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MAZES Fantasy Roleplaying: An Interview With Chris O’Neill (9th Level Games)

9th Level Games has a new Kickstarter and Chris O’Neill agreed to answer my questions about it. We talked before about The Excellents campaign, so I was eager to discuss this game, learn more about the system, their next Free RPG Day offerings, and what MAZES has to offer.

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EGG EMBRY (EGG): Chris, I’m glad to talk with you again. You have a new Kickstarter, what can you share about it?
CHRIS O’NEILL (CHRIS)
: Hey Egg! Thanks for the article! So, MAZES, our core fantasy RPG is getting its first full release – a hardcover book, PDFs, Roll20, everything. The game has been available in a limited capacity; we released it two years ago as part of ZINEQUEST 1 – and we have just had an amazing run with it. We think it’s finally time to bring the whole game into the wider gaming world, and we’re doing that with a beautiful, premium hardcover.

EGG: For those that don’t know, what kind of RPG is MAZES? What style of adventures can players look forward to?
CHRIS
: Well, MAZES Fantasy Roleplaying is my attempt to capture that original game feel of old school and OSR gaming – but translated into a vibrant, easy to understand, modern rules system. At its heart MAZES is old school fantasy - pulpy 70s sword and sorcery, pointy hat wizards, evil iron swords kinda fantasy - though you could play any kind of fantasy setting with it. The game itself is focused on the “dungeon crawler” style, but the new edition expands MAZES from its more “one shot” feel to provide a robust campaign frame for dungeon crawling – with some hexcrawl elements, and the like. Part of MAZES is that you always start right in the thick of the action, you are at the DOOR TO ADVENTURE ready to kick it down and get going! I am also working on a new “campaign world” for MAZES – something that we really didn’t worry about with the zine edition. Throughout the Kickstarter, I hope to showcase a campaign frame that could be subtitled “If Fred Saberhagen did a Pastiche of Michael Moorcock but it was actually just Lankmaar if Lankmaar was in Dark Sun”, lol. As part of the campaign, we will be revealing some of the ways that MAZES will be expanding beyond the core book – including a HUGE SECRET REVEAL of a game that we will be doing next year that will be MAZES compatible. It’s a pretty big deal for old school nerds like me...

EGG: It’s cool that this is old school. Let’s talk about the award winning Polymorph System that it’ll run on. How does the engine work?
CHRIS
: The Polymorph System is a compact yet comprehensive rules framework for roleplaying. It’s designed to provide the full experience of a crunchy RPG, but with minimal setup and prep – all without giving up the mechanical depth of a really exciting role-playing experience. At its core, a Polymorph game works like this. You select a polyhedral die – a d4, d6, d8, or d10 – that represents your character. This is your “role” within the group. Whenever you need to roll dice – you only ever ROLL your DIE. The d4 provides powerful effects and social/mental powers, the d6 is fast/physical and provides action and motion, the d8 provides damage output, and the d10 is the shield and tank. Like any RPG, on your turn you explain what you want to do. If the MC (in MAZES we call the GM the MC, Maze Controller) feels that it would be interesting if you could fail – they ask you to roll against one of the “outcomes” in the game – in Mazes, those outcomes are:
  • Books 2,3
  • Boots 3,4,5
  • Blades 4,5,6,7
  • Bones 5,6,7,8,9
Books are your smarts, Boots your movement, Blades your damage potential, and Bones your strength and endurance – to explain it quickly. There are two other outcomes as well – a KEY (when you roll a 1) or a CROWN (when you roll the top of the die, a 4, 6, 8, or 10 depending on your chosen role). The Key is like a critical – its always a success as long as you are doing something that your character can do. And the Crown is a success or a failure based on the current situation – represented by a count called DARKNESS – an abstracted level of danger based on the actions of the party. Taking actions that are dangerous, loud, and aggressive add Darkness (like say, splitting the party); as does encountering monsters and hazards. When the Darkness is low, Crowns are successes, but when the Darkness is HIGH, they are failures. In MAZES, we also select a CHARACTER CLASS – that provides each character with a unique set of “edges”. An EDGE allows your character to take ADVANTAGE when they roll their die (so, if you have the edge FAST, you get to roll two dice when you’re running away for instance). Each Class is easily defined by three simple questions. SO, when we say that you choose a die, choose a class, and go – it is that easy, but it still provides a multitude of different character options and builds. The whole system is so tight, that I can actually teach you to play in 5 minutes. Here’s a link to the VIDEO.
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EGG: So, we discussed the engine, what’s the philosophy behind it? Why one die? What drove you to that gaming decision?
CHRIS
: That’s a great question, Egg. The simplest answer is that it works so well, but the road to discovering that was a long one… I’m always noodling around with new game ideas – and I was working on a dungeon crawling board game where each of the players where represented by their traditional HIT DIE (the wizard was a d4, the barbarian was a d12, etc.). At the same time I was running an RPG where I had five stats, and you assigned a different die to each stat (similar to how Savage Worlds works) and you were trying to roll high against a RISING THREAT number. The real eureka moment was the idea that all actions in most RPG games can be summed up with the question, “How am I going to solve this problem?” With my mind, with my physical body, through direct action (usually violence), by withstanding it, or through the use of my special skills. So, since I had a framework that was universal, I could create a single, static action matrix – and the variability wouldn’t come from bonuses, but by changing the shape of the die. Add on the tech of Advantage/Disadvantage and you have a surprisingly robust action resolution system – that requires ZERO math. So, the simplicity of looking at a single action resolution chart – in any kind of game – combined with the simplicity of roll this one die – with the variability of “I can chose different a die”. It was just everything I could want. And when people started to play it – and they just grokked it immediately. Honestly, the hardest part was letting the d12 go (it was messing with the math). I ended up doing A LOT of math to make sure that everything works at scale.

