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Sunday 16 July 2017

Rats in a Maze

Published by Questing Beast, Maze Rats is a simple, straightforward fantasy roleplaying game that is easy to pick up and easy to play. Never using more than three six-sided dice, it combines light mechanics with a plethora of tables to spur the imagination or draw from for inspiration. Designed as an introductory level game—or at least a lighter alternative to Dungeons & DragonsMaze Rats does all this in bare, unillustrated twenty-four pages. 

At their core, characters in Maze Rats are defined by three attributes: Strength, Dexterity, and Will. Initially, they are rated at +2, +1, and +0. A single roll determines the level of these abilities and then the player gets to choose his character’s starting Feature and combat gear. A Feature can be a +1 Attack Bonus, a spell slot, or a path that gives the character an advantage when attempting Danger Rolls for certain activities. For example, the Briarborn Path provides an advantage with rolls for Tracking, Foraging, and Survival. A character’s combat gear consists of light armour, a shield, and two weapons—light weapons require one hand, heavy weapons two hands, but give a damage bonus, and ranged weapons require two hands. A player can then roll on or choose from tables for his character’s appearance, physical details, background, clothing, personality, and mannerism. The process is quick and easy and provides some fun hooks upon which to hang a player’s roleplaying. Notable though from the whole process is roll or choice for Race as per any other fantasy roleplaying game. This makes characters in Maze Rats all Human, and though there is nothing wrong with that, some players may lament the lack of choice.

Level 1 XP 0

Strength +0
Dexterity +2
Will +1

Health 4
Maximum Health 4

Fingersmith Path (Tinkering, Picking Locks/Pockets)

Crowbar, Manacles, Metal File, Shovel, Lockpicks, Bedroll

Light Armour (+1), Shield (+1), Short Sword (Light), Spear (Heavy)

Appearance: Square-Jawed
Physical Detail: Braided Hair
Background: Usurer
Clothing: Haute Couture
Personality: Know-it-all
Mannerism: Laughs

A character will typically acquire two or three Experience Points per session and will need two, then six, twelve, twenty, thirty, and forty-two Experience Points to go up to the next Level. Each Level increases a character’s Health, grants an Ability increase, and gives a player a choice of an extra Attack Bonus, a new Path, or a new spell slot. Character are retired beyond Seventh Level. What this means is that a campaign in Maze Rats has a relatively short playing time, but this is no surprise given the scale of the dice rolls which do not allow for too much room for improvement, at least mechanically.

The system in Maze Rats is simple enough. To have a character undertake an action or overcome a Danger Roll, a player rolls two six-sided dice and attempts to beat ten or more to succeed. Bonuses are added for appropriate attributes. A character might also have an Advantage in a situation, whether from a Path or the circumstances, in which case, the player rolls three six-sided dice and chooses the best. Combat rolls are made against an opponent’s Armour Rating, which for characters is equal to six plus bonuses for any armour worn and shield carried. Any roll above this is counted as a hit and the difference the Armour Rating and the roll inflicted as damage. Heavy weapons inflict extra damage, unarmed attacks slightly less, and rolls of double six are counted as a Critical Hit. Damage from Critical Hits is doubled! With only a starting Health of four, combat for beginning characters in Maze Rats is tough and deadly. A given option is to allow a shield to be sundered and lost instead of taking damage, but the other should be to either scarper or get in first and hit hard!

Magic in Maze Rats has a strong random aspect. There is no spell list, but instead a spellcaster rolls at the beginning of each day to determine what spell he knows, one spell per slot. To that end, a player rolls for each spell’s form, element, and effect, either physical or ethereal in nature. A table is provided for this as well as the forms, elements, and effects. For example, a spell with a physical element and a physical form might result in a repelling spell that has the form of sap, so a spell that draws the sap from surrounding trees to repel opponents, whereas, a spell with an ethereal element and an ethereal effect might give a concealing in the form of a call. So perhaps a spell that causes a noise when it detects any nearby concealment or creates a concealment by distracting others with a strange call. How exactly a spell worked is open to interpretation and is up to the Game Master to decide. Once a spell is cast, it is lost and its slot is empty until the next day. Further tables suggest possible mutations, insanities, omens, and catastrophes that might occur if spellcasting goes awry, but how such effects are reached is not explored.

