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Sunday 17 November 2019

Risking the Old School Renaissance

If you have The Black Hack and Whitehack, then surely you must have the ‘Grey Hack’. Well no, what you have instead is Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together, an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game which draws from both to provide simple mechanics, freedom of character design, streamlined combat, and freeform magic, plus an emphasis upon risk and the use of resources. Now that latter aspect sounds like the play of Macchiato Monsters involves some kind of crunchy of resource management, but nothing could be further from the truth, for Macchiato Monsters uses dice—indicated as Δ4, Δ6, Δ8, and so on—throughout to handle each player character’s resources and more… Macchiato Monsters is published by Lost Pages and is available here.

Character creation in Macchiato Monsters is straightforward enough. A player rolls three six-sided dice for the six traditional statistics—Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. A player is then free to swap any two of these. Then he invents a Trait. This can be a race, an occupation, a background, a faction, and so on. Hit Points are rolled on a six-sided die, this die type also representing a character’s Hit Dice and as his martial prowess, this is also his ability to wield better or more efficient arms and armour. A character is given two options which can be to add the roll of a six-sided die to a stat under ten; gain another trait or another Hit Die; take martial training and increase his Hit Dice; and undertake Specialist Training and create an ability which can be used once per day or undertake Magic Training and create two spells which can be used once per day.

Next—and instead of choosing equipment—a player rolls for it. There are nine tables to roll on, each with twenty entries, covering equipment and food, wealth and valuables, mêlée weapons, missile weapons, armour, magical trinkets, heirlooms and heritage, and faith. The player assigns one die type to each table—four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, and so on—and rolls on the table. This represents the equipment that a beginning character has been able to muster before stepping out on his adventuring career. 

Our sample character is a re-interpretation of the treasure hunter created for the review of Whitehack, but where Whitehack has Classes—broad Classes, but Classes nonetheless—Macchiato Monsters has none and is even more open in terms of character design and possibilities. Both though, enable Referee and players alike to start world building at the point of contact, of character creation.

Thurston Smyth
Strength 08 Intelligence 17 Wisdom 11 
Dexterity 14 Constitution 07 Charisma 16 

Hit Dice: d8 Hit Points: 7

Trait: Sage of the Last University
Magic Training—Illuminate the Path, Soporific Field 
Martial Training (Master of the Whip)

Languages: Draconic, Elvish

Equipment: Infaillible Darts (damage Δ10), whip (d4), Hide tunic and fur hat Δ4, Funeral urns worth silver Δ6, a noble title (Rais, Viscount, Duchess, Khan...) and a bodyguard (Δ10), and jar of snail soup Δ6, old ox, rolled up carpet, 2 sacks, crowbar.

Mechanically, Macchiato Monsters uses the roll under a statistic mechanic, with the results of one being a critical success and twenty being a fumble. It also uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and The Black Hack. A trait, whether that is an occupation, a background, a faction, and so on, will not give a character any bonuses in combat, but for non-combat circumstances, it will grant a character the Advantage for a roll or enable him to undertake actions that another character would not be able to.

Combat is designed to be flexible and simple. First, it is possible to set up situations to a combatant’s benefit, but there is always an element of tactical risk to such a situation. Thus, it requires a roll against an appropriate statistic—for example, against Intelligence or Wisdom to determine a good ambush site or placement of some defences—and if successful, the combatant would have an advantage the following turn. However, fail and the combatant will have disadvantage the following turn, and perhaps other negative effects. For example, the ambushers might not be in position when the attackers appear and so cannot concentrate their fire and are in the open they are attacked. Attack rolls are made against Strength for mêlée attacks, Dexterity for missile attacks. Damage is rolled by weapon die type, but with disadvantage if the weapon die type is larger than the attacker’s Hit Die type. Similarly, if an attacker is faced by an opponent whose Hit Dice are higher than his or opponents whose total Hit Dice are greater than the party’s, then the attack is rolled with disadvantage.

Instead of Armour Class, Macchiato Monsters uses a die type for any armour worn. When a character is first attacked and hit, his player rolls the die type for the armour worn. This determines the number of points of damage that the armour will stop that fight. It is quick, it is brutal, and to an extent cinematic with elements like shields being smashed or fried to stop overwhelming damage from one source. Similarly, it is easy to handle complex actions such as escaping a burning, collapsing building whilst grabbing the Lost Proclamations of Oshun the Minor.

