Game Review: Maze Rats
Maze Rats with the first Indie RPG offering by Ben Milton of Questing Beast. I have previously reviewed his more recent game Knave. In my review of Knave, I mentioned that maze rats was not my cup of tea. On a third glance through, however, I've changed my opinion of it.
Before I begin, I want to make a note that I am using version 4.3 of Maze Rats. My initial version of this review was for version 0.1.
I originally grabbed Maze Rats a few weeks after it was announced on the Questing Beast YouTube channel, as I make it a point, when I have the money, to give back to creators I appreciate. I lost record of my purchase of Maze Rats, and my purchased copy in a computer meltdown. I grabbed a replacement copy from an old folder, and ended up reviewing a much older version of Maze Rats. I decided to put my money down again and buy a new copy, so I could make this review accurate.
Maze Rats is very lightweight and minimalistic. It uses a 2d6 system in which player characters are expected to roll over and in order to succeed on a task after adding bonuses. Characters have three stats Strength, Dexterity, and Will ranging from + 0 to +2. Characters are randomly rolled on a table to get an array of stats. Advantage and Disadvantage, determined narratively, sllows you to add 3d6 and take either the highest or lowest to dice respectively. Maze rats encourages a style of play in which dice rolls are only made players have not narrated choices and actions that will guarantee success.
So, describing how you stick a wedge under a pressure plate will automatically succeed, where is declaring that you wish to "disarm the trap" without any details will require a roll. Attack rolls work slightly differently, as they try to beat an armour class that starts with a base of 6 and then goes up with Armour or Shields.
Maze Rats is extremely lightweight and fast. It is also designed to be highly lethal, and to treat combat as the fail state. Player creativity isn't just rewarded, it is a precondition for survival.
What I Loved
Most of Character Generation, from personality, mannerisms, clothing, to equipment is made through a series of simple choices, but can be randomized. Players choose a single character feature, which can include the ability to cast a single spell, a bonus on attacks, or a set of four skills in which they always have advantage. In a game that is likely to be highly lethal, and playrrs can't afford to get too attached to character until they've survived for a level or two, I appreciate how fast and simple character generation is.
This character took me longer to write down than to roll:
Zora Oblington, wiry and sallow-skinned, is a gambler and a magician. He knows one spell: Transmuting Slime. He has 4 hp, STR +0 DEX +1 WIL +2. He wears practical clothes, a spacey expression, and whispers. He carries a shield, light armour, a dagger, and a hatchet, His backpack holds a hacksaw a bear trap, a metal file, and 3 days of rations; he carries a horn and a bag of caltrops on his belt.
Looks like a guy who would be fun to play, and fun to see die.
Characters advance in level like gaining experience points as in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: the difficulty of the challenges assess after the encounter, and the players gain experience points based on how great a challenge they overcame. Gaining a level increases a characters hit points (which start at 4), lets them increase one ability score, and on alternating levels allows them to gain an additional spell slot, select another set of four skills, or improve their attack bonus.
Randomized Magic System
Maze Rats' magic system is inventive. A character rolls for a random spell for each one of their empty spell slots after a night's rest. That spell must be cast in order to empty the spell slot again. The spell is generated by rolling a random name off of several tables; the actual effects are agreed upon in between player and GM based on that name.
This system allows for a lot of creativity in playing a mage, and adds a whole new way to make magic feel dangerous and chaotic without a lot of complex rules.
Ben Milton does not waste words. The original version of Maze Rats assumed you know what a role-playing game is and how to play one, including conventions like hit points and ability scores, and when to roll vs, when not to. He compressed a fairly complete RPG into four pages. I am impressed with how tightly he writes his games.
The latest edition of Maze Rats goes through the basics of role playing at an incredible level of compression. Every explanation is crafted to offer deep highest amount of information in the smallest possible space.
Maze Rats is dedicated to encouraging players to seek advantage through narrative participation; anything you can do to stack advantages before the dice come out is critical to success. Combat with anything less than overwhelming force is a last resort. Players must, sneak, cast, negotiate, or trick their way past obstacles, if they want to succeed.
Beyond the basic lethality of combat, maze rats discourages use of Saving throws against monster special abilities, and Traps... instead these are expected to be obvious, and tools to think your way around problems (factions, secret passages, disposable NPCs, detailed motivations for monster, etc.) integral to adventure design.
Maze Rats includes appropriately stripped-down versions of some often-overlooked but very valuable OSR tools: NPC Reactions, Random Encounters, and Morale. These rules are often discarded to the detriment of the quality of gameplay. They are definitely critical in a game where combat is short and messy, as they force the PCs to have a sense of urgency, be afraid of getting injured, and not to treat combat like a sport.
Maze Rats provides random tables for creating almost anything you might need, from Monsters to magic objects, from NPC motivations and what assets they have available to them, it includes city districts, the contents of a book with the characters might pick up, which events have recently occurred in a location, tactical complications for an encounter both in the city and the wilderness, and the structure and motivation of factions. My favourite is the "after the party" table: is it table that player characters roll on when they when they have spent the night carousing if they fail a test to see if they manage to moderate their behaviour. It gives 36 possibilities for mischief the characters got into while black-out drunk.
The tables in Maze Rats makes it feel like you will never run out of answers to whatever question a player character has, or run out of ideas. They are definitely worth the price of admission if you are a DG with curious players, regardless of what system you're using.
Lack of Guidance on Challenges
Maze Rats offers tables for the generation of traps, monsters, special abilities, and other hazards, but has very little in the way of mechanics for actually using them. Knowing that a creature has an absorbing power is great, but with no guidance on how to use it, the GM will find themselves needing to improvise a great deal to make use of what they roll up.
To his credit, Ben Milton sauces much himself when he presented his Knave project on the Questing Blog.
Limited OSR Compatibility
This is another fault Ben Milton discussed himself when he introduced Knave: it is not easy to use with OSR games, despite having a clear OSR aesthetic and aims. You can't really just grab Palace of the Silver Princess and run it without tinkering.
Early on I was not a fan of Maze Rats. While I was impressed with the sheer tightness of the design, but it lacked useful notes on converting OSR material or offering some advice on making use of randomly generated challenges. It is mechanically very simple, and the conflict resolution system is robust, but not perfect for every situation, especially once you get into traps and monster abilities. While the ideal for the game is for players to family evade every danger through cautious exploration and narration, you can't rely on that to be a constant. I would have appreciated a little more discussion of how to resolve Strange powers in Supernatural effects, in particular.
Tight information presentation and compactness is both the virtue and vice of Maze Rats. Often, where a discussion of the rules could afford to be made explicit over the course of a paragraph, it gives you a sentence and expect you to either unpack it or wing it. For example, we see a lot of effects involving melting, acid, or burning, but nowhere is it suggested that those things might do damage multiple times if players are affected by them, unless they spend their action to remove the effect. That is what is intuitive, of course, but not everyone has a developed GMing intuition. The one place Maze Rats is verbose, however, is where it counts the most. There is solid advice on how to run not only Maze Rats, but almost any osr or minimalist game.
I also appreciate that this game was designed by an educator to help young people learn problem-solving. For that purpose, it offers an elegant solution. I would be thrilled to see a few Maze Rats specific dungeons designed specifically for young people replete with visual aids and complex puzzles. I think we could use more games that emphasize the logical aspect of game play.