MAELSTROM

When I wrote my WFRP Manifesto posts I tried to provide some historical context for the design of WFRP1, but inevitably there were omissions. One important omission was Maelstrom. I had entirely forgotten about this game until late in the writing of those posts, but it has a number of important similarities to WFRP that mean it deserves further attention. 
maelstrom-cover

Maelstrom was an RPG written by Alexander Scott and published in 1984 by Penguin’s children’s imprint, Puffin. Puffin was at that time enjoying considerable success with its Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and arranged for Scott to write an RPG set in sixteenth-century England.

I was at school, and doing a lot of role-playing, but it was always difficult to find shops that stocked RPGs. I thought it would be great if you could just go to a bookshop and buy an RPG for the price of a paperback book rather than having to find a specialist store and pay several times as much for one of the AD&D rulebooks. The Fighting Fantasy solo adventures were popular at the time, and some friends of mine had written a book called What is Dungeons and Dragons? (explaining D&D to non-gamers, and also published by Penguin), which made the whole thing seem more possible. So I wrote off to Penguin myself and suggested they publish a game in a paperback book.

I was 16 when I started writing the book [and] I’m not sure [Penguin] knew what they were getting!

– Alexander Scott

CHARACTERS

Maelstrom uses a percentile system. There are ten attributes: Attack Skill, Defence Skill, Arrow Skill, Knowledge, Will, Endurance, Persuasion, Perception, Speed and Agility. Success or failure in an action is determined by a “saving throw”. The player rolls D100. If the score is less than the relevant attribute, the action is a success. A roll of 01-05 is a critical success, and 96-00 a critical failure.

So far, so WFRP. But where things start to become eerily similar is in the treatment of character types. Maelstrom eschews a class-based system in favour of a system of professions, or “livings”. Players can choose from a wide range of livings, such as artisan, burglar, clerk, herbalist, mage or mercenary. Each comes with a predetermined list of equipment and a set of abilities. Abilities are exercised by means of saving throws against relevant attributes. Players can also follow more than one profession, for example training first as a clerk, then becoming a mage.

Maelstrom 1.png

As characters gain experience, they can increase attributes. This is achieved by means of “experience rolls”, which are very similar to experience checks in Basic Role-Playing. When a character gains relevant experience, the player rolls D100. If the result is above the attribute score, the attribute is increased by one point. If the result is below the attribute score, there is no increase. There is no system of experience points or check marks to record experience. That is left to the GM’s discretion.

The whole system is astonishingly similar to WFRP‘s career system. There are fewer careers than in WFRP, but there is greater depth to the treatment of them. There is guidance on handling apprenticeships and multiple livings. There is a system for handling downtime between adventures, which addresses earnings, reputation (via a Renown score), guild membership and a host of other issues. The system is not as fully fleshed out as one would like, but it is far more comprehensive than anything first edition WFRP GMs ever had.

COMBAT

Combat uses the same saving throw mechanic as other actions. In mêlée the attacker rolls against Attack Skill and the defender against Defence Skill. If the former is successful and the latter not, damage is inflicted. Missile combat is only briefly addressed. Characters must roll under their Arrow Skill to hit.

There are two different damage mechanisms. For “blunt” weapons or unarmed attacks damage is deducted from Endurance. For “sharp” weapons damage increases Wounds. When Wounds exceed Endurance, a character falls unconscious. When Wounds exceed 100, the character dies. Unusually wounds are recorded and healed separately for each blow. For example, attacks causing 3, 5 and 2 points of damage would be written as 3/5/2=10. After one week of rest this recovers to 2/4/1=7.

In addition critical successes and failures can lead to serious wounds, critical wounds and critical bodges. Serious and critical wounds are like WFRP‘s critical effects.

Maelstrom 2.png

There are a lot of interesting ideas in the combat system. Without having played it, I find it difficult to know how well the system works in practice, but my impression is that it needs some refining. The damage mechanisms seem convoluted. In most cases characters will simply fall unconscious at the end of combat; they then need to be finished off with a coup de grâce. There are also some obvious gaps, such as a lack of gunpowder weapons.

MAGIC

Although the setting is historical, there are brief rules for magic (the “maelstrom” of the title). They are distinctive in two respects.

First, magic is entirely free form. There are no spells. Players simply describe the effect they wish to achieve, the GM applies a difficulty level (from Grade 1 for simple, natural effects to Grade 5 for the truly supernatural) and the player rolls against Knowledge to determine whether the mage knows a relevant incantation. If an incantation is known, Will saving throws determine success or failure in casting it. It’s very different from the rigid magic systems of contemporary games like D&D/AD&D or RuneQuest and anticipates the flexibility of Ars Magica by three years. But it feels undercooked. There is very little guidance for GMs beyond some brief notes.

The second distinctive aspect of magic in Maelstrom is that it is rare, dangerous and distrusted. Mages are expected to conceal their magical skills. Advanced magical effects are very difficult to achieve. Most interestingly of all, there is a mechanism for magical instability. If a character uses magic repeatedly, especially if powerful, chaotic effects can ensue.

