I had a chance to look at a copy of Monsters & Magic this weekend. It’s a new “OSR” game by Sarah Newton published by Mindjammer Press. It’s basically a set of new school rules that you can overlay on a version of old school TSR D&D so you can use TSR-era monsters, spells, adventures etc. but use them with new school rules. (Note that while I don’t really consider it an “OSR” game, whether it is or not is not really germane to this post — I’m just mentioning this to head off discussions of whether or not this is a real OSR game in comments.)
Sarah Newton explains the genesis of the game and exactly what the purpose of the game is in the foreword to Monsters & Magic:
I’d been reading through some Old School Renaissance games, trying to find a rules set to scratch that itch. I was looking for something which oozed with classic fantasy atmosphere, was easy to play, yet which extended its playability into areas usually covered by more modern games — personality conflicts, playing with scenic and thematic aspects, exploiting the narrative tropes of classic swords and sorcery adventure. More than anything, I wanted to use the many supplements and scenarios I’d collected over the years — to play them again, without having to laboriously convert them to this or that ruleset. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a game to suit.
It was a lightbulb moment. Why not write one? I’d been toying with a rules system for a year or two — something which gave players a stack of points they could spend to do cool in-game stuff. Not just whittling away an opponent’s endurance, but changing the world, doing genre-specific acts of heroism and amazing feats.
As you can tell from the second paragraph, Monsters & Magic is not the sort of game I would enjoy playing. I don’t like new school mechanics. They turn me off the way an old school dungeon crawl using B/X or AD&D rules often turns off players who love D&D 4e or Fiasco.
So why I am excited about a game that I has everything I don’t like rolled into “D&D”? It’s simple, with Monsters & Magic Sarah Newton has clearly demonstrated that is is possible to take standard TSR D&D and write a set of optional rules for it that turns the game into a new school, more narrative style of game that is still able to easily use all the standard game’s monsters, spells, treasure, adventures, etc.
In my humble opinion, this is what WOTC should be doing with 5e. Producing a standard version of D&D Next that is something like an updated B/X or 1e and then producing modular supplements which overlay/replace some of the rules of the standard game to produce a game with a tactical focus (like that of 4e), a game with a charop focus (like that of 3.5), a game with a narrative focus, etc. No one version of D&D is going to please all D&D players, let alone all fantasy RPG fans. What is needed is a modular system that has a simple core that supplements can build out in completely different directions. Monsters & Magic proves this can be done and done well with D&D — even when the original system was never designed with such game-changing supplements in mind..
This is why I have high praise for Monsters & Magic even though I’d rather be tickled to death by little red spiders than have to play it. It’s a very well done new school system that turns standard TSR D&D into a game that is still recognizable as D&D, but uses new school rules to make a more “narrative” RPG out of D&D for those who would like to play D&D, but prefer a game system more like Fate (or some other more narrative system). If you fall into that category, I highly recommend Monsters & Magic. I think it is far better than Dungeon World, Torchbearer, and other recent system that try to produce a completely new “new school” game that covers the same ground as D&D. While I may not be a fan of the type of games Sarah Newton designs, I have to admit that they are well-thought out and excellent at what they do. Monsters & Magic is no exception.