Malmsturm is a roleplaying game from Germany, based on the FATE Core roleplaying system. It does not contain the FATE Core rules (those you can get for free over at Evil Hat Games), but it brings you a fully fleshed out Sword & Sorcery world, as well as additional rules and materials you can use in your grim & gritty fantasy campaign with FATE Core.
The FATE system stands out among more traditional RPGs because of its use of so-called “aspects”. These are brief but vivid and inspiring descriptions of characters, places, weapons, tools or other things that might be important to the narrative. Aspects usually not only hold either positive or negative qualities, but allow room for ambiguous and double-edged intepretation – and can have a significant impact on the direction and content of the story during roleplaying sessions. It is this particular narrative element of the rules that defines the core of the setting of Malmsturm: A world with a “dramatic” reality, inspired by the Sword & Sorcery genre of fantasy. Stories and the characters within it, their emotions and thoughts, their will and imagination, affect reality itself so fundamentally that the people expect to see dark clouds and thunderstorms looming over the field of battle. Just as they know that the wrath of a barbarian warrior can shatter shields and swords, and that even the spirits of the earth can become slaves of lust and passion.
Thus every corner of the world of Malmsturm is literally shaped by its history, the stories told within them and about them. This means the world is like a sheet of paper that is constantly written on by the the will and fantasies of its inhabitants: An age-old empire, that resembles the fever dream of an expressionist filmmaker. A half-forgotten borderland ruled by stern religion, in which even the bloodiest of Grimm’s fables become reality. And barbarous lands, like the bloody stage of an arctic Heavy Metal opera …
Wishes, desires, fears and even hatred or prejudice all have a direct impact on what the people experience as the reality of their world: Particularly infamous and dreaded city districts never lack violent villains, just as seemingly naive and peculiarly friendly and trusting folk tend to overcome all odds and stand victorious at the end of a story. However, this leads not to an arbitrary jumble of emotions and preconceptions, but to an altogether reliable reality, which most people can usually distinguish from dreams or drug-induced hallucinations quite easily. But why is it that this world does not dissolve into a swarm of individual dreamlands or pure chaos? Well, first of all, even in Malmsturm the formability of the world is not so absolute that every waking thought of some child could make it fall apart and begin anew. But most importantly, all people live within the scope of the beliefs, wills and thoughts of all others, including those that lived before them. Thus the masses of different preconceptions, drives and faiths affect one another, which leads to their alignment, cancelation or dispartment – but also exposes the world thusly shaped merely to a limited spectrum of influences.
This is also the foundation of all that might be called »magic« in Malmsturm. In this raw and untamed form, though, magic would be far too chaotic, uncontrollable and dangerous, even for a Sword and Sorcery world like Malmsturm: The most likely outcome would be the self-eradication of all prospective magic-users – and indeed every child in this world knows that untrained bearers of magic talent pose a fatal threat to themselves and those around them! In turn, every magical training is first and foremost a purposeful limitation, a kind of channeling of the magical possibilities. Yet the core principle behind this basically applies to all endeavours in this world: Whoever posesses a strong will and a mercurial mind will find that few things are impossible – but without education even the brightest of minds can not imagine much for it to direct its will at. But with every bit of knowledge, superstition or belief, the power of imagination not only reaches further, but it is also confined, so that particular paths of possibility it does not even dare to tread.
In this world everyone would be well-advised to steer clear of a particularly famous highwayman or a notorious assassin, but to undermine the reputation of such enemies can be a far better defense even than a whole army of bodyguards (unless this army had a notable reputation of its own)!
