Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Retrospective: Man, Myth & Magic

I'm a sucker for historical fantasy, especially if it's presented in a "realistic" way, that is, if it attempts to ground the fantasy in the history it's presenting. So, for example, I love fantasies set in the ancient world that make use of the ancient worldview about, say, oracles or divine intervention in order to present a story that nevertheless conforms to history as we know it. I'm willing to extend a wide latitude here, which is why I adore Richard Tierney's "Simon of Gitta" stories, even though they include a lot of Lovecraft-inspired swashbuckling action (those are a few words you probably don't see conjoined very often!) at odds with real history. After all, historical fantasy is fantasy and even someone as stodgy as I must be willing to make allowances for the sake of a good story.

My love for historical fantasy is a deep one, going back to my youth. That's probably why, when Yaquinto Publications released its RPG Man, Myth & Magic back in 1982, I was intrigued. Not intrigued enough to buy it myself, I should note, but intrigued enough that I egged a friend on to buy it and then set out to try and run a campaign using it. Unfortunately, Man, Myth & Magic wasn't quite the game I was hoping it was. Though it can be charitably called a historical fantasy, it's somewhat unclear exactly what history it's meant to represent. As written, it's supposed to cover 5000 years of history, from 4000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Its geographical scope is similarly broad, covering much of the Old World, from Europe to Asia to Africa, albeit with a strong focus on the classical Mediterranean world. This breadth, while admirable in its ambition, prevented the game from having anything approximating a focus and adventures were inevitably an odd mishmash of times, places, and cultures, like an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, only less credible.

This ambitious breadth was reflected in the character generation rules too, which used random rolls to determine a character's culture and profession. Consequently, a typical party might consist of a Roman legionnaire, an African witchdoctor, an Irish leprechaun, a Siberian shaman, and an Egyptian priest. Certainly one could forgo the random rolls to create a more coherent party of adventurers but there was little benefit to doing so, as the game's adventures were a crazy quilt of elements -- the characters journeying all over the world to face opponents from a wide variety of places and time periods. I won't deny that there's a whimsical sort of fun to be had in suck a motley assortment of characters one week fighting side by side with Julius Caesar in Gaul and the next week foiling a plot by evil mummies to overthrow Akhenaten. However, it's not the sort of fun I was looking for at the time and my friends and I happily ceased trying to play it.

What's intriguing is that the game's author, James Herbert "Herbie" Brennan, is a writer of fantasy fiction and books on New Age and occult topics. This makes me wonder if perhaps the incoherence I saw in the game was a deliberate choice in some way connected to his personal interests in outré philosophies. I don't recall any overt New Age evangelizing in the game, but then I was 12 years-old at the time and not particularly good at noticing such things (assuming they were even there). I did, however, notice that Man, Myth & Magic was a disappointing game, one whose general outlines could have been made into a compelling RPG in the hands of a more capable designer, which is a shame. A well-done historical fantasy game in the ancient world is something I'd love to see; odds are good that, even if it fell short of my expectations, I'd still like it more than I did Man, Myth & Magic.

31 comments:

  1. (I just went looking for Richard Tierney books - um - I hope you have yours in a safe place.)

    Our regular DM brought "Man & Myth and Magic", but I don't remember playing it more than once. I do remember a map of (?)Stonehenge with an old-style dungeon under it and not being impressed; why bother with the historical setting if you're not going to use it.

    Overall, I don't think we at 16 new enough ancient history to make it work anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "...a typical party might consist of a Roman legionnaire, an African witchdoctor, an Irish leprechaun, a Siberian shaman, and an Egyptian priest...one week fighting side by side with Julius Caesar in Gaul and the next week foiling a plot by evil mummies to overthrow Akhenaten."

    I would play that campaign in a heartbeat.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "...like an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess, only less credible."

    It is not fair to me or my coffee to make me snort it out my nose.

    At work.

    On to my keyboard.

    On the other hand a game like that could be an absolute blast to play, especially if you made it sort of like Sliders/Quantum Leap/Stargate.

