Thursday, 15 April 2021

[NEWS] Helvéczia: Announcement and Preview

Helvéczia: cover art by Peter Mullen

“Venture into a rugged land of stamp-sized, steadfastly independent petty states, populated with robber bands, pious clergymen, wig-wearing philistines, adventurous countesses, and wily cheats: the cantons of Helvéczia, a territory of forbidding mountain ranges and endless forests betwixt rival empires. (…) A re-imagination of old-school fantasy role-playing in a late 17th century Switzerland that never was, Helvéczia is a fast-paced and colourful game of guns, dames, deviltry and steel, based on swashbuckling tales, penny dreadfuls, local legends, and the strange stories of the Brothers Grimm.”

I am happy to – finally! – announce the forthcoming release of Helvéczia (pronounced “Helvetia”), my pseudo-historical fantasy RPG set in a strange alternate-world Switzerland. This is going to be a self-contained game system published as a 204-page hardcover ($40, so fully packed that I could not even fit a product list into it), and what’s more, a very sturdy and handsome boxed set ($60, so fully packed that together with the packaging, it is just barely below the postal shipping limit), with a cover painting by Peter Mullen, and player map by Sean Stone. We are now in the production phase where things are being printed, bound, and assembled: not yet there, but there-ish, and perhaps ready for a May release. And now, for the details – for that’s where the Devil tends to lurk!

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Concept

Helvéczia is built on a simple premise: what if old-school gaming was built ground-up on a different list of inspirations? What if their creators had watched the Three Musketeers and countless swashbuckling films about robbers, stagecoaches, and swordfighting scoundrels? What if, instead of the great American pulps, they read historical adventure, picaresque stories, and penny dreadfuls? What if the games’ mythical and folkloric inspiration came not from the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European tradition (with a bit of Greek myth via Harryhausen), but the Brothers Grimm, and the broader legendarium of Central Europe? What if Gary Gygax had set his campaigns in a fantastic Switzerland, the homeland of his ancestors, A.D. 1698? The game is an exploration of these questions.

To the death!
Like D&D is slightly different than a sum of its parts, Helvéczia brings the same transformative quality to its source materials: it does not strive for historical or mythical accuracy or a representation of any specific book, movie or legend that went into it; rather, it treats them as ingredients for a fantastic adventure game which freely mixes historical fact with historical fiction – and both of them with the modern imagination. You do not have to be a student of history or 17th century pulp literature to play and enjoy Helvéczia (although neither does it hurt if you happen to be one – as it happens, picaresque stories are often the precursors to modern adventure pulps, and immensely enjoyable). It is game first and foremost, and the Devil take the rest! Speaking of the Devil: you will certainly meet him at Helvéczia’s crossroads and seedy taverns, and the game shall teach you how to play cards with him – or how to thwart his plans with the Holy Bible.

The tone of Helvéczia is above all meant to be light-hearted and adventurous: from history, it mainly draws that which is action-packed, strange, and colourful, and does not dwell on its miseries. While life is certainly cheap in Helvéczia (just ask the young Giona Baruch, devoured by a pack of striga in his first adventure; or my own poor Brother Rodrigo Cordial, who perished in a failed first aid attempt – many such cases!), this is not a “grim and gritty” game, nor one about horror and atrocity. In the game setting, the Thirty Years War is a distant, dark memory, and the choice of the era is deliberate: it is a time of healing and reconstruction, although also a time which still has much of the past’s “gothic darkness” as well as its rustic, human charm. Helvéczia has room for darker tales and gothic horror (a sub-chapter discusses running doomed romances and similar fare), but its interest lie more in fast-paced adventure, tests of wit, social satire, and quick reversals of fortune.


Players' map by Sean Stone

Scope

Many old-school systems offer relatively simple hacks of the original games they are based on: their changes are mainly aesthetic, and do not go very far – they are broadly compatible with the (usually) B/X-based systems popular among old-schoolers. Helvéczia took a different path, more comparable to the likes of Stars Without Number or Wolves of God. This is a complete and in-depth reworking of the old-school game experience to serve its set of influences, while leaving intact the underlying structures of play. That is: everything is changed, but everything is in a familiar place.

