Mazes & Minotaurs

Mazes & Minotaurs sits aside Encounter Critical as a sort of proto-OSR game, at least in terms of its presentation. Its seed comes from an essay by Paul Elliott on RPG.net, playfully speculating on how the RPG hobby might have developed differently had the first published RPG taken Greek mythology (as viewed through the prism of Ray Harryhausen spectacles and other “sword and sandal” movies) as the main inspiration instead of sword & sorcery in the Robert E. Howard/Fritz Leiber mode. Inspired by the article, French RPG fan Olivier Legrand decided to produce a free RPG based on the concept – a game which would have two fictional layers, the first being the actual fiction of the game presented and the second being the invented history of the game as the “first RPG” in a parallel version of the hobby.

To everyone’s surprise, the concept actually caught on – to the point where not only did a range of supplements come out for the “original 1972” rules as initially presented, but actually an entire “revised Mazes & Minotaurs” new edition came out to tidy everything up and present it all with an eye to seeing actual play. Unlike yet another OSR reinvention of D&D, of the sort which the OSR has produced dozens and which tend to boil down to “my D&D house rules”, the design of Mazes & Minotaurs not only involves genuine originality but also increasingly feels like a game which sees actual play. After all, the type of concept explored here hasn’t exactly been exhaustively mined in tabletop RPGs, despite the fact that it actually fits the format remarkably well, and Mazes & Minotaurs, as a game line, would seem to fill a niche which commercial publishers have failed to exploit (in part, perhaps, because the public domain nature of Greek myth may put them off compared to invented IPs which they can own outright).

The 1972 Original

The base game has a major advantage over OD&D, in that whilst Gary Gygax had to work out how to present an RPG rulebook all by himself, Legrand has the luxury of hindsight. Thus, whilst aesthetically simplistic in presentation, the “original” Mazes & Minotaurs is actually an eminently playable game. With six classes, a limited but flavourful set of magical powers, a brace of imaginative monsters and an overall aesthetic that mashes up classical myth, the Hollywood-twisted version of said legends that informed movies like Jason and the Argonauts (and various other 1960s-era sword and sandal fantasies ranging from masterpieces to MST3K-worthy trash), and a playful tendency to play fast and loose with the “canon”, it’s simple but perfectly functional as a game.

Some design decisions seem a little dubious – the decision to require Amazon warriors to use Skill as their prime requisite (meaning that there are no female Might-based warriors) may raise eyebrows, as would the Nymph class of all-female magic-users and the division of priests such that women worship goddesses and men worship gods. At the same time, these are the only mechanical restrictions based on gender and they are trivially ignored; one of the sidebars written for the “2006 Reprint” notes the possibility of playing Satyrs as male equivalents of the Nymphs, and also makes passing reference to the potential poor consequences if immature or untrustworthy players attempt to play Satyrs with a classical level of randiness. Indeed, the sexist class restrictions seem to have been included as a deliberate commentary on sexism in the early hobby, since the sidebars make sure to note that they were controversial and did prompt much debate, with women contributing fiercely to them just as they did in early discussions about sexism in Dungeons & Dragons.

The game also plays smoother and more symmetrically than OD&D; there’s a class for each major stat, which makes your character generation decision-making process quick and easy, and most of the numbers you use in game start out based on a combination of two of your stat modifiers. This means that most characters will, in general, start out with at least basic competence at most endeavours (since the various modifiers will tend to balance out and, since stats are rolled as “4D6, drop lowest, then use a chart to convert your 3-18 result to a -3 to +3 modifer”, your modifiers will tend to be positive), with members of the various character classes being supreme in their areas of specialisation but not entirely locked out of basic adventuring activities.

There’s also quite a nice dichotomy in the way experience works; non-magic users are after Glory, gained from defeating monsters and doing great deeds, whilst magic users are after Wisdom, gained from defeating foes with an occult edge and delving into great mysteries. In practice, most adventures will naturally involve both, so this should hopefully not lead to all that much in the way of party disunity, but the difference does help give characters distinct priorities. Moreover, the combination of those priorities will tend to nudge the party as a whole to suitably adventurous risk-taking.

