacy Games post at the end of the year, and others have recently hopped into my radar. Let’s take a look, shall we?
- Zweihander: Grim and Perlious RPG: Daniel Fox was kind enough to send me a copy of the book for review, and I’ve made some progress with reading it. If all goes well, there will be a review of this core game posted here in two weeks time!
- Torg Eternity: We have recently gotten a copy of Torg Eternity, one of the Legacy titles I mentioned previously, sent to us here at Sticky Bunton, courtesy of Ulisses North America. There is some debate as to who will get the chance to read up on this newest iteration of the Torg franchise, as it is looking to be a rather interesting one. Expect a review from one of us on this in the coming weeks.
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay: Another Legacy game, Cubicle 7 is sending the PDF of this rulebook for pre-orders sometime in June, and I hope to be able to get that added to the docket in the near future.
- Vampire The Masquerade 5th Edition: Yet another Legacy title, Modiphius has launched the pre-orders for the game in recent weeks, and I am currently working on getting a copy of this for a later review.
- And Even More…: There are a few other things I have been working on lately that I hope to get reviews for. For example, there’s Part-Time Gods 2nd Edition going strong on Kickstarter, and I am anxiously awaiting a PDF for that to land in my hands. Quest RPG is also making good progress on being finished, and that might have a finished PDF arriving in the next few weeks. Most of the other Kickstarters I’ve backed are still in early to middling stages, so it may be a while before those get reviews.
I’m also looking at taking the long haul to the nearest participating city of Free RPG Day to pick up a few products to get you all timely reviews, and may even take an equally long haul to catch Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel Presage Flower, because I am an unashamed fanboy for this franchise.