GHR: Malefices

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

More than just the French Call of Cthulhu.

One of the difficulties in writing about the French roleplaying scene is that influences are often rather hard to track. Resources like the GROG may have the names and dates of specific publications but large sections of the early-to-mid 1980s French RPG scene ran on photocopied English-language texts meaning that a game could break through, acquire a huge French following, and then wind up waiting years for an official translation.

I mention this as, according to GROG, Michel Gaudo’s Malefices was first released in January 1985, a year after the first French translation of Call of Cthulhu but three and a half years after Call of Cthulhu was first published in English.

While Call of Cthulhu supplements designed to help French gamers run adventures set in France would eventually follow, the first of these official publications would only appear in 1988 in the form of Les Annees Folles by Dominique Balczesak and Sylvie Barc.

Given that Malefices was a paranormal investigation-based RPG allowing people to play ordinary turn-of-the-20th Century French characters, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that the game might have been born of a desire for a French Call of Cthulhu. However, regardless of what the inspiration behind this project may have been, Malefices rapidly outgrew its literary ancestors and soon became something very different and very very French.

Malefices is set in what historians of France refer to as the Belle Epoque, a period extending from the collapse of the French Second Empire at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to the start of World War I in 1914. This period of relative peace and prosperity for continental Europe is often viewed as something of a golden age.

In France, the politics of this period were dominated by the unapologetically secular liberalism of the Third Republic and attempts at social progress, institutional modernisation and, a general tendency to make the most of the French right being both exhausted and discredited. It was a period of hope, optimism, and desire to confront the reactionary superstitions of the past.

Malefices associates itself with the cutting edge of this particular culture war in so far as the players were assumed to be members of the Pythagoras Club, an association devoted to scientific exploration using decidedly un-scientific methods. Indeed, while the game’s characters were expected to embody the hopes and dreams of a liberal enlightenment, the game recognised that the world did not run entirely on science and good intentions. In other words, while some adventures would revolve around debunking old legends and superstition, what would most likely happen was that the group would arrive in a French provincial location to investigate a mystery that revealed the Old Guard’s willingness to invoke ghosts and demons in an effort to maintain their power. In order to confront magic, the group was expected to practice magic.

This tension between Old and New worlds was neatly reflected in the rules and character design. For example, as you might expect of a game written in the early 1980s, the pages devoted to game mechanics are dominated by lists of tables used to generate a variety of modifiers. Character creation invited you to roll your character’s age as well as a variety of other things and each broad characteristic would generate a series of modifiers that would eventually balance out into a + or – that would then be applied to dice rolls. However, while a casual glance over the layout of the books may have lead you to assume that Malefices was a very rational and scientific game, the first and second edition box-sets also included a set of tarot cards.

While the old-school mysticism of the tarot cards stood in glorious aesthetic opposition to the pages and pages of tables and modifiers, the cards are also a disruptive presence in the game as players drew a series of cards at character creation, and each of these cards offered either a set of hefty bonuses or a bit of narrative power allowing the player to massage elements of the story in their favour. Even more disruptive is the fact that while most of the tarot cards served as resources that players could deploy during games, one tarot card was supposed to remain secret from the player and was reserved for the GM who could then use it in play.

I suspect that, given the democratisation of the game table and the broader cultural shift away from GM-as-God, modern Anglo-Saxon audiences would not respond particularly well to the idea of a GM having access to facts about characters that their players did not explicitly choose. In fact, Malefices took this approach even further by having the GM determine and track each character’s magic-related skills in secret. The idea being that the members of the Pythagoras Club were modern, competent, and enlightened types but while this commitment to the cultural light may be a source of empowerment in some sectors, it was also a source of blindness when it came to knowledge of the dark supernatural forces that lurked beneath the surface of French society.

Were someone to write Malefices today (and give it a functioning experience system) it might include a process through which all of these secret stats could have been made known to the players, thus allowing the game to explore themes of self-knowledge and self-acceptance as bourgeois enlightenment figures learning not only how the world really functioned but also where their power and privilege actually came from. Indeed, this would put Malefices into similar territory as the French game Hurlements, which also made the GM hold back details not only about the world but also about the characters themselves.

Though the French tradition of initiation-based gaming is interesting in and of itself, it really needs to be understood in the broader context of French RPG fashions. Indeed, if you read a history of early RPGs such as Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, you’ll discover references to table dynamics that have since fallen out of fashion including having player decision-making funnelled through an appointed ‘shot-caller’ whose job it was to univocally relay everyone’s actions to the GM. A very different non-traditional table dynamic that nonetheless enjoyed a good deal of popularity in French scene was having the GM make all dice rolls. The idea being that, rather than having players spend their time squinting at their character sheets and flipping through rule-books to decide the correct course of action, players should be looking up, engaging with each other, and thinking about the game not in terms of mechanics but rather in terms of the shared imaginative space created at the table.

This approach was hugely popular in French RPGs and even when it started to fade away, the French scene’s conception of ‘good’ play continued to downplay stuff like system mastery in favour of stuff like being able to ‘perform’ your own character and helping to create an exciting and atmospheric game session. When placed in the context of a gaming culture where GMs tended to handle all of the rules, stuff like the mysteries of Hurlements and the hidden stats of Malefices start to make a lot more sense and seem a lot more attractive.

Aside from the game’s rather striking implementation of the opposition between liberal enlightenment and reactionary occultism, Malefices also enjoyed a really thorough commitment to historical realism. In fact, about two-thirds of the third edition was given over to an extended tour of Belle Epoque France that took in not only the set-dressing of weapons, automobiles, hats, and restaurants but also texture of culture and politics as they affected the lives of normal people. Having recently read and reviewed a load of 1920s Call of Cthulhu supplements, I am struck by the extent to which my impression of other games’ historical supplements were ruined by the intelligence of Malefices’ approach. Indeed, while Call of Cthulhu took its cues from D&D sourcebooks and assumed that what people wanted from a book about 1920s New York was a list of taverns and some detailed street maps, Malefices assumed that historical gaming was about drawing on the vibes of particular eras to produce intriguing adventures. Indeed, given that the cultural politics of Belle Epoque France was all about modernisation in the face of reactionary opposition, it made perfect sense to build a game around bourgeois liberals confronting entrenched occult power. It’s also interesting to note that more contemporary historical investigation RPGs like Vaessen have taken a similar approach to their settings and emphasised the importance of cultural narratives over the need for accurate maps and descriptions of who happens to be sitting on a particular town’s chamber of commerce.

Another interesting diversion from the Call of Cthulhu model of investigative horror was the decision to do away with any kind of coherent paranormal mythology. Indeed, Malefices may well be a game about confronting demons but the game itself is rather evasive on the question of what demons actually are and what they want. Given that I have complained at length about Call of Cthulhu’s tendency to gloss over the non-mechanical aspects of its Named Entities, I was surprised to find myself less annoyed about Malefices’ failure to provide much in the way of demonic detail. I think the difference is that while both Malefices and Call of Cthulhu back away from the idea of helping GMs to get inside the heads of unknowable inhuman monsters, Malefices’ glossing over of these kinds of details takes place in the context of a game where the themes and narratives are made abundantly clear right from the start: This is a game about the liberal 19th century enlightenment confronting the entrenched occult powers. If you want to know what a demon looks like, think of a fantastical representation of the ways that reactionary forces oppress and demean ordinary people. With strong themes, you don’t need strong mechanics. Call of Cthulhu struggles with this approach because the game is thematically at odds with itself.

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