Note: This review is actually several months old, but a) I'm getting CRUSHED under paying work, which is why I haven't started the Savage Worlds series and b) I eventually want all of my reviews available on this blog if possible anyway.
On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service is a new RPG released by Clash Bowley and Flying Mice Games, based off of his Blood Games II setting. Rather than the more modern horror approach of Blood Games II, On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service is more of a historical horror game, set specifically in 16th century England. I have both the PDF and a the POD version of the game. The PDF is available from RPGnow.com for $10, and the POD version is available from Lulu for $22.71.
PDF vs POD
The PDF is full color and bookmarked. Clash has filled his RPG with clipart, but the vibrant colors of the PDF make much of the art stand out in a very good way. The art doesn’t look as impressive in the black and white tones of the POD version. As well, the formatting clearly wasn’t designed with POD in mind, as part of the back cover blurb is covered by the UPC code. Just speaking aesthetically, unless you have a hatred for PDFs, I would recommend the PDF over the hardcopy, as the PDF just looks better, top to bottom.
Table of Contents
We do get a Table of Contents, with chapter headings. Always a good sign. I can get around a lack of index in RPG books, but when they don’t even bother with a table of contents, that’s just annoying.
Before I begin breaking down the chapters, I do want to comment here: I love Clash’s layout. He does a single column of text on the pages, and on the side he has little headings relating to the subject matter. I loved that in Blood Games II and that continues here. Anyway, the introduction begins with the history of this earth, up through the 16th century. It begins by talking about Homo Sapiens being hunted and stalked by Vampires, Lycanthropes and Demons. Enoch is sent to earth bequeaths both civilization and magic to humans. Humans beat back the darkness, but Demons find new ways to counter the advancements of humans and return in force. The battle has waged back and forth, slowing the advancement of humans. It is now the 16th century, Elizabeth has just become queen, and forced Catholics to the fringes.
Dr. John Dee, at the orders of Queen Elizabeth, has headed up Her Majesty’s Arcane Service, a secret force designed to protect England from mystical attack. Dee is a devoutly religious man, guided by angels to find his agents, PC and NPC alike.
The game is designed with a pretty clear focus, spelled out as the book discusses PCs. Namely, PCs are assumed to be agents of Dee’s, and assumed to be some denomination of Christian (any other religions need some work by the GM and player to make sense).
A section follows on group set-up, with PCs being Path (magical) characters or Non-Path (non magical) characters. What follows is a paragraph on each character type, and their typical role in the party, from Hunters and Templars to completely unskilled parties. Blood Games II included a similar section and it is a helpful read.
Creating Your Association
The group begins by creating their own branch of Her Majesty’s Arcane Service. The GM can decide how much starting “capital” the organization has, or they can roll 1d20 on the included chart. From there, you determine what kind of organization this is, once again determined by random roll or selection, and including entries such as Witch Hunters, a trading company, military, government diplomats or even simply an extended family. The book provides a helpful, short description of each entry.
Now, the group selects their home base, and a two page chart follows showing various entries, and their cost depending on their placement (broken down to “In London and out of London”). These range from palaces to working farms to derelict castles to pubs, warships and even pocket universes! A very nice selection covering all “levels” of games.
The group next needs to fund Areas of Interest, defined as Guards and Security, Espionage, Warships, Transport, Medical, Arcane Library, Training, Cartography, Mercenaries, Artificers and Device Development, and Logistics and Maintenance. This section expands on each entry, detailing costs of pikemen, details on tomes and libraries, costs of mercenaries and more. The chapter ends with a helpful worksheet designed to keep the numbers straight.
