Not Quite A Review: Monsters & Magic

When I headed out to GenCon, there were two games on my list to buy a physical copy of: Dungeon World and Sarah Newton's new Monsters & Magic RPG. I'm not sure why, but all the reviews of Monsters & Magic struck a chord with me and I figured I'd give the game a shot. Plus, Ms. Newton's excellent (but not off-putting) self-promotion over G+ kept the game at the forefront of my brain as I set out to Indy...

I've been waiting for the print version of Monsters & Magic since I finally learned what it was. It seems like most reviewers really liked the game until they realized that it wasn't an "old school game with some new school mechanics" but rather a "new school game with some old school flavor." That point seemed to be the departure point for a lot of reviewers, where the reviewers seemed to decide that the game wasn't for them due to the new school-iness. For me, reading these reviews, these departure points sounded intriguing and were what got me interested in the game. I ran to RPGNow, only to discover that it was pdf only (at that time), but +Sarah Newton had been promising a print version on G+ about GenCon time, so I set my purchase clock for Indy and waited.

So, now that I have M&M in my grubby little mitts, what do I think? Let's talk shop.

It's Old School... both good and bad ways. The game easily covers all the important parts of old school gaming. Character creation, spells, dungeon exploration, wilderness exploration, even some resource management for the folks who tend to not be great at that stuff (*ahem* like me). It has crunchy bits where traditional gamers expect crunchy bits (and even adds some in places where you might not expect them, like Mental Hit Points), but doesn't go overboard in the 3.xe vein. The is decidedly old school, sometimes to a fault. Most of artists tapped for this project (like Bradley K. McDevitt) are fantastic, but there's one of them that, frankly, sucks (the one that does the races and a lot of incidental art; I'm pretty sure this is Gill Pearce, whose art is normally pretty killer but here is really bad). That was (mostly) the good old school stuff.

And now for the bad. This book is organized like an old school rpg. Which is fine for the folks who've never stopped reading them, but when introducing a new game system (which, despite what you may have heard, the Effect Engine really is; just a new game system that meshes really well with stuff you've probably already been using), the old school style can be daunting. Instead of introducing core gaming concepts early on and then allowing those concepts to inform an initial read of the text, +Sarah Newton goes the unfortunately old school route of teaching you how to build a character before discussing how any of the things you can do with that character work. I felt a bit lost trying to figure out what the list of Advances meant or why I should care about Effects and other junk like that as I was puzzling through the character classes, which is unfortunate, because Ms. Newton has really knocked this one out of the park. It feels like she built a super sonic rocket car but dressed it up like a family-of-five station wagon because that's what Uncle Gary drove.

The other sticking point with me is the post-genre-D&D high fantasy-ness baked in to the rule book, which makes it feel less like Howard, Moorcock and Lieber and more like Greenwood, Hickman and (shudder) Salvatore. I understand that the high fantasy crowd kind of owns the industry now, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. All in all, this would be really easy to write out of any campaign of M&M, though, so it's more just a sticking point than a real complaint. Suffice it to say that I'd rather that the flavor of the text (and its art) be more Sword & Sorcery and less Elves & Elminsters.

It's New School...

... and that's where the game shines! The game builds on some basic OGL logic (primarily the ability score bonuses and Difficult Class scales), but mixes in some good old central tendency (3d6 high rolls for resolution systems? Don't mind if I do!), some FATE-style descriptors and a simple narrative engine driven by all of the other stuff I've just mentioned. It took me awhile to sort out that Advances were simple descriptors, tags, that conferred a ye olde +1 to the associated resolution roll, which makes rules wrangling fairly unnecessary. The Effect Engine is a pretty neat little mechanic where you roll your 3d6 (plus or minus any modifiers), comparing the result to a target number (this can be a derived stat like AC or a static DC) and whatever the difference is is your total effect points. That could be damage (physical or mental), or you could trade it in for an Effect, which means you get to do something cool or keep your opponents from being as awesome as you want to be. All conflict resolution, even spell casting, uses this same mechanic, which gets really neat when you have the ability to trade in effect points for bumping up your spell with an Effect.

Was that confusing? Damn. This is why I wanted a more straightforward explanation of the rules: so I understood what the fuck was going on from moment one.

Here's the deal: If you want to do something and your chance of success is in question for one reason or another, roll 3d6 and add relevant stuff like your ability score modifier or a plus one for every Advance (remember, that just means "descriptor") that applies to your situation and compare that total to a resistance number (which may be something like an Armor Class or a static Difficulty Class). The difference (positive or negative) between your roll and the resistance is your total number of effect points that, if positive, you can spend on Effects or can be taken as damage by your target (your choice) or both (if there are enough points). If your effect point total is negative, chances are your DM is going to get to spend those points to make bad things happen for you. See? New school narrative control stuff which is the reason why some old schoolers are resisting this game. The thing that I think they're overlooking is how decidedly crunchy those new school rules are and how many fewer in-game rules they require, relying more on at-the-table rulings, just like +Matt Finch likes to promote ("rulings not rules").

Not that there aren't rules. There are. There need to be. The thing is that Ms. Newton has done a killer job at (a) keeping that number to a minimum and (b) taking them to their logical conclusion, which allows her to build some freaking great things out of a fairly minimalist base. The primary case in point is M&M's Constructs. This doesn't mean magical automata, but rather things that are usually larger in scale than a single person or character, like a ship's crew or a whole barony. One of the really cool things about the Effect Engine is how easily it can be "scaled up" to talk about these larger Constructs and not just be stuck to "character scale."

Final(ish) Word

This game system has teeth. This game system has a lot of promise. I'd love to run something in Monsters & Magic, if only to see how the rules play out. I sort of feel like +Sarah Newton might just have written the rules set for fantasy gaming that is precisely the one that I want, but it's far too early to tell. It's not completely ideal, particularly because of the high fantasy focus and the awkward old school organization, and those things are going to stand as the few black marks against M&M in my book, but man is this thing versatile. I'd love to see a second edition of this book that strongly reorganizes the text into a more modern information flow and presents more variety than default Elves & Elminsters.

In the end, Monsters & Magic feels like a crunchier, OSR-focused take on a Dungeon World-like game, which is pretty awesome. It's very suited to long-term campaign play (which is how I'd want to use it), but not so much for one shots or con scenarios; it just feels like the system mastery required for a limited engagement would be a little high (then again, I'm the kind of guy who thinks that DCC is a perfectly reasonable limited engagement game while other people run in fear of the charts).

I could see using M&M for one of my more serious games, particularly because, due to the Effect Engine, it would let me blend elements from the different game systems I really enjoy into one Whole General Sort of Mishmash very easily. DCC-style magic resulting in MASSIVE POWA or corruption of the soul? Yep, just tack positive or negative Effects onto it. Done. Mighty Deeds of Arms? Same thing. Now, I'd never replace DCC with M&M (that's just crazy talk), but M&M might have the ability for me to leak a little of the DCC-styled madness into something like my S&W game while still living somewhere between story game and Old School crunchfest.