Much like Whitehack, magic in Macchiato Monsters is freeform, player-Referee negotiated, and deleterious to the character’s Hit Points. Only a critical result of a statistic check will the caster not lose any Hit Points. A more generically worded spell, instantaneous casting, extra range and targets, increased duration, and so on, will increase the Hit Point cost, but similar to Whitehack, the Hit Point cost cast can be alleviated by using a focus, reagents, and materials—as well as if the caster is using specialist magic or using faith, depending if the caster is a specialist or has faith. Even if the spell fails, the caster can choose to roll the Chaos die, a twelve-sided die, on the spell mishap table. The clever thing is though, the negotiation process between Referee and player as to the nature and Hit Point cost of the spell enables the spell-casting player to establish a cost of that spell when his character wants to cast it again. Do this a few times with different spells and variations in their effect and casting, and what the player character has is his own personal, even unique spellbook.
For example, Thurston Smyth is being chased by his arch-rival, Ronson Ballard, who also wants the Lost Proclamations of Oshun the Minor. Ballard has persuaded a tribe of Kobolds that he speaks for their god since he can shoot fire from his hands and together they are chasing Smyth as he runs away. Smyth decides that now is the time to cast Soporific Field. The extra targets and wide field add two Hit Points to the base single Hit Point cost, as do the higher Hit Dice of the targets and the instantaneous cast. So four Hit Points. Fortunately Smyth has this and can use his magic focus, a wand to lower the cost by a Hit Point to just three. Unfortunately, Smyth’s player fails the check against his Intelligence, but desperate to get away, the player calls upon the Chaos of magic…! The result of the Chaos Risk die is a twelve—and BAM! The effect is to double the area, number of targets, or area of the spell. Thurston could not hope for a better result as all of the chasing Kobolds as well as Ballard suddenly collapse. A bit tired and exhausted, Smyth turns round and walks over to a sleeping Ballard and proceeds to rifle through his pockets…
The Black Hack added another mechanic for handling consumables. It gives each Consumable a die type, for example, a flask of oil has a Usage Die of d6, and then handles their use as dice rolls. When each is used, its die type is rolled and if the result is one or two, the Usage Die is stepped down to a lower die type. In the case of the flask of oil, from d6 to d4. After the d4, the Consumable is consumed. Macchiato Monsters uses this mechanic, but applies it on a wider scale and exacerbates its effects. So food, armour in combat, faith and reagents when casting magic, missiles, holy water, even followers (after all, they can get tired!), can all be handled using a similar mechanic, called the Risk die. When the Risk die is rolled, instead of being stepped down to the next die type on a one or two, it is stepped down on a result of a one, two, or three. Further, the result of a one is worse than a two, which is worse than a three, and so on, for narrating the effects of the step down. A maximum result on the Risk die indicates a lucky break, though what that means is up to the players and the Referee to decide.

Macchiato Monsters steps up its use of the Risk die to handle weather, applying a die type according to the season and then when a Risk die is stepped down the weather gets worse. A similar mechanic is used for wilderness encounters, the die type varying according to the terrain type, whilst the Risk die is also used for off-screen expeditions, carousing and nights out, building and controlling domains—like an assassins’ guild or a wizard’s tower, the stability of a region, and more. Notably, the Risk die is used to handle money, so one character might possess a bag of silver Δ6 and use that to purchase a good quality black powder pistol, whilst another might have a bag of gold Δ6 and spend it to take a luxury room at a hotel. Each time a character makes a purchase, the Risk die is rolled and in effect, really only spends the money if the die is stepped down… It is also possible to split, merge, and exchange such bags of coin, but these rules, as clever as they are, do feel counter-intuitive, mostly because they make something which should be a number into an abstract. There is nothing to say that they will not work, but when it comes to the financial aspects of the roleplaying game, they take some adjusting to. In addition, Macchiato Monsters provides simple rules for handling monsters as well as a list of ‘Fifty Shades of Macchiato Monsters’, and then tables and tables for creating townsfolk, plots, factions, adventure locations, creatures, items, and treasures. 

Physically, Macchiato Monsters is a neat, tidy, and readable black and white book. Although lightly illustrated, its contents are neatly organised and laid out. It is a pity that the book is not available in a ‘lie flat’ book as the Referee will find herself rolling on a lot of tables during play and being able to play directly from the book would have made it easier.

Of course, there is risk involved in dungeoneering—and to a varying degree, there always has been, ever since the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. As with Whitehack it hands Referee and players alike a high degree of freedom in what they play and the world in which the characters adventure, but Macchiato Monsters makes the degree of risk in not just dungeoneering, but in every aspect of adventuring, travelling, organising, hiring, and more, explicit in the use of the Risk die. It lies at the heart of Macchiato Monsters, using it as a means to drive stories and to push the adventurers to desperation as bad events come about as Risk dice are stepped down and ‘resources’ are essentially expended.

Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together could have been simply an amalgam of The Black Hack and Whitehack, but it is very much its own take upon the best elements of both. In particular, its application of the Risk die makes for much more fraught playing experience and makes adventuring ‘risky’ once again.

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