On the whole, Mazes & Minotaurs feels like an old-school game which you could viably play extensive campaigns of just with this 74-page first draft, so it’s no surprise that soon after Legrand completed this a range of supplements started popping up…

Men & Monsters

Supposedly the first supplement for Mazes & Minotaurs, emerging in 1973, this is very much styled after the approach of the original Greyhawk supplement – no setting fluff or major unifying theme, just throw out a bunch of new toys!

In this case, the new stuff includes new classes, new combat rules, and a brace of new monsters (including moon people who seem to have been inspired by Hercules Against the Moon Men, a movie that is only remotely watchable in its MST3K version, and a floaty head straight out of Zardoz).

The new classes comprise Centaur warriors, thieves and hunters – the latter two being designated as “specialists” and advancing based not on Glory or Wisdom but on Experience points, with quite specific criteria for earning them. It is directly suggested that specialists are best used for specific adventure types that play to their strengths, a nicely old school idea which is easier to implement if you let your players make multiple PCs and pick out one at a time for whatever the adventure you have planned is.

As for the new combat rules, you have “Homeric combat” (your basic critical hit and fumble tables) and some nicely simple rules for mounted combat and chariot-based combat, the latter of which patches a particularly significant gap in the original.

Myth & Magic

As the title implies, this supposed 1974 release focuses on religion and magic. On the magic side of the equation you have a heap of new magic items, plus a range of interesting new magic-using classes (including the bard-like Lyrist). On the religion side, you get a very welcome set of rules for non-priests having patron deities.

Misdeeds & Madness

Supposedly seeing release in 1976 as an unauthorised third-party release by “Justicars College” (a riff on Judges Guild), this is intentionally designed as a supplement for evil characters – a disclaimer at the front suggests that these be used as NPCs. Fair enough as far as the assassin, witch or necromancer goes – but this at points seems prudish when dealing with the various Dionysian-themed classes here. Except when you get to the Maenads, who can gain levels by killing and eating male priests of Dionysus… A brace of gruesome magic items rounds things out.

Hekatoteratos

A book of 100 monsters, which supposedly came out in 1982, running the full gamut from authentically Homeric to Zardoz-esque. ’nuff said.

Unveiled Addenda

Capping off the original line is this alleged 1984 release, offering a grab-bag of rules additions. My favourite is probably the random city-state generator, but rules like those for artistic performances or taming animals are also quite fun to have on hand, even if you wouldn’t necessarily use them on a very regular basis.

Player’s Manual

The first core book for the 1987 “Revised” edition incorporates the best character creation options from the supplements, makes character generation a little freer without overloading the player with choice, allows magic-users a bit more flexibility at early levels, and generally tunes up the base game in the wake of actual play feedback and the like.

The end result is a nicely polished take on the system which feels complete and cohesive, and which provides a much more solid foundation for ongoing play. Minotaur – the actual, IRL, not-a-joke Mazes & Minotaurs fanzine – assumes use of the “1987” edition as a baseline, and in general that seems sensible, since it seems very much designed from the point of view of presenting a fun, playable game as being the primary and overriding consideration, with the fake history of the game line being toned down somewhat. (It doesn’t try to mimic errors or fads of 1980s games purely for the sake of doing so, for instance.)

Maze Master’s Guide

Contains the magic item list, the rules on how monsters work, guidance on running games and setting information on Mythika, the Greek-flavoured fantasy world which is the default setting of the game (think Ancient Greece filtered through pulp fantasy stories and Hollywood sword and sandal movies). In general, the choice of what items to retain from the original supplement line is adeptly done.

Creature Compendium

The fattest core book in the revised line is a big ol’ collection of monsters, updates to the revised rules. It’s a solid presentation of the material and offers an impressively broad range of possibilities.

Mazes & Minotaurs Companion

The “fourth in the trilogy” is a big fat compilation of wholly optional rules, scooping up more or less all the best of what was left from the original supplement line and adding in some new juiciness at that. The idea of expert NPC classes which players could consult – and the inclusion of the Philosopher as a distinct example of that – is a good idea that is nicely implemented, and there’s also a mass combat system which is useful for an epic-scale game. Various additional classes are offered, including an alternate take on the Amazon class which can either coexist with or replace the original Amazon if you want, and takes a more realistic, feminist approach to the concept.

