Friday, 2 November 2012

The Correct Way to Kill

Alexander Scott's RPG Maelstrom was originally released by Puffin books in 1984. It's set in the 16th century, and the rulebook includes a solo adventure (somewhat uninspiredly entitled A Solo Adventure) to help familiarise players with the system. I know I attempted it back in the eighties, and got at least as far as a fight with a guard in a maze, but I'm not sure I've ever won it by the rules.

My only other memory relating to ASA is the attention that one of my friends gave to the big unreachable section. While this wasn't the first solo to include a 'there is no way of getting to this paragraph, so you must be reading sections at random, you bad person' paragraph, it attains some notability by having so much unreachable material: in addition to the section that says there's no way of getting to it, there's a loop of sections, all unreachable except from within that loop, that has 'you' endlessly walking along a corridor, finding precious stones, being injured by hitting your head on a low ceiling, and seeing signs warning against reading paragraphs you can't get to. The 'you cannot get to this section' section even points out the inaccessibility and inescapability of the corridor loop. All in all, this material constitutes around 5% of the sections. There must have been a better way of bringing the number of sections to a nice round 160.

Characters are built rather than rolled up. There are 9 basic attributes (yes, that is a lot), each starting at 30, and I get an additional 50 points to distribute among them, which means that my starting scores average out at just over 35½ each. The value of an attribute is the percentage chance of my succeeding at any challenge based on that attribute, so a totally balanced character has almost a 2/3 chance of failing at every trial faced. So I'm not expecting to win this one.

Based on what I can remember of the actual adventure, I'm tailoring my character to make him a little more adept where I think it's most likely to matter. So he winds up as:
Attack Skill 40
Defence Skill 40
Knowledge 30
Will 30
Endurance 35
Persuasion 40
Perception 35
Speed 30
Agility 40
He earns his living as an assassin, as the solo is only for assassins, so any other profession would take me straight to the 'Nothing happens. Now make an assassin character and stop messing about' ending.

One miserable evening, I am making my way home from my cover job (having a more respectable secondary profession helps avoid awkwardness at social gatherings when someone asks, "So what do you do?") when a carriage comes straight for me. I dodge out of the way, and the carriage comes to a halt. Two men get out of it and grab me. Combat can be a pretty tortuous process in the Maelstrom system, and I'm not going to get far through the adventure by resisting my would-be employer's 'invitation', so I let the rogues manhandle me into the carriage.

The interior is quite plush, and there are curtains to keep me from seeing where I'm being taken. Leaping out of a moving vehicle isn't a particularly clever thing to do, even pre-internal combustion engine, so I sit back and enjoy being out of the cold and the wet. Eventually the carriage stops in a courtyard and, after relieving me of my possessions, four guards escort me to a room where a masked man sits on a chair, resting one hand on a wooden lever.

The masked man states that he wishes me to dispose of one Magnus Brote, a tax collector and merchant. I accept the commission, partly because that's the whole point of the adventure, and partly because I know that if I refuse, he'll pull the lever to open a trapdoor which will drop me into the crocodile pit. No, I have no idea how someone in Tudor England is able to maintain a crocodile pit for dropping people into. And now would not be a good time to start asking silly questions.

I am given 10 shillings and a dagger, and led back to the carriage for another ride. Ten minutes later, the carriage stops and I am thrown out into a cobbled street. The carriage departs again and I look around. Convenient signs indicate a nearby apothecary's shop and the home of Magnus Brote.

Entering the shop, I resist the temptation to sample the contents of a random jar (guess how well that would turn out), and ring the bell on the counter. The apothecary claims to know why I'm here, and offers to sell me a suitable poison for 20 shillings. I'm going to have to find some more money. I remembered as much from playing the adventure before, but it's good to know how much extra I need before I come back.

