The Elephant and Macaw Banner
Two weeks before GENCON Online, The Elephant and Macaw Banner roleplaying game, written by Christopher Kastensmidt, came to my attention through casual conversation with several European gamers. At that time, the book had recently been shipped to Kickstarter backers. Unfortunately for me, it was unavailable for purchase in the U.S. As a history major in grad school, The Elephant and Maw Banner was particularly appealing. It marries Brazilian history, centered around 1576, with Indigenous, African, and European historical and mythological influences. With my interest piqued, I attended Kastensmidt’s talk at GENCON; the conversation surrounding his game, influences, and game theories was fantastic. This furthered my interest in the game, especially learning that it was also used in Brazilian schools to teach other aspects of Brazilian history.
To be transparent, Porcupine Publishing provided us with print and digital versions for this review.
The setting of The Elephant and Macaw Banner is one steeped in rich history. In the sixteenth century, Brazil was a cultural melting pot where many ethnicities and cultures met at a crossroads and somehow co-existed despite the European colonization and exploitation and the importation of African as enslaved peoples. On these historical truths, The Elephant and Macaw Banner is built. Still, the game’s setting does not focus on the negative aspects of colonization but rather plays up the people and cultures’ strengths, placing them in a slightly altered Brazil to be more fantastical than rigorously historic.
The game’s setting is focused explicitly on coastal Brazil, and during the late sixteenth century, many people were residing in the region. Kastensmidt has made it a point to make Brazil’s native tribes (Indigenous Peoples) central to the setting. According to his research, at the time of the Portuguese arrival in the early sixteenth century, there were hundreds of indigenous cultures, by some modern estimates numbering greater than 4 million people. The game’s setting highlights fifteen coastal indigenous tribes. European nations made frequent voyages to Brazil; by and large, the Portuguese were the most common Europeans in Brazil as they were the original colonizers. Nations with a permanent and semi-permanent presence also include the Spanish, French, and Dutch. Many other nations had vastly smaller presences in the area, namely merchants, sailors, mercenaries, researchers, and the like. Lastly, Africans and African culture has historically played a role in Brazil’s cultural development, and Kastensmidt has included two of the most identifiable African Peoples—Sudanese and Bantu. The coverage of each tribe, nation, or peoples provides a high-level overview of who they were, how they came to be in Brazil, what influences contributed to Brazil’s cultural development, and other similar things such as languages spoken.
At this time, the setting of coastal Brazil is more than just its people. “Brazil in the Year 1576” provides setting details to ensure the Mediator can immerse the players in the rich setting. The chapter details Portuguese settlements and indigenous villages (Tupi Peoples) in sufficient detail for players and mediators. Like the information provided about Brazil’s people, the sub-section “Weights and Measures” provides both players and mediators with extensive information regarding the various systems of measurements in use at the time. This includes not only physical weights but also currency and conversion between different systems of measurement. “Journeys” and “Goods” sub-sections provide details and examples of modes of travel and of the diversity of foodstuffs found in both the centers of trade and the Tupi villages. Some chapter elements are presented in short summaries that place them in context but are not as helpful as other sections of the chapters (e.g., The Jungle, The Sea, Animals, etc.).
For readers who love history, Kastensmidt has also provided an extensive 12-page timeline spanning 1500 to 1650; this can be found in the Appendix. The timeline provides key events related to Brazil and key events related to the world, each identified by a different color. The timeline gives historical context to those wishing to further immerse their players in Brazil’s historicity and its place in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The Elephant and Macaw Banner does not use a complex mechanical system to power the game. In fact, you need nothing more than three six-sided dice (3d6) to play. According to Kastensmidt, this was to ensure few, if any, barriers for teachers and newcomers. It was also mentioned that polyhedral dice are hard to come by and expensive in Brazil. Using 3d6, players and mediators (the term for the GM) can resolve all in-game actions and decisions.
The game uses a simple skill system to adjudicate any situation where the outcome is uncertain. This is the “Skills and Feats” system; actions are based on a skill test, while feats refer to the difficulty of the test. The skills available in The Elephant and Macaw Banner run the gamut. They are acquired at character creation or through gameplay. Skills are represented by three “level” dots—Level 1 (Apprentice), Level 2 (Practitioner), and Level 3 (Master). As characters develop through experience, skill levels advance by spending “Learning Points,” the game’s version of experience points. Each skill level conveys a bonus to a test die roll—+3, +6, or +9. Feats range from easy to legendary. Each represents a target number ranging from 12 to 21 (see inset). This target number must be met or exceeded to be successful at any test.
The Skills and Feats system works like this, a character with the swimming skill at Level 2 (Practitioner)—+6 bonus— wants to swim across a narrow but fast-moving river to rescue a villager clinging to a stuck log. The Mediator determines this feat is Difficult—target number 18—and the player then rolls 3d6, which results in a 4, 3, 6, totaling 13. Summed up, 13+6=19, which is great than 18. The player has successfully accomplished what they set out to do. All tests work this way; mediators may impose additional bonuses or penalties depending on circumstances. In rare situations, a player may need to test a skill for which they have no levels. In these rare instances, they may attempt it if the situation is truly an emergency, and the skill is categorized as a “General Skill.”
The Elephant and Macaw Banner is not a game about assuming roles or classes like those found in other fantasy games; rather, it’s a game about taking on the persona of a unique person with everyday skills. A Character is defined by Characteristics, History, Skills, Physical Condition, Defence, Energy, Money & Gear, and Weapons. Players have some important decisions to make during character creation, but the overall process is relatively quick.
- History – This narrative element defines who the character is and will typically include a short paragraph that outlines culture, parentage, motivations, occupation, and other similar elements.
