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Monsters & Magic: High Praise For A Game I'd Never Play

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Monsters & Magic CoverI had a chance to look at a copy of Monsters & Magic this weekend. It's a new "OSR" game by Sarah Newton published by Mindjammer Press. It's basically a set of new school rules that you can overlay on a version of old school TSR D&D so you can use TSR-era monsters, spells, adventures etc. but use them with new school rules. (Note that while I don't really consider it an "OSR" game, whether it is or not is not really germane to this post -- I'm just mentioning this to head off discussions of whether or not this is a real OSR game in comments.)

Sarah Newton explains the genesis of the game and exactly what the purpose of the game is in the foreword to Monsters & Magic:

I'd been reading through some Old School Renaissance games, trying to find a rules set to scratch that itch. I was looking for something which oozed with classic fantasy atmosphere, was easy to play, yet which extended its playability into areas usually covered by more modern games — personality conflicts, playing with scenic and thematic aspects, exploiting the narrative tropes of classic swords and sorcery adventure. More than anything, I wanted to use the many supplements and scenarios I’d collected over the years — to play them again, without having to laboriously convert them to this or that ruleset. Try as I might, I couldn't find a game to suit.

It was a lightbulb moment. Why not write one? I’d been toying with a rules system for a year or two — something which gave players a stack of points they could spend to do cool in-game stuff. Not just whittling away an opponent’s endurance, but changing the world, doing genre-specific acts of heroism and amazing feats.

As you can tell from the second paragraph, Monsters & Magic is not the sort of game I would enjoy playing. I don't like new school mechanics. They turn me off the way an old school dungeon crawl using B/X or AD&D rules often turns off players who love D&D 4e or Fiasco.

So why I am excited about a game that I has everything I don't like rolled into "D&D"? It's simple, with Monsters & Magic Sarah Newton has clearly demonstrated that is is possible to take standard TSR D&D and write a set of optional rules for it that turns the game into a new school, more narrative style of game that is still able to easily use all the standard game's monsters, spells, treasure, adventures, etc.

In my humble opinion, this is what WOTC should be doing with 5e. Producing a standard version of D&D Next that is something like an updated B/X or 1e and then producing modular supplements which overlay/replace some of the rules of the standard game to produce a game with a tactical focus (like that of 4e), a game with a charop focus (like that of 3.5), a game with a narrative focus, etc. No one version of D&D is going to please all D&D players, let alone all fantasy RPG fans. What is needed is a modular system that has a simple core that supplements can build out in completely different directions. Monsters & Magic proves this can be done and done well with D&D -- even when the original system was never designed with such game-changing supplements in mind..

This is why I have high praise for Monsters & Magic even though I'd rather be tickled to death by little red spiders than have to play it. It's a very well done new school system that turns standard TSR D&D into a game that is still recognizable as D&D, but uses new school rules to make a more "narrative" RPG out of D&D for those who would like to play D&D, but prefer a game system more like Fate (or some other more narrative system). If you fall into that category, I highly recommend Monsters & Magic. I think it is far better than Dungeon World, Torchbearer, and other recent system that try to produce a completely new "new school" game that covers the same ground as D&D. While I may not be a fan of the type of games Sarah Newton designs, I have to admit that they are well-thought out and excellent at what they do. Monsters & Magic is no exception.

Cover - Booty and the BeastsThe third Sponsor Microlite81 (and Lords & Wizards) Mini-Drive for RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund is running now. The goal is $500 with the following giveaway items: First Fantasy Campaign (1st Printing), Judge Guild Character Chronicle Cards, Basic Boxed Set (complete including original dice), Expert Boxed Set (complete including original dice), Journey to the Center of the Circle (from Wilmark Dynasty), and The Vampyre's Mirror (also from Wilmark Dynasty). Each $10 donated gives you one chance at one of these items. The top three donors will have a separate drawing for a set of 1st printings of the original three TSR adventure modules (The Giants series as three separate modules: G1, G2, and G3) This is in addition to the usual PDF downloads and other benefits of a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund and sponsorship listings in the upcoming Microlite81 and Lords & Wizards games. To get help us pay our cancer treatment related bills (and to get access to some special downloads and a chance at the above-mentioned items), send a donation in any amount -- small or large -- to me via Paypal. Thank you!

