mm_cover_1_thumbBy Paco Garcia Jaen

When I heard about Monsters & Magic and its development, I must admit I rolled my eyes a bit. “Do we need another tribute to games that are long gone and are so for good many reasons?” was my initial reaction.

As you can tell, I am not a big fan of “The Old School”. I remember it fondly because they were the games I got into the hobby and nostalgia always have a bit to say when is about memories. But looking at them objectively, the Old School didn’t always produce the best gaming experience and more modern games have tried to make things “better”. At the very least they’ve changed things in an attempt to do so. So after the plethora of retro-clones and “old school” type games currently available, I thought having another one in the market wasn’t going to shake things too much.

But then I also had to acknowledge who was writing this game. I wasn’t looking at any Tom-Dick-Or-Harry. I was looking at Sarah Newton. Let me tell you and assure you, Sarah knows her games. All of them.

Suddenly colour me intrigued.

So what is it? Monsters & Magic is a soft cover book that contains a game in the OSR line of games. The designer’s intention was to create a game with a feel of the games from thirty years ago, but with more modern approach to rules and adventuring.

What you see when you first lay eyes on the cover is a gorgeous illustration by Jason Joota, veteran of many, *many* beautiful pieces of art for a lot of games, movies, and card products. Testament to his expertise is how extremely well the cover mixes modern approach to art with a feel of the old adventures, with over the top villains and unsuspecting looking adventurers ready to face battle without any certainty of survival. But then, since when is survival a key issue, eh?

The interior art direction was what I was expecting and it has obviously been designed to bring an old school feeling. The layout of the book is simple. Two columns in black and white printing and a small serif font. That told me, right away there was more to read than met my unsuspecting eye. The interior falls into the “old school” school of art direction. Mostly line work with black and white illustrations dotted with a few more elaborate paintings that left no doubt a colour version of this game would be gorgeous (but more on that later.)

Throughout the book there are tons of text boxes that offer more information about alternatives to the rules or rules clarification, setting ideas, examples, etc. I must admit I am not a friend of these text boxes at the best of time and that more than once I was left with a “why is she telling me this now?” feeling. All the boxes are useful, but not all of them need to be boxes and indeed not all of the are in the right places either.

To be as honest with this review as I can, the layout was the thing that left me the coldest about this game. The two column layout is usually a safe bet and, considering how this sort of games were laid out 30 years ago, it is very fitting. What I disliked was the position of the boxes and how some of the book was arranged. Some reggiging of the content would make it even easier to read and enjoy, and some of those boxes should be re-positioned to places where they don’t break a paragraph unnecessarily. This doesn’t mean it’s difficult to read, at all, simply means there is room for improvement, which is to be expected on the first edition of this game.

For the lovers of referencing, there are plenty of references to sections an pages further ahead in the book when the authoress mentions anything that might not make full sense to the novice. Although a couple of times I felt there were too many of them, I also quickly learned to ignore those references, so I didn’t feel they detracted from the reading experience.

Character creation is a pretty standard affair, with the usual attributes gained rolling 3d6 or 4d6 and  keep the three highest one, or by point distribution system. Yep… *that* familiar and that easy. There’s a perk, though… you choose what your main attribute is and then you double your bonus points. This is referred to as the ATT and I must admit that having a +6 to one of my main attributes sounded pretty amazing. It also made me wonder how it’d balance the game later on for fear of making the characters too powerful. This is not the case, however. By having a high ATT, characters feel truly epic. People out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary who can and do venture forth to live the perils the less adventurous only dream of. It’s a good match for the feel of the setting, so my concerns were dispelled in minutes.

To make matters better, with very small tweaks and amends, any character from old D&D or AD&D books can be used and adapted to this game. That also includes monsters. Need I say more?

Professions have been chosen as per the standard old D&D type, but with some classes and subclasses  to add a bit of congruence and cohesiveness to the whole game. Player classes felt suitably interesting and, most important, suitably mighty too!

Don’t let me forget… there is alignment too! Yes… you get an alignment and with it you get a “motto” for your alignment (defend the righteous and protect the pure) and an alignment drift (love for beheadings). Follow your alignment in a meaningful way and you can gain the favour of a divine entity. Fall for the drift and you could end up unwillingly changing your alignment. So yes, this game doesn’t just use alignment to get your character into a way of behaving, but also into a way of helping develop or help her change in time if she makes too many mistakes. Have to say I totally rocked this!

The rules

Boy there are a lot of rules here! However, the basics are very, very basic and totally fine to grasp: roll 3d6, add your bonuses and ATT is needed and your damage dice. If you roll over the target number, you hit. If you don’t roll over, you don’t hit. Simple.

Except that things don’t end there. By any stretch of the imagination. There are effects. Lots and lots of effects. Exciting effects!

Say you have to hit a target of 17 and you roll your dice. You get 30 in total. Take 17 off that number and you have 13 points. Your weapon can do 1d6+1 and you can only do damage up to your weapon maximum damage plus your level, so 8. That means you have 5 points left. That is enough to get an effect.