The company prepares
for an adventure...
Classes, levels, hit points, spell memorisation, random encounter tables, dungeons and hex-crawling procedures are all present in the game, but all of them are altered to fit. Your character might be a Spanish Sharpshooter or a Polish Student, their weaponry might be a fine sabre and a brace of pistols, the Student in the group might know spells such as Dr. Mabuse’s Mesmeric Mirage or The Devil’s Astrology, and the Cleric might employ Judicious Lesson on a group of robbers or an advancing crowned serpent, but the end result should still fit like a comfortable set of clothes – although perhaps a different cut than you are used to.

Secondly, Helvéczia is a complete game. In the book, you shall find more than a collection of alternate rules: the game comes with a bunch of procedures, playing advice, context, and examples of play, 120 spells (most of them new), as well as a loosely described setting (the titular Helvéczia – although, as our more recent campaign in fantastic Catalonia proves, the basic concept translates well to other corners of late 17th century Europe). And that’s only the player’s half of the book: the Gamemaster’s Almanac contains plentiful gamemastering advice (both general and specific), adventure design methods, a bestiary’s worth of strange new monsters (foregoing the usual dwarves and giants we know all too much, it dips into the weird end of European folklore and the author’s imagination), comprehensive encounter tables, setting-appropriate magic items (many of them stemming from actual 16th and 17th century magical superstitions), and an appendix of random inspiration tables. That is: he core rules themselves are simple, while much of the book’s 204 pages is supporting material – designed to be helpful and fun, not overwhelming.

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Rules

A diabolical plan is
set into motion...
Helvéczia employs a quick, vastly simplified, old-school variant of the time-tested d20 system. This bears some explanation, as d20 does not enjoy a stellar reputation in old-school circles: indeed, games with this foundation are often excluded from the “OSR” label altogether (whether this makes the author a “shitbrewer” or False OSR Enthusiast is up for debate). Nevertheless, this is the lineage Helvéczia’s rules come from – and the results only retain the basic framework of the system found in 3rd edition D&D. The rules have been drastically simplified to allow for quick character generation and smooth, fast-paced play, and where it matters, they have been altered to follow old-school ideas. Some parts of d20 have been cut altogether (feats, the abundance of oddly specific classes, or the emphasis on tactical combat), and other elements have been significantly toned down or revised (the pace of advancement, skills, stacking bonuses, combat complexity). This is, I believe, a simpler, cleaner system than the original. The rules have undergone a whole lot of polish over the years; in fact, this is the second edition of the game, improving and expanding on the Hungarian-only 2013 boxed set in all respects – first and foremost in presentation and ease of use.

One feature of special note is found in the game’s closed advancement scale. Following the “E6” variant (the smartest take on 3e-era D&D that I know of), Helvéczia is a six-level system. No more and no less: characters, NPCs and monsters are all restricted to the sixth level. Not even the King of Spain or the aristocracy of Hell are above this rule – although they, of course, have a few tricks up their sleeve to even the odds. From combat abilities to skills and spells, all fit this scheme. Player characters typically start on the second level, as slightly seasoned adventurers who are a cut above the rest. Practically, the E6 power scale establishes an implied setting where none are super-powerful, but a combination of luck, ambition, and wits can save the day even in the most dire circumstances.

Ammertal and the
Oberammsbund
To mention one outcome of these rules, adventures designed for Helvéczia do not have a level designation: any company can attempt them, but a group of second-level beginners will probably have to employ a more careful approach than a table’s worth of sixth-level veterans. Second: fortune plays a strong role in the game (it is fairly “swingy”), and rolling with the punches or seizing a good opportunity are important elements during play. As a picaresque game, Helvéczia is filled with sudden reversals and odd detours – once up, once down; easy come, easy go. Third: where much of modern role-playing is about “the adventuring day”, resource management in Helvéczia is usually more of a weekly affair. Characters can expect to do much of their adventuring while wounded, low on spells, poor (money is relatively scarce, and easily spent on gunpowder, fast horses, and fine lasses), inconvenienced, or otherwise depleted: and they shall triumph nevertheless! Fourth: Helvéczia has somewhat weaker niche protection than B/X or the AD&D lineage tends towards. Combatant characters can excel at a few scholarly pursuits, and Students can stand their own in a duel – although they will be no match for a master swordsman like Álvar Diaz Garcia Vega de Valencia y Vivar (who also carries the sword of his distant ancestor, El Cid!)