Given the choice between entering Brote's house and wandering off down the street, I pick the option more relevant to my mission. Can't remember what happens if I head elsewhere, but it's not likely to be good. As I approach the door, an old man welcomes me, hands me a compass and a leather case, and tells me that I'll find the merchant in the dining-hall. The people round here seem very well-informed about my mission, don't they?

He leaves me in a corridor with doors at all cardinal points of the compass. I start with the east one, which leads to a large hallway, heated by a fire. Again there are exits in all four directions, and I also have the option of throwing myself into the fire. The adventure's not that bad yet.

Behind the south door is a flight of stairs. Best to stay on the ground level for now. I'm pretty sure I can retrace my steps any time I like (except that I'll need a house key before going back out onto the street, as the old man won't be there to let me in again). East again, then. I'm starting to get tired of corridors with four exits, so I'll keep quiet about my wanderings until I find something else of note.

Like the guardroom I enter a couple of doors on. The guard attacks, and he's well-armed and alarmingly competent, so I'm probably dead. Combat is turn-based, with Speed determining the order in which the fighters strike. The attacking combatant has to roll against Attack Skill. If that roll is successful, the opponent gets to roll against Defence Skill, and only takes damage if they fail that roll. This set-up, combined with the competence level of the average Maelstrom character, can lead to numerous rounds in which the fighters either fail to hit their opponent or have their attacks blocked, which is about as fun as that sounds. Still, the guard has scores of 71 and 82 in the relevant attributes, so this fight should be over fairly quickly.

I was overly optimistic. After five rounds, I've been injured once and the guard is unscathed. By the end of round ten, I've sustained a second blow and still failed to hurt the guard. Thankfully, after that the guard gets better, and hits me in rounds eleven and twelve, rendering me unconscious, after which he runs me through.

So, a pretty dismal failure, then. The slim possibility of my one day making a second attempt at this adventure  for the blog keeps me from revealing the insane twist in the victory section here, but rest assured, it's gloriously absurd.

As you may have gathered, I'm not a big fan of Maelstrom. Still, it was rereleased a few years ago, which suggests that a significant number of people must have enjoyed it, so it was evidently a success on some level. And there's far, far worse stuff out there.


  1. I was amazed to find out that Maelstrom had been republished. I have never heard of any RPG which tries so hard to prevent characters being able to do anything at all. You mention the 64% average chance of failure on every saving throw, but that's not even the half of it. Performing an action using equipment (such as weapons when fighting) incurs a negative modifier based on the quality of the tool. Even a perfect piece of equipment does not add anything.

    Then, due to the Encumbrance rules, if you roll too low (and you need to roll low to pass the saving throw), you become tired and have to pass an Endurance Saving Throw to avoid your success becoming a failure. The rules for tiredness and exhaustion (two different things in Maelstrom) are particularly strange as they are only affected by how much you are carrying, not how fit you are or how energetic you are being. In Maelstrom, Usain Bolt could run the marathon in about 67 minutes, but just sitting in an armchair with your pockets full of money for ten minutes will cause your Endurance to start falling.

    In the solo adventure, this is exacerbated by the fact that you need to roll for actions as simple as WALKING ACROSS A RUG. I think that the solo was written by someone unfamiliar with the rules, because there are so many important things left out, like the Encumbrance value of items you pick up or are given and whether you have a chance to rest and recover lost Endurance at any point.

    I play another RPG based on percentages called TS/SI and there, the average starting stat is 55, to which a character adds a bonus for any skill he or she may have and another for equipment. It is quite possible for a starting character to have a base 95% chance of success for many actions. A Maelstrom character will rarely have a third of that, even for tasks in which they specialize.

  2. I couldn't resist having an attempt at the solo adventure. I know that there are a couple of important Agility and Endurance tests, so I max those attributes and put the rest in Attack Strength, although due to the strength of the enemies in this book, even a starting character putting everything into combat attributes is unlikely to survive any of the fights.