I like this system, but the downside seems to be that it is geared towards something of an in-group “game” where each side haggles for what they think is appropriate. As I often GM for only one or two players at a time, a lot of that would be lost. A little crunchier than, say, the Angel RPG organization rules, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Creating A Character
Character creation is handled via a Lifepath system. You start at 10 years old and age through Apprentice and Journeyman stages before seeking out professional life. Come up with a basic, short concept and decide if you are making a Path character or a Non-Path character. You have two choices for character generation: Point Buy, which gives you 44 points for physical attributes (Strength, Coordination, Agility and Endurance) and 180 points for mental attributes (Intelligence, IQ, Magic, Lifestyle and Charisma), or a random roll method in which you use 2d6 for your physical attributes and percentile die for your mental. Next, take four “Mother’s Milk” skill ranks – that is, skills you would have had before the age of 10. Find an Apprenticeship that suits you. If you meet the prerequisites for it, you’re fine…if not, you can make a waiver roll on a d20 to bypass those requirements. This grants you 9 skill ranks/attribute increases. Next comes Journeyman, which is handled the same way. From this point on, you can decide if you want to take a Path or not. If so, that opens up new skill and attribute opportunities, as well as special abilities. Then, you begin selecting professions. You take one increase per year spent in the profession with an additional increase for every six years in the profession, and you can change at any time. This persists until the character is “aged” appropriately. Every two years in the profession, you have an opportunity for advancement, which can increase your Lifestyle. For finishing touches, add 7 levels of Traits, which can be taken from a sample list, or defined by you. One example from the Traits section featured a character using his 2 ranks of “Goad” on a guard. You calculate your Constitution score from your physical attributes, select starting gear and you’re finished.
The chapter continues with a brief note on die mechanics. The Starpool system which powers On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service uses a d20 die pool with every roll under the target number counting as a success. Also, like BGII before it, a character only advances once a year, and is assumed to have approximately one major adventure a year.
I do love Lifepath systems. I generally find them to be much fun. I am a tad different in that I largely prefer a slightly more random element to my lifepaths, but I have long thought that the Starpool lifepath system to be a very solid system.
After the outline of character creation mentioned above, the book goes into much deeper detail, including discussion of Deterioration, which becomes a reality as characters enter their mid 30s.
Next we get a listing of Apprenticeships. Each listing has Prerequisites, Waiver Rolls, Lifestyle and Skills Available. You can take an apprenticeship as a Thief, Warrior, Hunter (not to be confused with the magical character type), Priest and more. From there is the listing of Journeyman entries, which has the same detail and includes being a Thug, Soldier, Sailor, Trapper, Squire and more. Finally, we get listings of professions, such as Pirate, Artist, Explorer, Engineer, Priest, Lord, Spy and much more.
A sample character, Sir Edmund Teague, is created for our perusal. Teague is a point buy soldier turned Esotericist.
Half-Angels are just as they sound, but with a twist: While not born of a union between humans and angels, they are born of a lineage in which an angel has previously bred, and they have a latent gene which has activated. Half-Angels are always twins, one with light coloring ad wings and one with dark coloring and wings. Normal humans are incapable of perceiving Half-Angels for what they are. As in BGII, Half-Angels are so rare that if there are two in a party, the book STRONGLY recommends that they are twins. Half-Angels can fly, heal, make flaming weapons, and communicate telepathically. Once they have declared allegiance to the light or dark, they gain access to a few more powers, such as Auras of Light or Darkness, or emitting pure Awe or Menace.
Immortals have a destiny that MUST be fulfilled before they can die. Once they die their “first death” they become trapped
in that form for the rest of their existence. They can’t even learn new skills, though they can “forget” ranks of skills and reassign those ranks to new skills. Only when they accomplish what they were fated to accomplish can death take them.
Changelings come in two varieties: fairies who have been left in the place of human babies, and human babies who have grown up in Faery. Fairy Changelings can access some oof the more magical Paths of Power, while Human Changelings are just like humans, physically, except they always exude just a bit of that fairy magic on them. They can learn some fairy magic, but can never take a Path of Power.
Hunters are kind of like the setting’s answer to Slayers, except gender neutral. They are humans enhanced by magic to fight the darkness, and are capable of low-end wire-fu type combat.
The Esotericists are scholars devoted to learning the secrets of the supernatural world, and combine all manner of mystical, scientific and religious study to that purpose. They can cast spells, create relics and have magical Grimoires that house their knowledge.
