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Monsters & Magic
If your thing in gaming involves dragons, or dungeons, or both, you are well served by the hobby these days. With publishers big, small and micro all developing new ways to level up it can sometimes appear that there are as many variants as there are players. With the advent of the OGL coupled with the old school reference works and the ease of home publishing, it’s almost as if every person could have their own custom made D&D given time and a few quid.
The issue now is one of choice. Mindjammer press offer us another one. Written by Sarah Newton, this book comes in at 139 pages, slim in comparison to modern core books, but twice the length of the classic Basic rules. The cover, by Jason Juta, is a beautifully rendered piece depicting a lich riding a balor into battle against a wizard. That raised an eyebrow with me. Much of the OSR product is pitched at the lower levels of play where kobolds and goblins remain the main threat. Perhaps this game wants to play around in the Name levels? It’s an area of classic D&D territory that gets lots of chatter yet I rarely see it in play.
Inside, the layout and art look clean, tidy , double columned and in black and white. The illustrations are all of high quality, with that classic line look that I find appealing. Sometimes the sidebars are not on the same page they reference, but by and large the format works nicely.
Cracking open the book (PDF in my case, kindly supplied by the author) we get straight to the heart of the matter. The central idea of this game is to add a layer of modern game mechanics and story generation onto a base of old school fantasy gaming with classes and levels and all that. It’s also supposed to allow you to use all your classic content from your shelves with conversion on the fly. It goes to level 20. It has all the domain management stuff from the higher levels. It even has an intro scenario. That’s a big ask from any book!
The opening chapters seem to mirror all the other trad books you already have with races, classes, how to play etc. In a refreshing change, there’s no Intro to RPGs section, just a suggestion that if you have somehow stumbled onto this book unknowingly, then head to Google and type in What is a roleplaying game? (I actually did, it was astonishingly unhelpful)
Mechanically, the game has four major changes to OS mechanics. The first is to add Traits to many of the classic stats. These are reminiscent of Aspects from Fate and serve a similar function in that appropriate usage boosts your results. You get these from race, class, alignment (yes, it’s all here in its 3×3 glory) and other places. These aren’t exactly free form, the book provides set lists for these (and handily includes reference cards in the back of the book too) which serve to reinforce the fantasy tropes. You’re encouraged to rename them, and there’s other Trait ‘slots’ with which you get free rein.
The second is the ‘Effect Engine’, the new core mechanic. This uses 3d6 in lieu of the usual d20. That gives a bell curve straight away. The main difference though is that the level of success matters, it’s not binary pass/fail. The more you beat your target number by, the more effect you get, whether that’s damage, narration or a mix of the two. The more you miss by, the more negative consequences you suffer. What it loses in simplicity, it makes up for with sophistication. I like it (and its offered up as an open licence for all to use in their own works) and its actually helped me open up a tricky design space I’d been grappling with for my own game.
Thing is, this new core mechanic has had an enormous ripple effect right the way through the game. It’s not just a new way of adjudicating a skill roll, it goes through every number in the canon. One of the major selling points of M&M is the ability to use your entire library of fantasy content, which you can, if you’re prepared to convert everything. Suddenly a +1 sword listed in your module gives you pause for thought. Yes, the conversion rules are there, but I’m not entirely convinced this can be done on the fly without hand waving major aspects of the content. And that’s before you consider something slightly more complex like tricky spells or a Beholder. Shudder. If you like to play fast and loose, you’ll see this game as flexible and light. If you like to be more rigorous with your prep, then you’ll have to decide whether or not learning two whole games is worth the effort.
The third new mechanic is the additional of mental hit points, opening up a rules based way of handling social and intellectual conflicts. Based on Wisdom, they do exactly what you think they would do. This is a good example of the ripple effect. Now a Charm spell deal mental hits, so it needs an attack roll. At this point you’re arguabley not playing the old school game you thought you were, and may have wandered into GURPS territory.
Last is Hero points, a very modern and now oft used currency. This mechanic is deeply rooted into the rest of the system with many ways to spend them. Obviously they provide boosts to effectiveness, or mitigation of consequences. Its the sort of thing that could benefit from a reference card. You regain them through gold standard roleplaying, as judged by your GM. Think of that what you will.
Clearly, the rest of the rules are details and variations of the above. One that really jumped out at me was the idea of noting an ability score by using its full name, ie Dexterity, but noting its modifier by using its abbreviation, ie DEX. That’s a very clever little trick that differentiates the two and its actually very necessary as this game makes good use of the raw ability score. That’s new. The vast majority of clones and variants still cleave to the original six stats as merely vestigial numbers, they mean little in actual play. Also, the prime stat for your character gets its modifier doubled. That’s a neat way of protecting class niches. But then suddenly and somewhat out of the blue you see that the game keeps the notion of bonus experience points for high prime stats. That’s an unusual decision, and things like this crop up again when you see that combat rounds are a minute long. I don’t know many adherents to either of these rules and I can’t help but think they’ve been kept in just for the sake of it rather than with any clear design philosophy at play.
