It is always encouraging to see new creators enter the fray. Whether it be in film, writing, or game design, their efforts are the lifeblood of industries that need new blood to keep from stagnating. The longer companies remain in the same design space, the more they risk becoming safe and boring instead of interesting. It takes experimentation to create something new and that will capture the minds of audiences and excite us with unfamiliar experiences. Of course, the nature of experimentation requires a lot of failure before we meet those successes. Mayhem, with its bevy of ideas and influences, contains more failures than is does successes. As intriguing as it is, it is also ultimately an unfocused game that needs more polish to be worthy of your time.
Mayhem is in something of an early stage. Volume 1: Core Content, contains everything necessary to play the game, make characters, and get a general understanding of the setting. According to Midnight Campaign, more will come in future volumes, including a Kickstarter to fill out the game line.
In its current form, Mayhem is a fantasy combat engine first and foremost. The immediate question as to why you would use it as opposed to the monolithic fantasy combat engines of D&D and Pathfinder, or more specialized games like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Savaged Worlds, could only be answered by a level of unique quality that Mayhem does not meet. That isn’t to say the game is completely worthless. There are moments of beauty in Mayhem, and ideas I would love to see fleshed out. As it is, they are buried beneath too much uncoordinated complexity.
The book’s organization is refreshingly intuitive and easy to use. Rules are in logical places and take up only enough space to explain themselves. Making characters requires jumping around the book, but only to the extent that is usually necessary. The pages have elegant graphic design, with intricate yet easily identifiable symbols which link to their appropriate chapters and help you navigate your way through. Mystical landscapes greet you and inspire you to believe in great adventure ahead.
This quality does not last very long, however. The watermarked sigils on each page sometimes clash with the text, changing its color in the middle of a sentence and making it less legible. Character art, which makes up the vast majority of art in the book, can only be described as subpar. Not only are proportions often jarringly unnatural, something about the way they were inserted in the book make them look like they were pulled directly out of a spiralbound notebook, lines and all.
Looking at the character sheet is incredibly telling about what the process of making a character is like: the style is intriguing and the sheet is clean, but it is covered in so many calculations and special modifiers that you are immediately overwhelmed. The aspects of your character are individually interesting, though when making a character, it is difficult to understand how they come together in the end.
Every character has a core set of basic attributes: strength, agility, endurance, willpower, intuition, charisma, and cunning. These are all fairly self explanatory and they range from 3 to 12, which you can assign via point buy, randomly, or through some pre-generated distribution tables. The attribute score will correspond to a skill die according to a chart. So, for instance, 8-9 is a d8 and 10-1 is d10, which you will roll in conjunction with a skill bonus. You would think it would be easier if the ability number was just the die, but those abilities also correspond to certain bonuses (which you find on yet another set of charts). Cunning provides a surprise attack bonus while intuition gives you a defense bonus. These bonuses apply to every attribute, so before you have completed the first aspect of your character you have had to check several different charts to see them corresponding to other information in inconsistent ways.
You also have skill points that you use to acquire skills, which add onto your attribute when making a roll. Every action basically comes down to a skill roll, which is very refreshing. You won’t have to worry about combat, social, or ability checks being completely different. Combat, saves, et cetera all come down to a skill roll, keeping things simple and comprehensible.
Mayhem’s math is a consistent point of confusion in game as well as during character generation. Skill checks consist of rolling your attribute die and adding your skill value. This system is simple enough and in practice it plays smoothly. What it also does is throws off probabilities in strange ways. Attributes are based on a separate system from skills, which makes trying to set a difficulty level completely untenable. I want something to be hard, so what is the a reliable roll when my characters have abilities between 1d6+4 vs. 1d8+2 or 1d10+0? With a minute or two I can figure that out, but these kinds of things need to be done on the fly multiple times per session. There are suggested difficulties for many skills as well as modifiers for various situations, but it is hard to determine whether these difficulties are based in anything statistical. In practice I had trouble distinguishing between when I was doing things right or guessing at random.
In addition to those statistics, every character has a race, a curse, and a talent. The races are incredibly varied, allowing for animalistic, demonic, divine, fae, shapeshifters, undead, and humans. Some of these races are actually curses you can apply to your character, such as the ever amazing wererat. These dynamics are certainly different from your average Tolkien-inspired fare, and give you much greater customization. You can be anything from a snake person, a sleeper agent demon of plague, a Vanir, or a stone person to name a few Each of those races except for humans has six subtypes, all of which have basic abilities and additional ones you can purchase with character points. Already these abilities give you a lot to keep track of. They tend to have four abilities before you purchase any, which you need to find room for on the character sheet and keep in mind as you play the character.
