GEN CON 2022: MAZES at MIDNIGHT

Why attend Gen Con? From time to time, that question arises from gaming fans that have yet to attend. Many of the replies attempt to recreate the dimension of the convention, it’s impressively large, or touch on the excitement that gathering a stadium’s worth of gamers in one place generates. Because the scope of the convention (held across four days in a convention center, a football stadium, and several hotels) is hard to describe succinctly, I’m going to take a different approach. Recounting a single gaming experience, let’s look at what made 9th Level Games’ MAZES at MIDNIGHT my everything for Gen Con 2022.

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What is MAZES & Powered by Polymorph?​

Chris O’Neill of 9th Level Games set out to create an old school tabletop roleplaying experience with modern mechanics. MAZES: Fantasy Roleplaying uses the Polymorph ruleset. Winner of the IGDN BEST RULES 2020 and nominee for the 2020 ENNIE Awards (BEST RULES), this engine is made of pure fun at the gaming table. Used in The Excellents, Savage Sisters, Rebel Scum, The Return to Dark Tower (coming soon), and MAZES: Fantasy Roleplaying, expect rules light, modern gameplay that calls back to the 1970s style of RPG.

In MAZES, you are a fantasy adventurer represented by a single die (d4, d6, d8, or d10). Adventure begins at the entrance to the dungeon. As you encounter monsters, the GM calls for rolls against static charts. Based on your die, some will be easier to achieve than others. 1s and the highest number on your die have special results and can explode in certain situations. Want a preview of the rules? Check out this link. Taken as a whole, the game is one of the best pick-up-and-play quick game fantasy dungeon crawls on the market.

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The Excellents at Origins, the Start of My MAZE

I’ve interviewed Chris about the Polymorph engine several times (The Excellents, MAZES, and Return to Dark Tower), each time becoming more and more intrigued. At Origins Game Fair 2021, I played 9th Level GamesThe Excellents (read about it here and here). At a convention of great RPGs, the two-hour session of The Excellents stood out. Great GM, great players, and a great system. The adventure was silly and wonderful, and I really felt the fun that Polymorph offers. After playing, I headed over to 9th Level Games’ booth and bought the MAZES zines, four booklets that bring down the rules and concepts behind them.

Those zines brings us to MAZES many formats. Originally offered as four RPG zines via Kickstarter’s Zine Quest 2019, this RPG is available in a variety of formats. The original zines:
  • MAZES BOOK ONE: SWORD
  • MAZES BOOK TWO: SORCERY
  • MAZES BOOK THREE: MAZE
  • MAZES BOOK FOUR: MONSTER
The follow up Zine Quest 2020 zines:
  • MAZES JOURNAL: SPRING
  • MAZES JOURNAL: RAIN
  • MAZES JOURNAL: SUMMER
  • MAZES JOURNAL: AUTUMN
  • MAZES JOURNAL: WINTER
The promotional MONSTERS & MAZES: fantasy roleplaying "demake" zine version of the game. Twelve pages including a cover, all #20 bond stock or the like. It’s thin and floppy and feels like it is of the 1970s/80s era zine sharing. As a short product it features an old school style compression of the ruleset.

If you’re worried about the volume of products and what you need to own in order to play, don’t. If you have any or all of these zines, they’re great. However, through a recent Kickstarter, 9th Level Games revised the system combining it into a single hardcover. MAZES: Fantasy Roleplaying is the only book you need to play this game and it’s available as a hardcover and as a PDF, both for the first time. This is the definitive version of the game and my preference.

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MAZES at Midnight at Gen Con 2022

With the concepts behind MAZES established, let’s discuss why this was my top event of Gen Con 2022.

On Thursday at the Indie Game Developer Network’s booth, I ran into Chris O’Neill of 9th Level Games and several members of the 9th Level Games crew. We talked and I mentioned I’ll be at MAZES at MIDNIGHT on Saturday. I’ll paraphrase the rest.

Chris – You’re running MAZES.

Egg – Nah, just signed up to play.

Chris – Hey, you're running a table; we're short on GMs. <wink>

It was a nice encounter (nicer than my words and thin memory portrays), and it is flattering to be asked. That said, the request surprised me. I’m not the forever GM of my table, we rotate. As such, I don’t expect to run games at every table. I didn’t expect to be called to help out because it’s not always my position. Beyond that, I’d played The Excellents at Origins, read and experimented with MAZES, but I didn’t have the ruleset down to run it. However, I knew that many companies were having a rough time securing GMs for Gen Con (lots of players attended the convention, but GMs were rarer than in pre-Covid times). Several companies put out calls for GMs in the run up to Gen Con. With that in mind, I understood Chris’ dilemma, he needed more GMs because he was about 100 seats open for MAZES at MIDNIGHT. It was nice to be asked, for sure, but we settled on the maybe list for me.

Jump to dinner Saturday night at Connor’s Kitchen across from the convention center. In a bit of coincidence, my friends and I go in and they seat us next to Chris and Heather O’Neill and the rest of 9th Level Games. I walk over to say hi and Chris shares that they’re nearly sold out for MAZES at MIDNIGHT and he asked if I would run one of the tables for real. I agreed. Then I spent dinner and all the time until getting into the gaming room memorizing the PDF of the rules from my phone.