Like so many Sword and Sorcery worlds, the world of Malmsturm is very old, which is to say: It has been inhabited by humans – or other intelligent beings – far longer than this has been the case in »our« world. Combined with the enormous influence that even hearsay can have on this dramatic reality, a downright dangerous scenario emerges, in which the youngest generations are always threatened to be crushed by the ever-growing tidal wave of historical »facts«, next to which all present undertakings must appear immitative and inconsequential. Because of this many highly organized societies, like the old Empire, which would in fact be very capabable of comprehensive historiography, decide not to use such capabilities and systematically ostracise such efforts. The naturally occurring errors of oral tradition in illiterate cultures mostly spare them these problems, but here as well the power of eons past is showing: In face of the great aftermath that the rage and the wishes of insurgents or ingenious thinkers can leave in their wake, the convictions of large societies, manifested over thousands of years, often prevent actual profound changes. Hence, not only on a grand national or continental scale one finds a range of universally valid characteristics. Also on a regional level, local legends or rumours often have lasting formative effects on the peculiarities of specific places, be it villages, houses and ruins or woods, marshes and mountains. Thereby, natural things may come into being and pass away without any meddling of man, but if maybe a particular rock or a lake should seem of great importance to the minds of many, and certain qualities are ascribed to it, this will have a bearing on the reality at hand! In this sense the world doesn’t only prove to be a consequence of its history, but a complex congregation of individual stories, that define the nature of all places, things and people, and that lastly find themselves within the game as aspects.
The history of the world of Malmsturm is not only tremendously extensive, but also largely forgotten over time. Yet still there is an overwhelming abundance of passed down lore – if often only in the form of myths and legends – in all regions and realms. Indeed, hardly any of the lore anywhere that is historical to some extent reaches back more than two millennia. Nontheless, mighty ruins and mysterious relics in many places hint even the simplest of folk at a far older and more involved history. Despite all that no significant change was experienced by most civilizations of the world during the last two and a half thousand years, after the ritual of Tartos subjected the lands beyond the Empire to a wave of cataclysmic alterations. In conclusion some scholars believe to live in a historical nightfall that can only be followed by deepest darkness. In fact, many classical Sword and Sorcery worlds are characterized by the notion of a »natural« becoming and decaying of all civilizations, as it has been portrayed most notably in Spengler’s »The Decline of the West«. Likewise the world of Malmsturm follows those examples and contains a long succession of high civilizations, which rise and fall in turn with each other.
But just as the adventures in the early times of Sword and Sorcery have all been short stories an novellas of very episodic character, rather than self-contained epic novels, every ending of a story in the world of Malmsturm can also mean the beginning of yet another tale! Since even though Malmsturm presents a seemingly static background, in all locations there are looming threats and challenges, that each for itself or in their entirety could become huge enough to sweep away the status quo of the past millennia … whether these developments are of epic proportions or episodic briefnesss lies entirely in your hands.
Heroes are strong.
Villains are powerful.
At least on the first glance morals play a minor role in Malmsturm, as well as in the whole Sword and Sorcery genre: Honourable knights, let alone the »paladins« of other kinds of fantasy gaming, you will search in vain, just like clear seperations in categories of »good« and »evil«. But that does not mean that heroes of Sword and Sorcery are strangers to the concept of honour. On the contrary. A code of honour distinguishes many protagonists of this genre – though here the key point is the personal element! Heroes like Conan, Kane or Jirel go their way and do not give a shit about conventions. Traditions often turn out to be exceedingly decadent tools for the convenient retention of power, serving only the interests of old-established and devious elites. In this world, acccordingly, the real menace often originates from the recognized and considered representatives of the respective ruling class – be it half-mad members of the incestuous imperial high nobility, dogmatists of the trisantian church, allegedly driven by holy zeal, or the faceless trade lords of the mysterious merchant league. Even heroes may pursuit wealth and glory. But where the villains of this world strive for power – meaning power over others, over subjects and servants – the efforts of heroes gear towards strength. In this sense strength not only means simple force, but can just as well represent dexterity, magical knowledge, martial expertise or even charm and wit – all of these are assets of the hero. They could get him or her power over others, but this is rarely the hero’s purpose.
Villains of Sword and Sorcery, on the other hand, primarily possess power, and almost always deploy it to acquire more power: Without their subjects, fanatic disciples or mindless servants, they are often helpless or cowardly. The most dangerous and probably most »evil« adversaries in Malmsturm and most Sword and Sorcery stories are an equal match even to a hero in direct competition! They could have been heroes, but instead of using their own strengths they succumbed to an easier, more decadent way at some point, that is only aimed at quick acquisition and retention of power in their respective society. But as a result of this the individualistic hero, whose faithfulness to himself makes him the exact opposite of the follower or even subject, becomes the power-hungry villains inevitable enemy!
