Malandros: Kickstarter

I am taking a couple of days break away from our Australian celebration (it will return tomorrow) to give a hat tip to the creator of Malandros, a game about historical Brazil that is currently being Kickstartered (link here) and has been funded, but there are some days to go and stretch goals to make!  It is a game that I have seen mentioned a few times by Google+ friends and in the end I was contacted by the author, Tom McGrenery to see if I could do a piece for him.  It was then that I took a closer look at the Kickstarter and I have to say that this looks to be a beautiful project, and one worth considering putting some money toward.

I sent Tom a bunch of questions and I think I will let his words and some of the involved artwork tell you all about this new RPG.

Tom, let us know a bit about you and your RPG history

My name’s Tom, I live in Hong Kong and I write stuff for roleplaying games. My first paid RPG gigs included writing for Feng Shui and Heavy Gear in the early 2000s. Around that time I also published a free espionage RPG called Impossible Missions online.

Photo of Tom McGrenery
The author himself! Tom McGrenery.

After that, although I have been gaming pretty consistently since 1992, I wasn’t involved in game publishing until a year or two ago, when I joined the writing team for Modiphius Entertainment’s new edition of Mutant Chronicles. I wrote parts of the core book as well as the Mishima and Whitestar sourcebooks. I’m also on the writing team for the forthcoming Infinity RPG from Modiphius.

Through my imprint Porcupine Publishing, I published Against the Unknown, a rules-light GUMSHOE adaptation, and two scenarios based on short stories from the classic pulps. Last year I translated and published the Brazilian indie game UED: You are the Resistance.

Historical Brazil is a bit out there for a setting, what is it about?

Malandros is a DramaSystem roleplaying game about ordinary and extraordinary people living in Rio de Janeiro in the last days of the Empire of Brazil. As a setting, it’s got everything. A bustling city, people from all over the world, ethnic and class tension, street gangs, sharp suits, magic, martial arts – and all of it based in real history.

You play characters in a tight-knit community caught up in tumultuous times: gang leaders, captains of industry, fishermen, martial artists, swindlers, musicians and more. You all know each other – you’re family, friends, rivals or enemies, all living in the same part of town.

As with the first DramaSystem game, Hillfolk, you all want something from each other. Maybe it’s respect, maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s fear, or something else. Whether you get what you want is something you’ll discover together as the game goes on.

Malandros uses an entirely new system for “procedural” scenes, which ties into the scene economy in a different way to that of Hillfolk. Robin Laws explicitly designed Hillfolk’s procedural system so that one character acting alone is unlikely to succeed – you need to get other PCs on board with your plan to have a decent shot at success.

Where Hillfolk emulates ensemble TV dramas, Malandros draws on the legends of historical malandros and capoeiristas, 19th century novels and modern telenovelas. So the procedural system lets you go off by yourself to do stuff, probably succeed if it’s something you’re good at, and get into trouble by yourself too. When it comes to dealing with the repercussions, that’s when you may want some help.

relationship map
A relationship map reminds me a bit of Deniable

The other half of the system in play is “dramatic” scenes. Those are largely unchanged from Hillfolk, which made playtesting a lot easier, since that’s a set of robust, already playtested rules. One important new thing is that dramatic scenes are now used to refresh your character’s abilities when you’ve spent them in a procedural scene. So you get a steady ebb and flow between the two types.

Malandros is the product of two years’ work on the game itself and several years more of gradually percolating ideas and influences. I started practicing capoeira in 2008. As well doing lots of cartwheels and kicking, you also have to do a lot of singing in capoeira. Many of the songs allude to Brazilian folklore and some are specifically about significant capoeiristas of the past, from your own master and his or her teachers, back to legendary figures like Besouro Mangangá in the 1920s, a plantation worker who allegedly could fly, and Manduca da Praia in the 19th century, a gentleman brawler who was a friend to influential nobles. I was also intrigued by the now largely lost capoeira of Rio, which we don’t know much about because of how the capoeira gangs were crushed by the government of the Old Republic.

I find these larger-than-life figures fascinating. People like Maria Doze Homens don’t topple tyrants or save the world – their stories are usually of scuffles with thuggish cops. But their individualism or their defence of the downtrodden has seen them pass into songs and legend.

As I kept working on the game I was exposed to more sources, like novels by Jorge Amado and Aluisio Acevedo, which moved the emphasis of the game from being just about street gangs to being about the communities that the gangs intersect with. It’s a more effective use of the strengths of DramaSystem and allows for a richer variety of characters – but you can still all be street fighting capoeiristas if you like.

It’s a world that’s unfamiliar enough to be fun but not so removed from what an English-speaking reader will be familiar with as to bog down the game session with uncertainty about the kind of technology you might have or similar questions. 1889 is in the era of the Old West and Queen Victoria, so if you’ve seen something in a Western or a Victorian-era film, you know it’ll be here too.

