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Story Engine/Maelstrom
Author: Hubris Games (Christopher Aldridge)
Cost: $18-23
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2000-09-01

Christian Aldridge presented one of the first owner-owned, owner-published RPGs to break into the business at the high-end of production and distribution. Few solos make that step straight from design into national distribution, and even fewer last more than one printing. Hubris Games is still with us and Aldridge's work is going strong. How did he do it? It was a matter of having the right contacts in both distribution and sales, and a hell of a lot of endurance.

This review starts out complicated, because there are three game-books here, really, published in the following order.
  • Maelstrom, including an extensive setting and an innovative resolution system.
  • Story Bones, including a stripped-down, more traditional version of the resolution system; no setting. This version first appeared as Gray's Journal, with additional Maelstrom material, and is now available as a free download off the Hubris website.
  • Story Engine, including the Bones as described above, the innovative/complete resolution system, and light Maelstrom background as a plug-in. I strongly recommend the Engine as the most bang per buck, in that it offers both Bones and the advanced method, and if you like the Maelstrom setting, you've got enough for a good start. This way, the original Maelstrom book becomes more like a sourcebook.
Also, if you get the Engine, you get both versions of the system. The Story Bones offers a very good, low-Handling-Time system in the more traditional sense ("I do this;" "OK, roll for it"). It's reminiscent of Over the Edge, but without needing to count pips, as dice are treated like coins - odd and even, with odds being successes matched against target numbers or opposed rolls. The OTE influence is also seen in how a PC's qualities are essentially invented by the player, although there's a bit more structure that allows more choices about how effective you are at what. A PC is described in terms of "Matter, Mind, Spirit, and Chaos," but these must be defined by the player, as well as Traits, or activities in which their chances of success are especially high. The player also has a great deal of metagame mechanics available, allowing for either backing off or fully committing to the problem at hand, as well as for directly influencing the storyline.

All these factors place the Story Bones at or near the top of the list for coherent, playable, relatively free-form RPG systems that use Fortune specifically for story integrity - less like The Window or FUDGE; more in the line of Sorcerer, Swashbuckler, and Hero Wars (although that's not phrased fairly, because Maelstrom preceded all of these three). However, it's the more developed, innovative system in Maelstrom and the Story Engine that really shines. It takes everything I wrote above about Story Bones and adds a crucial twist.

What is this innovation I keep going on about? It is that events during the game are most often resolved NOT by doing each PC's action, one by one, but rather by a group roll that concerns an entire scene.

For example, the pack of skeevy PCs is suddenly in a crisis situation - the pirates are swarming over the side, or something. The GM first designates the Scene to one of the attributes: Matter, Mind, Chaos, or Spirit. The pirate example is a Matter scene, but the same method is applied for Mind (analytical scenes), Spirit (emotional or willpower scenes), and Chaos (luck and frenzy scenes). Everyone gets to add a die for the number of descriptors they've got for that attribute. Everyone gets an automatic "odd" for the traits (skills, kind of) that apply to the scene. Everyone decides whether to pull any of the metagame tricks.

One roll is made, against either a target number or a roll by the GM. Odds are counted, ones count as an odd and get re-rolled, and the comparison tells the story. At that point, retroactively, the GM and players work out how that result came about. Damage, if applicable, is allocated around mainly using Drama. Only then, now that everyone knows how the whole scene worked out in success terms, do we learn that your PC took a belaying pin upside the head.

As far as I know, this group-resolution method was first introduced to RPGs in the combat system of Tunnels & Trolls rather a long time ago, but it wasn't further explored until Maelstrom. Also, this is the first time it's been applied in an explicitly Narrativist context (T&T was ultra-Gamist). Hero Wars clearly uses the same idea in its Group Contest methods, especially the Extended ones, which are very important in that game.

The system does not lend itself well to scenes in which characters are all dashing about doing a dozen different, unrelated things. The Story Engine assumes that Scenes are about something and that the players are willing to invest in resolving that something. However, there are a few refinements that permit PCs to act independently of or even against the group's desired outcome, so that the "party" doesn't become a many-legged individual. And one can always switch to the Bones method if a character is alone or if the several characters present are carrying out wholly independent actions.