Not all enemies are human villains or their minions. But even though Sword and Sorcery adventures don’t lack dangerous beasts to fight, they are usually very exceptional specimens of their kind – ones of enormous size or ferocity – or even truly singular creatures, be it monstrosities born from mutation and witchcraft or nightmarish beings from strange worlds and dimensions. Consequently, the world of Malmsturm is home to a manifold of dangerous animals that are deliberately based on examples from the diverse megafauna of our own earth history. Whole species of utterly unnatural Lovecraftian abominations, however, are no regular feature of local flora and fauna anywhere on this planet. The particular historical, physical and metaphysical circumstances in the world of Malmsturm alone suffice to have such beings appear in temples, as the outcome of a summoning or as ruin-dwellers. But while the Sword and Sorcery genre likes to somewhat individualize its truly beastly enemies, it tends to pit its humanoid enemies against the heroes in the shape of faceless hordes of minor minions and thugs, who are then effortlessly slaughtered – a preference that likely comes directly from the tradion of »pulp« adventure stories. But whereas fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien has a weakness for a diversity of humanoid »races«, some of which are firmly classified as evil and as sworn enemies, Sword and Sorcery is not only averse to simple black and white morals, but also illustrates a world that is predominantly inhabited by humans. When other humanoid peoples do make an appearance they do so in remote locations as degenerate remnants of practically extinct ancient species, whose empires bloomed and perished long before the humans. Similarly, in the hidden corners of the world of Malmsturm you can seemingly find such peoples, but on closer consideration a – you could say modern – particularity becomes apparent: All humanoid peoples in this world are, at least in their origins, human!
Just as it is ordinary humans that create the dramatic reality of Malmsturm, even the most monstrous peoples are essentially also »only« humans. Some – like the Qôroq Qôl – knowingly sacrifice their humanity in service of, how they believe, a greater purpose. Some were made to transfer their spirit into an ever-changing entity of living plants and animals after the death of their human bodies – and now live for centuries in the service of an age-old consciousness. Others live in the garbage of gigantic metropolises and embody the tragic consequence of reckless alchemical and magical contamination, while yet others dwell in an almost endless volcanic desert or in the darkness deep below the mountains as descendants of the victims of a cataclysmic malmsturm. Essentially it is a fact in this world – from the icy pole to the equatorial jungle – that even the most alien of peoples evolved from human ancestors – even if now they are thought to be monsters by other humans. In the world of Malmsturm there are no paladins or orcs – only hunters and their prey.
Malmsturm belongs to the Sword and Sorcery genre – and those stories are never told tentatively and with tremblings voices. Sword and Sorcery in turn has had a big influence on the musical genre of Metal – and these songs do not want to be played quietly. Whoever plays in the world of Malmsturm and wants to tell its stories, should drive forth ones fantasy with grit and determination: More anger, more desire, more blood and more danger are always the right way! Besides violence, also pathos has its place. In Metal many musicians are strongly influenced by classical music – and if at some point in the game it should seem as though the characters played parts in a grim Wagner opera this is no reason for concern! The formability of the reality of Malmsturm through the collective perceptions of the people also leads to a tendency to the extreme in all parts of the setting, which easily explains why the mountains here are higher and steeper, the beasts bigger and more ferocious, the palaces grander, the warriors bolder, the women fairer, the dæmons more dreadful and the battles more daunting. If – already during character creation – players and GM wind each other up in this regard, this is exactly right! Just a word of caution: Malmsturm – just as Sword and Sorcery and Metal – demands strong statements, extreme pictures and larger-than-life characters. But ultimately it is always about people. Even the stories of the mightiest heroes, even the ageless sorcerers and dragon riders, are about people in the end – super heroes and sparkling vampires belong into different worlds.