- Skills – Represent the knowledge and proficiencies a character has. Skills are represented by three “level” dots—Level 1 (Apprentice), level 2 (Practitioner), and Level 3 (Master). Each level of expertise has additional cost requirements and conveys an increased bonus to Tests. Skills are broken into various categories: General, Wilderness, Weapon (w/ sub-categories), Martial, Social, Military and Naval, Crafts, Musical, Other Trades, Academic, Languages, and Magical and Miraculous Abilities.
- Characteristics – The more you know about your character, the better you can role play them. Here players will choose two or three from a detailed list. (e.g., Arrogant, Liar, Miserly). Choosing at least one that could be considered a flaw makes characters more interesting.
- Initial Gear – Players start with 10 tostões (1,000 réis) and some basic equipment depending on their background and skills.
- Physical Condition – All players begin with 10 circles filled in; this represents their current endurance (health). Tracked as a series of circles and brackets, as explained elsewhere.
Note: Chapters 1 and 2 have been compiled into a separate The Elephant and Macaw Banner Player’s Guide, all of which is player-facing information. This is available from DriveThruRPG for Pay What You Want.
The Mediator’s chapter is dedicated to the things a Mediator should know and be able to do while running their game. While this sounds rather daunting, it’s not. The chapter is filled with a plethora of tips and information that Mediators should read and can reference back to when needed. As they gain experience as Mediator, more and more of this easy to comprehend mechanical information will become intuitive.
It’s rather interesting the amount of detail that has gone into this chapter. Readers will find short, succinctly written sections covering a wide swath of topics from travel considerations to special combat rules, including several optional rules and additional rules covering commerce. The chapter then transitions into a bestiary.
The bestiary details fantastical creatures within the world of The Elephant and Macaw Banner. This section opens with an easy-to-understand explanation of how the bestiary entries are written and any specific rules about beasts’ skills and attack abilities. This is followed by 72 entries covering Brazilian-inspired mythological creatures and giant versions of regular jungle creatures. Only a few of the bestiary entries include art to show Mediators and players what these fantastical creatures might look like. Where the bestiary lacks imagery, it amply makes up for it in evocative descriptions in each entry. While not a substitute for artwork, it does go a long way in conveying the creature’s appearance. Mediators may be able to find other images with a quick Google search.
What fantasy game would be complete without enchanted (magical) items? As a mainstay of the fantasy genre, The Elephant and Macaw Banner also consider enchanted items an important part of the game. The Mediator’s chapter ends with a robust little section defining enchanted items such as weapons, potions, amulets, and the like. There are clearly defined rules for players wishing to create chanted items and an overview of “Legendary” items. Legendary items are those that are unique and extremely powerful. Additionally, they are so rare that they could be the entire reason for a campaign.
The Elephant and Macaw Banner includes a starter adventure with six pre-generated characters that will have players gaming in no time. The “Fires of Bertioga” is an introductory scenario for 2 to 8 players (ideally 4-6). Depending on players’ actions and playstyle, the estimated game length is anywhere from 1 to 5 hours.
This adventure takes place in 1576, in the village of Bertioga and on the island of Santo Amaro, both on the coast of the Captaincy of Santo Amaro (today part of the state of São Paulo). It’s a mystery Introductory Adventure: The Fires of Bertioga in which the characters have to find out what happened to their missing mentor, Sebastião de Veiga.
The adventure consists of several elements, such as overland travel, strange encounters, and of course, situations that could result in combat. The scenario’s design is meant for beginning players and mediators to ease into the game’s basic rules without being too overwhelming. The pre-generated characters are diverse in their backgrounds and provide a nice array of skills useful in this adventure.
Nearly everything you need to run the adventure is contained within these pages. Mediators will only need to reference other sections of the book if they need to refresh on how a specific rule process works. And there is nothing wrong with that!
The fifth and final chapter is the Appendices. Here, Kastensmidt not only gives us that 12-page timeline I referenced previously, but there is a very nice essay on using The Elephant and Macaw Banner in the classroom as a teaching tool. There is also an extensive bibliography and further reading list for those who would like to dig deeper into Brazilian history and other Brazilian adjacent topics.
The book is well written and beautifully illustrated throughout. Despite the shortcoming I noted with the bestiary above, the art direction and quality are over the top. The layout is clean and easy on the eyes. Each of the five chapters has an overarching color scheme, making finding information a breeze. The color scheme is subtle yet prominent enough to allow the reader to quickly identify which chapter they are in. The English translation and English copyediting are expertly done. Nothing egregious stood out to me as an editor myself. Professional experience has taught me that translated works can be a challenge. However, I noticed at least one piece of art used as a visual example must have been re-used from the original Portuguese language edition. This is by no means a show-stopper as the caption, and nearby text support the visual. It just stands out of place in a translated work. Speaking of examples, I would like to point out that in Chapter 1, there are copious amounts of examples in call-out boxes, which helps reinforce the rules in easy-to-digest snippets.
My parting thoughts are that The Elephant and Macaw Banner is genuinely unique, and while thematically different, there is a familiarity to it. Even if you know nothing about Brazil or world history in the 16th century, this book has everything you need to get you and your group playing while conveying a little bit of factual history at the same time. Kastensmidt’s approach to fair representation of ethnic groups in Brazil at this time is wonderful to see. Equally as nice is his approach to the spirituality (magic) system. Again, taking into account and accentuating the diversity of Brazil and its inhabitants.
If you’re looking for something truly different that will still scratch that fantasy gaming itch, The Elephant and Macaw Banner is a game you should look into.
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