Maelstrom 4.png

HERBALISM

Herbalism was an important part of Maelstrom. An appendix provided an extensive descriptions of herbs and their uses in the game. The herbs of The Enemy Within bear more than a passing resemblance to them.

Maelstrom 3.png

SETTING

We went through quite a few different ideas at the beginning. Penguin liked the idea of publishing a game, but they weren’t keen on a pure fantasy or science fiction setting. I suggested quite a variety of different settings, and sixteenth-century England was the one they liked. After that, they gave me a pretty free hand.

– Alexander Scott

Maelstrom‘s gritty, realistic post-mediaeval setting feels remarkably like WFRP‘s Old World. It was just as unusual as WFRP‘s in the mid 1980s.

IMPACT

It certainly sold pretty well, despite having virtually no publicity. There was a large initial print run, and it was reprinted after about a year, as well as going into a Japanese edition.

Despite the fact that Maelstrom had sold well, Penguin ended up concentrating on the Fighting Fantasy books.

– Alexander Scott

Maelstrom was never, as far as I know, especially popular. It was in many respects an incomplete game, and did not receive any support in the form of adventures and supplements. But the biggest problem, I suspect, was that it was marketed along with the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Maelstrom was a far more advanced game than Fighting Fantasy and surely had little appeal to most gamebook players.  The audience that would have appreciated it is likely not to have given a “gamebook” much consideration. It was a post-D&D game marketed at a pre-D&D audience.

But the obvious question here is: did Maelstrom influence WFRP? The similarities between the two games are striking, and Maelstrom predates WFRP by two years. But it is also possible that both reflect a broader trend in gaming at the time, or that the resemblances are coincidental.

Only WFRP‘s authors can answer the question finally. However, I would be inclined to downplay suggestions of a direct link between the two games, for a number of reasons.

First, many of the common features were present in other RPGs. Percentile attributes, attribute advances and critical hits can all be seen to have derived from other games.

Second, where the games have similar, but distinctive, mechanics, there is evidence that they were developed in parallel. WFRP‘s one-off skills can be traced back to WFB1 (1983, a year before Maelstrom). Its career system can perhaps be traced just as far back, as WFB1‘s skills in many senses resemble careers. For example, they are all named after occupations (sailor, woodsman, miner, etc). In any case, a recognisable careers system had emerged by March 1984, when White Dwarf 51 carried an article on thieves in WFB1. This materially predates Maelstrom, which was not published until the end of 1984.*

Third, the historical inspiration of WFRP‘s setting is explicable in terms of the academic backgrounds of its authors (Jim Bambra and Graeme Davis read history and archaeology at university) and the Warhammer background’s prior tendency to draw on historical analogues.

This is not to say Maelstrom could not have influenced WFRP. It is certainly possible. I am merely highlighting that there is a significant probability that the close resemblance between the two is coincidental.

Arion Games has reprinted Maelstrom. It has also produced a Maelstrom Companion and a Norman-era new edition, Maelstrom Domesday.

FOOTNOTE

* According to the ISBN database Maelstrom‘s ISBN was issued on 22 November 1984.  The first mention of Maelstrom does not appear in Warlock magazine until early 1985 (issue 5).

The March 1984 edition of White Dwarf would have appeared in shops in February 1984. I estimate submissions would have had to be made at least a month before that date to allow for editing, artwork, typesetting and printing – most probably more than a month. Therefore, the Warhammer thieves article was probably written in late 1983, or January 1984 at the latest.

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3 thoughts on “MAELSTROM

  1. I certainly read Maelstrom – I may even have reviewed it for Imagine, though I can’t remember – but it was never a conscious influence on WFRP. The only thing that stuck in my mind about it was the open-ended nature of the magic system, and I don’t recall anyone else in the Studio mentioning it or having a copy.

    During the winter of 1985-6 I did begin to sketch out a campaign adventure with the intention of pitching it to Penguin, but GW came along and I never took Maelstrom any further. The few handwritten pages with my notes for the proposed campaign are long lost.

    Warhammer’s early Renaissance setting was already established by the time Maelstrom came along, I think – certainly by the time I started at GW in the spring of 1986 – so most of the similarities between the two games are probably coincidental.

    Still, Maelstrom never got the attention I thought it deserved. Ironically given what Alexander Scott said above, I think it was never adopted by roleplayers precisely because it was formatted as a trade paperback and available in bookstores. I suspect this led them to dismiss it just as they dismissed the Fighting Fantasy multiplayer RPG. The expensive, large-format books and the clubbish atmosphere of game stores at the time were all part of the experience, and Maelstrom’s existence in the mainstream ran counter to all that.

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  2. I think I may have played this once – did a solo adventure as a player with a friend who GMed it – had a curiously low key 16th century setting – very historical in feel which was unusual when you’re used to playing in fantasy or SF settings. I enjoyed the game but unfortunately we never played it again – will have to ask him if it was this game.

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  3. I owned a copy in the early 90’s an interesting system certainly, sadly though I never got to play it, and unemployment in the early 00’s meant I had to sell off most of my collections and ths went bye bye, including a UK novel sized Dungeons and Dragons basic rulebook :Cries:

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