Principia Malefex

Reviewed by Nicholas HM Caldwell, Copyright ©2000

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

Principia Malefex is a horror role-playing game conceived and designed by Alison Whetton and published by Malefex. It should be emphasized that this is a dark game intended for "mature readers" and so parental discretion is advised for players under 18.

Physically, Principia Malefex is a sturdy hardback volume of 242 pages. The binding is somber black with the title in gold lettering on the front cover and the spine. Add a black ribbon bookmark and the impression is of an occult tome. I was quite astonished by the physical look and feel of the book.

Principia Malefex begins with a short story - "The Coming of the Dark" - which evokes the spirit of the game and draws back the veil on one aspect of the supernatural horror lurking behind the facades of the modern world. Scattered throughout the book are shorter fiction fragments touching on other aspects of the setting; all are well written, though a few are disturbing in content. The dangers of the Malefex, both demons and other mortals, are also hinted at in the Introduction, before the usual definitions of players and gamesmasters are provided.

The first chapter proper is Characterization, which unsurprisingly covers the details of character generation. There are twelve statistics in Principia Malefex, grouped into General, Psychological and Combat categories. The statistics include Perception, Studies (knowledge about magic), Terror, Speed, etc. All of the statistics are randomly and variously rolled on D3 to D10, and the value of some are influenced by the scores achieved in others. Somewhat irritatingly, Skill is used as the name for "skill and experience in combat", allowing for confusion with Skills. The potential maximum for a statistic is twenty but most characters will never approach such dizzying heights. Once initial statistics are created, the player must now roll the character's education (from no qualifications to a doctorate) and degree subject, if relevant. This provides some points to spend on designated skills. Players now choose their character's profession. As Principia Malefex is set in the modern world, the fifteen suggested professions include: mundane clerks, handymen, and shopkeepers alongside the expected archaeologists and parapsychologists. Professions provide improvements to statistics and a basic grounding in appropriate skills. The fourth stage, Personalization, gives players at least a hundred points to spend on increasing statistics and skills. Characters who did not benefit greatly from their profession choices receive more points at this stage; this also serves to balance out unlucky dice rolls. Finally, there are a few derived attributes to calculate and finishing touches such as wealth and personality to add to the character. The whole process is quick and yields realistic characters for a contemporary setting.

The second short chapter covers some mundane game mechanics. Statistics are normally tested by rolling equal or under their value on d20; skills are tested by rolling equal or under their value (with modifications) on d200 (yes, d200, which translates into rolling a d20 followed by a d10). The majority of the chapter concentrates on what happens when things go wrong, horribly wrong for characters. Failing a Fear or a Terror roll can lead to temporary derangements or permanent insanities. The latter can be acquired at multiple severity levels. Players who want to prevent their characters being taken into custody for their own safety will do well to seek treatment for their fears. Physical damage and natural healing are also covered with a detailed chart relating injury locations and severities to game mechanic modifiers and recovery chances. In this, as in many other aspects, Principia Malefex is extremely realistic and austere. Getting hurt will hurt and keep on hurting; avoid it if at all possible.

Nevertheless, combat is the topic of the third chapter. The most daunting thing about Malefex combat at first glance is the Action Times table. Rounds in Principia Malefex last five seconds with characters able to act at various points in that period. For example: A character with Speed 1 acts on 2.5 seconds; a character with Speed 6 acts on 0.7, 1.4, 2.1, 2.8, 3.6, and 4.3 seconds. Although the table caters for Speeds up to 20, the average human Speed score is 4, ensuring combat won't become interminable in normal play.

In unarmed and melee combat, attackers roll d20 plus bonuses with a result of five or more for a successful hit. Defenders need to roll higher than the attacker on d20 plus Skill statistic to evade the hit. If either scores 20 or more, then they can employ a Special Move such as Pinion, Disarm, or Dodge. Damage depends on the attacker's strength, weapon type and a d6 roll, and is reduced by the defender's strength and armour, if any. Special Moves can raise damage or negate it entirely - however they are difficult to learn, so are unlikely to unnecessarily complicate combats.

Ranged combat such as firearms and bows require attackers to roll under their weapon skills on d200 (modified by circumstances) and the damage depends on the weapon. Evasion and Special Moves are irrelevant.

The chapter contains a fair sampling of various types of weapons and accessories. Realistic issues, such as recoil, weapon jams, being blinded by muzzle flashes, and so on, serve to reinforce the grittiness of combat and to minimize any wallowing in the hardware minutiae. Players are reminded that in the standard Malefex setting, i.e. contemporary Britain, guns are illegal. (Players who try to avoid this by having their characters claim American citizenship get their weapons confiscated on their arrival at the airport!)

The fourth chapter covers "The World", or at least contemporary Britain seen through a glass darkly. The perspective is a bleak one, stressing the hopelessness and absence of meaning in life. The world lacks recognizable and visible heroes, and even dyed in the wool villains are few and far between. It is the little evil, the apathy of the majority, which holds center stage.

The coverage of the specifics of life in Britain (e.g. business, crime, education, espionage, health, etc.), minus the narrative bias, is accurate and sufficient for gaming purposes. (Okay, "Section" is probably an invention, but I don't plan on verifying this with the security services!) The examples of criminals, businesses, and so on provide possible hooks for scenarios.

On a philosophical note, the vision of modern life, as described in Principia Malefex, is grimmer and bleaker than I am willing to concede.

