Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Monsters and Magic and the Old School Renaissance

Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.

In the endless new iterations of Dungeons and Dragons, version changes have often been an inescapable, fresh start from scratch. These radical reboots have not always been welcome, especially if beloved or appreciated aspects of previous editions get lost in the struggle, or new aspects are not welcome. Wizards get endless uses of spells now? Everyone roughly does the same amount of damage? I can just buy magic items from a list on the Players Handbook? Why do I have powers that refresh after every ‘encounter’? These changes were not always welcome.

In 2007, the OSRIC (Old School Index and Resource Compilation) was created. The stated goal of the OSRIC was to compile and bring together rules for old-school style fantasy gaming and to reproduce Dungeons and Dragons style rules from the 1970’s and early 1980’s, without the baggage, or the copyrightable elements of those old rules. Thus the Old School Renaissance, the OSR was born. As such, the Old School Renaissance has produced a sheaf of OSR games of various stripes and types. Too, if one takes 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons as your baseline, rather than 1st Edition, one might consider the successful and burgeoning Pathfinder Roleplaying Game to be an example of the OSR phenomenon as well.

One of the most recent roleplaying games in this OSR subgenre is Monsters and Magic, an OSR game from Sarah J. Newton’s Mindjammer Press. Newton is a prolific designer of roleplaying games and a science fiction author as well. [Disclaimer: I had the honor to participate in the working group for Monsters and Magic, and this gave me an inside seat on design decisions and ideas for the game.]

Monsters and Magic, at first glance, looks much like other OSR games. The usual six stats: Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma — running from 3-18. Elves, Dwarves, Half-Orcs, Gnomes. Clerics, Fighters, Magic Users, Thieves. Magic Users are fragile and only have a few hit points and no spells they can use every turn. Even the line art in the PDF has that white box D&D sort of feel.

If you look closer and dig into the rules, and you find that there is far more interesting things afoot. Monsters and Magic, rather than just being just a straight clone, has some innovations of its own, and ideas from much more modern games. No d20’s, here, you roll 3d6 instead to do everything, leading to a more bell shaped probability curve and less “swingy ness” in player rolls. Characters have traits rather than lists of skills and abilities they can bring to bear. Hitting that orc really well with the sword gains you effect points to use to make combat turns much more interesting than “I bash the orc for 6 points of damage”.

Characters and monsters have both physical and mental hit points. Monsters are given motivations and actions as guides to the GM for what they might and can do besides simply rush the PCs. Dryads, for instance, have the motivations Protect home tree, Protect the forest, Drive away intruders and have actions such as Charm interloper and Move between trees. Much more interesting than just having her stab a PC, no? These additions, inspired by recent games like FATE and Heroquest keep the rules relatively light, and amazingly fun in practice.

There is a vague map in the rulebook, but there is no real standard setting to learn, relying on player and GM creativity to worldbuild as they see fit. And, no, there are no prices for +2 Rods of fire to be found anywhere, although there are optional rules for ceding narrative control of treasures to players, should the GM wish to do so.

And, like many of the other OSR games, the stated goal and design of Monsters and Magic is to be compatible with all of those old 1st Edition D&D supplements, monsters and modules. Even if you do not have them sitting in your basement, PDFs of them are now available on places like Drive Through RPG. If you want to send a group of players through The Forbidden City, visit the old Keep on the Borderlands, or tromp through the Temple of Elemental Evil with a fresh and new take on those old rulesets, or if you want to draw up your own dungeon, old school style, Monsters and Magic may well be the vehicle for you.

Other OSR type games besides q have innovations and new ideas of their own. Dungeon World uses the engine of Apocalypse World and marries it to an OSR ethos to provide a unique dungeon and adventuring experience. Carcosa (and its progenitor Lamentations of the Flame Princess) uses OSR to provide an alien, inhuman planet that is as much weird fantasy and inspired by Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft as it is by Gary Gygax. Mazes and Monsters offers a Greek Mythological flavor to OSR rules.

While there are OSR games that explicitly mimic older editions of Dungeons and Dragons, for the most part, as seen above, this is only the starting point. Monsters and Magic, and the OSR movement as a whole does mine the past. However, at its best is more than just nostalgia, an urge to turn the clock back and go back to earlier times, earlier ideas. It’s a deliberate look at the past, to find what had been lost or forgotten, and to bring it forward again. Meld those old ideas, philosophy and fun with the best of new ideas, more inclusive and player-friendly. Keep the rules light for GM and players. Go play. Have fun. That’s what it’s all about.

What Science Fiction and fantasy readers and writers can take from Monsters and Magic and the OSR movement in roleplaying games is an obvious one. While much of the past, by Sturgeon’s Law, is perhaps not relevant to readers and writers today, a rich stratum of old school genre writing definitely is. Becoming familiar with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, if you like the new crop of sword and sorcery, or Cherryh’s Downbelow Station if you are a fan of the New Space Opera, or even the Belgariad if you are enjoying The Dragon’s Path is a good thing. It enriches your current reading experience, and some of the old stuff more than holds up, today.

3 thoughts on “Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Monsters and Magic and the Old School Renaissance”

  1. “Mazes and Monsters offers a Greek Mythological flavor to OSR rules.” They got permission to use that as a title?

    Interesting to see the market for retro-gaming, e.g., the Tunnels & Trolls Kickstarter which did quite well, this. I took a look at Pathfinder and was overwhelmed by the page count in the main book.

    1. Well, you have to remember that Pathfinder isn’t an OSR game, which are generally understood to be games that are derived from TSR-era D&Ds and the mechanics of those systems.

  2. Great write-up, Paul. I’ve tossed the PDF of Monsters & Magic into my “must buy this” list based on your review. Well done, and now I’m all jazzed to see if can talk my regular Saturday night group into some OSR goodness.

    As far as the size of Pathfinder goes, the Core Book is for both players AND GMs alike. Think of it as getting the PHB and DMG all together. Stacked up against some of the more modern games (which Pathfinder is, so the comparison is apt), the price point is lower and the thickness of the stack of paper is roughly the same.

    Of course, Paizo did the fiscally smart thing and didn’t stop at just one book. I probably have a 2 1/2 foot tall stack of Pathfinder goodies at the house. I’m surprised the shelf they are on hasn’t collapsed. :)

Comments are closed.