Imagine waking up one morning, lost in a foggy hillside, far from the colonial-era New England you grew up in. As you stagger into a nearby township, your puritan sensibilities are challenged at the sight of Scottish Clansmen trading with Incan Warriors. Greek philosophers in debate with Confucian monks. In their strange common tongue, which somehow you understand, you hear tales of feuds and battles north of here between the Normans and the Aztecs. Now imagine your shock when you discover that you do not age here (at least, not normally.) And when you die, it’s not the end of your travels.
Melee: The Eternal Adventure is a title from Fury Concepts, a non-profit company that promotes education of cultural history and sports reenactment. The Eternal Adventure is one of three different games — the others consisting of a board game and, primarily, a LARP that share the same world. I have heard of the organization before, but my first true encounter with them was this past weekend at Comic Con in Tulsa, OK. I picked up a copy of their tabletop rules, interested as it markets itself as being “the most realistic RPG system designed for PVE and PVP play – by Sports reenactors!” Having friends who are heavily involved in weapons fighting (Matt Bryant, the writer of MAIN SEQUENCE, is actually an active ARMA member) I wanted to see how the mechanics fared in tabletop play.
A Historical Fantasy in the Shores of Time
The world of The Eternal Adventure is known as Alluvium, a place where many adventurers are somehow transplanted from our world’s history to there. Character backgrounds stem from as far back as 3000 BC to 1650 AD, all converged in a strange fantasy land where time works different. Death isn’t final here, although it does maintain hefty setbacks — it may take months to years for your character to return to Alluvium, with no guarantee of their memory or sanity intact. Although personas appear immortal and timeless here, returning from death may age you drastically. As a matter of fact, depending on the circumstances of your death and burial, you might not even return completely together — you may permanently lose limbs or other body parts!
In the chaos of seeming immortal life, and being exiled from our own world and time, the inhabitants of Alluvium somehow manage to come together despite conflicting cultures, beliefs, philosophies and even languages to build some system of society. The core game takes place in the Kingdom of Praelia, where nobility is earned and varying factions compete with one another for influence. It’s a very eclectic and diverse realm — sometimes requiring a little suspension of disbelief in order to imagine it even working. Even though the game world has heavy ties to the history of our real world, it is still very much a fantasy that references magic, a “shade realm” where dwarfs and merfolk fight orcs, and strange faceless beings called Arbiters who hold sway over the forces of life and death on the chessboard of the world.
It should be noted that despite references to the shadow realms, with portals sealed to keep demonic entities at bay and even mention of optional rules for fantasy backgrounds — the core game rules lack magic in just about any form (except, of course, the strange circumstances of immortality all personas exist under.) This is a fantasy game that feels more Highlander than Tolkien, and for myself that is part of the draw.
A System of Styles and Exchanges
The game uses pools of d6’s, usually determined by certain attributes (like endowments or traits.) Other factors like benefits, drawbacks, difficulties and the like, can modify the totals rolled. The total sum is compared to a “Victory” chart, with the higher totals equating a higher degree of success. A cool mechanic the game uses is exchanges, where dice rolled may be replaced to modify the results. An example from the book: A character may be crafting a sword, and uses their Blacksmith of 4 and their Agility of 3. They have to use the lowest pool (so 3 dice) but they may exchange those dice with the highest rolls from the other pool.
Combat in Melee takes this a step further, using a series of opposed rolls to simulate the fighting between characters. Initiative is determined by whoever rolls the highest Speed check, and the winner gets to choose whether they are acting on Offensive or Defensive. This is important to note, as characters train in certain fighting styles and Techniques for their weapons, granting modifications to Attacker and Defender rolls. For example: a trained pole-based fighter may use their Long-Ranged Strike technique to gain a defense bonus while penalizing the Defender’s offensive capabilities. Or someone specializing in Florentine-style sword fighting may pull a maneuver to disarm their opponent. Each style of weapon has several techniques that may be learned, each ranked individually (with added benefit with further training.) It may seem overwhelming at first, but they’re all presented in similar format and are quick to reference. As a bonus, I showed a few of these off to Matt and he commented the terminology used is actual real-world fighting maneuvers. Oh, and that exchange mechanic I mentioned? Some styles allow you to roll a separate pool of exchange dice that you get to use to either modify your own rolls (with the highest) or hinder your opponent (replacing their highest with your lowest.)
The result is a combat system of action and reaction, and seeing results where both parties may mutually harm each other is very possible. Wounds are tracked location wise, but the numbers are kept really simple. In short, this system is very deadly. Even a non-fatal wound may result in the character having to perform a Stamina check, which on failure results in them bleeding out and potentially going into shock. So even though death is not the end-all for a character, combat in this game is incredibly lethal and should only be engaged as needed.
