Malandros – A Review of Roleplay in Old Rio

Malandros is a narrative roleplaying games that focuses on intraplayer conflict.  The latest game from Tom McGrenery of Porcupine Publishing that KickStarted successfully November 20th 2015


The setting is a neighbourhood in Rio de Janiro at the cusp of the end of the Empire of Brazil [] and the story is a chapter of lives of the characters who live there.  This is a vibrant, dynamic and dangerous place to be trying to make a living.  The book builds the sandbox for the character driven plot by dedicating a fifth of its content to the culturally unique aspects of the setting.  Dry descriptions of locations are avoided in favour of prose about commerce, music, religion, gangs, class strata and drink.  An investment of creativity is required by the players as they answer the prompting questions to set up their locale as no prepared characters or details are provided.

According to wiki-dictionary a malandro is a young criminal, punk or thug in Venezuela or Brazil; one conscious of image and status; preoccupied with projecting coolness and non-conformity, and willing to use violence to establish social status.  It sounds like Malandros could be just a gangster game with Portuguese overtones.  This is far from the truth as the book has much more to say, with character backgrounds for slumming aristocrats, fishermen and artists amongst many others.


As befits a narrative game, the characters are built on words rather than numbers.  In addition to a set of signature moves and abilities defined by one of the twelve character types, each character has a desire and a pair of dramatic poles.  The desire is the driving ambition of a character and is the key plot driver.  The dramatic poles are competing identities or choices that influence the character’s decision making.  A character with the dramatic poles of revenge and friendship will find themselves having to choose between forgiving a slight or plotting malice.  In play the dramatic poles are very useful if you become stuck trying to think how your character would act next.

Malandros uses a variation of the Drama System []. The core mechanic are the scenes.  Scenes are called by the players in turn and are about their character trying to get what they want from another character.  In setting up the neighbourhood, a web of denied wants and emotional connections are built, resulting in a tangle of competing ambitions.  There are two types of scenes that progress these ambitions.  In dramatic scenes two or more players act out a character trying to get something from another.  The party that gets what they wanted, even if it’s just a worthless promise, gives a drama token to the other.  These can be used in pairs or triples to force results in later dramatic scenes.  The other scene type is a procedural scene where a character interacts in a more physical way by, for example, going to work or listening for gossip.

In play, dramatic scenes can have a tendency to devolve into a sequence of one-on-one roleplays.  With the scene setup based on a character’s petition to another, getting multiple characters into a scene can be difficult.  The Gente e o Mundo has to use the scenes they call carefully to make sure characters aren’t getting left out.  The game hinges entirely on its characters.  Should a character turn out to be uninteresting, the player in questions is going to have a difficult time.


Starting with the evocative cover, the artwork in Malandros is amazing.  With the exception of the commissioned map of old Rio, the artwork and photographs are all from Brazil, many being from the Imperial period.  Whilst it results in an eclectic mix art styles, even the monochrome has a colour and life to it that makes it worthwhile to read the book just for the art.  This is helped by the A5 size as the images seem fit to burst from the page.  The snug format helps with the layout, preventing there from being too much text on any single page.  I would say near half the book is art, all of it giving you flavour and inspiration.

Typefaces are clear and easily readable and the pdf has hyperlinks to support its index and contents.  A simple white backdrop enhances the art by contrast and keeps the pages uncluttered.  The only letdown is the character sheet.  When compared to the rest of the book its boxes and tables seem lifeless.  It doesn’t have the verve of Rio.


An exciting narrative game set in a city of colour and culture.  Malandros is an excellent example of a roleplaying game dedicated to dramatic interactions. Everything in the book, text, layout, artwork and rules supports this goal.  Worth buying just to look at.