    Now the question is whether to use the basic or advanced rules. Since the adventure is very insistent on having an Assassin character and in the basic rules, the only effects that a profession has are the character's starting age and equipment (neither of which have any effect in the adventure), I assume that the advanced rules are intended, otherwise any character type would be equally suitable.

    Assassins get +d6 Agility and -d6 Knowledge. As mentioned, they may also take a second career and I choose Wood Carver (Perception and Agility +d6, Knowledge and Attack Skill -d6). A Tanner would also be an option, for the Endurance bonus, or better still a Mercenary to give me an outside chance if I get into a fight, but I think I'm better off with the Agility.

    Now here, there is an inconsistency with the rules that means I may or may not need an extra two years' training to master both careers, but age doesn't matter unless your attributes plus your age are above 115, so I'll add on the two years anyway.

    Age 30 Endurance 50
    Attack Skill 36 Persuasion 30
    Defence Skill 30 Perception 32
    Knowledge 21 Speed 30
    Will 30 Agility 57

    Anything I carry will be taken off me, so I don't bother with starting equipment. Walking home after a hard day woodcarving, I am hit by a carriage for an 11 point wound and knocked unconscious. I waken in the carriage and the book doesn't tell me how long I was unconscious, so I don't know how much extra damage I took from bleeding. I assume I have time to bandage my wound with cloth torn from my clothing before the carriage "eventually" arrives at its destination.

    As described in the playthrough above, all my possessions (except my clothing, presumably) are taken and I accept a job. I'm taken to Magnus Brote's house and given 10s. and a dagger, which I immediately discard, die to the draconian Encumbrance rules. Seriously, would it have killed them to give me a money pouch to store the coins? The dagger is particularly useless as it does less damage than my bare hands, makes it harder for me to hit an opponent and easier for them to hit me, on top of encumbering me.

    An old man lets me in the house and gives me a small compass in a leather case. The book omits the Encumbrance value, but since it is in a case, I assume it is 1 and although the book never says that I need to hold on to it, there is one reference in which it mentions that I cannot see well enough to read it, so I don't feel I can just get rid of it.

    I go south to the housekeeper's room and sneak across the rug to steal the DOOR key (Encumbrance 1?). If I had failed the Agility test, she would have woken up and attacked me. I know from previous attempts that in Fighting Fantasy terms she is the equivalent of roughly Skill 10 Stamina 25, but if by some miracle I managed to prevail, the book would castigate me for slaying an innocent old woman, despite the fact that:
    1) If I try to surrender, she will kill me outright.
    2) In Maelstrom, defeating an enemy in combat means rendering them unconscious, not killing them, so I should have had the option of tying her up after knocking her out rather than killing her.

    Still, I made the saving throw, so I avoided that annoying interlude and took the key. When making my way back, I smash into a cupboard and knock a wooden bowl to the ground, but fortunately she does not waken, so technically the second saving throw was unnecessary, apart from frightening me half to death. Maybe I should pick a profession with a greater tolerance for clumsiness.

  3. Back in the corridor, I go along an eastward passage to a hall and then through a door in the same direction into a corridor which I follow to the south, past some portraits of my target and into a courtyard. I go along the south passage into a quadrangle containing a fountain and then head west and through a door and up some stairs to the library. I take a lantern (Encumbrance 3, say?) and a small silver key, bringing my Encumbrance to 6, probably.

    The wording here is strange: "Beside one of these books is a small silver key, which you may take if you have not done so already." So if you have already taken it, it's back there, but you can't take it again?

    Anyway, I take a book at random and accidentally discover a secret door to Brote's inner sanctum, where he is drinking, surrounded by armed guards. Curiously, he orders me to bring him wine of a particular vintage, and I leave, past the guards, who make no attempt to stop me. I think I'm supposed to assume he has mistaken me for one of the many servants I haven't seen on my journey through the house, but it's all a bit odd. This whole encounter is not really necessary as I remember the correct vintage from a previous attempt, but my character wouldn't know otherwise.