Character Creation & Advancement
The process of character creation is an open, classless style where you get so many points to distribute across attributes, gain certain aptitudes based on your profession and factional choices, and allows you to further customize yourself via benefits, ineptitudes, drawbacks and fighting techniques. Although there is a hefty list of choices to consider, I would compare the process more in line with the complexity of games like World of Darknes than those of, say, GURPS or Shadowrun 4E. The chapters explaining character creation are laid out in a fluid set of instructions, and provides full tables for quick reference. Advancement involves saving up Experience points, and spending them to either raise scores or acquire new ones. Experience is gained through adventuring, quests, and combat — though not to the degree of systems like D&D. Instead, combat experience is generally only gained when facing down foes of higher skill than you. Also, “defeating” a foe doesn’t mean death — a wounded or retreating opponent counts.
Factions, Guilds & Setting
I’d be willing to wager that more than 2/3rds of the 375 page book is setting detail over rules. The core rules cover the history of Alluvium and the Kingdom of Praelia, including methods of governance and structures of society. Two major aspects of the setting are the factions and guilds. Factions are organizations united under a common goal, often granting its members a sense of camaraderie and strength in numbers outside the walls of the cities. Matter of fact, major factions may claim Baronies for themselves. The style and purpose of each of the ten factions vary — from the united Scotsmen of Clan Chattan, the psychedelic scholars and gypsies of The Chalice of Thought, to the pirates of the Triad. Differing from factions are Guilds, which are organizations that perform a service to the denizens of the Kingdom. The Order of St. Paul, for instance, is an alliance of faiths attributed to the God of Abraham that performs services in Praelia. The Grave Dancer’s Union, meanwhile, collect the dead from the battlefield to ensure proper burial is made. The Merchant’s Guild, Chroniclers, and College of Barber Surgeons are about what you’d expect, while some of the others have interesting flavor to the setting. For example: despite most personas never hailing from beyond 1650 AD, members of the Engineers guild come off rather Victorian steampunk as they have continued to develop their craft in the timeless world.
In many ways, Guilds & Factions remind me of “splats” from World of Darkness. Each one is tied into the lore of the setting, with shady alliances and obvious rivals set up among the others for plot hooks and inner-player drama. Since the game is based on a LARP this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. While some may not be thrilled by the lore established by these groups, it really does a lot to the game to bring forward a sense of setting and help those wanting to dive into the lore an avenue to explore. Of course, groups wanting less of social/political ties or that wish to remain outside the setting’s conflicts may opt to go Mercenary, and work for the highest bidders.
Warts and All
Wouldn’t be a fair review without address the flukes and flaws. First off, the book itself is pretty standard — two column, big pages, and lots of medieval artwork throughout. The book could have used another pass through on the editing — typos are sprinkled throughout, including a couple incomplete sentences or repeated phrases. Nothing deal breaking, they just stick out. Page numbers are all on the left side of the page (even on the right-side pages) and I found that mildly annoying. Some rules are pretty vague in areas where I wish they weren’t — hit locations, for example, are a pretty big deal to the damage system. Yet, there’s no formal definition of whether they’re supposed to be randomly determined, called by the player, or ruled by the Arbiter (the GM.) Only hint I had was an explanation that headshots are “superstitious” in being considered dishonorable and possibly draw the ire of the Arbiters (in the setting sense.) I’m guessing that’s a hold over from the LARP conventions, tied in with setting flavor.
My biggest gripes are simply a matter of preference. First off: while I dig the combat system, and feel they did a great job balancing simulation with good game play, it’s still just fiddly enough that I would most likely just run this game for a small group. This isn’t D&D, it aint a hack & slash, but I’d be worried that any more than 2-3 players and combat will become a pain in the neck to track. The way initiative and techniques work, I’m not sure how I’d handle multiple opponents on one target. The system is perfect for paired one-on-one fights, but the second a target is outnumbered I’m unsure how to handle who is Attacker or Defender.
My other gripe pertains to the references to the shade realms and magic. I was drawn to the game because of the low-magic default; I love the idea of a weird world where death functions different and an element of the mysterious and mythical without wizards pelting each other with lightning bolts or fighters using +1 swords. I love the use of historical Earth as a background, with displaced warriors from across time and the uncertainty of the nature of this new world (is it the afterlife? is it a curse?) But still, the back story of the world involves references to another magic realm filled with demons, orcs and dwarfs. Repeatedly do they mention “we like to play it this way, but if you want high fantasy go for it!” There’s even a mention of a sourcebook for magic rules, that isn’t even listed on their website yet. I understand wanting mass appeal, and that they have lots of plans for the game line. But part of me wished they kept all of that reeled in, and focused on the setting they do have with small sprinklings of myths they could expand on later. Again, this is a personal gripe, and doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the game.
Melee: The Eternal Adventure is a game best suited for the sake of playing in their world. It won’t replace D&D for your hack’n’slash dungeon crawlers, and it might not be the best system for those wanting to run a historically accurate campaign. But for those who are willing to dive in to their strange setting, of a world inhabited by those exiled from our world’s history into a new found immortality of battle and struggle, you’re in for a treat. The combat system is detailed and realistic, and should satisfy those who crave more personal sword fights in the styles of Highlander or Zorro than the traditional “I swing my sword” approach. The rules mirror their setting well, and the possibilities for adventure are as infinite as the lives of the warriors who walk it. Folks who are craving a low-magic setting where the mystical is more background flavor than mechanics should definitely take a look.
You can find out more and order yourself a copy at http://meleeworld.org