Review: Miseries & Misfortunes

The original Miseries & Misfortunes was a zine which hacked B/X to adapt it to an early modern setting. I’m definitely into early modern Europe as a roleplaying setting – it’s part of the appeal of Lamentations of the Flame Princess to me. So when I saw a Kickstarter for a revised and expanded Miseries & Misfortunes set in 1648 France, I backed it pretty quickly. I then ignored most of the updates except those pertaining to shipping and delivery (as I generally do – I am much less interested in Kickstarter updates for projects than creators seem to think I am, unless of course the project starts running late or going off the rails, then I do appreciate the updates). I then travelled back home for my Summer vacation and a whole bunch of packages from Kickstarters backed across the last 3 years all landed at once, so although they probably arrived spaced out over 6 weeks, I received them all at once upon my return. I have been reading through these in the order it takes my fancy, I have only recently gotten to Miseries & Misfortunes.

That’s no zine, that’s a full book!

What an absolute gem this revised version has proven to be! A 212 page paperback printed on quality paper which feels nice to touch, lavishly decorated with period engravings and nicely laid out with the right balance on most pages between white space and rich information. Perhaps more surprising to me, almost all of these pages are game materials – not information about the setting as I had half expected. A second book, entitled 1648, focussing on setting material, will be available in a few months. Until then, there are plenty of history books and online sources you can use to learn about France at this time. Besides, the real “value add” of this book to someone who knows the setting is how Miseries & Misfortunes skillfully adapts Basic Dungeons & Dragons into a game with truly comprehensive coverage of this historical setting. Anything I ever considered “gameable” about 17th Century France has been captured and distilled into simple, familiar OSR mechanics by Miseries & Misfortunes. The game covers romantic swashbuckling in the style of The Three Musketeers to rather grittier rough and tumble street fights in Paris during the Fronde to the nefarious supernatural conspiracies of the Affair of the Poisons to social combat fought out in the press and palace alike between the highest members of society.

An OSR game with a social combat system? Yes, and one which actually feels entirely mechanically consistent with the regular combat system at that. Likewise, the game includes rules for what is collectively called “magic” in classic Dungeons & Dragons but which is presented in a form which feels true to “magic” as practised in the 17th Century (with the arguable difference that in the game the magic might actually work). A new experience system is presented where each class (called lifepath in Miseries & Misfortunes) gains experience for achievements relevant to that lifepath, rather than killing things or collecting loot alone. These are notable differences to most OSR rule sets, but they are presented in a way which feels like a natural evolution from the original Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules. This is an OSR rules set which proves that you can build on the rules light foundations of the OSR to truly support another style of play altogether – not just to adapt essentially the same game to a new genre.

The treatment of magic and chymistry is particularly appealing to me. Rather than merely present a list of 17th century “themed” spells but otherwise retaining the basic Vancian spellcasting system of Dungeons & Dragons, Miseries & Misfortunes provides a system based on grimoires, drawn from a vast library of real sacred, secret, and forbidden texts drawn from history, each covering different magical fields and topics. The equivalent of “divine spellcasting” draws on religious texts, and “arcane spellcasting” on decidedly less wholesome works. Using the system you will be able to make potions and poisons, summon demons, and cast spells, just like the shady characters of the Affair of the Poisons did. Many historical RPGs struggle with the topic of magic, but by treating it within the context of the belief frameworks of the age in which Miseries & Misfortunes is set, the magic system feels “native” to the historical period, rather than an intrusion from fantasy.

The inclusion of a social combat system in an OSR game may cause some eyebrows to rise, but for the feeling Miseries & Misfortunes is aiming to evoke, I am convinced such a system is totally necessary. Further, the system is both easy to understand and interesting – and will facilitate plenty of emergent storytelling in play. It combines with points-based systems to track Reputation and Wealth. I found the Wealth system a little complicated to understand at first reading – and required a little bit of flicking back and forth to see how the various parts of the system seemed to interact, but I think I understand it now. In practice, the Wealth system is less abstract than the wealth system and purchase mechanics found in d20 Modern and I think it will be smoother in play. An abstract system is probably necessary to preserve an historical feeling in rules-light game set in an era where coinage is still highly non-standard and confusing and where player characters can come from any stratus of society – from the lowest of the marginaux to royalty.

When I first backed this Kickstarter I did so hoping for a book which I could occasionally raid for resources for my Lamentation of the Flame Princess game. What I got was far more than that – this is a game I am absolutely going to run in its own right. What’s more, it is a descendant of dear old Basic Dungeons & Dragons which manages to feel completely distinct from all the other descendants of Basic Dungeons & Dragons on my shelves. This game is proof that you can still do new and exciting things with an OSR base, whether you’d call the end product “OSR” or not.

I got my copy via Kickstarter, but you can buy the PDF at the publisher’s website. I expect the game will become available again in print around the time 1648 is complete, at least I hope so. There has already been one additional print-run on a limited pre-order basis after the fulfillment of the initial Kickstarter and the publisher’s GenCon booth, so there may be further pre-order runs soon too. Keep your eyes out, because this gem is well worth it.

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