“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!
* * *
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.
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.
To the death!
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|
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.
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.
The company prepares
for an adventure...
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.
* * *
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
A diabolical plan is
set into motion...
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.
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!)
Ammertal and the
* * *
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.
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
are found in a chest!
- 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.
* * *
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.