Mazes & Minotaurs, as the name implies, is a D&D -derivative roleplaying game published a while back. I remember reading it several months ago when I was bored – it has the feel of a ’70s rpg polished to fit modern standards in terms of terminological clarity, rules logic and such. The most amusing part of the game is that it is a Gygaxic take on Greek myth, as opposed to the medievalism of D&D. The game has the same goofy setting bits that make it a bit difficult to relate to at times (like making centaurs a PC race, not my cup of tea), but it also has lots of Greek flavour; I especially liked the Noble as a character class, that should make for some interesting roleplaying.
It’s not the game I want to discuss here, though, but the recently released adventure/campaign (I guess it’s not a campaign in traditional terms, but I know I rarely play this long games nowadays myself) Tomb of the Bull King. It’s an amazing, over 200 page long dungeon adventure, and seems to be the among best adventures in its genre that I’ve ever read. I simply can’t figure out what drives these guys – all the hundreds of pages of material for M&M are free, and apparently just created for the larks, or perhaps out of passion for the game.
Dungeoneering and I
Throughout my recent investigation of challenge-based adventure roleplaying I’ve been also distantly interested in old ’70s roleplaying; how else, when there are so many similarities between that and this new favourite fantasy adventure mode of mine? There is a sort of cultural reneval of “old school” roleplaying going on in the Internet right now, so new material, and more importantly, new analysis of and advice for using the historical games is now available in unforeseen amounts. It’s heady and exciting stuff in many ways – before the paradigm of story-creation came to roleplaying (I’d mark this down as having happened with Dragonlance in -82, roughly), many of the same values I’m looking for in a challenge-based adventure game were considered a matter of course. Most of these older games are predicated upon a willingness to have the players engage with a GM-prepared challenge environment where the GM’s primary job is to adjucate action and provide logical consequences for choices made. Lots of the same philosophy as the directions I’m taking my recent play, in other words.
However, there is also a lot in these older games that is difficult for me to swallow and reintroduce to my gaming. (I’m saying “reintroduce” because many of these same procedural elements were already present in my early gaming during the ’90s, even if they were used for different reasons.) The list is so long that I’ll give it bullet points:
- Combat-heavy play is presumed in Tunnels & Trolls, Dungeons & Dragons and other games in this style. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if I found the way these combats are played interesting, but most of the time it’s utterly boring. Many GMs who advocate this style instruct to provide room for original tactics and whatnot, but that doesn’t change the fact that the rules-paradigm of these games essentially locks down the combat interaction, which is the bulk of play, into a rigid structure of initiative and roll-to-hit. The parts I like are the strategy and variety in challenges player encounter, but having a grind of seven combat encounters that follow each other without exciting color elements, dialogue options, strategic choices, variable goals or anything but a relentless crunch of hit points is so dull. However you dress it, the choices in these games round by combat round boil down to either rolling the die and seeing if you get to deduct some points (where’s the challenge in that?) or ad-lib something and see if the GM is willing to give you a break and rule in your favour.
- Inventory management seems in this day and age so very pointless. It drags a game down with meaningless realism – when I need to track how many arrows my character has, then I also need to decide how many to take with me, at which point I need to decide how many fit into a quiver and how many quivers my character can realistically handle, not to speak of the price of arrows and quivers – if I don’t fix all of these, I might as well write down “a million arrows” and be done with it. What’s the point? The part I’m really interested in is whether the character is competent enough to supply himself well enough and whether he has an opportunity to supply himself. The meaningful reasons for not having arrows are that the character forgot to take them with him or he couldn’t resupply for some reason before he needed them. Everything else is pretty much meaningless wankery.
- Dungeon genre is this D&D-originated weird genre of fantasy in which “great adventurers” have “great adventures” by going into a pit in the ground and killing monsters that have no reason to be in the pit. The old Menzer red box D&D does a heroic job in presenting this practice as a fantasy of high adventure, but in practice the whole genre is so wacky that I lose my interest. I want to provide a varied challenge environment that resonates with the fantasies that appeal to people in literature. To balance the viewpoint I have to say that the later sets of D&D make it clear that high-level adventurers can and will have real adventurers where they interact with people and society, but the basic notion of combat encounters (as opposed to having combat develop as a natural option out of the events in play, you know), xp-collecting and treasure management stays strong to the highest levels of the game.
- D&D aesthetics are the deeply ingrained choices of focus that these old games make. For example, the idea that constitution and strength are separate, independent attributes, is a D&Dism that has little to do with anything I’d recognize as believable and relevant fantasy fiction. Similarly the D&D habit of having weapon choice be some sort of identity element for characters is just weird. I don’t want to run a game where a player character is defined by his magic axe, and it’s some sort of attack on character integrity if the character loses his weapon. There are a lot of these sorts of ingrained aesthetic details that annoy me in these old games.
