Macchiato Monsters Zero (OSR)
This OSR-game clocks in at 34 pages, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD; two pages are devoted to the introduction and the game comes with a bunch of additional pdfs – I’ll get to those later. This review is based on V.1.1. of the system/book; V.1.0. is still included in the download as well. The pages are presented in a 1-column standard, suitable to be printed out in 6’’ by 9’’, though the bonus-pdfs, e.g. the die-drop-tables, should probably be considered to be standard size/A4 instead.
This review was sponsored and requested by one of my patreons.
Okay, so, the pdf freely acknowledges being basically a blend of the Whitehack and The Black Hack and clearly designates from which sources inspiration was taken; I do not assume familiarity with the two in the review. The system is a living beta and as such, feedback is appreciated by the author, with means of contacting provided.
Okay, so the basic mechanics are as follows: When you attempt something risky or dangerous, you roll 1d20 and attempt to roll under the respective ability score. 1s (critical successes) or 20s (critical fumbles) double the effects and may yield additional consequences. The system also employs disadvantage and advantage from 5e as mechanics, using the best or worst results, respectively. Dice-notation knows the concept of Risk-dice, or “dR” – a dR12 would, for example be a 1d12 risk die. This mechanic should be familiar to users of The Black Hack, but the implementation is pretty severe here: Basically, dRs decrease in die-size on a 1 – 3; if I rolled a 2 on a 1dR10, for example, further uses of the die would have the size decreased to 1dR8. 1s are worse than 2s, 2s worse than 3s for the purpose of interpreting the result. If a 1dR4 is reduced further, then you’ll notice in the specific rule how things become unpleasant.
Character generation is quick and painless – roll 3d6 in order for the traditional 6 ability scores, with the option to swamp two. You get to choose two of the following (the same option may be chosen twice; 0-level characters don’t get o choose): +1d4 to a stat that’s less than 10, an additional trait, an additional hit die. Alternatively, magic training yields you two spells. Combat training increases your hit die by one step (maximum d10) and specialist training nets you a 1/day ability. What’s a trait? Well, it is a form of customization drawn in aesthetics from the Whitehack, but more on that later.
Hit die is recorded: A d6. The maximum armor or damage die you can have is equal to the hit die type. Referees retain control on how damage dice interact with foes hit – whether the require more of them to be assigned or whether results are added together, etc.
The aforementioned trait-system basically define what the character is, does, belongs to and comes from; this nets you advantage or disadvantage on relevant non-combat situations. Characters with specialist training get a unique trick that mortals usually can’t attempt, which is also the only safe way to get advantage in combat; advantage may be traded by characters with specialist training for double damage. Starting languages are determined by checking all 3 mental ability scores – on a success, you get +1 language.
Each level, the character gets 2 of the following: +1 stat to a maximum of 18; You may gain one hit die, then reroll hit points; if you fail to exceed your prior hit points, you can spend 1 point of Constitution to reroll. You also may choose to learn a new spell, gain a mêlée or missile attack or a new ability (1/day) or increase an ability’s daily uses by +1/day. Levels 4, 7 and 10 also yield you another trait or training. Level gain is determined by the referee and players succeeding at goals.
Spellcasting is not easy on the characters: While there is a free-form aspect going on, it does have limitations: To cast a spell, you pay a hit points cost and roll a d20 under the mental attribute that best fits your concept of the spellcasting tradition the character adheres to. On a critical success, you don’t lose hot points. The cost may not exceed your current hit points and attempting to cast a spell with a cost greater than the level of the character in hit points imposes disadvantage on the check. Specialists can avoid disadvantage here with their abilities, but at the cost of disadvantage on other checks pertaining other aspects of magic. This basic system allows you to relatively easily take spells from other games and assign costs depending on hit points, allowing the referee pretty free control and guidance, if full-blown freeform is something you don’t relish.
Magic is also unstable, as represented by the chaos risk die. If you fail the spell check, but want something to happen, you roll it and check the results on a table. It should be noted that we have a dR here, usually one starting at 1dR12. This surge can similarly be modified rather easily, with the environments determining its size. Foci and components act as magic batteries (used instead of hit points) and similarly use risk dice to determine when they burn out.
The system provides a very much appreciated table for referees to determine suitable point-costs for spells, with decreased casting time, greater effects and imprecise wording etc. all adding to the costs. 3 sample spells also further elucidate on what is suitable and what isn’t. The rules for magical items are similarly painless, but bring me to another aspect of the game, one that may not necessarily be to everyone’s liking: While I can see precious few GMs complaining about the easy to develop and expand spellcasting engine (seriously, kudos for the guidance!), the system also uses the risk die mechanics to track mundane items and e.g. coin. The huge plus-point for groups that are annoyed by tracking the minutiae of equipment etc., is obviously that you don’t need to track the amount of an item you carry around. The system is simple here: You get to carry either up to Str or Con items; characters carrying Str+Con are encumbered (disadvantage) and halve traveling speed. Money is tracked in bags of coin, with lower-grade bags allowing for the upgrade to higher level bags – 1dR12 silver could be upgraded to 1dR4 gold, for example. You need the right coin to buy items, mind you. Anyway, this system is elegant and quick for games looking for that, but personally, it breaks my suspension of disbelief and annoys me. (No, that will not influence the final verdict.)