At 11:30 PM, Chris brought us (20ish GMs of the 9th Level Games crew) together in the Indiana Convention Center (ICC) rooms 144 and 145, two rooms with 20ish round tables for 8 or so gamers each, a stage for presentations, and a projector. They ran over the scenario (preprinted with character sheets as name plate tents), reviewed their presentation, and the rules. The rule of cool was the order of the night. The review guided me to lean into a fun time over being a rules lawyer. Since I was running for a company, I wanted to do a good job representing them.

At midnight, the doors opened for the 96 ticket holders. In addition, they took generics at the door, so it was a full event. My buddies sat at my table along with players I had not gamed with before. Chris O’Neill took the mic, laid out the rules and setup for the room. Then the lights went out as the black lights came up. All of the pages and name tents started to glow and the adventure was on. The characters awoke, found a statue of them slaying a dragon, climbed a tower, fought skeletons, a lich, and a dragon. Throughout, each player got several moments to shine in an RPG tailor made for a con game. MAZES does a great job of feeling like old school D&D without the need to reference books or constantly study your character sheet. There are dynamics and options making the engine for a two-hour con game, it was perfect!

My GM style is to keep the camera moving so no one is sitting around bored. Since Polymorph lets you narrate your actions, you can do that knowing all you have to do is roll the same die. Play is fast and fluid. Each player did their action, or teams did their tasks, and then it was on to the next spotlight.

One hour and forty-five minutes later, we were done. It was Saturday night, the last night of the con and, for some, the last game. As a GM, I wanted it to be special. As someone representing 9th Level Games, I wanted to do a good job for Chris and Heather. While my buddies were pleased with the session, it was the new-to-me players that I wanted to get feedback from. Did they enjoy it? This quote meant a lot to me: “I wanted to do one more game tonight. This was exactly what I wanted to play!” It felt like a success for everyone that choose a die.

As an added bonus, each player got a post card with a skull and a QR code taking them to 9th Level Games’ MAZES page (here). If they took the post card to the Indie Press Revolution (IPR) booth, then they could get a free copy of MONSTERS & MAZES: fantasy roleplaying, the "demake" zine version of the game that I mentioned before.

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Afterword​

For the players, they got to try out the game and, if they liked it, could pick up a free simplified copy of the game or buy the full game. For me as an attendee, I had a different sort of experience. I was asked to run instead of play by one of the best designers in games. I was humbled to be entrusted with a table. Fortunately, it was a great game, a well thought out adventure, and an eager group of players.

After the game, the players cleared out and I went around to each of the GMs and offered them a copy of my roleplaying pamphlet, HUMAN… ALMOST (DriveThruRPG and Itch.io). For me, it was a good way to connect to other GMs, ones that I heard doing great work all around me. I was happy to talk to them, bump fists, and, hopefully, spread the gospel of roleplaying pamphlets and my game. Heck, I even got a compliment about my project online from ENNIE Award winner, Chris O’Neill.

When talking about Gen Con and whether you should go, this is the type of experience that means so much to me. I came to play, I ended up running, and it was a better time for it. If you are looking for a gaming experience where your presence and input are appreciated, Gen Con offers you something you will remember as a gamer, the unexpected.

If the Polymorph system sounds intriguing, 9th Level Games has another RPG using the system coming to Kickstarter in early September. Venture Society Roleplaying Game is an all-ages, non-violent RPG that promotes social emotional learning. Sign up early here to get a free quick start adventure prompt card deck when you back the campaign.

Egg Embry attends conventions as a member of the press. He participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, Noble Knight Games’ Affiliate Program, and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG, Noble Knight Games, and Amazon.
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


Celebrim

Legend
I had actually signed up for Mazes at Midnight at Origins, but skipped the mass session because by that time we'd been gaming for like 15 hours and we're tired and I figured with a mass event I wasn't really letting anyone down not to fill a seat. Now I have mild regrets that I didn't keep at for two more hours.
 

I had actually signed up for Mazes at Midnight at Origins, but skipped the mass session because by that time we'd been gaming for like 15 hours and we're tired and I figured with a mass event I wasn't really letting anyone down not to fill a seat. Now I have mild regrets that I didn't keep at for two more hours.
15 hours?! Your dice deserved the break! Go in peace, Celebrim!!!!! ;-)
Though, if you get a chance in 2023, I'd highly recommend MAZES at Midnight! ;-)
 


From lookin’ at the photo, the game has style.

Here’s what I’d like to see. I’ve been wishing that one of the publishers of a quality ultra-lite system (e.g. Mazes, The Black Hack, Tiny Dungeons, Knave, etc) would do a bold crowdfunding campaign where they literally convert the entire content of the 3.5 SRD, the PF1 SRD, the 13th Age SRD, the 5e SRD, and the PF2 SRD into that ultra-lite system. Including the 3rd party open content which is typically hosted alongside those online SRDs.

Yeah, it’d be a helluva lot of work, but the crowdfunding campaign would fund a team of converters.

And publish that as a gigantic multi volume shelf of books.

So you’d have all the character options: all races, classes, spells, gear, magic items, etc. … but portrayed via an ultra-lite system!

And format it nicely with slick graphic design and art.

I honestly think such an endeavor could be the next “Pathfinder.”
 




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