Every five points above the maximum you roll counts as an effect. 5 points will grant you a minor effect (something like giving you a +2 on your next roll, or -2 to your enemy on her next roll), 10 points is a major effect (+4 or -4 as per previous example) and so on and so forth. Although you can only apply one effect of any given range at a time and some points will be wasted, this is a superb way to add variety to a combat system that could otherwise feel stale and tedious. I can’t say how much I liked this mechanism!

It is true that you could end you with a fairly big pool of dice, though, and I realise some might not be friends with such outcome, but I think the variance offered by the effects mechanism is just too good to miss, especially considering that you could create your own effects and attach them to weapons, garments, spells… Amazing!

There is also an automatic check mechanism, so you can reduce the number of rolls needed by using static checks that measure your overall ability to do something with the difficulty of attempting the task. So, if you needed to disable a trap and you had plenty of time, the static check would make it easier for the gameplay. However if you need to attempt the same thing under duress, then the standard check would make everything more interesting.

Combat is just as simple and straightforward. Roll vs armour class. Roll higher, u hit. Roll lower, yo don’t hit. Weapons have a range and therefore if you’re too close or too far you can’t use them. Also simples!

Constructs

This is another terrific addition to this game, the development of construct. A Construct can be anything, from a single item to an army or a location. Monsters & Magic come with rules to create anything you need to become a useable item in your game. If you have to get an army of fighters, or a fortress, castle, village, city… you’ll be able to bring them all to the table with very little work.

Magic

Magic is Vancian. You learn spells, you use spell, you forget spells, you have to study spells again. Simples!

There’s a list of spells that can be used by Wizards, Clerics and Druids – or any other magic user – and, although it’s not the most comprehensive list of spells, they should be more than enough for mid level characters.

And, once again, Newton provides with rules to create one’s own spells, so the list, although slim, it’s by no means limiting.

Bestiary

Again this is a slim section of the book and I must admit I missed some illustrations. The basic and most commonly known creatures are there with all the stats ready to be used.

The inclusion of “rubble” creatures is something else the authoress has borrowed from more modern games and modified to fit this system. Rubble creatures are weaker versions of the full creatures – aka minions – that can be used for cinematic and epic effect; for example creating an army and have it populated by rubble creatures.

And, by now you probably can guess, there are rules to create your own creatures. And also guidelines on how to use creatures from older games, like D&D and AD&D with just a few modifications.

Treasure

As well as providing a new selection of treasure for the game, Newton once again goes further and has come up with a simple way to setup your treasure so your players have a big say on what they find or not, without going all crazy about Mighty Swords +9 of Immediate Decapitation

Creatures have types of items they’re likely to have as treasures. They could be from coins and simple tools for low-level foes, to vast riches and very rare items for epic level enemies.

This translates into treasure points that are shared amongst the players and they can exchange those points for items, or wait and accumulate a number of treasure points to get better and rarer treasure at later date.

This makes it easy for a player to say “I want a super magical sword” and for the GM to say “Ok, it will take you 15 treasure points and I’ll let you know when you find it”. Another level of flexibility that still exudes old school feeling all over.

The setting

This is very minimal. In fact, apart from a map, there is very little information about a world or a setting. This is done very much on purpose, though, as Monsters & Magic is about the game itself, not about the world where the game takes place.

Personally this doesn’t bother me at all. I have more than enough settings in my library and with the conversion rules being so handy, there’s no reason not to use some of my favourite settings anyway.

To end the book, there’s an adventure that’s been designed to put the rules to the test, whilst providing with an increasingly complex environment in which the complexity of rules can be learned and put to the test.

In the adventure an evil Wizard has taken over an old temple and is preparing a ritual – with the appropriate sacrifices, of course – to bring back a dark goddess that will grant immense power to the evil wizard.

Although nothing out of the ordinary, the adventure has been designed with a timeline in mind that the players have the chance to disrupt at every step. Locales, dungeons, enemies, allies, equipment, rewards… everything in there!

Conclusion

Monsters & Magic is a superb game that doesn’t just replicate the Old School set of mechanics. It actually reworks and redefine them to give flexibility and a very creative framework to build your games around.

It is by no means perfect and there is room for improvement. Some of the sections of the book could do with being moved around to make the order of the topics more coherent and easier.

The art direction needs a good look at and quite a few mistakes should be ironed out. Although a very good effort that works well enough for a first edition of a game that’s been just about a year in development and publishing, Monsters & Magic is gagging for a Kickstarter project that will fund a truly magnificent second edition with full colour illustration and tighter art direction.

There is so much information, so tightly packed in the book, that sometimes you have to read the same page twice to make sure you’ve got everything. This is not a game for beginners. Not because the rules are complicated – they aren’t – but because it hasn’t been written for beginners.

Having said that, I would be happy to use it as a game to introduce my friends to RPG because, run by an experienced GM, this game has everything you need and the book is not a scary tome of four hundred pages.

The fantastic new way to look at effects and how to use them make this game  attractive enough for me to want to play it and the fact that I can use the material I already own from old games with little effort means this is perfect for any gamer to reminisce about the old days without having to put up with the old days’ limitations.

At a price that won’t break any bank account, I can’t recommend Monsters & Magic enough. This game proves beyond any doubt that there is plenty of life in old game material and that Sarah Newton is a force to be reckoned with who will innovate in years to come because that is what she does best.

Monsters & Magic is available from:

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