Saturday, January 9, 2010

REVIEW: Mazes & Minotaurs (1972 Edition)

Rob Conley has sagely stated that the old school renaissance is "about going back to the roots of our hobby and see what we could do differently. What avenues were not explored because of the commercial and personal interests of the game designers of the time." It's an attitude a lot of us involved in this quixotic little movement share to one degree or another. That's why, for example, you're seeing people actually publishing megadungeons rather than just talking about doing so as their forebears did. It's also why science fantasy settings are making a big comeback these days -- they're all loose threads from the early days that just beg to be rewoven into the tapestry of the hobby and the old school movement has given gamers the inspiration to do just that.

Another such loose thread is classical mythology, especially as exemplified in Ray Harryhausen films like Jason and the Argonauts. By all accounts, Gary Gygax was very fond of these movies and early D&D includes lots of little references and homages to them, such as Talos the triple iron golem mentioned in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. It's this thread that Paul Elliott and Olivier Legrand pick up and weave into a remarkable "neo-old school" game called Mazes & Minotaurs. Moreso than, say, X-plorers, M&M is presented as a product of an alternate history, where the first RPG, published in 1972, was based not on a mish-mash of medieval European history, pulp fantasy, and pop culture but on the myths and legends of the ancient world.

Mazes & Minotaurs is available in two versions. The first, which I'm reviewing in this post, is the "original" rules set and a corresponds to OD&D in terms of its length (just 74 pages) and complexity. A 1987 "revised" edition, which I will review in due course, corresponds roughly to AD&D and other heftier fantasy RPGs and comprises many more pages of text, divided into three volumes. Both versions of the game are presented as if they really were products of another world in which the hobby began a little earlier and its influences were a little different. The books, which are available only as free PDFs, include lots of commentary by the authors on the origins, development, and controversies surrounding the game's imaginary history. Some of this imaginary history cleaves a little too closely to the real history of the hobby, with M&M standing in for D&D, albeit with little twists, while some of it reasonably insightful and/or trenchant satire of that real history. I have mixed feelings about this approach, in part because I think some of the commentary perpetuates false (or at least mistaken) notions about old school D&D, such as the nature and purpose of experience points, to cite one example.

Despite such quibbles, Mazes & Minotaurs is a remarkably well done game whose spirit, if not its "body," is in line with most old school design principles. As already noted, the game is brief and many of its rules are suggestive, demanding interpretation by the referee (or Maze Master, as he's known in M&M). It's not without anachronisms that reveal its origins in the 2000s rather than the 1970s, however. Most of them are small -- an underlying universal mechanic, an explicitly prescriptive XP system, lengthy monster stat blocks, etc. -- but they do violence to the alternate history on which the game is so charmingly constructed. All of these are perfectly defensible design decisions and most are probably more in keeping with contemporary gaming sensibilities, which is why I say that M&M's "body" isn't quite as old school as its spirit. That's not a criticism so much as an observation.

M&M characters have six attributes -- Might, Skill, Luck, Wits Faith, Grace -- each of which is associated with a particular character class: Barbarian, Spearman, Noble, Sorcerer, Priest, and Nymph, respectively. Each class has a single special ability, such as a barbarian's ability to add his Might bonus to damage or a priest's ability to call upon his patron deity for miracles. There are a number of combat-related derived attributes, like Defense Class and Hits, the latter of which is not random but based primarily on one's class and level -- another example of the game's contemporary origins. Magic is based on power points. Magic, whether of the sorcerous, divine, or dryadic variety, is nicely open-ended and subtle. There are no fireballs or similarly flashy magic here, something that I think suits its inspirations very well.

Combat is straightforward and does not deviate much from what a D&D player would expect. There are a number of new wrinkles here, such as charges, shield walls, two-weapon fighting, and the use of subterfuge -- complexities not found in games of the same supposed vintage. There are, however, explicit rules for disengaging and retreat, which I appreciated. There are also rules for a wide variety of physical actions, which, while discussed separately, share similar mechanics, where high rolls on 1D20 are always better. NPC reactions, henchmen, loyalty, and morale are all given the treatment one would expect. Experience, as I noted, is more explicitly prescriptive than OD&D, with "fighting classes" gaining XP through defeating enemies and "accomplishing great deeds" "magic classes" gaining them by defeating supernatural enemies and "exploring the unknown." There's enough wiggle room in these categories for each referee to use them as he wishes, which recalls AD&D 2e's late, unlamented XP rules, not to mention other more recent games. Whether one sees this as a boon or a bane is, I suppose, a matter of taste. For myself, I'm not too keen on them.