    "I, Merit Ptah, Guardian of the Sands of Time, have gathered you together to restore the proper flow. Succeed, and you will be rewarded. Fail, you will be forever erased from history."

    ReplyDelete
  4. I bought the game when it came out, I was a big fan of many Yaquinto games. It was an interesting break from our standard fantasy RPG, but proved to be a bit too ponderous. Interesting combat system with called shots and the like. I think if the game had been patterned around something like Mechwarrior by FASA it may have played more smoothly.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Herbie Brennan is also the author of some solo gamebooks called 'Grailquest' which are nominally set in Arthurian times but are actually just hysterically funny pieces of satire targetting various fantasy tropes.
    I've been hoping he'd release them for free on the internet like Joe Dever did with the Lone Wolf series but no such luck.

    ReplyDelete
  6. 'A well-done historical fantasy game in the ancient world is something I'd love to see; odds are good that, even if it fell short of my expectations, I'd still like it more than I did Man, Myth & Magic.' Ever have look at Zenobia by Paul Elliot?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I remember playing MM&M long ago (back in 1987). The background was, as James said, more akin to an episode "Xena the Warrior Princess" than anything else. Highly fanciful, to say the least.

    It can be fun, though, if you are not looking for an "historical" game.

    Strangely, I don't remember anything about the rules except for the fact the character generation was totally random (class, race, sex...)

    That meant you could have to play a virgin Vestal even if you just wanted to be a muscular gallic gladiator...

    Could be interesting at times, but mostly, players felt annoyed (and I'm not even talking about a five Vestals adventuring party!)

    I'm not surprised that game fell into oblivion...

    ReplyDelete
  8. Pretty much echoes my feelings on the game. I first saw and thought "This looks neat" then I read a copy and thought "This isn't that good".

    ReplyDelete
  9. "...a Roman legionnaire, an African witchdoctor, an Irish leprechaun, a Siberian shaman, and an Egyptian priest..."

    ...all walk into a bar and...

    Security word: "Plikintr," the homonculous scribe employed by the local wizard.

    ReplyDelete
  10. There's a good article in White Dwarf #20, about various well-known peoples (Vikings, ancient Egyptians etc) in D&D terms.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I don't remember playing that game, but I do remember that it had awesome character sheets.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I played the introductory scenario in which you start as a gladiator during the reign of a randomly determined Roman emperor. I thought it was quite fun.

    The game has promise, but my biggest complaint is not about the random professions, but the overwhelming odds that you will generate a merchant. I think I'd adjust the tables to accommodate more variety. Parties of merchants may actually be more credible, but they can also be incredibly boring if exotic adventure is what lured you to the game.

    I recall reincarnation being an important part of the game, which intrigued me, but who wants to look back on a long line of previous lives all spent as a merchant?

    If I were to play it again, there would definitely be house rules.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Speaking of role-playing games with ancient settings, have you looked into Palladium's Valley of the Pharaohs? I think they may still be offering it as a series of free PDF downloads. Someday, I need to play it. (And I wish I had all the related miniatures that were available when the game was released. They were nice.)

    ReplyDelete
  14. The system was definitely cumbersome. We only played it once. The chance of a Merchant character was about 1 in 4 or so, with most of the rest being one of the many warrior or spell-casting classes.

    The intriguing thing about it was the reincarnation rules. When you died, you generated a new character (and were allowed to reroll if you rolled the same class again). Then as time went by you got to make "Distant Memory" rolls, and would eventually remember your previous existence, at which point you regained the special abilities of your former class, while keeping your new abilities.

    WV: quinne. Clearly a reference to William Von Orman Quine, a philosopher who was very interested in self-referential statements, appropriately enough.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have a friend who owns this game and its few supplements. He LOVES it, although he's never played it or run it. He was bummed out that the final adventure was never published, which supposedly would have completed the campaign arc Herbert had started in the first four(?) books.

    You should also check out the Man, Myth, and Magic encyclopedia set. Tricky to find, but EXTREMELY useful for any RPGer.