* * *

Release plan

Helvéczia will be released in two formats, followed by a PDF release a few months down the line. The hardcover ($40) will form the basic edition, with the following content:

  • the A4-sized hardcover book (204 p.);
  • a double-sided, hand-drawn foldout players’ map, labelled on one side and unlabelled on the other;  
  • and a deck of cards to play with the Devil (this is a 32-card Hungarian card deck depicting the main characters of the Wilhelm Tell legend – ironically, entirely unknown in Switzerland proper).

The first supplement, Ammertal and the Oberammsbund ($14), shall also be available. This A4-sized, 72-page supplement includes:

  • a hex-level description of the two eponymous mountain cantons, with a wealth of ruins, strange homesteads, brigands’ nests and adventure opportunities;
  • three adventure modules providing examples of dynamic wilderness scenarios, dungeon crawls, and both the mundane and odd side of Helvéczia;
  • a handful of mini-adventures, additional materials, NPC adventuring parties and local legends;
  • two foldout hex map sheets depicting one quarter of the lands of Helvéczia, one for the GM, and one (with much left blank) for the players.

Generous treasures
are found in a chest!
Last but not least, the boxed set ($60) shall also be available for purchase. The Helvéczia boxed set – a sturdy thing packed to the brim – contains the following:

  • the hardcover Helvéczia rulebook;
  • Ammertal and the Oberammsbund;
  • nine map sheets, including the players’ map and four hex maps each for the GM and the players, respectively;
  • a deck of cards;
  • a folder containing character sheets, an almanac for timekeeping, and reference charts.

Shipping for the hardcover and the box set will be $23 to Europe and $28 Worldwide, while Ammertal shall ship at the rate of zines, for $6.5 or $8, respectively. Do note that the boxed set is heavy, and we had to be careful not to exceed the 2 kg (4.4 pound) shipping limit with the packaging. Accordingly, every box will ship separately from other ordered items.


* * *

Preview

The following 21-page preview provides the introductory chapter of the game with an example of play, a basic introduction, design principles and an “Appendix N”; and a handful of pages showcasing the game’s spells, GMing guidelines, and bestiary.

Helvéczia Sample (24 MB PDF)

45 comments:

  1. 3E lite? The devil is really on the details lol. Nonetheless, I'm curious and looking foward to it.

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    1. This is the reasons I drew parallels with Stars Without Number and Wolves of God. Helvéczia is an old-school game (and also a very rules-light one, perhaps one step up in complexity from B/X), but not necessarily "OSR" as it is often understood in the strict sense. Like SWN, it eschews mechanical purity to achieve a specific goal.

      It does have a skill system, although a rather simple one compared to the baseline d20 system: characters have a set number of skills, they have a fixed rating of LEVEL+Stat bonus, and they are either rolled against a specific difficulty (12/18/24 for Normal, Hard, and Heroic tasks, respectively), or against a competing roll (Counterchecks, a simple mechanism described on p. 8).

      I think I will post a few example characters and stat blocks to show how it looks; this was perhaps not entirely clear in the preview - but I did not want to write a novel.

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  2. To me, the most enduring memory of 3E were characters festooned with feats upon dependent feats like a forest of faulty Christmas trees. Helvéczia has none if that if I'm not mistaken.

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    1. The problem with 3E for me, beyond feats, are the skills. OSE made me don't want to go back to it.

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    3. As a playtester, I can assure you the game's genealogy is more of a historical curio than any sort of practical effect. The only things I can thing of that are specific to 3E and its descendants are the concept of critical ranges for weapons, three saving throw types and... honestly, that's it. The game might not about Elven thieves and Dwarven fighters fighting orcs in dungeons, but it IS definitely and old-school system, with a strong theme and some unusual but fun departures from the expected. There ARE skills, but they're handled much simpler than in 3E, and they're pretty strictly limited - you never get into ridiculous "1d20+35" ranges.

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    4. (and, psst, Fort/Ref/Will are the best Save system of any edition)

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  3. Congratulations! It will be exciting to see this project after hearing about it for so long.

    Will you be distributing this one through Exalted Funeral or just the EMDT online store?

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    1. I hope to deliver copies to Exalted Funeral, but this will be tricky. As mentioned, the boxed sets are heavy, and the usual postal cardboard boxes I tend to send EF with could only hold a limited number of them. On the other hand, pallet shipping is very much a step up from my usual activities as an amateur publisher. I will try to resolve the issue.

