This article first appeared in Portuguese, on RPG Notícias, and is reproduced here in English with the kind permission of the author, Thiago Rosa.
Like most cariocas, I have a love-hate relationship with imperial Rio. On the one hand, it gave rise to various iconic elements of the city and cemented Rio cultural importance to the country. On the other hand, it was a period of extreme inequality, which served as the foundation for virtually every social tension in the city. It was with a mixture of excitement and fear that I supported the Kickstarter of Malandros, an RPG using DramaSystem written by Tom McGrenery.
As soon as I opened the book and found a quote from Bezerra da Silva, I relaxed a little. When I saw the pictures, I was genuinely excited. When I read the mechanics for axé, Malandros won me over completely due to the combination of good rules, good prose, excellent research, respect for the historical period and the charm that only imperial Rio has. We had a very nice chat with the author Thomas McGrenery. Come along! Don’t forget your hat, straight-razor and white suit.
1) Before we get going - who is Tom McGrenery?
Oh, you know. Just some guy.
2) Malandros' take on Brazilian culture is more faithful and well-researched than most Brazilian fiction. What led you to take such in interest in Brazilian culture?
Some time in August 2008 a guy I knew invited me to come to the opening day of his new martial arts centre. I didn’t really want to, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to say no, so I went. They offered two free intro classes: one for Wing Chun, one for capoeira. I came back the next week for more capoeira -- and you can probably guess the rest.
3) Why is DramaSystem the best choice for Malandros?
DramaSystem enables a laid-back, unguided story with decentralised plotlines. By distributing the initiation of scenes evenly among all the players, you get an experience that provides surprises for everyone, including the GM, creating interwoven and often quite complex plotlines that proceed form individual characters pursuing their emotional needs and players choosing to follow the things that most interest them.
This kind of story is possible with other systems, of course, but it requires control and active decision-making on the part of the group. With DramaSystem, the game’s structure handles all that for you.
4) The Kickstarter for Malandros was wildly successful – correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks like you met all stretch goals but one. These stretch goals included several alternate settings, but the one that got me really interested is the mini-supplement for Brazilian supernatural. Is there any story or creature from Brazilian myth you find particularly interesting for a Malandros campaign?
The shapeshifting boto is such a good fit that it’s almost too obvious - and even if you are not running a game that explicitly features supernatural creatures, the mere existence of the supplement helps the players to inhabit the historical setting through “bleed”. A girl in your neighbourhood comes back from visiting family in the country, pregnant. She says the father was a strange creature from the river that became a man. Perhaps (maybe probably) you don’t believe her, but if you as a player know that there’s a little book made for the game that talks about this creature, it makes it hard for you to be sure about that.
One of the difficulties in using the creatures of Brazilian folklore in Malandros is that the game is urban but most, if not all, of these legends are very rural. The supplement will contain suggestions on how or why these creatures might come into the lives of city-dwellers.
But I also think this is one of the interesting ways to use them - it highlights one of the themes of the game: people and things of the country moving to the city. And the urban environment can add a twist to how a legend usually appears. Imagine a creepy city park after nightfall, with the corpo-seco living somewhere among its trees.
5) Are there any talks in place to bring Malandros to Brazil, in Portuguese?
6) Malandros uses a rotating GMs system by default. Why did you take this decision?
This was a setup that turned out to work very well in playtesting, so I wanted to specifically cater to the option. I started off writing things like “if you have one permanent GM, do this... if you are rotating GMs, do this....” but it turned out to be simpler to write with the assumption of rotating GMs. After all, we normally take turns GMing anyway - we just tend to swap at the start of a new campaign rather than after one or two sessions.
It’s also a little bit of a trick for setting up the neighbourhood where the PCs live. If everyone makes a PC and creates interlocking relationships for them, but one person is always the GM after that, then what you’ve really got is a bunch of PCs and one well detailed NPC who the PCs all know and who has compelling story hooks with at least a couple of them.
7) DramaSystem uses playing cards instead of dice as a randomizer in its SRD, but you chose to use dice in Malandros. Why?
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 chance of success.
Malandros doesn’t work that way, and the reason for this difference is the outcomes each game is designed to produce. Hillfolk emulates ensemble TV dramas, such as Deadwood, Peaky Blinders or Battlestar Galactica.
