First Look: On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service

OHMAS cover

I recently got a copy of Flying Mice Games’ RPG “On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service” from RPGNow (RPGNow Affiliate link). The 234-paged roleplaying game is a perfect example of an interesting game that suffers from poor layout, some unreadable fonts and artwork of varying quality.

On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service is a RPG set into an alternate mid 16th century where magic, vampires and demons are real. Queen Elizabeth has just recently risen to the throne of England and has established a secret organization, the Arcane Service, lead by her Astrologer Dr. John Dee. The players are members of that organization and are tasked with the defense of the realm against magical assault.

That premise was what made me interested in OHMAS in the first place. The 16th century is pretty much uncharted territory (at least when RPGs are concerned) and I like the idea of the player’s being some kind of arcane secret agents of the English crown. Alas this awesome premise is marred by poor execution.

Layout from Hell
Most of the book is laid out in a two column format, where the left column contains only the titles of the paragraphs on the right column and vice versa every other page. And to add insult to injury the text is left-aligned and not justified which makes it pretty hard to read. A proper layout would not have made things easier to read but also significantly reduce the length of the book.

Introduction and background
But let’s ignore these problems for a while and focus on the game itself. The book starts with a short introduction on the setting, the world’s history and the current religious and political situation. This introduction helps to set the mood but is much too short to give a proper overview of Europe in the mid 16th century.

Character types
The next section explains the different types of player characters in detail. There are Path characters, champions of various parties with magical abilities, and Non-Path characters who are mundane people who use their skills in any way they can to resist the Creatures of the Night. Then Hunters, Templars, Half-Angels and other characters are described with a few paragraphs each. Alas this section left me with more questions than answers.

The next chapter details creation of an association. An association is the structure of the organization the player character’s work for. The player characters’ association is created in several steps determining type of association,  funding, home base, areas of interest, guards and security, and many more details. A wealthy association may even own warships and/or a well-stocked library. The concept of an association reminded me a lot of the Ripper Lodges in the Savage Worlds Rippers campaign, but is much more detailed.

Character Creation
The next section of the book finally describes character creation. Characters are described by five physical attributes (Strength, Coordination, Agility, Endurance and Charisma) and the non-physical ones (Intelligence, Magical Potential and Family Lifestyle). Players can either create their attributes randomly by rolling the dice or by distributing 44 points between the physical and 100 points between the non-physical attributes.

The skills a character knows are determined using a lifepath system. The player starts with 4 ranks of Skills he acquired before he was 10 years old, then he decides on an Apprenticeship. At the age of 16 the character becomes a Journeyman in his chosen profession. Basically a character can enter any profession he chooses, as long as he meets all the requirements. I think I have mentioned before that I am very fond of life path systems and usually they help to create interesting characters with ease. OHMAS provides players with a lot of career choices including but not limited to the Thief, Archivist, Bounty Hunter, Dancer, Musketeer, Lord or the Playwright.

Character Options, Paths and more
The following section “Character Options” describes how characters can follow one of the Paths (like Hunter, Esotericist or Templar) or how to create Half-Angel or Changeling characters. The different Paths are described rather detailed and sound very interesting. But alas the whole character creation section shows that this book is in dire need of a 2nd edition that is properly laid out. I had to constantly flip forward and backward several pages to barely understand what the author wanted to tell me. And often concepts and/or rules are mentioned long before they are actually described in the book. And the strange layout isn’t helping.

I surrender!
I have to admit that reading through the rules is not really enjoyable. The more I read the more tedious it gets. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that OHMAS is full of great ideas and a fresh setting that could be a blast to play in. But the deeper I delved into the book the more it felt like work to me. So I decided to conclude the first look at this point. If you are interested in reading my thoughts on the rest of the book, please let me know in the comments below and perhaps I will write about the rest of the book at a later date.

Some clarification: I usually try to avoid bad reviews. When I don’t like something, I don’t review it. Sometimes when I am excited about something but I haven’t had the time to write a proper review, I do a first look. First looks are based on a first read through, sometimes just I just have leafed through the book several times. While I still think the premise is awesome and that it shows that the author put a lot of love in this game, I just wasn’t able to write a good first look about it. Too many things (like the layout) have put me off. And perhaps if I have a lot of free time, I will give OHMAS a second chance. The idea behind this game is just too cool to give it up so easily.

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

9 thoughts on “First Look: On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service”

  1. I have to echo your sentiments. I picked up the PDF in Zack Houghton's discount extravaganza and, while I liked the flavor, found the rules a little too difficult for me to really wrap my head around (mostly due to having to scroll back and forth constantly). My typography senses also railed against some production choices the publishers/authors made, but I really hope they keep working on it and polish it into a nice second edition.
    .-= Will´s last blog ..PSA: Rape Is Wrong =-.

  2. I am happy that I am not the only one who feels that way. The rules aren't probably that bad, but the organization in the book makes it very hard to wrap one's head around them.

  3. Apologies for the layout, Stargazer! Most people find my layout ugly but utilitarian – my talent for layout is non-existed, but I've worked hard to get it to that poor level. Apparently your reaction was more dire. I'll offer you your money back, and trust you to ditch the pdf, if you feel the game is not worth the money. The same offer goes to Will. I'd much rather a happy ex-customer than an unhappy customer.


    1. No need to apologize. And thanks for the offer, but I will keep my copy of "On Her Majesty’s Arcane Service". I know me, and I will probably give it another chance in a few months/years. I still find the basic idea behind the game very interesting and perhaps I can overcome my issues with the layout when I am in a better mood.

  4. I have to agree with Stargazer, but thanks anyway, Clash. I appreciate good customer service. Yes, OHMAS has problems. But I could give you a laundry list of problems with other games I love (like Pathfinder – my PDF is missing the A's in all the headers). I often get games just to use them for inspiration even if I don't like the specific rules, and OHMAS may fall under that category. But if I can just get my group to do a playtest maybe my mind will change 🙂 Regardless, it was well worth the price just for the ideas that it's given me.
    .-= Will´s last blog ..Hearsay: How to Add Myths, Legends, and Anecdotes to Your Campaign World =-.

  5. OK, Guys! If you ever have specific questions I can help with, email me at clash(underscore)bowley(at)yahoo(dot)com or PM me on one of the fora. I'm at most of them as flyingmice.


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