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  4. Aiee! The Final Countdown! Can't wait!

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  5. Can't wait! I'll take the opportunity to get up to date with the Echoes from Formalhaut and the other material I'm still missing!

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  6. Excited for this, as I've been enjoying your previous posts around the game. Looking at the preview, I feel like this is a rare case where all those old illustrations actually feel like they are adding to the book/setting/atmosphere rather than just a cheap way to put art into a game.

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    1. They were collected and selected over a period of seven years - there was some thought and effot behind them!

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  7. Looks really good but as I'm in the UK the VAT could be painful.

    Ordinarily no VAT on books, but adding the cards means it'll attract VAT. If split the supply, then only VAT on the cards.

    Also sending the box separately from the books it contains (if I read that correctly) will also cause some VAT issues.

    Ordinarily there'd be no VAT on the box as the books it contains would constitute the essential character of the supply. But sending the box on it's own, it'll be taxed as a box and incur VAT charges.

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    1. I believe I'm on the same boat as you. the cards will propably be a problem for me as well.

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    2. The way I read it is if you order, for instance, a few issues of Echoes along the Helvéczia box, the box will be shipped separately.

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    3. Might it not be a solution to order the hardcover book and the setting supplement, and just buy a deck of so-called German/Hungarian cards on your own?

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    4. It would be a cool VAT-hack to include the pack of cards prepared as a small booklet, maybe with pre-perforated pages, "cut out you own deck" style.

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    5. This is tricky since as an entrepreneur, I am a licensed book/map publisher. I can ship a boxed set with books, maps and cards (as long as the books constitute the main value, which they obviously do), but not a deck of cards separately.

      However, the box will always ship alone (due to weight issues), and while I will ship any additional zines/smaller modules for free, a separate order for smaller items is only $6.50 for European shipping, which can be easily divided among multiple small items.

      There may be some other ways too, but the laws be the laws! A deck of Hungarian cards from Amazon UK costs Ł6.99, and the broadly compatible Doppeldeutsche is Ł5.86 - that's robbery. Not to mention, they are red-backed instead of blue-backed, which all pro card sharks know is inferior goods! (Really.)

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    6. I think you didn't read that correctly - the intention was that the Helvéczia box + books need to be sent on their own (with the box containing said books), and without any additional zines or books - as only a few more grams will push the packet over the maximum weight for its shipping bracket and price.

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  8. Good luck with the release! Unfortunately I do not have a dedicated group which I could propose the game to.

    I would take this opportunity to ask you if you have some suggestions for readers interested in picaresque stories but without a deep knowledge of this genre and its setting. I have read Simplicius Simplicissimus but not much else, is there an author or collection you would recommend?

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    1. Melan holds this book as one of the quintessential picaresque inspirations for the setting, and it is a favourite of mine as well:
      https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34770

      The proper translation of the original title would be: An Adventurer of Ill Repute from the XVIIth Century

      Alas, I feel the whole of this English translation is stylistically lacking compared to the original. I suggest you to try finding another translation in English or whatever other language(s) you can read, for as excellent as the story is, a dry and lackluster rendition will lessen the experience.

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    2. Courage, the Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond is the original sequel to Simplicissimus, and it is great too. Courage is a true adventuress! (And not at all like the character in Brecht's odious didactic drama.)

      The best picaresque novel to check out, though, may be Lesage's Gil Blas. It is a thick book, but very fast-paced - twenty or thirty pages of it would make for a novel's worth of twists and turns in the hands of another author. It has a translation from the 1700s by Tobias Smollett (available at https://www.exclassics.com/gilblas/gbintro.htm ), and a recent one by Christopher Fisher ( https://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Gil-Blas-Santillana-translated-ebook/dp/B008C29V62/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=gil+blas&qid=1618610365&sr=8-2 - seems to be eBook only). As the ad copy notes, "Through all this emerges a portrait of a world filled with charlatans, swindlers and tricksters, robbers and pirates, libertines and courtesans, in which love is noble but seduction is frequent and entertaining." Apt!

      An Adventurer of Ill Repute is great, of course, but I cannot vouch for the English translation.

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    3. Thank you, gentlemen. Unfortunately it seems Boggs's English translation is the only available for Jokai's novel. Is its style terrible on its own, or it does not respect the original text but it is passable on its own?