The next chapter is devoted to the arcane arts of Magic. In Principia Malefex, magic deals with the summoning and binding of supernatural beings from other planes of existence. (To worry aspiring spell casters, some of the spell effects are marked as rumors or legend, allowing for some fairly nasty surprises from cackling gamesmasters.) Wizards are those who have survived casting a summoning and a binding spell. (And this process is especially dangerous for first-time mages!) Regardless of their school of magic, they have begun the process of their own destruction. Scholars only study magic, avoiding dangerous experimentation.

Three major classes of magic are presented: the Lost Powers also known as the Malefex, the Helix, and the Aegyptic. The Malefex is the "easiest" to tap, but is a power of pure evil. Malefex mages are quickly corrupted (and PCs who take this route eventually become mere tools of the magic). The Helix is a more subtle power which is utterly indifferent to both good and evil and the mortals who use it. As Helix mages cast spells, Helix energy begins to accumulate in their bodies. They begin to see, to dream, and finally to live in an altered reality known as the Minds'cape. Falling permanently into the Minds'cape results in death. Aegyptic mages are cultists who worship a pantheon of five godlings in return for supernatural powers. As the cult members progress into the higher mysteries of this "religion", they become subverted to the desires of these nightmarish and incomprehensible beings. Magical power corrupts and/or destroys. Humans simply cannot safely handle it.

Magic is learned from the study of tomes with evocative and stylish titles, such as Malefex Leigionis and Principia Aegyptica. Seven sample tomes are detailed in terms of histories and contents. All are suitable Forbidden Knowledge that mankind was not meant to know and deadly temptations for the wise. The obvious plot hooks involve investigating and suppressing such knowledge; more long-term story arcs may emphasize the struggles of such magic-hunters to avoid delving into the mysteries themselves, even for the best of intentions.

The Creatures section is one of the longest in Principia Malefex. It is also the only part of the book where the lack of any interior artwork is a disadvantage. Admittedly, some of the more exotic entries in this bestiary would be quite difficult to depict.

The creatures are divided into three groups: Natural, Unnatural, and Supernatural. Natural creatures are the ordinary fauna of Britain, and include some big cats, just in case the rumors concerning cheetahs and pumas in the wilds are true! Cats in Principia Malefex are sensitive to magic and can help or hinder mages according to their feline whims. There are some excellent touches here, for example the discussion on "the crows court", which go beyond the dry physical descriptions and statistics usually found in published gaming monster compendia.

The interesting Unnaturals are rare and varied beings, including traditional were-creatures and vampires. Unique horrors such as cavewights, shadow hounds, and the solitary hunters demonstrate the individuality of the setting.

The Supernatural beings of Malefex, Helix, and the Aegyptic are however the principal and major adversaries in this mythos. They are both original and in keeping with the setting. These monsters are arranged by type and potency from the least (such as the Kadach - winged gremlins of the Malefex - and the two-headed Astral Serpents) to the greatest (such as the Nameless Ones, the Greater Spectrae, and the probably omnipotent Eldest). This unusual ordering will help remind gamesmasters to be very wary of confronting PCs with foes even slightly beyond their abilities.

Running a game in the full Malefex spirit requires a significant shift in gamesmaster and player attitudes. The final chapter on Gamesmastery first explores the mood of Malefex and how to evoke it in the game.

A few brief quotations from the game in the form of pithy epigrams expresses its quintessence:

All Characters are Victims
They are mortal. Death is inevitable.

Every Action in Malefex will provoke a reaction
The ghosts of past actions will rise to haunt them

Let Your Characters Hope
If there is no hope, how can they despair.

The aim of the gamesmaster in Principia Malefex is to implement these aspects in the story. (The first quote does not mean killing off characters regularly, rather that their lives will end sometime whether it be tomorrow, next year or fifty years time.) While there may be multiple inimical conspiracies, there is no overarching evil supremo or organization. The account moves from generalities to delve into specific areas. A few of these are (correctly) ring-fenced as being for mature readers only and to be used with extreme caution, if at all.

After this, the chapter mercifully switches gear into game mechanics topics such as using statistics and skills, determining incomes and character improvement. In addition, there are guidelines for handling magic and the introduction of hedgewitchery (or psi).

A set of useful hints for first-time gamesmasters are supplemented by several full scenarios and adventure seeds. The plots range from the wholly mundane (to provide a "safe" introduction for new players) to dangerous encounters with the supernatural.

Two enlightening essays revealing the origins of magic and the alternate reality of the Minds'cape, plus a two-page character sheet, conclude the book.

Looking at the game as a whole, Principia Malefex is a rough (black) diamond. The text would benefit from a careful proofreading and some rewriting of the rule explanations. There are habitual misspellings and inelegant sentence structures. However, none of these errors interfere with the comprehension of the mechanics, which are relatively uncomplicated and suit the setting. While it may lack the final polish of the mainstream games of larger companies, Principia Malefex is clearly a labor of love on the part of its designer. The originality of the setting and its sustained, almost unrelenting, execution of a singular vision more than compensates for any minor deficiencies.

Principia Malefex is a difficult game to run well. Personally, I would be hard-pressed to GM it in the true Malefex mood as I prefer lighter plots with greater optimism in the world. I suspect most gamers would have similar problems. However, Principia Malefex is still a worthwhile investment for role-players with an interest in the horror genre as it offers an extremely novel alternative to the Cthulhu mythos.

Editor's Note:

Principia Malefex is published by Malefex. Support for the game in terms of additional scenarios and source material can be found on their website. As Malefex does not yet have overseas distribution, information on how to buy Principia Malefex can also be found on the website.



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