Now this is interesting– Monsters and Magic (M&M), a new role playing game from Mindjammer Press that bills itself as old school fantasy, new school play.
First, at the risk of starting a flame war, some definitions. There are, unsurprisingly given the nature of the internet, some disputes as to exactly what constitutes an Old School game. To me they mostly seem to be retro-clones of old-fashioned original and advanced D&D which use the OGL to simulate the tone and style of play of those ancient games. They also seem to be concerned with recreating the do-it-yourself ethos I well remember from the early days of the hobby.
This suits me down to the ground. I have a nostalgic fondness for the RPGs of the period when I first started playing (1977) and I like the open-source philosophy espoused by many of the Old School Renaissance (OSR) designers in gaming as much as I like it in software and operating systems. Many of the basic OSR rulesets such as OSRIC and Swords and Wizardry are available for free.
For me, new school games are those like FATE which encourage sophisticated use of the rules to allow the players as well as the Gamesmaster some say in the narrative and construction of the game world. This might be the source of some tension with hardcore Old School types when it comes to using M&M since OSR rulesets mostly encourage a sandbox style of play rather than a narrative one.
We are now two hundred words into this review and I have said very little about the game itself. Let’s rectify that. Monsters and Magic is a set of rules which allows a sophisticated, modern style of play while at the same time enabling you to use all of your old adventures for D&D and its retroclones pretty much unchanged. When I first read that I confess I thought it can’t be done but I was wrong. Monsters and Magic does it and with style. It provides real backward compatibility for your old RPG stuff. Since I have a lot of old modules, scenarios and supplements, this is important for me.
Character Generation is simple and quick, just like it used to be in the good old days of the 1970s. It will seem familiar to anyone who has played any edition of D&D. Roll 3D6 or more for attributes or base them on any point system you like. Choose a race from human, elf, dwarf, etc. Choose a class, from fighter, cleric, magic user etc. Roll hit points. Choose equipment.
The main difference is that instead of skills, feats, special abilities etc, characters have advancements. Advancements basically describe anything special about your character from his ability to cast spells to his sneaking skills or his knowledge of arcane lore. They are not limited to abilities that a class might have.
You can pretty much define your own advancements, and are expected to. They somewhat resemble Aspects in FATE. You can use advancements as a level based modifer on pretty much anything you can convince the GM that they should apply on. For example, my (just-invented) natural born liar advancement could be used as a bonus when haggling, performing feats of diplomacy or even in combat if you can make a case for it (“Of course, I won’t hurt you,” said just before you stab someone in the back.)
M&M uses a very basic one die roll system for all forms of task resolution. You use 3d6 plus modifers to judge not just a character’s success but the level of that success. For example, in melee combat you roll 3d6 plus your level (if you have any advancement that apply) plus your Strength modifier (doubled if it happens to be the prime attribute of your class) plus your weapons damage dice plus any other modifiers you can talk your GM into letting you use. This is measured against your opponents Armour Class which in this case is equal to your opponent’s Dexterity plus level plus modifiers for armour and shield along with anything else that seems relevant. If your die roll exceeds your opponent you have succeeded. If your roll is less than your opponent’s armour class you have failed.
You can inflict damage up to your weapons maximum damage equal to your number of successes or you can inflict consequences or you can do some mixture of both.
There are three levels of consequence, minor, major and extreme which cost 5 points per level. Each level of consequence inflicts a -2 penalty on the recipient which remains until its removed. What these consequences are is left up to the GM and the player to decide.
For example, let’s say a PC attacks an orc and gets 8 successes on his attack. He could choose to inflict a straight eight points of damage. Or he could inflict 3 points of damage and a minor consequence. This could be anything the player wishes from pushing the orc back, to notching his scimitar and inflicting a -2 penalty until the orc changes weapon, to a minor niggling wound that has the same narrative effect.
You’ll notice this removes the need for a lot of special case rules such as disarming, pushing back, etc. This is something I really like.
If you fail your roll, you take the consequences the GM inflicts on you in much the same way. If you fail by 5 points you take a minor consequence, by 10 points a major consequence and so on.
What if you don’t like those consequences? What if you would rather be pushed back or knocked over than take that nagging wound? Then you can spend a hero point to define the consequence for yourself– either as a recipient or as the person inflicting the consequence. Players start with hero points equal to their level and can gain and lose them during the course of play.
Pretty much every situation from skill use to magic is covered using the same mechanics. Players have both Physical Hit Points (used like hit points always are in D&D) and mental hit points which are used for mental and social situations.
It’s an elegant system and it works in all the situations I tested it in. It should also make for some interesting narrative combats. There are no grids or hex maps. Everything is handled in the abstract which is just the way I like it.
This basic mechanic is expanded into all sorts of areas, most notably (the somewhat confusingly named for those of us used to 3rd Edition D&D) constructs. In M&M constructs are not golem-like magical servitors made by wizards (although they could be!) but independent megascale accessories that players can acquire as they advance in levels– things like castles, armies or hundred foot tall mechanical golems armed with flamethrowers, for example. They can be used to play out conflicts on a much larger scale.
Can you really use your old modules unmodified with M&M? Yes, you really can. The game allows you to use the old stat lines with a minimum of work and the rules are flexible enough to let you wing it in any situation I can imagine.
I’ve rambled on for longer than I intended, so let’s try some conclusions. For me at least Monsters and Magic succeeds in its aims.There’s a huge amount to like about the game. It’s well-written. It does what it says on the tin. The mechanics are simple and elegant and they scale very well indeed.
It has a few weaknesses. As with the old boxed sets, only the first four levels of progression are covered in detail. The not unreasonable argument is made that it’s easy enough to adapt what’s needed from the freely available old school rulesets you (most likely) already possess although this does somewhat sit at odds with the inclusion of advanced rules for constructs. There are those who will find it too new-fangled for the Old School, but I think it brings something new and interesting to the table.