Some of the rules look like they might not always scale well. Level is used in lots of different ways, and I wonder if at higher levels problems wont spring up. For instance hero points at one per level sounds fine when you’re third level and over the top when you’re eighteenth. Trait usage adds your level to a roll, and extra traits add + 1. So at first level you double your effectiveness and at 20th level the second trait adds 5%. I’m no min maxer but seeing things like this makes me wonder just how thoroughly the game has been tested at high levels. There are examples scattered throughout the text, which gives me some confidence in the testing, although they also confirm the variance of the numbers. In the example the first level fighter needs to get 14 to hit the Orc. His average is about 25! In fact the example has him missing by rolling a 3 on 3d6. In a later example a wizard generates 46 effect points at level 11.
The high level play looks like it mitigates this by providing big enough challenges in the form of massed battles and large scale conflicts. I’ve never been convinced that there’s ever been a huge amount of support for this playstyle in the past. It’s interesting to see such a thorough treatment given here, and it gives a group plenty of options for their long term play. There’s quite a bit of the book devoted to this endgame, and given the fundamental difference in the game at that point, I wonder if it might have made a better supplement?
The combined effect of all these new mechanics is to make a physical combat really quite crunchy and tactical. There’s a thorough example of play that takes us through two rounds of combat by the numbers. It’s an intimidating read! If there’s one thing old school can do, it’s blast through combat scenes. On my reading, a fight is something that will eat a significant piece out out of your session. Thanks to some of the narrative elements though, and the lack of need for gridded movement, it should result in some good fiction, worthy of a novel or film.
For all it’s talk of being Old School, this work leans pretty heavily on the 3e era of the Open Game Licence and the System Reference Document. One example would be the ability modifiers are taken directly from that work. These are more generous than those seen in the classic games, and that’s a difference that’s seen many a discussion in OS circles. Similarly with the monsters, they use the 3e stat block which is worlds apart from the Monster Manual. The game uses the modern xp track and provides advancements, which are feats by any other name. I have to say, this book is jam packed with rules, crunch and tables. I guess that makes it a closer cousin to AD&D than I first thought, it certainly not rules light. Quite honestly, I’m not sure why the old school credentials are so clearly sign posted in the text. Apart from the alliterative title, and the genre itself, this presents as a very modern piece of work, and that’s not in any way a bad thing.
The game is called Monsters and Magic, but funnily enough those are two things that you really only get a smattering of in the book. The idea is that you will want to use your own bookshelves as a library of content. It’s a fair point, my shelves are groaning under the weight of monster and spell directories for various games. Adding these things in would have turned this book into another 400 page brick that would largely be repeating the same old info. I wish the author had had the courage of her convictions though. There are spells and monsters here, and I guess they serve as conversion examples, but they do make you feel like you’re getting shortchanged somehow.
Overall I think this book suffers from a lack of clear focus, it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. It’s not a ‘complete’ game past level 4, and thats by design. It’s not merely a collection of house rules and conversion notes. It’s not designed for newbies, yet it’s not rigorously tooled enough for the system veteran. Its d20 at source, but with a brand new central mechanic. I often found this frustrating. It was verbose when it could have been concise and over simple when it would have benefitted from expansion. For such a relatively short book I found it a slow read because the pacing and the concepts were up down and sideways, I simply couldn’t keep it all straight in my head.
I believe this work would have been better produced in another format. I think it needs a brutal edit, stripping it down to a work that doesn’t try to be a complete game at all. It would work wonderfully as a GM screen with a couple of booklets or rules and scenarios. Imagine that, you sit down with your old school modules behind a new screen that truly delivers the promised on the fly conversion, all without having to digest an entire books worth of rules. That way all the very cool tweaks and variants would act as a modern skin to drape over your old content. It would have been a brave move, but would avoid the compromises that this book is forcing itself to live with.
Look, I’ve been harsh in my look at this book, and that’s because I’m a died in the wool D&D fan and it’s entering a incredibly diverse and almost saturated market. It really needs something to stand out to make me put aside the other fifteen variants I have. Yes, the notion of wedding newer roleplaying innovations to the oldest genre sounds like a good selling point (though not unique) It’s one that largely succeeds in fairness. I could live without some of the internal hype in the book, whether or not its old school will come out in play, not in the text. Yet I can’t help but have admiration for the scope of this work. Mindjammer have put in the hours on this one. The sheer breath of the 20 advertised levels has made a lot of work for the author and she’s done all the donkey work, and produced a very professional version of a strong personal vision. It’s an ambitious project, perhaps just too ambitious for me.