[Macchiato Monsters] Initial Thoughts
In December 2016, I purchased the ashcan edition of Macchiato Monsters, Eric Nieudan's in-progress contribution to the crowded OSR RPG scene. Because the new academic semester began a few weeks later in January 2017, I didn't have much of a chance to peruse the game until now. But I'm glad that I did.
What attracted me to MM was its freeform approach to classic Dungeons & Dragons. There are no character classes: characters are instead built by combining player-determined traits (e.g., "Retired infantry sergeant," "Elven illusionist," "Guild artificer") with a small menu of mechanical options (boosts to ability scores below 10, extra hit dice, additional traits, Magic Training, Combat Training, and Specialist Training). So the "Retired infantry sergeant" might take Combat Training to raise his starting hit die of 1d6 to 1d8 and qualify for weapons and armor ranked at d8. He could then use his second pick to add a hit die, giving him a total of 2d8 to roll for hit points. Magic Training would give the "Elven illusionist" two freeform spells: e.g., "Fairy glamour" and "Brilliant blast." (Spells could a variable amount of hit points to cast depending on the effect the magic-user is after.) And the "Guild artificer" could use his Specialist Training to build a "Clockwork companion" that could effect the course of the game once per day.
Equally freeform is the experience system. Characters improve by completing a number of in-character, party-determined goals equal to their next level. (Eric also suggests allowing each character to have a single personal goal.) In practice, this amounts to a level gain every n+1 adventures (where n equals the party's current level), but it does free the characters from coin-counting for XP even in the midst of more "heroic" adventures. (You're of course free to decide as a group that "Looting the Temple of Orcus" is the party's next goal—the mercenary instincts of murder hobos are not incompatible with MM.)
The three killer apps of the game are stat checks, advantage/disadvantage (adapted from Fifth Edition D&D), and risk dice (borrowed from David Black's The Black Hack and put to expanded use). Stat checks allow characters to take risks or escape danger by rolling under their current stat values on a d20. Find yourself poisoned at a banquet? Check your CON. Want to break the goblins' runic code? Roll under your INT. A result of 1 is a critical success; a 20, a tragic blunder. I like this system because it makes the raw ability scores matter and eliminates those pesky stat bonuses. Also, knowing that your 9 CHA gives you a 45% chance of impressing the king just feels better than having +0 to your roll.
Advantage and disadvantage let you roll two dice instead of one, taking the best result if you have advantage and the worst result if you have disadvantage. When making a stat check, "best" means picking the lowest die. When rolling damage, "best" means picking the highest result. As Fifth Edition fans know, advantage/disadvantage is an elegant way of getting rid of situational modifiers. In MM, it also gives you the functional equivalent of a skill system: the "Retired infantry sergeant" would have an advantage navigating the imperial bureaucracy, while the "Elven illusionist" would be at a disadvantage in that situation. The system also allows for a nice solution to two-handed weapons: wielding with two hands give you advantage on your damage rolls.
Finally, risk dice. As I understand it, their primary use in The Black Hack is to simulate dwindling resources or fragile gear. So a torch might be rated at dR6, with every roll of 1-3 (in MM) stepping the risk die down (and thus representing the torches burning out). MM expands their functionality across the game. For example, the encounter risk die is used to simulate the rate at which a random encounter takes place. As the die steps down, the monsters in the dungeon become increasingly alerted to the adventurers' presence. Monster morale is also handled by risk dice: monsters who lose morale once become increasingly likely to lose it again. Finally, to give just one more instance, followers are rated via risk dice as a means of representing their loyalty and capability. If you abuse your follower and make them take unnecessary risks, their risk die will eventually drop below dR4, costing you a retainer.
There's an awful lot more packed into the ashcan's 34 pages, but I think I've conveyed the gist of what makes MM so appealing to me. The game is definitely worth the $8 I paid for the print+PDF combo. I will be getting a chance to play in the next few weeks, so I'll report back then at how the game actually handles.
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