I backed The Elephant & Macaw Banner RPG two years ago on Kickstarter, and I’ve had it for months now.
This review is not a blog rushing out coverage of a game straight out of the oven. I’m writing this up because The Elephant & Macaw Banner is a great game; it stands on its own two feet. It’s also a game that leans into D&D or Western fantasy.
The Elephant and Macaw Banner begins with a note from Christopher Kastensmidt. He explains that, with effort, you can learn anything. As a result, the RPG does not use attributes to define physical and mental characteristics as natural abilities. You’re not born with them. If you want to be stronger, exercise. To be smarter; study.
It won’t be a surprise to learn that the RPG also does away with classes. You are not defined by what you did in the past.
The Elephant & Macaw Banner RPG system
Skills have three levels; Apprentice, Practioner and Master. Each level you have adds +3 to your 3d6 roll. That total has to beat the target number associated with an easy feat, intermediate feat, difficult feat or legendary feat.
That’s the heart of it. The skill lists make up a considerable part of the 220-page RPG.
Combat is deadly but straightforward. A melee attack is an easy feat but modified by the target’s Active Defense. Other attacks are more difficult.
The biggest challenge to learning The Elephant & Macaw Banner RPG is to keep the attack options in mind and what sort of feat they are. I can hear a specific style of person saying, “I didn’t know you can do that”, even though the book explains them clearly and there aren’t that many to learn.
The default version of The Elephant & Macaw Banner RPG is set in a version of 16th century Brazil, and that’s a version in which magic and myths are real. The game engine also supports supernatural powers.
Just as combat is deadly, this RPG system makes demands of its “magic users”. Supernaturally talented characters can study Faith, Breath or Ifa, but only one and may never use weapons or armour effectively.
Another chunk of the book is given over to spell lists.
The Elephant & Macaw Banner setting
I learned more about Brazilian mythology and related stories from this RPG than I had read in years. Monsters educate me, it turns out.
Frankly, had The Elephant & Macaw Banner done any less, it would have been useless. I don’t imagine myself having the time to learn Brazilian legends from books in addition to all the other reading I hope to get done.
The core RPG is about 150 pages, the rules engine and player’s guide take up the first 60 pages, the setting section the next 20 and then the mediator (the GM) guide the final 60. After that, there’s an adventure and appendices.
When it comes to the setting, we’re told about the people there, both indigenous (Tupi peoples) and Portuguese settlements. We get a quick overview of the land, including the jungle and sea, and notes on animals.
There’s a brief but helpful commentary about distance, weight, currency, food and how people get it.
Before reading the game, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to run it, that it would come across as some weird European filter of the setting. I hope that’s not the case now, and if it is, it’s my fault and not the book. I feel as if enough of the setting has been brought to life for me to do it justice.
There is, after all, that mediator’s guide which also gets into rules for exploration, encounters, what do between adventures and how commerce works.
Look and feel
The game looks great. The art is high quality and reasonably frequent throughout. Text flows and isn’t always boxed around illustrations.
Coloured boxes are used to call out stats. There’s an index that makes sense and a slim enough book that nothing gets lost.
I admit, the physical touch of the book is a bit weird. It’s not that it’s softback, but that the pages are shiny and have almost a plastic sensation to them. I know this is because of quality, I know it’s a good thing, but it still feels weird.
The atmospheric feel of the book is less weird and, instead, safely supernatural 15th century Brazilian as imagine is possible.
I cannot comment on whether or not the RPG feels like the Elephant and Macaw Banner fiction series the game is based on. I’ve not read it.
It’s a great game. The Elephant and Macaw Banner should well be people’s first RPG. Use this game to introduce people to the hobby; it’ll set them up nicely.
I want to call The Elephant and Macaw Banner an underrated game, but, in truth, the Player’s Guide for it (a different book) won an ENnie in 2019. It was a finalist in the Golden Cube Awards ad AGES Prize for Book of the Year.
- DriveThruRPG’s The Elephant & Macaw Banner Roleplaying Game.
- Amazon’s The Elephant & Macaw Banner story.
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