A large portion -- over 30 pages -- of the book is made up of monster descriptions. The run the gamut from those clearly derived from Greco-Roman mythology to pop culture references to oddities invented from whole cloth. The result is not unlike D&D's bestiary, except with a more strongly classical twist and quite unlike the approach taken by Oriental Adventures. It's extremely well done in my opinion and, in many ways, the real brilliance of M&M is the way it conjures up an unholy goulash inspired by Greek myth rather than European legendry. Less successful, I think, are the monster listing themselves, whose statistics are lengthier than OD&D's precisely because, despite all the old school chrome, M&M is a modern game and, like most modern games, doesn't see ambiguity as a guiding virtue. That's not to say the monster stats are excessively long, but they contain a lot more mechanical information than, say, Moldvay/Cook or even Mentzer's rulebooks had.

Closing the book is a brief overview of the World of Mythika, a fantasy setting based on Greek myth -- basically a re-imagined Mediterranean world. There's also advice on creating adventures and random tables for generating "mysterious islands" of the sort Odysseus or Jason might encounter in their travels. There's also a short list of magic items, such as weapons, armor, potions, and the like.

All in all, Mazes & Minotaurs is a very impressive piece of work, all the more so because it manages to include so much in so short a space. It's a game I'd very much like to play at some point, so you can take that as you will. What M&M is not, however, is a particularly convincing old school forgery, even if it supposedly originates in an alternate universe. Unlike, say, Encounter Critical, whose anachronisms are better hidden, M&M, in both its rules and its commentary, shows its hand. It's a work of clear homage to the old school, making many esthetic choices in imitation of its forebears, but its foundations are a bit too rational to be a genuine product of the early days of the hobby. That's why I called it a "neo-old school" game, more like Castles & Crusades than, say, Mutant Future.

Again, that's not meant to be a criticism but an observation. I suspect that, for many gamers not immersed in the Old Ways, Mazes & Minotaurs will be a much easier introduction to minimalist roleplaying. M&M has more "training wheels" than OD&D (or, for that matter, Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry), but I doubt they'd spoil the fun ride you could have after donning your Corinthian helmet, hefting your xiphos, and forming a shield wall as you prepare to face down the Derros pouring out from their hidden citadels beneath the earth.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If: You're looking for a minimalist fantasy RPG that's not inspired by the European Middle Ages.
Don't Get This If: You're expecting a "realistic" treatment of the ancient world as the basis for a fantasy roleplaying game.

10 comments:

  1. Great review but I think I found the first few paragraphs the most interesting.

    As somebody who is new to the whole OSR, after having played new school stuff for decades, I didn't see a lot of innovation in the stuff that first brought me in. I am seeing that now and that is what has really drawn be back to OSR.

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  2. Nice review. Mazes and Minotaurs is a favorite of mine and it never seems to get much attention in the blogoshpere.

    And perhaps it may a patronizing to sa so, I feel M&M's achievement is enhanced by the fact that the games creator, Oliver Legrand is not a native English speaker.

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  3. This game looks really cool. A greek-themed DnD campaign would be awesome.

    My only issues is I don't like the extra errata document, though. I know they're going for that old feel, but I'd rather have the original game fixed.

    Sword and Board

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  4. I just wish that there was an official print version of this. Or at least that it looked like one would be coming along sometime.

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  5. I'm downloading M&M as I type this comment. Thanks for reviewing this game.

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  6. I was just looking at Clash of the Titan's trailer on youtube and this game can certainly emulate that.

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  7. The reason there's no print edition is that much of the art work is clip art; Olivier can use it since he's not distributing it as a commercial product, but he's not allowed to sell print copies using it.

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  8. So, in other words, he just needs proper art for it?

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  9. This version of M&M was the ruleset that introduced me to "old school" and reintroduced me to rpgs in general. I really hope to play it someday.

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  10. @ancientvaults:

    Even if he were to receive art (and there are many on the M&M mailing list who can produce it), Olivier would have to reformat the document around the new artwork, which is a fairly complex task that he has no desire to do.

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