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Author Topic: On Her Majesty's Arcane Service  (Read 1292 times)

RPGPundit

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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« on: February 10, 2010, 11:52:06 AM »
RPGPundit Reviews: On Her Majesty's Arcane Service

This is a review of On Her Majesty's Arcane Service, published by Flying Mice Games, written by Clash Bowley.

The game itself comes as a large softcover, with a full-colour cover and black and white interior. Its about 220 pages long.

The premise of the game is that the setting is the late 16th century in England, and the PCs are part of the Arcane Service, a secret organization dedicated to protect England from supernatural assault.

Like many of Clash's games, this can be considered a kind of "alternate history". In real life, it was during Queen Elizabeth's reign that "Her Majesty's Secret Service" first came into existence.  One of its architects and earliest agents (code name 007, I kid you not) was the famed mathematician, astrologer, and angel-whisperer John Dee.  The premise behind this game is that John Dee is actually the head of the Arcane Service, who has recruited others to his organization by receiving guidance from Angels.  The characters are assumed to be "passionately devoted to the welfare of England, and of the queen", and are talented in different ways in dealing with supernatural menace.

Some time ago, I did a review of another of Clash's games, Blood Games II. There are many similarities of setting between that game and this one; with the obvious exception that this game is historically set and the other was modern. The underlying mythology of the game involves the idea that man was once a primitive creature hunted by supernatural beings of all kinds, until salvation came in the hands of the being Enoch (though more similar as a character to what we are told is one of his other names: Prometheus). Enoch taught man how to become civilized, and with his technical and magical arts, man beat back the dark things into the corners of existence. But these creatures still exist, hidden in shadows, waiting for their chances to attack humanity. I didn't end up liking Blood Games very much, but going into the review it was my hope that I would like OHMAS better, as it has the advantage of its historical setting.  Clash describes 16th century England as "interesting times", and indeed they were. The clash of religions, the conflicts between England, Spain and even Scotland all provide for lots of potential for action and lots of ideas within the supernatural framework. The renaissance, humanism, and the occult explosion of the 16th century all make for heady material for development, and John Dee is a real-life historical figure that was larger than life and an excellent "patron" character for this kind of campaign.

One element of the game that I think is absolutely brilliant is the mechanics for forming the PCs' "association". The PC group is essentially one "cell" of the Arcane Service, and at the beginning of a campaign you would need to determine the nature of that cell and its resources. Bowley provides a system for doing so, where you allocate or randomly determine the group's resources, and the nature of its organization (with such options as "private club", "arcane guild", "extended family", "courtier's henchmen", "government agency", "secret society", "trading company" or others). The association-mechanics then let you buy or choose a home base (which can be a palace, clubhouse, ruined castle, abandoned abbey, theatre, warship, village, or other choices, including some unusual ones like "Pocket universe"). The group allocates funds for areas of interest: security, espionage, warships, transport, medical, arcane library, training, cartography, mercenaries, artificers, and maintenance. Considerable details and price lists are provided.

This section of the game is absolutely brilliant, and would be a great resource for just about any kind of game set in this era.

Characters are divided into "path" and "non-path" characters. Essentially, "non-path" characters are normal human beings with specialized skills. "Path" characters are supernatural characters, with magic or unusual origins that grant them special powers.  The mechanics of characters and the game as a whole are essentially identical to most of Clash's games (In Harm's Way, Cold Space, etc. etc.).  You use a point buy system to determine attributes, then you determine skills gained during early life (childhood, apprenticeship and journeyman periods), then choose a profession which gives you more skills. The older your character is, the more skilled he will be, but aging will bring some penalties. Anyone familiar with Traveller will be familiar with the basic concept of this character creation mechanic.

Where we get to the supernatural stuff is with the "character options". Characters can be half-angels, Immortals, changelings (fairies); or the "path" characters: Hunters (humans enhanced by the Archangel Michael to fight the Dark creatures), Esotericists (those who study arcane magic), the Magus (who calls on Archangels for magic), Templars (a "non-sectarian order of fighting monks, who bear little relation other than name and aesthetic to the historical Knights Templar that didn't exist by then), Savants ("scientific" rational magicians), Warlocks (who summon and control spirits), Cunning Folk (basically your 16th-century wiccans), Minstrels (magically-powered musicians), as well as latent psychics.