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    4. You are welcome!

      Her translation is far from terrible, however her Victorian English feels stiff and dry compared to the juicy flavour of Jokai's original text (but that has more to do with the suitability of Victorian English for eclectic rascalry than her talent). For lack of a better option I do recommend reading her translation rather than missing out entirely on this book.

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  9. See, maybe the VAT is worth it for the extras. Tempting. At least I can do my Echoes order separately - I need Castle Sullogh!

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  10. I am very excited for Helvéczia - even going so far as sharing this blog post on the Israeli TTRPG Facebook group where it got some traction. I already have a session set up for early June with five very curious players awaiting, and have filled my Kindle with Picaresque novels for inspiration.

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  11. A real historical personage, none other than the infamous Venetian, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) comes across as the quintessential Helvéczia adventurer, at least to me. Known today by his romantic exploits, most of which weren't very romantic actually, he also delved into alchemy, summoned spirits to baffled noble audiences, translated Homer, got involved in courtly intrigue across Europe, was a spy, a diplomat, and escaped from the dreaded lead chamber prison at the Doge's palace in his hometown (and not hesitated to turn the story of this escapade to a lucrative showbiz stunt). His famous memoirs (and many scholarly texts derived from it) are available in many languages.

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  12. Been waiting years for this. Very excited!

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  13. Congratulations, my dear friend Gabor! I cannot wait to see the final product(s) and unleash them upon my unsuspecting Canadian players!!

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  14. This sounds really exciting!! So pleased with every product coming from this direction!

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  15. I'm curious. After skimming the sample I have the strange desires to reread Gothe's Faust. Okay the time period fits, but it's different to the inspirational sources you included. Strange. Nonetheless I'm looking foward to reading the whole book.

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    1. While Faust is not on the reading list (different tone), the name is found on the Student spell list: The Barrel of Dr. Faustus (1st level), The Searing Seeds of Dr. Faustus (2nd level), and The Dreadful Shield of Dr. Faustus (3rd level).

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  16. Faust as a figure has many popular versions, folk-tales and so on! Most of them were very clear in making Faust either the bad guy, a fool, both or just played for laughs. Marlowe and then, legendarily, Goethe transformed these folk-tales into...what they are now. So Faust as subject of folk-tales definitely has picaresque versions.

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  17. Oh wow! That cover by Peter Mullen is amazing.

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  18. I'm visiting this blog every day, hoping that somebody will finally TAKE MY MONEY!

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    1. It is coming together... but it is a long checklist we are going through! It looks like it will be ready in late May, but orders will only be open in June. I have a family wedding to attend to, and also need a break from work... so I'm taking late May off. By the time I'm back, everything will be in order for launch!

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    2. Thanks for the quick comment, Melan. While I have your attention, a quick question: I’m looking at Xyntillan here. How difficult would it be to run in Helveczia? Or in other words: would you recommend running Xyntilla in Helveczia or in a more traditional B/X hack? I’m thinking mostly about the ease of conversion on the fly since I definitely don’t want to do a proper conversion of a megadungeon.

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    3. I would not recommend crossing the lines. The module and the game came from the same creative spark (my interest in running an Averoigne-inspired campaign), but diverged very quickly.

      Xyntillan is specifically written for B/X-based games, and Helvéczia is not one, nor does it feature D&D's regular monster, spell, magic item, or even specific class roster. It also has a different power level and game balance. It is its own thing. Sending a company of Helvéczia characters into Xyntillan would probably get them massacred REALLY badly.

      There is a Helvéczia adventure set in a haunted castle inhabited by an eccentric noble family (it is kind of like a Xyntillan prototype) that will be released later, but it is much smaller, and plays very differently.

      For Xyntillan, I would pick up any of the games from the B/X lineage, from Moldvay to OSE.

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    4. Thanks a lot. You’ve probably saved me a lot of trouble.

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    5. Actually, here is something that should make sense to you: Helvéczia can play a lot like Rumcajs: The RPG (and parts of it are directly based on Rumcajs). Think of it as that kind of experience.

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  19. If memory serves, we played Xyntillan with KéK (a Hungarian OD&D hack), which, like all proper OSR systems, prides itself with wasting hopeless 3 hp losers mercilessly (it happened quite a lot), so I don't see much contradiction in running X. with another system also massacring companies mercilessly.

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