    Word Verification: Undie. hehehe.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This was a HORRIBLE game. I rate it right up there with Powers & Perils for suck factor.

    ReplyDelete
  17. We played it once or twice. I killed a guy by throwing one of my sandals at him. And the characters were really 'Huh?'.

    ReplyDelete
  18. @Anthony: Hey! Powers & Perils had it's redeeming features! It just appeared bad at first glance (for a third or fourth generation game); it actually worked quite well in play.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I'm going to have to echo Jeff here and say that the anachronistic kitchen sink faux-historical vibe sounds great!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Mazes and Minotaurs isn't very historical, but it is very fun. If you want to play Ray Harryhausen Ancient World, there you are.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I only ever played AD&D (OK, and Call of Cht...Cth...C..uh..you know), but our game god was an inveterate collector of RP games, so I do remember looking through this. I knew enough even then to be less than impressed by the mulligan stew of themes being mushes together.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I'd never put it together that the author of that game was also the author of Timeship, a game which was the subject of some serious debate in the gaming community during the BADD years. You see, it seems that Brennan's theory of roleplaying was (and may still be) that it really is great training for esoteric practices like Ceremonial Magic, and he was pretty explicit about that in Timeship.

    ReplyDelete
  23. "Consequently, a typical party might consist of a Roman legionnaire, an African witchdoctor, an Irish leprechaun, a Siberian shaman, and an Egyptian priest."

    And they fight mummies, you say? Maybe I'm just a freak, but this sounds way, WAY more awesome than any dry "accurate" historical RPG I've ever encountered. :)

    ReplyDelete
  24. faoladh said..."You see, it seems that Brennan's theory of roleplaying was (and may still be) that it really is great training for esoteric practices like Ceremonial Magic, and he was pretty explicit about that in Timeship."

    Yeah, Timeship is about a close as you can get to "overt new age evangelizing," not that new agers and occultists do much evangelizing. The game is pretty much a step by step lesson on magickal visualization with a focus on psychic time travel but teaches techniques that will serve the initiate... sorry... gamer in any magickal pursuit such as ceremonial magick, meditation, path working, etc. The system itself, with PERSONAL ENERGY being the main stat and the fact that you can use your PERSONAL ENERGY to create equipment or change your character's appearance, makes it obvious that your characters in the game are psychic projections and that the system is meant to simulate a type of psychic time travel rather than actual physical time travel. When one considers that Herbie Brennan also wrote a book on psychic time travel, this is not surprising. It's still not much in the way of a credible and playable role playing game but interesting nonetheless for its approach and a great beginner's guide if you want to someday gain the Knowledge and Conversation of your Holy Guardian Angel or actually travel through time in a completely subjective and unverifiable manner.

    ED

    ReplyDelete
  25. James, if you like historical fantasy, check out Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist series. Greece during the Peloponnesian War, gods, magic swords, and a unique picaresque hero.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Ever have look at Zenobia by Paul Elliot?

    I looked at it some time ago and was quite impressed, but I don't know if I still have a copy.

    ReplyDelete
  27. I'm not surprised that game fell into oblivion...

    It probably didn't help that Yaquinto ceased publishing RPGs a couple of years later.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Speaking of role-playing games with ancient settings, have you looked into Palladium's Valley of the Pharaohs?

    My direct experience with any Palladium games is quite limited. It's a huge gap in my education.

    ReplyDelete
  29. The intriguing thing about it was the reincarnation rules. When you died, you generated a new character (and were allowed to reroll if you rolled the same class again). Then as time went by you got to make "Distant Memory" rolls, and would eventually remember your previous existence, at which point you regained the special abilities of your former class, while keeping your new abilities.

    I liked the idea of such a system, but the difficulty for me (even then) was how to explain that a new character, who was conceivably older than the previous character whom he was replacing was a reincarnation of the earlier one.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I liked the idea of such a system, but the difficulty for me (even then) was how to explain that a new character, who was conceivably older than the previous character whom he was replacing was a reincarnation of the earlier one.

    Time is a mundane construct that doesn’t apply to souls. There you go. ^_^

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.