To me, here is where a little of the charm of the game breaks down. I suppose that some people might like the over-the-top nature of this sort of thing, but in my own tastes, at least half of these "paths" just seem cheesy to me. Getting to play Duncan McCleod or Buffy in the 16th century, much less a half-angel, just seems to sap a lot of the awesomeness that the historical element itself has. "Anachronistic" is not quite the right word for it, but its something like that.  I guess maybe its a question of trying too hard: I know that most of the aforementioned are directly inherited from Blood Games, but it feels to me that its just a case of Trying Too Hard, and not having enough faith in the coolness of the 16th century setting itself. More low-key magic would have been more to my liking.

Fortunately, the game does put a decent emphasis on religion that fits well with the concept behind the historical setting. Religion was paramount to the 16th century zeitgeist, and the game gives some details on catholics, protestants, calvinists etc., and has rules for the "test of faith", where the miraculous can intercede to assist a PC against the dark forces.

Another really nice part of this game book is the "Adventure Generator". Through a series of tables you can pick from or roll randomly from, you can create an entire setting-appropriate adventure. There are rumour tables to start things off, place tables (that are heavy on places in England but allow for the action to move to the continent), tables to determine the forces behind the rumours, and rewards and "sweeteners" (direct compensation for taking action in the former case, and more ephemeral benefits in the latter).  The game wisely doesn't concern itself with counting coins, instead the PCs have a wealth level and a lifestyle to maintain. Costs of weapons, items, and services are all listed in terms of what level of lifestyle one must have to afford things.

As with most of Clash's games, the book has a good amount of material for generating NPCs, including some quick-roll tables for the same, and some default statblocks for likely stock characters.

I have to say that the magic system is also quite suitable for the setting; one of the fundamental elements of the elements is "correspondences", where to make a spell the caster must try to use something of familiarity to the object of his spell. The more direct the better of course, so if he can actually touch his target, that is the best situation; and if not, something that is or was once part of the target, something that was once in contact with the target, or something with the target's "true name", or in the worst case, a pun or play on the name or nature of the object.

The mechanic system used for OHMAS is the "starpool system", based on D20 dice pools. This is the only mechanic overtly presented for the game, but anyone familiar with Clash's games knows that they can also very easily modify the game to use the percentile system or the 3d6-4 system found in some of clash's others games (the statistics are the same, only the mechanics change). Curiously, the information for the "starpool system" are found smack-dab in the middle of the book, an odd layout choice. I would suggest to Mr.Bowley that this could perhaps be better placed somewhere earlier in the book, either before or just after the basics of character creation.

The second part of the game is the setting element, which includes details on the spirit world, and spirit creatures: salamanders, demons, ghosts, genies, lycanthropes, the undead, golems, shapeshifters etc. There's even details for Dragons, as well as for "lake and sea monsters" (that's right, your group can go up against the Loch Ness monster!). Faeries are given extensive detail, including the option of using full-blown faeries as player characters.

Quite a bit of nice detail is given to the different regions of England, with some of these, the accompanying "map" section is only a URL; I'm not quite sure if this was meant to be so, or an editing error, though I would guess the former. The URLs link to some nice pages full of historical maps of the region in question. Information is given on the nature of government in Elizabethan England, and of notable people of the Virgin Queen's court: Elizabeth herself, Dudley, Mary Queen of Scots, Sir William Cecil, Walsingham, Sir Nicholas Bacon and his son Sir Francis, the great Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Kit Marlowe, Will Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spencer, Richard Hakluyt, Humphrey Gilbert, Sir Martin Frobisher, Edward Kelley, Sir John Hawkins, and of course, Doctor John Dee himself. Each of the historical personages are given about a page worth of biography on average. Thankfully, the material presented is strictly historical, rather than trying to mingle it with some alternate-history supernatural material. On the other hand, the reader is left to his own devices as to figure out how to apply any of the characters to the campaign. This shouldn't be a severe problem, as any GM worth his salt reading just about any of these biographies should come up with a great deal of potential uses for any of these characters as NPCs, but I suppose that some more novice or less imaginative GMs might find this unfortunate.