My assessment of all these methods are based on two very separate instances of play. The first was run just after Maelstrom appeared, using the included setting. Even though my players were good Narrativists and used to funky-duty systems, we ended up having some trouble. I think it was because they were being hit with weirdness from two directions at once: the outrageously unpredictable, freaky dream-esque world of the Maelstrom, as well as this unusual system. They didn't feel grounded either for characters or setting. Since the Maelstrom book has no Story Bones, I had to stick with Scene Resolution even at times where it wasn't appropriate.

About that setting - the world of Maelstrom is a patchwork affair, in which the pieces continually come apart and drift together. You can go to bed in a city by a lake and wake up in a city on a mountaintop, not because you moved, but the whole world rearranged itself in the night. Some parts are relatively stable, and others are pretty wild. The areas which have received the most attention to detail are the decadent, complacent, yet wonderfully cultured city of Diodet, and the intense, energetic city of Dacartha. There are quite a few places that lend themselves to Renaissance-style duels, political intrigue, and exotic adventures. Magic ranges from scary occultism to clockwork-and-steam enchanted widgets.

The only content-based criticism is that there isn't much story premise built into the game - that is, reasons for why a given PC is the protagonist of a story. This same criticism that probably applies to 90% of all RPGs, but it's especially noticeably in a system and setting that are so explicitly Narrativist. If you plan to play using the Maelstrom setting, make sure to nail down some corners about it in your own mind first, figuring out just what sort of dramatic and interesting problems arise given the area and the problems there. Given this effort (and the setting does offer immense potential to make it worthwhile), the session ought to be all set.

I also found that the big danger of the Story Engine system, in whatever application, is that characters run out of "push it" resources very quickly (in game terms, they burn Descriptors) and thereafter are stuck with no dice in a given attribute for the rest of the session. If the GM makes things exciting, the players start burning Descriptors, and then the adventure better be short or else they'll all be helpless. I have found that the recommended starting character level is a bit frail for an action-packed adventure, perhaps because my sessions are usually pretty eventful. Boosting it a bit worked quite well for our group the second time around.

That second experience, this time using the Story Engine, was a one-shot session using pre-generated characters. This time, I didn't use the Maelstrom setting but rather a surreal, kind of Heavy Metal situation with extremely inhuman characters. It allowed me to weight each character heavily in one of the attributes, forcing them to rely on one another, and it saved the players from worrying at all about setting (it's weird, OK, go). Since this time I was careful to explain and enforce Scene Resolution, I found it to work out stunningly well.

I have also realized that much of the Maelstrom material was originally developed using PCs who are amnesiac visitors straight from our world ("Newcomers"). I highly recommend using this method, which puts ALL of the setting into the GM's hands, to be introduced during play rather than during character creation. Based on the extensive fiction and color text throughout the book, it must have been a blast, and I think it would keep that double-weirdness effect from limiting the players' fun.

A few more details: (1) The Maelstrom rules and text offer some more interesting options for the GM who wants to reduce Simulationism in role-playing. One option is to treat experience as a revealing device, bringing up hitherto unused aspects of the character, rather than literally simulating learning new stuff. (2) The rules for magical arts, including mechanical-type clockwork-engine magic and the more usual symbolic-occult magic, are laid out very clearly in the Story Engine. I think they present both evocative and adaptable principles, along the lines of those in Castle Falkenstein but more open-ended and suited to player improvisation.

Finally, I also recommend any Hubris Games material, especially the boxed text in Maelstrom, for (at long last!) truly useful, inspiring instructions on how to role-play strictly from a Narrativist perspective. It is all about how to liberate oneself from how-many-feet-and-inches discussions entirely, as well as how to manage scene transitions and focus on story elements as the center of attention. It's clear that Aldridge, like top-flight designers Jonathan Tweet and Robin Laws, has worked very hard to hone system and style of presentation such that they generate story flow as the first priority. His work is required reading for Narrativist role-players.

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