There are also tons of special qualities that help you fill out your character. These are all bought with a pool of character points (a resource you also use to purchase additional racial abilities) Most of them are skill bonuses or combat based abilities, but some are more unusual mental techniques, such as eidetic memory or gathering contacts in an area quickly. Some of these are interesting, but it is clear that they are based around adding tactical depth to the combat. These collections of small bonuses add to that theme, but not in ways that are truly engaging. A few bonuses here or there or the chance to read an enemy’s weaknesses are cool, but there is nothing really exciting on offer.
You can also get weapon bonuses to help you specialize in an area of combat. Much as with the other abilities, the weapon techniques alternate between complicated and uninteresting. Worst of all is how many of these abilities you need to construct your character. It is only by purchasing a wide array of small abilities that you can incrementally make what you want. The point is abundantly clear: customization and tactical depth. You have those, but only after you wade through the mass of bonuses and penalties that it takes to determine who your character is.
Once you have your character made, playing the game isn’t all bad. At least not all the time. Checking through your abilities to use the best one for any situation has the feel of a deckbuilder, where you examine everything at your disposal to decide on your best course of action. In practice, this either slows the game down as you check through all of them or leads you to use the same few methods over and over. The GM’s job is to counter this strategy, which to Mayhem’s credit it says explicitly, but the extra effort feels like an unintentional hurdle rather than a purposeful challenge. Playing through this was a mixture of epic moments and frustrating slowdowns as we stopped to check for edge cases.
Combat, the meat of the game, mostly comes out of weighing these various abilities against one another, but the actual mechanics of combat are, like everything else, weighed down by special cases and numbers that you need to track. Everything is bent to serve the purpose of building a tactical, challenging system. If you can keep all of the options in your head, that is. Once you get past that high bar, you actually do have a great puzzle on your hands. You have to balance your abilities, combat ranges, opponent’s dominant hands, and their weapon types together. Weighing these decisions against one another, you have some good adjective decisions on your hand. Unfortunately, getting to these decisions requires digging through the morass of special rules required for each special case. If you have wings, for example, you have seven or so paragraphs of separate sets of different rules you have to keep in mind and balance against. Turning, raising elevation, and when you can open your wings have special calculations involved.
Mayhem makes heavy use of hexes to denote attack ranges and it makes which hand you are using crucial. The rules admit that they are litigious and optional but it is clear that many aspects of combat are built with the assumption that you use the rules as written. I have difficulty thinking of how intact this game would be if you nixed those sections. Many people do not use minis or have hex grids, so this will prevent some groups from truly interacting with the system.
The best part of the combat system is easily initiative. Order of actions is not static; rather your initiative determines where you begin on a combat wheel in relation to the other actors. You travel around the wheel in a clockwise fashion, and as you take actions you move forward on that wheel. Different actions have different speeds, creating a dynamic combat experience and wonderfully supplementing the tactics. Using a small dagger allows for quick though weak attacks while a greatsword will have slower speed but hit harder (just as it would work in real combat). If you have played Exalted or Scion you know exactly how this works, and I am very glad to see this mechanic resurrected.
The magic system (also made up of an enormous set of tiered abilities) also introduces some depth in terms of its feedback mechanic. As you cast spells, you take mental strain which adds up over time. Willpower determines how much you can take, and if you cast too many spells without resting you will start taking damage. Once again, the idea is frustratingly good but implemented poorly. The way you track this feedback is via another chart on the character sheet. The practice of it is not as onerous as it sounds, but only once you decipher how the numbers to the left correspond to the numbers on the right (but not the other numbers on the right). This system, whether intentionally or not, feels very similar to the Drain system from Shadowrun. I absolutely approve of lifting mechanics from other games and making them your own, but only if that adaptation is an improvement, or at least as good, but I am not sure I can say that for feedback.
Mayhem’s setting is the Crimson Realms, a land of magic and gods and…it’s there. Nothing about it is bad exactly, but you won’t be drawn in by reading it. There is enough to run with, as the land has multiple regions and a history of different ages that you can play around with. These ages correspond to different power levels and quest types. What there isn’t is anything new or any central conflict that leads you to engage in the setting. There is some talk of being the pawns of gods who really rule the plane, but this is more of an aspect to the setting that you are free to ignore or use as you see fit.
In answer to the question of why you would use Mayhem over its antecedents, it’s that you wouldn’t. Mayhem itself describes the core pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplay, which is precisely the same for competitors that are more polished and higher quality. Mayhem has all the love, energy, and sincerity of an early career designer, but unfortunately it also has the subpar quality as well. The game doesn’t function as intended, however noble that intent is. I want to see more from Midnight Campaigns, but I do not want to play Mayhem as it currently exists.
Mayhem Volume 1: Core Content
Designed by: John Goff
Published by: Midnight Campaign
Ages: 13 and up
Mechanics: Roleplaying, Tactical Combat, Point Buy Character Generation
MSRP: Free (Pdf)