Tables are also used to create monsters and NPCs in Maze Rats. These tables determine a monster’s base creature, for example, bear, mantis, or seal, to which the Game Master can add monster features, traits, abilities, and tactics as well as a personality and a weakness. These are added to the base stats for the monster or NPC, which are selected by the Game Master rather than rolled for. Further tables can be used to develop any NPC, whether it is determining an occupation from civilised, underworld, and wilderness options, names and surnames by social class, their assets, liabilities, goals, misfortunes, and missions. Other tables cover his method, appearance, clothing, personality, mannerism, secret, reputation, hobby, relationship, and so on. Of course, not all of these tables have to be included and they can be selected from rather than rolled on, but either way, they provide inspiration aplenty.

Maze Rats does not include a specific world or setting, but again provides the means to create it within the standard fantasy Dungeons & Dragons-style type of setting. Unsurprisingly, this is done through sets of tables that cover treasure and equipment, and the city, wilderness, and maze environments. In each case, a few dice rolls will generate elements of each that the Game Master can develop quickly and easily. To some extent, this can be done as the play of the game proceeds, but only in broad terms. Certainly, as far as a maze goes, the tables are not detailed enough or directed enough—certainly not in comparison to the tables provided to that end in the Dungeon Master’s guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition—to effectively create a dungeon on the go.

The Game Master is supported in Maze Rats with a sample of play, advice on preparing a game and running a game, and on building the world. Much of the advice comes in the form of bullet points and perhaps the most interesting advice is that given for handling magic items, which is to make them tools, such as a shovel of digging or a ring that changes a different aspect of your appearance depending upon which finger it is worn, rather than as a means to boost an ability or attack roll. This is indicative of how tough Maze Rats is meant to be and how magic is not an easy to ameliorate that. It also indicates how the game favours the players being clever and inventive over the brute force of Danger Rolls. In general, the advice is useful and to the point.

Physically, Maze Rats is a black and white digest-size booklet. It is clean and tidy and easy to read. It does though come with two character sheets and perhaps one of these could have been replaced with something else. A scenario possibly if the character sheet had been moved to the back page to give two free pages? Another issue is that the monster section could have been better explained, but this is not too difficult a problem. If the roleplaying game looks like it is table intensive, then it is, but not in play. Of course, the tables can be referenced in play if the Game Master wants to and they can be useful to roll for details like an omen or a neighbourhood or the name of an inn. Where the tables really come to the fore is in the preparation step before a game is run and just with a few rolls, the Game Master can create the physical elements of an adventure. Otherwise, the mechanics in Maze Rats are light and easy.

In terms of content, Maze Rats feels as if it gives you everything necessary to play and nothing more, so no adventure, no setting, and so on. A good Game Master will be able to create these himself, but it would have been nice to see where the designer took his game and his rules. To that end, Maze Rats lends itself to development into a boxed set and who knows what delights might be packed into that, even if just the traditional three little books? Certainly some support and further development would not be unwelcome.

The complexity of Maze Rats puts it on a par with Precis Intermedia’s Ancient Odysseys: Treasure Awaits! An Introductory Roleplaying Game and the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books and its associated RPG, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, published by Arion Games. Like those roleplaying games, Maze Rats is of course a Dungeons & Dragons-like roleplaying game, and although it uses different mechanics, it still harks back to the stripped back, more brutal style of play found at the beginning of the hobby with Original Dungeons & Dragons which has more recently been embraced by the Old School Renaissance.

Maze Rats is a light, brutal roleplaying game of fantasy adventure which is supported by random inspiration aplenty, which lends itself to a lighter, slightly whimsical tone. It is quick to learn, quick to teach, and easy to play, relying on player ingenuity and cleverness rather than a reliance upon the mechanics. 

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