Malandros draws on the legends of historical capoeiristas, modern telenovelas and novels like O Cortiço and Capitães da Areia. These stories more often involve characters who are connected but go off in different directions to follow their individual agendas. So the Malandros 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.
For the actual procedural system used in Malandros, you could employ cards for it too - the important thing is the flat probability distribution. A single d6 gives a more manageable range of numbers to think about in play, though.
The mechanic of expending abilities and the probabilities at work in procedural rolls reflect something of the game’s philosophy. I don’t like to talk too much about this publicly, because I don’t want to diminish the play experience, but in this case we might consider the proverb “o valente não existe”. (Note: This means something like “There’s no such thing as a tough guy.” As with many proverbs, translating it perhaps pins it down too firmly to one meaning.)
In Malandros, a single character with the right abilities can guarantee at least a partial success for one, two or maybe even three times before they have to refresh their abilities. But if you find yourself unprepared, perhaps when another player calls you into a procedural scene before you had the chance to get your Capoeira rating back, you are rolling a single d6 just like anyone else, and a 1 is as likely as a 6.
How this relates to the themes of malandragem, fortune and poverty, and to the proverb above, I leave as an exercise for the reader.
8) Malandros places a good amount of emphasis on malandragem and it couldn't be any different. However, recently the very idea of malandragem has been heavily questioned in Brazil, mainly because of political corruption. Do you think malandragem is a relic from the past or will it shape itself into something else for the future?
If we were to set out to defend malandragem as a good thing, we might say this: malandragem is a natural and understandable reaction a no-win situation.
When a society is arranged so that you can never get a good result from playing by its rules, why wouldn’t you set out to play your own game instead?
It’s fair to say that for the ordinary people of Brazil in the 19th century, working hard and doing as they were told did not get them a great deal.
The same is often true today. But - at some point, the malandro has to question himself. Are you really being forced into your actions, or are you only trying justify them to yourself and others?
Malandragem has innate limitations. It sidesteps society’s rules but it can do little to change society so that malandragem is no longer necessary. Also, it’s a short-term approach to life. The tragedy of the malandro is that, by and large, he has no future. He is always one step ahead of those chasing him, but where is he going? What will he leave behind when he’s gone?
In terms of malandragem’s future, I think it will always exist, as long as there are ways in which the state fails and as long as individuals can see an easier way to have a good life than the options society gives them.
If you want an optimistic angle on this, I think you can use the concept of malandragem in your interior life, without hurting others, so that you don’t value yourself or others only in terms of the expectations of the people around you. The romanticised view of the malandro is an illusion, but it contains an important lesson: no matter what, anyone can be carefree - at least for a little while.
9) What are your favorite RPGs?
This is a tough question. WFRP remains a favourite, along with Feng Shui, DramaSystem (of course)... and I have a strange fondness for Starchildren, an obscure game about aliens who come to Earth for the rock’n’roll music.
10) Are you playing any ongoing campaigns at the moment?
Yes, I am in a weekly online game of Dungeon Crawl Classics and a play-by-post Apocalypse World campaign set in an abandoned shopping mall. And on weekends here in Hong Kong, we have a face-to-face group where we play all kinds of one-shots and mini-campaigns. It’s usually a different game every week.
11) What was your first RPG and when was the first time you played it?
Advanced Fighting Fantasy, when I was 9 or 10 years old - though I didn’t quite understand the difference between it and the way my friends and I used to play the Fighting Fantasy “choose your own adventure” gamebooks, with one person reading and the others deciding what to do next.
So the first RPG where I really got what was going on was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition, which I first played in 1992.
12) What are your plans for the future, now that the crowdfunding for Malandros is over?
I am working with two artists, Linus Larsson and Josephe Vandel, who are producing colour paintings and a customised city map respectively. I am also finalising the details of photo licensing for the book with the Pierre Verger Foundation in Salvador.
Once the main book is ready, I have some bonus PDFs to write myself, including the Supernatural Creatures supplement, for which my friend Claytonian, a talented artist, is already sketching the illustrations. And there are also the bonus settings written by other people, which I aim to release as soon as I can after the main book. I know that Mark Galeotti has almost finished his Russia setting already, so I guess his will be one of the first to be released.
The Kickstarter backers have already received the “basic” PDF, and I will revise the Malandros book based on their feedback as well as adding the artwork and photos. If any of your readers are interested in becoming backers now that the Kickstarter is finished, there’s an option here to join via Payhip: https://payhip.com/b/bPDh