The Magus are followers of the Archangels, and the ones that imbue Hunters with their power. Each Magus follows a single Archangel, who grants them power over the areas that the Archangel lords over.
Templars are Holy Warriors. Once called, their creation also releases a Demon from Hell. The Templar knows its name and some of its personality, and is tasked with sending it back. Templars are also granted a small selection of Miracles they can use on their adversaries.
The Savant is basically a magical scientist, using logic to master mysticism. Savants can create Wards, read Astrological charts, Commune with spirits, create dimensional pockets, and more.
A Warlock’s main schtick is summoning spirits. They can call them, anchor them and even clothe the spirits in flesh. Warlocks have a very bad reputation, but aren’t inherently evil.
Cunning Folk use “folk magic” to achieve their ends, but neither they, nor their targets, realize that they aren’t actually using magic, but merely reinforcing their target’s belief in the desired effect.
Minstrels are similar to the classic Bards from Dungeons & Dragon, using their music to achieve effects bordering (and sometimes crossing that border) on magical. They can boost or lower a listener’s attributes, and even affect their memories.
The book shifts to normal humans and how they view the types of magic that they are even aware of. As well, it provides for an otherwise unpowered human to have developed some manner of “gift” from their contact with the supernatural: a talent that isn’t normal and can’t really be controlled.
OHMAS Skills and Traits
Skills give you extra dice to roll when attempting a task. If you are riding a horse and have Riding +3, you roll 4 dice (you always get one) and try to roll under your target number. For every five levels in a skill that you have, that’s a Level of Mastery, and that grants you a reroll if you fail. Simple and effective.
The skill list itself takes up four and a half pages, and that’s a bit larger than I tend to like for a skill list. However, the less than crippling penalties for not having a skill makes that slightly less annoying.
Next, we cover traits, which I went over above. Just short descriptors to flesh out the characters.
Finally, we get a look at unarmed fighting styles…specifically, Boxing, Brawling and Wrestling.
This chapter plunges headlong into the Seven Sacraments of the Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Unction, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Penance, as well as a fairly detailed description of each. Then the book moves into the differences between the Roman Church and Church of England. This section also touches on Calvinists and Puritans.
The chapter rounds out with Tests of Faith for confronting Demons and Vampires and the like, Tests of Will for the less devout to fend off Demonic Influences and rules for Possessions.
Yes! I love adventure generators! This one is pretty straightforward. Get a d20 and roll on the tables, or move through them picking for inspiration. You start with a rumor, move to a place, a table for finding out what is behind the rumor, how much the association stands to gain from the adventure and “sweeteners”. Then the book helpfully provides a list of adventures made with the generator.
Finally, there are bounties which can be tacked onto the adventures and up the PCs overall standard of living.
Another fine chapter after my own heart: Need to generate an NPC and don’t want to put a ton of work into it? A series of tables that let you roll up on NPC, including quick rolls for attributes, personality hook, skill levels and more. As well, the book also provides a handy list of pre-made mercs, thugs and mooks to be used, hired and dealt with as need be.
We get a quick overview of how Magic works in BGII, namely using a characters MAG points as placeholders for magic effects. The chapter explicitly points out that no Magic is permanent, even magic used to empower items. Magi and Minstrels use MAG points differently, using them up in a session, with them returning at the next one. This chapter includes the Laws of Correspondence, the rules which govern the use of magic in the setting.
The chapter concludes with a list of very common spells, common spells, uncommon spells and rare spells.
Starpool Dice Mechanic
An in-depth chapter detailing just how the dice mechanic works, from basic d20 rolls to Quality of Success (every ten points of success is an additional level of Quality of Success). As well, the book provides a fairly common sense guideline of what attributes a given action should fall under.
