When Dan Proctor of Goblinoid Games began a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year to publish a new RPG by Michael Curtis, I was –needless to say– intrigued. When Mr. Curtis explained it was to be a "Magic Noir" genre game in the vein of Harry Dresden and John Constantine, they had my money. Obviously they made their goal and the book is now in my hands.
First I'd like to say a brief word about the Kickstarter campaign itself. It was admirably run. The game was essentially written before they even started soliciting donations, which meant quicker delivery. They very specifically said up front that they weren't going to do stretch goals, which meant fulfilling those also wouldn't delay the product. There were regular updates and even a draft made available to preview. Bravo, gents!
The book itself is less than 100 pages total, laid out in a dense, but clear 3-column black & white format. This is more than enough to give you plenty of fluff and crunch. The artwork is by Mark Allen (one of my favorite from the current crop of gaming artists).
Now, on to the game.
Firstly, the premise. Like Call of Cthulhu and many other "modern supernatural" games, this takes place in the ostensibly "real" world. The PCs are –as the book describes– "...modern sorcerers enmeshed in a conspiracy whose roots extend back to the dawn of civilization." You aren't investigators dabbling in dark secrets, risking madness or death, you are the dark secrets.
Mr. Curtis goes on to describe the game as one of conspiracy. The Mehen, or "The Old Game", is an eons-old power play between various factions to control the magical world that operates behind the scenes of the mundane one. The author does a wonderful job of evoking imagery and tone and sprinkling the text with terrific little details to fire the imagination, but he balances that by leaving the exact nature of the world and the Mehen to the individual GM (or "Cabal Master", as he calls it). Do the Maji fight over ancient artifacts, ley lines, or bloodlines? All or none of the above? You decide.
MAJUS uses the Pacesetter system (CHILL, TIMEMASTER, etc.) and its Action Table mechanics. I admit to not being terribly familiar with the system, but it seems fairly straightforward. The crux of the Action Table is that it allows for margins of success. In other words, if you make your roll by a lot, you have a better result than if you barely succeeded. Likewise for failures. One thing to note is that the adits (spells) often have their own set of result codes, instead of using the basic table. I found this slightly irksome, but chalked it up to my unfamiliarity with Pacesetter rules in general. I think a smart CM will place the burden of keeping those straight on the players using the adits.
Skills and powers have base chances of success, usually derived from a simple formula based on relevant scores. For example, Stealth is derived from averaging DEX & Agility. This means a little bit of extra math at character creation, but once you've worked it out, just consult the results as you play. There is a good mix of skills and powers, allowing for a lot of individuality between characters. Remember, as written this is a game of intrigue. Even though you are playing a sorcerer, you aren't flinging fireballs at orcs. Skills and planning will matter a good deal as well.
A note on magic. The adits are a terrific mix of powers. There are conjurations, scrying, and even some combat magic, but the idea is that using magic isn't instantaneous. It can take time to cast a spell properly. This might cause some players used to swords & sorcery to chafe a bit, but really it's a question of genre. Good CMs will make sure this is clear to the group and structure their adventures accordingly.
In addition to "regular" magic, characters can also have "Paranormal Talents." These are more like psychic powers than spells (though obviously there is some overlap). As written, these are also more common among non-maji. Every PC starts with Aura Sight which allows them to notice whether something has preternatural properties (Aside: This reminds me of "Dimensional Sight" in Moldvay's Lords of Creation).
PCs start with a handful of adits and powers, in addition to their skills and scores. They are also assumed to have sufficient mundane resources to deal with supporting themselves. As a result, your starting PC ("Neonate") is already a force to be reckoned with compared to normal folks. At the same time, he is hardly immortal or invulnerable. I think the author strikes a good balance here. Your character is puissant, but still needs to be cautious.
The "Basic Action" section covers most of the situations you are likely to encounter in the game, including things like combat, poisons, radiation, vehicles, and disease. There are a lot of little rules sprinkled throughout this part, and at times I felt like it might be hard to keep track of them all, and a lot of page flipping might occur. Perhaps a handy reference sheet of all the situational rules might be in order? Or maybe a CM screen? :-)
The last parts of the book flesh out more of the default setting, with factions, NPCs, and some sample artifacts. There is a ton of cool ideas in here, even if you don't use them all. There is a section about "The Veiled Masters"; mysterious entities who appear to owe no allegiance and are often far more powerful than a typical majus. Their goals and motives are unknown, but as a plot device they are a useful inclusion.
What can I say in conclusion? I guess the best way to sum it all up is that while I love new settings and fluff, I am usually averse to learning yet another system of mechanics. MAJUS is something I would love to run, and I'm even willing to teach my group the Pacesetter system to do it.
Well done, sirs!
MAJUS is currently available in electronic format at Golbinoid Games' web store. I assume non-Kickstarter print copies are forthcoming.