At the end of the book, some tips on GMing are given, along with some optional rules and ideas for "Troupe play".

On the whole, there's no question that I like OHMAS far more than Blood Games. Its Clash Bowley exercising one of his strengths: historical source studies applied to gaming. I think that the game would be quite playable on its own despite some of the over-the-top character options not being at all to my liking.  On the other hand, even if you never planned to use the system as a whole, the material on making organizations and designing Elizabethan-era supernatural adventures make this book worth its cover price alone, and along with the historical information make this game an excellent source-book if you ever plan to run Elizabethan-era adventures with just about anything.

Personally, I still want to run a game of Maelstrom, and just know that when I do, this book will sit right next to Maelstrom and the Maelstrom Companion to form an integral part of my campaign.

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flyingmice

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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #1 on: February 10, 2010, 12:18:57 PM »
Hi Pundit!

Thank you for a very thorough, and typically excellent review. I am very glad you enjoyed OHMAS more than Blood Games! :D

I am curious about why you called the Cunning Folk "16th Century wiccans" though. I was very explicit that these people were Christian, not pagan, and some were actually priests. To the best of my knowledge there were no pagans in England at this time, and certainly no Wiccans, whose religion was invented in the early 20th century. I know you didn't misread what I wrote that badly, so you have a reason for saying this that I am not catching. Is it that their "magic" is entirely based on the placebo effect, unlike the other Paths of Power?

-clash
« Last Edit: February 10, 2010, 11:34:21 PM by flyingmice »
clash bowley * Flying Mice Games - an Imprint of Better Mousetrap Games
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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2010, 02:17:10 AM »
Basically that, the more dunderheaded wiccans out there try to claim that the wise women of past centuries in England's folklore were "Secret Wiccans". It was a joke.

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flyingmice

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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2010, 08:23:23 AM »
Quote from: RPGPundit;360196
Basically that, the more dunderheaded wiccans out there try to claim that the wise women of past centuries in England's folklore were "Secret Wiccans". It was a joke.

RPGPundit

Ah! OK! I notice they always seem to leave out the "wise men"... :O

Thanks for explaining! I just didn't associate anything you'd say with those ridiculous claims! It's more likely they were "secret Santas" than "secret Wiccans". At least it's the right religion! :D

-clash
« Last Edit: February 11, 2010, 08:25:57 AM by flyingmice »
clash bowley * Flying Mice Games - an Imprint of Better Mousetrap Games
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flyingmice

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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2010, 09:25:43 AM »
Oh! The map URLs are intentional. In the pdf, these are direct clickable links to the web pages, but with the print book you have to type them in. I wanted to use as authentic a set of maps as I could, because despite some inaccuracies, the closer to the proper time, the truer the map. Comparing maps of the same county through the decades and centuries you can see how the land has changed - forests giving way to farmland or pastureland, roads built, villages disappearing and cities springing up like mushrooms from nothing. That excercise in itself was fascinating to me, but I also modified my descriptions of the counties to match better with the early maps rather than as they are in the present.

Also I agree that OHMAS and Maelstrom make a great pairing!

-clash
« Last Edit: February 11, 2010, 09:28:06 AM by flyingmice »
clash bowley * Flying Mice Games - an Imprint of Better Mousetrap Games
Flying Mice home page: http://jalan.flyingmice.com/flyingmice.html
Currently Designing: StarCluster 4 - Wavefront Empire
Last Releases: SC4 - Dark Orbital, SC4 - Out of the Ruins,  SC4 - Sabre & World
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vinitezyrs6

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On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #5 on: February 22, 2010, 07:08:48 PM »
Quote from: flyingmice;360066
Hi Pundit!

Thank you for a very thorough, and typically excellent review. I am very glad you enjoyed OHMAS more than Blood Games! :D


I have to agree with you. It is really a very comprehensive and one of the most thorough reviews on OHMAS I have ever read! Good job! :)

slorpy_borpy

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Re: On Her Majesty's Arcane Service
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2021, 11:33:30 AM »
What's up RPGPundit you fascist piece of human filth.  You got your own website huh?  Well fuck you.