When I started my Alder Gate campaign this last fall, these issues were heavily in my mind. I was very close to using the Tunnels & Trolls system in the game, but in the end I just couldn’t justify it – asking the players to take the time with the fetishized weapon lists of the game would have been completely meaningless when I don’t consider those weapon choices interesting or meaningful at all in any way. Ultimately I ended up running a huge list of house rules to replace the weapon/armor lists from the game, to sort the ability list into something more appealing and to otherwise fine-tune the game to match my current aesthetics. Ultimately I decided that this was just crazy, and it’d be much easier to just throw down my own houseruled, extremely streamlined D&D.
My point here, though, is that I have grave trouble with the whole genre of dungeoneering roleplaying due to how it has shaped up historically. Every time I’ve tried it has been pretty torturous, as the dungeon seems custom-designed to prevent interesting and realistic tactical and strategic play, and to kill all interesting color and variety of fantasy. Some of my favourite moments in challengeful adventure games are when the players create strategy and choose their goals, and this strategic level is completely removed in your average dungeoneering adventure: the pipe takes the characters to the next encounter, which has to be resolved by combat, which in turn is just a matter of rolling dice with little chance for choice. Get your character killed and it’s the GMs fault for creating a too difficult dungeon – how could it be otherwise, when there was not exactly any choice about going into the next room and awakening the next beast on the menu?
Tomb of the Bull King
Now, the above was context for understanding my viewpoint when I say that I really enjoyed reading the Tomb of the Bull King. It almost makes me want to play the module as is, out of the box. If I hadn’t an on-going sort-of-dungeoneering campaign of my own in my hands right now, I’d probably get together some of the local teenagers to run this for them. I might get annoyed by the dungeon aesthetics in short order, but I’d probably try anyway just because the module seems that fascinating.
The titular tomb in the scenario is what might be termed a “mega-dungeon”, a big-ass dungeon environment. It’s not a literal dungeon in this case, but rather a Minoan-style ruin of a huge palace-turned-tomb, but the basic set-up is the same. In addition to the ruin itself and its 250 rooms, the adventure provides background about the island of Proteus (Crete) and the newly-created kingdom of Coristea whose fate depends largely on what happens in the dungeon.
Now, most dungeons are very artificial environments with little fictional context for existence, but here the author Carlos de la Cruz Morales has provided an extended prologue and context for the dungeon as the heroes arrive on the island and get to know the local history and political situation. I first realized that I had something special in my hands when the text very directly sketched a handful of NPCs with believable and varied motivations that are in near inconsolable conflict – this is the sort of technique I use myself.
Further positive signs for the product came in the form of the natural way the characters are led to the dungeon, with a couple of mini-adventures that are well-though and meaningful. The heroes do not need to triumph against the magical bull or their treacherous guide, but both provide clear consequences in both victory and defeat, which I like.
However, where the dungeon really hits the ball out of the park is on page 21, where the author starts listing a strategic overview of the dungeon, the politics of the inhabitants and the possible paths to “victory” (being defined as slaying the minotaur, an evil demigod and king of monsters who resides in the palace). It is immensely clear here that the purpose is to provide a challenge, not control character action to create the story the GM desires. The overview section provides clear pointers to the possibilities of the environment, as the characters may choose to fulfill certain quests for the gods and powerful residents of the palace to finally unlock magical might that in turn will help them against the minotaur. Meanwhile the GM tracks the combats the characters choose to engage in, which will influence the presumed final battle against the minotaur himself. This is no mindless dungeon piperun: the map itself makes it clear that the heroes actually get to choose for themselves from which direction they approach the extended palace structures, and the onus is on the players to scout, gather information, make allies and figure out what actually is going on in the tomb and what they must do to lay the Bull King to rest.
There are certain places where the adventure text strays a bit towards simple framed scenes, such as in the final battle and aftermath, and in general wherever the author has gotten enamoured of his set-piece encounter, but for the most part the freedom to approach the situations and solve them imaginatively is quite palpable for an dungeon adventure. Likewise the attention to atmosphere and setting is exceptional; the tomb is the home to a large number of different sorts of creatures from monsters to undead apparitions, and the dungeoneering paradigm certainly groans under the weight of disbelief, but for the most part the author has created an environment that I could imagine throwing on the table and playing without being at loss for explaining why these monsters are here and what they want.
That being said, I’m really, really conflicted about actually going out and playing this scenario. One minute it seems like a great idea, but the next I read something about how many thousands of silver coins an individual character might carry out of the tomb, and I remember all the aesthetic issues I have with the dungeoneering genre. Problematic. To get everything out of the adventure I’d need to use the Mazes & Minotaurs rules, too, and while I don’t remember them as particularly aggravating, I’m sure that with practical play approaching I’d again get stuck in an endless loop of rules revision to make the system perform to my exact expectations.