I should also mention that the stretch goals for the Kickstarter project include a number of alternative settings that apply the Malandros model to different eras and genres that have a similar dynamic, focusing on ordinary and marginalized people.

Paula Dempsey is signed up to write a Victorian London setting. Tod Foley will write a modern magical-realist setting called “Other Borders”. Mark Galeotti, author of Mythic Russia, will write a supplement letting you play among the gangster-businessmen of 1990s Russia. Stras Acimovic is on board to do a setting inspired by Babylon 5 and other SF works, and Steve Dempsey will do a Lovecraftian-weirdness setting called “Kingsport Shore”.

So, it is a historical RPG?

It is a historical game, but more important than the history is the milieu. It’s animated by the spirit of the malandro – the carioca archetype of the swaggering, sharp-suited guy who treats life as a game and plays it by his own rules. In places, the book’s artwork dates from years before or after when the game is set, chosen because it conveys the right sense of place and culture.

The day-to-day is more important to playing Malandros than the grand sweep of history. For that reason I’ve tried to convey the background with a light touch. There are no dates or big events to remember (OK, maybe that slavery was abolished the previous year). There are no info-dumps of facts or important personages. The milieu is expressed through what I hope is an easy-to-read introductory chapter, the artwork, the scope and wording of rules, and so on.

Era relevant artwork of man playing Ukelele to a woman
Some of the beautiful artwork that the Kickstarter is essentially for

At one point I was researching the police forces of Rio in 1889, which is a fairly complex subject. I was quite deep into the history books when I had a moment of realization: I’ve managed to enjoy American cop shows for years without knowing anything about, say, the NYPD except for the fact that they have uniformed cops, detectives, captains who are in charge and, I don’t know, a commissioner or something at the top. So why was I trying to foist more than that on players of Malandros?

On the other hand, during in-house playtesting we often found ourselves asking questions like “what kind of beer would we be drinking?” So I am adding a food & drink page to the book.

Magic, to use a very broad term, is an important component of the Malandros milieu. Regardless of what you or I might think of the efficacy of traditional amulets and rituals, they’re a big part of the culture that the Player Characters and real people like them inhabit – both then and now in Brazil. The game allows you to be agnostic about the cause of lesser magical effects, and to dial up the overt supernatural nature of things if that’s what your group wants.

It may seem odd that you can allow an in-game effect but claim to not be sure if it’s really magic. But here’s a real-life example: around 1920, the capoeirista Besouro fought with the police on a regular basis, so much so that people started to say he couldn’t be killed with bullets. Was he really bulletproof? Whether he was or not, it certainly took them a long time to kill him.
In your game, however, you may have to decide on the presence of magic. Lesser effects might be psychosomatic, but others might not be able to stay undefined. During one of the playtests, my PC acquired an amulet that gave him the corpo fechado (“closed body”) as Besouro was said to have, making him immune to man-made weapons provided he didn’t break certain taboos. The first time its properties became relevant, the GM asked me “Doe the blade just miss, or does it strike you but not leave a wound?” I didn’t realise until later, but he was giving me a chance to establish whether or not we’d have overt magic in the game.

The artwork and imagery is powerful and stylised – how important a part do you feel that it will play in the final product?

Very. There are a lot of things in Malandros where showing is just so much more effective than telling.

That’s the reason for running a Kickstarter instead of just releasing the game as-is. There is a wealth of fantastic art available from the period. But many of the people and activities that feature in the game don’t show up in contemporary art. Rich white people – no problem. Everyone else? The pickings are comparatively slim. So I need to get custom artwork done or license specific photographs to cover those gaps.

Malandros cover
The Malandros cover perhaps?

What do the play testers have to say about it?

I’ve run three in-house playtests and have blind playtesting scheduled for later this month – after the Kickstarter but before the POD book is finalized.

The second in-house playtest began as a tentative request to my group to try out my new procedural system. We ended up playing for ten episodes, rotating the GM slot each episode and even creating a second set of PCs who overlapped with the first. The resulting character relationship map is probably baffling if you weren’t there, but we managed to keep track of things OK.

Here’s a quote from one of the playtesters:

As someone who played an excellent 10 week campaign of this, I can’t recommend Malandros highly enough.

Our Rio was everything you’d want from a telenovela, complete with fraught love triangles, mysterious strangers from the past, people trying to make ends meet whilst slumming aristos try to find their place in the world.

Oh, and a man with an amulet that made him invincible so long as he never lied and never held anything back.

This is definitely a product that’s worth taking a punt on!

Stuart Chaplin


This game sounds very intriguing and I know that I have a lot of readers out there that would consider this a must have so get on to it while you still can.  There is around a week to go on the Kickstarter and you absolutely must open those stretch goals up!  Keep rolling!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.