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

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.

Randall Stukey

Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund.

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Randall is the author and publisher of a number of old school games (Microlite74, Microlite81, BX Advanced, etc) through RetroRoleplaying.com. Randall's main job, however, is being caregiver for his MS-afflicted cancer survivor wife. You can support Randall with a donation to the RetroRoleplaying Cancer Fund. Gates & Glamours RSS Feed

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Rachel Ghoul
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Now, contrariwise, this sounds very interesting to me.

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

TheShadowKnows
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"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… Read more »

Randall
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@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
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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… Read more »

Rachel Ghoul
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@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
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@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.… Read more »