Monday, February 15, 2010

REVIEW: Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1

Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1 by Bret Boyd is a 6-page PDF from Tricky Owlbear Publishing, detailing 12 new magical items for use with Swords & Wizardry, although they should be perfectly usable with any retro-clone or old school fantasy RPG.
The PDF is laid out simply, using two columns of text per page and without any artwork beyond the cover image. The text is free of any noticeable editorial problems, although there were occasions when I found it somewhat unclear due to its slightly "stream of consciousness" feel, as if the author were committing his thoughts to paper rather than presenting them for a more general audience. It's not a damning criticism, but it does contribute to the "ripped from an old school blog" feel the product has, about which I'll say more later.

The format of magical items -- 8 miscellaneous items and 4 pieces of magical ammunition (arrows and bolts) -- is simple and straightforward, with game mechanics described upfront, followed by "commentary" from Maxolt Alberiim, a gold dragon who's adopted a human guise as a means of disseminating magical knowledge throughout the world. The commentary varies is interest, with some of being fairly banal and others more inspirational. Much the same could be said of the magical items themselves, several of which, such as the boots of tremors and the necklace of skulls, to name but two, are quite clever and may well find a home in my Dwimmermount campaign, while others are variations on items we've all seen in dozens of places over the years. That said, most of the items do exhibit solid old school sensibilities, being low key and/or situational powerful. The author is to be commended on that score.

Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1 is nevertheless a very mixed bag. At only $1, it's probably worth it for referees looking for a quick bit of inspiration, but even its cleverest items don't stand out as anything you couldn't find for free on almost any of the old school blogs that we all read every day. And that's where I think products like this are in a bit of a bind. A couple of years ago, a collection of magic items written with old school rules and sensibilities in mind would be unusual. Nowadays, though, with literally dozens of blogs and forums dedicated to these games and more springing up every week, a product needs more than that to compete for your patronage.

To illustrate my point, let's briefly consider Jeff Rients's Miscellaneum of Cinder, which is little more than a collection of random tables and whose production volumes are most assuredly at the "hobbyist" end of the spectrum. This too is a product that has a strong "ripped from an old school blog" feel to it, as Jeff would readily admit, but, because of its nature -- random tables -- it has a lot of long-term utility, which is why I keep a copy of it handy when refereeing my Dwimmermount campaign. Miscellaneum of Cinder is a great example of how one need not have slick graphics or tons of mechanical crunch in order to create an invaluable old school product and I hope it serves as a model for writers and publishers looking into the old school scene these days.

I bring all this up not to knock Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1, which is a worthy first foray into this niche market, but to point out that, with so many bloggers, forum-goers, and other sundry Internet denizens literally giving away reams of material as good, if not better, than what TSR produced in almost any given year of its existence, you need to provide potential buyers with something they cannot get elsewhere. I'm not sure I can say that about Maxolt's Magical Menagerie #1, which, as individually good as some of its contents are, lacks that ineffable something that distinguishes great products from the merely good.

This isn't a problem unique to this product by a long shot -- lots of old school efforts suffer from the same malady -- but I'd strongly recommend that, if Tricky Owlbear intends to publish further installments in this series, they find something to make it stand out more, something that makes it more than just another collection of magic items. Most of us already have more magic items than we could ever use over the course of many campaigns. We don't have enough of are collections of magic items that demand they be used. That is something I'd like to see and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Presentation: 6 out of 10
Creativity: 5 out of 10
Utility: 4 out of 10

Get This If:
You don't mind spending a little money for a handful of magic items that might inspire you.
Don't Get This If: You've already got enough disposable magic items to toss into your campaign.

2 comments:

  1. Many thanks, James, for the review. I'll take your comments to our drawing board as MMM #2 begins to take shape. There is certainly a difference between what the old school gamer can use and what he needs and I'm confident Tricky Owlbear can find its way to the latter.

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  2. I must admit that I made the decision not to buy this product because although it is very cheap, I have spent the same amount of money and ended up with a product containing dozens of pages and a huge amount of content. Too little for my buck here.

    And to be honest, as James has pointed out with the blog example, someone like bat with his Ancient Vaults & Eldritch Secrets blog gives me a spell, magic item or monster every day, for free!

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