Plus there’s non-broken shapeshifting rules, a reimplementation of some of the “gifts of the gods” from Myth & Magic (this time non-priests, instead of automatically getting these goodies, have to qualify to become a Divine Agent and take up certain responsibilities), and the welcome return of the “Homeric Combat” critical hit and fumble tables. (These include a nice rule that characters of sufficiently high Luck should be immune to fumbling.) There’s a particularly interesting discussion of how the use of the Divine Agent and Homeric Combat rules can nudge the game in different directions, and the different philosophies of running Mazes & Minotaurs that arise from them.

Vikings & Valkyries

Billed as the last supplement the original Legendary Games Studio put out in 1990 before financial woes caused their collapse, this was supposedly the first of the Worlds of Adventure supplements that was going to provide a range of alternate settings for Mazes & Minotaurs; as the title implies, we’re going Norse with this one. The general approach is fairly conservative, with many classes simply functioning like their closest Mazes analogue; elves and dwarves are playable in versions much more derived from myth than from the Tolkien pastiches of most RPGs of our timeline, though overall the approach to mythology is much like that of baseline Mazes (in that Hollywood pastiche is as much of an influence as the real deal, if not more so).

Given how influential Norse myth was on Tolkien, Poul Anderson, Robert E. Howard and other inspirational sources for D&D, this supplement would at first seem to be a redundant exercise, drifting Mazes back in the direction that it’s supposed to have diverged from in the first place. However, as a product of a mature Mazes fandom (in reality this first came out in 2010, when Mazes had been unleashed on the public for some years and a healthy fan community had developed), it makes much more sense; with ample Mazes material setting the tone for the game’s overall approach, it becomes much easier to tackle the subject from a Mazes-oriented mindset, rather than one that internalises the assumptions of D&D or the like, resulting in a distinctly different treatment of what is otherwise well-trod subject matter for gaming purposes.

Triremes & Tritons

One of the running jokes of the Mazes line was how brief and incomplete the sailing rules were, and the occasional reference to a Mariner class – supposedly part of a Triremes & Tritons supplement which never got published back in the day.

However, as a result of the success of Mazes at establishing a play and design community surrounding it, and the establishment of the Minotaur fanzine, the legend surrounding the origin of Mazes could be updated: no longer was the game line limited to material put out by Legendary Games Studios from 1972 to 1990. The fan community was referred to as the Mazes & Monsters “revival”, and the material produced for Minotaur became a useful source for new supplements, such as this one compiled from various nautical-themed articles from Minotaur and updated to provide, at last, the long-promised supplement.

It’s pretty simple – there’s a range of new classes (including the Mariner), setting details and a simple rule system for naval combat, some interesting details on colonisation of islands, details of Poseidon’s undersea realm, and the usual brace of oceanic monsters and treasure. Particularly welcome are the Delphins, an ostensibly male-only class of sexy sea dudes who make a welcome contrast to the various women-only classes (even having Grace as a main stat, which is a rarity).

(I do somewhat wish that Mazes would move away from gender restrictions on classes – it made sense as a joke about 1970s game design, but becomes increasingly uncomfortable as the game line progresses more and more to be a full game in its own right. It does, at least, take no game mechanical effort to ignore them, but still.)

M&M Miscellanea

This is a grab-bag of the “best of” new ideas from Minotaur. The best of these are probably the optional fate point system, and an alternate system for character advancement based solely on numbers of adventures completed (and the scale of said adventures), thus liberating the gaming table from much book-keeping of Glory, Wisdom and Experience awards.

Tomb of the Bull King

An expansive adventure penned by Carlos de la Cruz Morales, this has as its centrepiece an extensive ruined palace which is based on the actual palace at Knossos which was the centre of the Minoan civilisation. Though a slight railroad as far as getting there and resolving things once you’re done goes, this time at least the railroad offers an entertaining journey which really captures the flavour of Mazes & Minotaurs‘ inspirations. The dungeon itself is also much more interesting than a simple “clear the rooms one by one and fight or evade everything you meet” job.

Conclusion: The Hobby Without the Industry

I often say in RPG discussions that the industry needs the hobby but the hobby does not need the industry, and the Mazes & Minotaurs story is an excellent example of that – purely as a hobby effort, it’s a game which has gained an audience, created a fan community of designers and players around it, and sees both actual play and continued active contributions made to it by its participants, all without any industry backing behind it. And what’s more, it’s a damn good game.

That isn’t to say that there’s no place for the industry… but that is to say that the industry needs to offer something over and above what fans can output through their communities if it’s going to justify its existence in the long term.

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