Sunday, January 10, 2010

REVIEW: Mazes & Minotaurs Players Manual

As I noted in my recent review of Mazes & Minotaurs (1972 Edition), a "revised edition" of the game is also available. According to the fictional alternate history the game uses as a framing device, M&M was revised in 1987 and released in three volumes, the first volume of which -- the Players Manual -- I'll be looking at in this post. Astute readers will note that the cover of this volume is an homage to the cover of the fifth edition of Tunnels & Trolls, a fact acknowledged in the book's credits. Overall, the Players Manual looks remarkably similar to the 1972 edition in terms of general layout and esthetics, but with much more art throughout. At 50 pages in length, it's close to the length of the entire 1972 edition, making it a solid emulation of RPGs' tendency to bloat with each new edition.

M&M packs on the pounds immediately by introducing six new character classes -- double the number in the original. The new classes are amazons (as a distinct class rather than a female barbarians), centaurs, elementalists, hunters, lyrists, and thieves. All of the classes are slightly more potent and mechanically complex than in the 1972 edition but not egregiously so. Each class is now tied to two attributes rather than one and attributes are generated by rolling 2D6+6 rather than 4D6-drop-the-lowest, because the revised edition assumes PCs are "above-average individuals, favored by fortune and fate." Personally, I found this a far more effective commentary on the history of RPGs than, say, discussions of sexism in relation to the nymph class but tastes obviously differ. Even more notably, the Faith attribute has been replaced with Will.

Most rules in the 1972 edition have been expanded, with greater clarity and a wider range of options. This is most apparent in the combat rules, which have added several new wrinkles not present in the original game, such as weapon mastery, variable damage, incapacitation and permanent injury, and new maneuvers. The result is, in my view, a game that's more "tactically rich," to borrow a phrase, but without a great deal more complexity. Magic is similarly expanded, both in terms of new powers for the new magic-using classes, like the elementalist, but also in terms of the powers to which existing character classes have access. The Players Manual includes the same faux historical commentary as the original version and notes that, under the 1972 rules, magicians were deemed too weak, thus necessitating their power boost in the revision. That said, M&M's magic is still notably more subtle than in D&D and other fantasy RPGs.

The final 10 pages of the book's 50-page length is devoted to "adventuring" rules, such as sailing -- a must in any ancient Greek RPG -- feats of strength, dealing with NPCs and followers, acquiring experience, and the like. It's here, as in the original, that M&M reveals its modern heritage, although this revelation is less egregious in an imaginary 1987 edition than in one supposedly written in 1972. The rules are very rational but simple. Indeed, at base, M&M remains a simple but not simplistic RPG, despite the embellishments of the revision. In some ways, I actually think the game is better in this edition than in the original, if only because the pretense of being a product of the earliest days of the hobby can be dropped and the designers are more free simply to make the game they wanted than to pull their punches in an effort to maintain a hoax.

In the final analysis, I liked the Mazes & Minotaurs Players Manual slightly better than I expected to. There are still aspects of the game I don't particularly like -- the experience point system, for example -- but, overall, it's a terrifically straightforward and focused game, one that's both evocative of its source material and inspirational to players and referees alike. More than ever, I'd like to give M&M a whirl sometime and, if I do, I expect I'll be using the revised edition, whose next two volumes I'll review over the coming days.

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

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

8 comments:

  1. I'm glad M&M is finally getting some exposure in these circles. I've always thought that the Mazes & Minotaurs community, who have been consistently producing content to support their system since its genesis three years ago, are a great and under-appreciated example of the OSR's plucky DIY spirit. You would do well to check out the Minotaur Quarterly, a series of fanzines filled with adventure modules and rules variations.

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  2. Does anyone know how difficult it would be to move B/X D&D PCs over to M&M for a couple of sessions? I've got a mystical gate guarded by a sphinx and would love to have a cross-over game...

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  3. James,
    I'm really glad you posted these reviews. I have just been flipping through the pdfs, and I think I love this game. I wish it was on Lulu, as I'd buy a real copy.

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  4. @chris:

    Frankly, it would be better to stick with the B/X rules and maybe write up some of the M&M monsters in B/X. M&M PC classes just don't map at *all* to B/X. (All the M&M classes have a lot of cultural baggage that doesn't work for characters who are from a D&D world).

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  5. This is a very interesting game and one I feel should be embraced within the OSR.
    I read through the bestiary last night and it has quite a few interesting, and some funny, entries.
    I really like how this game plays out and I will chime in again: get some new art! Make this a print product!

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  6. There hardly was an OSR when M&M was done. I think we all probably owe a lot to it, even if it hasn't received the attention of other endeavours.

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  7. It seems to me that M&M would enjoy greater success if its creator didn't have views on publication that I consider rather bizarre. Unless a game is as short and simple as Risus, the inability to simply purchase a bound hard copy is a deal killer for me and others I know.

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  8. I know, I know, I'm here two years too late, but as a fan of M&M, I thought I'd address what Maasenstodt said. The chief issue with publishing a printed M&M, as I understand it, is that much of the art in the game comes from some sort of public clip art repository, and the licensing terms are problematic.

    I've printed 4-5 M&M books, which I just send to Staples to have them spiral bound. It costs about $10. (This is actually how I consume many available-as-PDF books. Hooray for spiral binding!)

    One other thing I'll add for future readers: first level combat in M&M seems to take quite a lot longer than combat in B/X. Everyone has more hit points and better defense. So it seems, anyway.

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