I suspect Nathan Quill’s Middenarde Medieval Roleplay is unlike other games in your library. It’s a gritty game set in the Medieval British Isles (with a focus on England), and it is very well written. I’m sure there will be gamers who’ll be delighted by Middenarde, relish it and champion it. I’m also confident that this tabletop roleplaying game will be too far from the familiar path for other gamers and they won’t like it.
I’m going to try, in this review, help you decide which of those tribe of gamers you belong too. That said the 113-paged book will only set you back US$15 and you can check out the previews from DriveThruRPG so for little money you could download Middenarde right now and decide for yourself.
Middenarde is a medieval fantasy RPG. There is magic in it. The supernatural is real. This is a game that puts history in the spotlight and horrors of the folklore night lurk around the edges.
The focus on realism brings elements of bookkeeping to Middenarde. Day-to-day survival is not taken for granted in this setting. At the end of every day, you’ll be asked what your character managed to do to feed herself, and there are penalties if you cannot do well enough. There are malnutrition rules. Food that is ‘easy’ to come by is rarely good for you. There are rules for dysentery, malaria, smallpox and you get the idea.
There is some abstraction in remembrance insofar as the weight of things get rounded into ‘units’ and characters without the right skills or training can only carry 20 units without penalty.
The game uses vitality points for living things (health points for objects), and damage to people is locational. Your character’s head, torso, two arms, two hands, two legs and two feet could take damage, and each one of those locations has a ‘severing’ threshold. Your head, for example, has a severing threshold of 25% and this means if you ever take 25% of your maximum VP then it’s cut off. Also, if any part of the body takes twice its severing threshold in accumulated damage, then it becomes crippled.
How do you recover vitality points? Having someone trained in medicine helps but you do recover by enjoying proper sleep. As I hope I’m beginning to illustrate, Middenarde has carefully thought out, tightly defined, rules for sleeping. If you manage eight hours of good sleep, then you’ll get back 10% of your maximum VP and sixteen hours returns 25%. However, if you have to leave your bed for more than an hour you’ve not had a good sleep and nor can you sleep well without a bed or bedroll, or if you suffer from exposure while resting. All of a sudden the dull routine of adventurers finding a place to sleep, in time for everyone to get a night’s sleep while rotating guards, becomes a small adventure in its own right.
The last bit of the rules I’m going to talk about is combat. Characters have three dice pools; attack, evasion and block. You could have d4s, d6s, d8s, d10s and even if you’re lucky, d12s in the pools. Bonuses and penalties might change the number of sides on your dice as to influence your highest possible score, the number of dice in the pool or might automatically take your highest roll away.
Items like bucklers and shields have their own blocking pools.
The game uses a combat grid. Quill insists these grids don’t need to be impressive maps and can just be sketched lines with initials in the squares to illustrate where PCs stand and where NPCs or monsters are but they must be used.
Middenarde is county
There you have it. This game is nicely balanced but does require you to keep track of quite a few totals.
I’m not a crunch gamer. In my regular weekly game, we roll dice infrequently. I’ll go for abstraction and drama every time rather than min-maxing, and cunning character stat builds.
It would be fair to conclude that Middenarde isn’t the sort of RPG I would like. Fair, but wrong. Even before my playtesting, I had a strong feeling that Middenarde would work for me. It took just a few scenes and encounters to convince me. I like this game! Middenarde is county but in this RPG the bookkeeping seems measured, appropriate and it adds to the careful attention to detail you need to survive in this world.
However, the county does bring in aspects that some grognards might not be able to forgive. Middenarde’s character sheet is a spreadsheet. The PDF links to a Google Sheets which, to use, you copy over to your own Google Drive. There are formulas, some in hidden sheets, that calculate your totals based on core values. In fact, Middenarde doesn’t even say you need polyhedral shapes to play as digital alternatives to traditional dice are fine.
Seen drama in gaming blogs when the latest console game needs an always-on internet connection to play? Even in solo mode? Middenarde needs a computer, or smartphone, with an internet connection at the table. I’m cool with that and have been for years.
In the game’s introduction, Nathan Quill describes a typical dungeon crawl in which the heroes solve traps, venture past skeletons and search for the treasure. In Middenarde the PCs have more in common with those skeletons than the heroes.
In Middenarde the PCs aren’t special, and Quill urges that they’re not spared for the sake of the plot. That’s the biggest mouthful I have to swallow in the game’s whole pitch, and I disagree. PCs are always slightly peculiar, and that’s why there is a plot in the first place.
There are no classes in Middenarde. There are no stats in Middenarde. It’s equipment that makes the big difference… and, yeah, there’s a set of rules to govern the quality of equipment, its repair and deterioration.
This is a supernatural game. Characters do have, and this does affect game mechanics. The four human ‘races’ are Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Nordic and Roman. As an example difference, Angelo-Saxon characters add one to any mental skill check, Celts get to add one to any Fitness check, Nordic characters get to add one to any Roguish skill checks, and the Romans enjoy plus one to any Productive skill checks.
I was worried that I didn’t know enough about medieval reality in the British Isles to bring Middenarde to life in the way the game deserves.
That worry began to dissipate as I read through the game. It completely vanished after my playtesting.
Medieval England is far more crowded than I first imaged. If characters don’t venture off into the wilds of Scotland, then they should be able to walk from village to village. That means if characters have money they should be able to buy food. Middenarde feels like a survival game, but it isn’t survival horror. There’s no death counting ticking above people’s head. Characters can play safe, if the plot allows, through the entire game and they can meticulously plan for adventures. The setting and the mechanics are a good match.
This is a time of religion, and I learnt a lot about the rise of European Christianity from this game. It feels very much like a fascinating period of history to explore. Superstitions are rampant and given that there’s actually magic in the world, spells for characters to pick from, I think the ordinary folk are right to worry about such things!
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Middenarde. It’s different, but it’s the right sort of different.
On reflection, a lot of Middenarde’s success comes from Quill’s lucid writing. It’s an RPG to read. When the game introduces a system or mechanism that’s a little unusual, you don’t really need to re-read the paragraph to work out what is supposed to be going on.
Middenarde RPG is worth checking out. Download it from DriveThruRPG.
Disclaimer: My copy of Middenarde was provided free for review.