Arthur over at Refereeing and Reflection has posted a review of the late ’90s British indie horror RPG Principia Malefex. His review is spot on and picks apart the clunky system, reactionary politics, and dreary setting stuffed with mundane details about everyday life in ’90s Britain.
I’m not going to defend Principia Malefex. I agree with essentially everything Arthur has written (as is so often the case). Despite all that, I nevertheless find Principia Malefex a fascinating curio of British indie gaming history. It not only predates The Forge, it predates indie games like Obsidian: The Age of Judgement (the indie RPG that originally inspired Ron Edwards to start The Forge).
Imagine a tabletop RPG written by Rust Cohle by way of Victor Meldrew. Principia Malefex must be one of the most misanthropic, nihilistic (yes, and mundane) settings in all of gaming – and that includes games like Kult and Delta Green (at least Kult positions humans as creatures of fundamental cosmic beauty). The central message of Principia Malefex is that humans are irredeemably selfish, cowardly, spiteful creatures, and possibly the most wicked things in the cosmos to boot – certainly a thousand times more evil than anything the morally indifferent Cthulhu mythos has to offer. It’s not a philosophy I personally subscribe to (though I still find myself drawn to it in art in the same way I find the philosophical pessimism running through Thomas Ligotti’s fiction both repellent and morbidly fascinating).
Having said all that, I can think of at least one use for Principia Malefex. I certainly wouldn’t use the actual system, but I think the setting might make a nice P.I.S.C.E.S. campaign set in 1990s Britain. Even mundane scenarios with no supernatural elements could be firecrackers if you threw a team of paranoid agents with maximum authority and minimal accountability into the mix. Add some Ramsey Campbell-esque grime (Principia Malefex was apparently designed in Bath, which lies in roughly the same neck of the woods as Campbell’s imagined Brichester), and I can only imagine the holes my players would dig themselves into.
I am perhaps more tolerant of the mundane in my games than most. I love mixing the crushingly, depressingly ordinary with a sprinkle of supernatural ultraviolence, as seen in films like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which blends mundane(-ish) kitchen sink drama with folk horror. Nevertheless, my players don’t share my odd proclivities, so even if I used Principia Malefex’s setting for a “bleak 1990s Britain” P.I.S.C.E.S. campaign, I imagine I’d still have to dial up the supernatural a notch.
Anyway, I appreciate Arthur taking the time to investigate one of the deep cuts of British tabletop role-playing. Speaking of “deep cuts”, perhaps next Arthur might be encouraged to review the 1990 edition (the 1st edition, not the more recent 2nd edition) of Blood! The Roleplaying Game of Modern Horror? I suspect he’d enjoy that one even less (it’s essentially a video nasty in tabletop RPG form), but it’s another odd curio in the history of British role-playing.