Why? Well, you basically have an indeterminate amount of money and this extends to supplies, torches, etc. This may be statistically elegant and make sure that PCs need to alternate strategies, but it also takes away the reward for properly preparing for an adventure; unlucky PCs may run out of e.g. ropes when traversing the Dungeon of Chasms, etc. Whether you like that or not depends, obviously, on your personal aesthetics, but as a person, I consider this to be intensely frustrating. That being said, the equipment section does offer a pretty wide array of sample guidelines there. For chaotic magic, the dR-mechanic makes sense; for mundane items? Less so. Basically, characters are constantly uncertain regarding how long supplies will last. You probably will either love or hate this; I place myself firmly in the latter category, but it’s a matter of aesthetics and what you’re looking for in a game.
Combat is unbureaucratic: You basically get one die-roll; no grid. How far can you move? Referee’s call. Strength governs mêlée, Dexterity ranged combat, etc. A central component of combat would be a tactical risk: You roll and on a success, you gain advantage on the next turn of whatever you attempted to set up; on a failure, you instead suffer from disadvantage and potentially other consequences. The section also mentions quick and dirty mass combat rules, just fyi – and yes, they are based on assigning risk dice to units.
Armor has a risk die as well: When first hit in a fight, you roll it: That’s how much damage the armor will soak in the fight. Shields help versus e.g. javelins and may be sacrificed to avoid e.g. dragon’s fire. At 0 hit points, you’re unconscious and bleeding; a successful Constitution checks makes that 1 hit point instead – but you also sustain a grievous wound, which mean you lose a level and thus two level-dependent advances. Whether and how to recover these is once more up to the referee. Yes, this means that combat is very, very deadly and can basically drop a single character several levels. The requirement to reduce benefits gained from levels is surprisingly clumsy as far as I’m concerned – you basically have to track the respective level-gain abilities and while the player has control over what’s lost (doesn’t have to be last level’s gains), this mechanic means that the PCs will probably not increase significantly in power. It also means that single PCs can be crippled far below the combat capabilities of their allies, which can potentially be somewhat frustrating, particularly for characters that enjoy diving into the fray.
Monster-creation guidelines are simple and assume a default d8 hit die, with fragile or tough monsters increasing that; the use of the risk die for dungeon-encounters, for example, is really nice and volatile, with 2s and 3s denoting monsters in the vicinity and 1s immediate encounters; risk dice below 1d4 denote dungeon events like alarm bells, etc. The effects of reactions and morale employ similarly the risk die mechanic; monsters in a frenzy may inflict, for example, double damage.
Overland movement assumes 10-kilometre hexes, with 4 hexes per day of travelling. Bad weather, forced marches etc. may modify that – and once more, the encounter mechanic is elegant. Anyways, PCs can btw. regain hit points via food, which makes sense to me. Followers and hirelings are also covered, just fyi.
Beyond these aspects, referees will certainly appreciate a smattering of 50 sample creatures (deliberately kept generic and easy to modify) as well as the handy conversion of fixed gold values to the coin risk die mechanic – makes running prewritten adventures easier. Variant rules for stamina and sanity are included as well, and the primary file closes with two handy worksheets.
We also get extra-files with the system: These include character sheets in English and French; the sandbox worksheet; another pdf contains 3 pregens that also explain how they were made in detail, acting as a nice way to illustrate the game’s character creation progress. The deal also comes with a 1-page city crawl rules-page, which sports crime and community risk die tables. The most massive of the different supplemental pdfs, however, would be the die-drop tables: Each of them covers 2 tables, with one presented for townspeople, one for plots, one for factions, one for adventure locales and one fo creatures. While the frame-work for the treasure/item-table is provided, this aspect is WIP and has not yet been filled.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no undue accumulation of former glitches or verbiage in the rules-language that felt weird. Layout adheres to a 1-column standard. The pdf sports interesting b/w-artworks, with a uniform style that makes them look like silhouettes, often with coffee. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The supplemental pdfs are similarly bookmarked, though the die-drop table-pdf has them labeled a bit oddly.
Eric Nieudan’s Macchiato Monsters Zero is an elegant system that has a lot going for it; if you’re looking for a variant of low-complexity gameplay à la Black Hack, it certainly fits the bill. The use of the risk die as a central mechanic means that it provides a volatile and potentially rather fun experience. The simple and easy to grasp rules can be explained in less than 5 minutes, which is a huge plus for such games. The game does not sport the same customization detail of Whitehack and the trait system, while acting as a stand-in of sorts, could probably use a couple of examples to illustrate some ideas there. While I am not a fan of the use of the risk die for mundane equipment, this remains a matter of taste. As a whole, MM: Zero is pretty volatile and lethal – I am not sure I’d use the game for longer campaigns or adventures, considering how relatively easily you can lose levels and benefits incurred – adventurer careers are likely to be relatively short and brief, which makes the game suitable and efficient for one-shots, convention games and brief campaigns, but as a whole, less rewarding for long-term campaigns. That being said, the low price point and overall concise and solid presentation make this worth checking out if the mechanics intrigue you. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4 stars.
You can get this inexpensive, rules-lite game here on OBS!