As of 6 August 2013, $140 has been donated in this mini-drive, an additional $360 in donations is needed to trigger the drawings for the items mentioned above.

Rachel Ghoul said...
August 6, 2013 at 7:19 PM  

Now, contrariwise, this sounds very interesting to me.

Randall said...
August 6, 2013 at 9:23 PM  

@Rachel Ghoul: It is a very well done game. Give it a look if you can.

TheShadowKnows said...
August 7, 2013 at 2:45 PM  

"I was looking for something which oozed with classic fantasy atmosphere, was easy to play, yet which extended its playability into areas usually covered by more modern games — personality conflicts, playing with scenic and thematic aspects, exploiting the narrative tropes of classic swords and sorcery adventure."

The thing is, you don't need particular mechanics to do ANY of those things. People can and do manage all of those things with a system as simple as B/X. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a more elaborate system actually works AGAINST achieving things like theme and immersion. Having run various RPGs of different types over the years, I've found that - in general - the more moving parts there are in a system, and the more ways a player can control the mechanical aspects of it, the more the game becomes about charop and minmaxing instead of roleplaying. At least for most players.

Randall said...
August 7, 2013 at 3:27 PM  

@TheShadowKnows: I agree with you. However, ours is a very "old school" POV. "New school" tends to want mechanics and rules for things that do not need them from an old school POV. It's a completely different style of play and way of thinking. At least Monsters & Magic seems to be a well-done new school overlay -- and one that is unlikely to lead to charop and mixmaxing, because it is from the "narrative rpg" branch of new school, not the "character design" or the "tactical combat" branch.

TheShadowKnows said...
August 7, 2013 at 5:48 PM  

I guess you're right and my point of view is too different. To me a truly "heroic feat" is something like getting lucky, rolling max damage, and killing an ogre with a single blow. Or taking out the master vampire with a lucky use of Dispel Evil. It's not really something you can plan in advance by putting "Cleave" (or whatever) on your character sheet. If it's that dry and predictable, it seems neither really heroic nor like a feat to me.

True story: in one of my AD&D campaigns the a party of 6 3rd and 4th level characters encountered four bugbears. It should have been a decent fight but not a potential TPK. Instead, they all rolled HORRIBLY and I rolled well, and in a couple rounds five of them were down and bleeding to death. The only uninjured character, a 4th level dwarf fighter, had to take on four bugbears singlehandedly. He proceeded to do just that, killing all of them in six rounds while suffering NO hits himself (and with no fudging from me - his AC was really low and my luck went sour). Although one of his companions had already bled to death, he was able to save four of the five. This was truly an HEROIC FEAT which the players were still talking about YEARS later. I struggle to imagine a mechanical system for resolving feats that would produce anything so memorable. Does anybody really talk fondly about "the time they used Defensive Strike"? If it's written down on the sheet, that's pretty much EVERY time, right? So how much impact does it have, really?

Rachel Ghoul said...
August 7, 2013 at 6:47 PM  

@TheShadowKnows: True enough, but that's still a character-build-oriented issue, not so much a narrative one. Really, I think there are two old schools.

DerKastellan said...
November 26, 2013 at 1:04 PM  

@TheShadowKnows - Pardon me if I say it, but it seems like you're a bit stuck on the name of "heroic effect." You still can roll really high and really low, you still can go down in a fight that you should have been able to win. All the things you describe can pretty much happen when playing Monsters & Magic.

By putting "Cleave" on your sheet you can do a special move. Nothing more. It will make you more effective against enemies that you outrolled by far by allowing you to spend some excess points for attacking another enemy. It doesn't control how high you roll, it doesn't automatically apply, but you can use it if and only if you roll high enough compared to your opponent's stats to use it.

So, none of this replaces rolling high or low. The system also does not claim that it produces memorable moments by mechanic.

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