Initiative is handled like everything else: Roll a d20 and lowest roll is best. However, you can move up or down the initiative chain by adding or subtracting resolution dice. That is, if you roll a 10 and want to move faster, you can give up one of the dice you will roll for your action and drop to a 7 on the initiative chart. If you are convinced you can succeed and don’t need to go quickly, you can add an additional die to your action but move your initiative to a 13. Armor modifies the target number to hit someone, and combat has a bit of a death spiral where you take penalties as you lose Constitution points to damage.
In combat, Levels of Mastery grant you additional attacks, whether or not you succeed on the initial attack. This chapter also discusses Healing, magical and otherwise, as well as bits like splitting dice pools for actions (pretty much as simple as it sounds).
Creatures and the Spirit World
This is pretty much the bestiary of the book. It begins with a discussion of the Spirit World, the inhabitants therein and how to enter the Spirit World. The Spirit World presented here is a lot like the Astral Plane in a good deal of other sources, with the silver cord tethering the traveler to their body. It also details spirits crossing over into the physical world, such as by following the severed string of a now deceased traveler in the Spirit World.
A large list of spirit creatures are present, from the fire-based salamanders, to hags, demons, nymphs, ghosts, devils (these are the fallen angels of Christian lore) and djinn (and much more). The book then moves into other creatures like zombies, lycanthropes, and even skeptics, normal people whose skepticism can disrupt magical powers. One glaring omission is vampires, who are mentioned at the beginning of the book as being enemies of humankind, and from whom the whole Blood Games title comes from.
Next is a detailed discussion of fairies, all of whom are born the same and later grow into a different kind of fairy depending on how they live their lives. A few, like elves, can pass for human and live among humans, often in leadership roles. Other fairies include ogres, trolls and redcaps on the darker end, and brownies and piskies on the nicer end.
Weapons and Equipment
Pretty much what you expect: A sprawling list of weapons, armor and equipment available in 16th century England. The neatest part is the discussion of the importance of equipment, such as how important clothing was to 16th century England.
While there is no chapter break here, I’m sure there was probably meant to be one, but we move into the counties of England. Very helpfully done, this lays out the 39 counties of England with about a paragraph on each and a URL for a map of each county. This ends with an overview of the counties, which should probably have gone first.
Government and Politics
This provides some insight into the political structure of England in the 16th century, discussing Parliament, courtiers, nobles and so forth. The chapter then moves to a less generalized discussion, talking about the people of Elizabeth’s court from the Queen herself, and including Lord Robert Dudley, Mary, Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Raleigh, Dr. John Dee and even William Shakespeare.
One of the first things this chapter points out is that the second the game begins, history has been changed, so if the PCs wind up altering things, let it go. Good advice. No plot immunity for you, William Shakespeare! From there it touches on things like Flashbacks, Foreshadowing and different kinds of play, including Generational Play where the PCs play different branches of their family tree, perhaps battling an adversary throughout different eras.
Appendix A: Optional Rules
This gets into optional rules like Plot Points (which can make an action an automatic success or failure), Troupe Play (everyone has multiple characters) including different types of Troupe Play (Mission Impossible style has the group leader selecting the participants for each mission, for instance).
Lastly, the book ends with an index, a character sheet, a character creation worksheet (for tracking advancements in the lifepath) and personal information sheets.
First, again, unless you hate PDFs, buy the PDFs. The art looks MUCH better. As for the game itself? I’m not a huge fan of the “alternate history England” thing (although its pretty much only alternate due to the presence of monsters and the PCs). For me, I think I would prefer Blood Games II and the more modern approach. However, OHMAS clocks in at over twenty pages more than BGII and still feels more tightly written. The Association rules and the Adventure Generator are great additions, as is the fairy material. The absence of vampires seems odd, but if you have Blood Games II they should plug right in with no problems. Clash once more does an amazing job for what is pretty much a one man operation. All of the various character types feel unique against one another, even if aspects of their mechanics work the same (such as Magi and Minstrels burning pools of Magic points each session).
If you like horror games (specifically, heroes fighting the darkness) games, and you especially like historical games, drop the 10-spot on the PDF. If you are living outside the US, then that’s pretty much the only option unless Lulu has stopped killing people on shipping. Very strong recommendation.