    I return to the quadrangle by another set of steps and go north, east and north back to the courtyard, then through the door to the east into the home of another man, Dartyn Gammon, the "renowned" explorer (no, me neither). A sign outside asks that I knock before entering, but there is no indication that I do so. The book describes the room, leaving out one salient detail: Dartyn Gammon is in it! As it's my first visit, Dartyn gives me a large bronze key (Encumbrance 2?), with no explanation why, nor any indication whether he is happy for me to explore his home. From a game design standpoint, this meeting is pointless, as the key can only be used with another one, which can only be found by passing through here anyway. The two references (132&140) could surely have been put to better use elsewhere.

    I go east into the maze, which is so dark and wet that it requires a lantern. Then, I go east, north, west and north, getting stuck in some mud. I make an Endurance saving throw easily and continue north, north, west, west, north and west to find an iron key (normal size, so Encumbrance 1, I'm guessing) which again seems to mysteriously reappear each time I return here. I re-trace my steps and get stuck in the mud again. This time, I fail twice, losing 2 Endurance each time, before succeeding with a roll of 17. If I had still been carrying the cash from earlier (assuming the money was ten one-shilling coins, rather than two crowns, say), this roll would have made me tired and I would have had to lose d6 Endurance and then take another Endurance saving throw immediately, and again for each future saving throw I pass. I decided to see what would have happened and my falling Endurance and now needing to pass two saving throws to get unstuck would have seen me eventually pass out when my Endurance fell below my wounds from the carriage crash. The book doesn't actually give any instructions as to what happens in this situation, but if my Endurance had fallen below 2, I would drown in the mud, so I assume that my career as an assassin would have come to a sticky end (I'm so sorry).

    Still, I had the foresight to discard the money along with the useless dagger, so I'm all right. I now go east, south, south, east and east to where I find 10s., which I take, before making my way out of the maze (north, then keep going west), through Dartyn's home to the courtyard, north along the corridor and through the door and west back to the hallway. I go through the door to the south, up some stairs through a bedroom and into the attic, using the silver key. There, I find 15s. and a golden key, then retrace my steps to the hallway and from there out of the house.

  4. I visit the apothecary and ring the bell. He's expecting me and sells me some "poisonous" herbs for 20s., then I return to the house, using the DOOR key and go back to the corridor east of the hall and through the east door to the apparently deserted kitchen. I have the bronze and iron keys, so I can get to the wine cellar, find the correct vintage and add the herbs. Then, I head back to the quadrangle with the fountain and, since the guards won't let me past even though I have the wine their master has requested, go through a door to the east using my golden key. At the other end of the passage is my target, who is only too happy to drink the drugged wine brought to him by a stranger and give me the victory.

    I won't reveal the (rather predictable) spoiler that follows, except to say that there is a sub-plot that I avoided (due to having a low persuasion score) which makes less sense after the "twist" in section 160.

    Overall, it's not a bad little adventure, although all the traipsing back and forth through the house gets boring, but the rules don't really help. A Fighting Fantasy version with roughly equal difficulty could replace all Agility saving throws with testing your skill on three dice, Endurance saving throws with rolling under your current Stamina on seven dice and all other saving throws with testing your luck twice and needing to be lucky twice to succeed. Appropriate values for enemies could be:
    Jock: Skill 17 Stamina 29, Club (3 damage per hit).
    Maze Guard: Skill 8 Stamina 15, Dagger
    Carriage Guards: Skill 9 and 12 Stamina 15 and 18, Dagger
    Brote's Guards: Skill 7, 9, 11, 9, Stamina 14, 13, 18, 25, Dagger
    Guardroom Guard: Skill 18 Stamina 17, Sword (3 damage per hit)
    Music room Guard: Skill 9, Stamina 13, Sword (damage as dagger)
    On a roll of 1-2 on one die, daggers only do 1 damage.