EGG: And that work led to awards. What awards have your products won?
CHRIS
: So, we received a few nominations for both MAZES and The Excellents (another very different Polymorph game) – but the rules system itself was nominated for a BEST RULES ENnie, and it won the BEST RULES IGDN Groundbreaker award. That award got us really excited – because it showcased that MAZES, while presenting old school content, was cutting edge rules wise – which was our goal.

EGG: MAZES already exists but this campaign upgrades it to a hardcover with some extras. Will this be a new edition or a product upgrade?
CHRIS
: It’s a little of both. MAZES has been available for like two years now – but ONLY as zines (nine of them to date, and two print runs). This “edition” is going to be the first “stable” version – no more monkeying around book to book, and swapping rules on the fly. We are combining all of the learning from the ZINE while focusing squarely on the dungeon and hex crawler mode. All in all, the book will be something like 30% new content, 20% refreshed/updated content, and 50% core content from the existing zines. It will be the baseline for all new MAZES content that we release. It will be the first time the game is available electronically, which a lot of fans have been waiting for. We will have PDF and a special Roll20 compendium and module with a graphical character sheet and music and stuff.
mazes3.png
EGG: What other products are you offering?
CHRIS
: So, we’re really focusing on the book as the primary goal and, if we fund, we will start adding some milestone goals for some cool additional products. We will be offering a GM screen (with this amazing art by Justine Jones), a 4-dice set from LevelUp Dice, and an OST soundtrack album. If we fund, we have some additional cool things we can add – like metal coins, reference cards, and the like. My favorite add on though is a soundtrack by the dungeon synth band GNOLL. I love GNOLL and the HDK Dungeon Synth label and am over the moon that they are going to crank out some deep dank maze running dungeonwave for MAZES.

EGG: 9th Level Games is doing something special for Free RPG Day 2021. What can you share about that project?
CHRIS
: 9th Level Games has partnered with Gaming Days and Free RPG Day to do an annual anthology book. The inaugural book came out on Free RPG Day 2020, and this year we’re releasing the second volume. The anthology is called LEVEL 1, and you can download it here for free. Each Free RPG Day kit will have twelve copies of LEVEL 1, so make sure that you get to your Friendly Local Game Store on Free RPG Day to get a physical copy! This year’s anthology is called “WE ALL WEAR MASKS” and features about twenty micro RPGs.

EGG: Beyond MAZES and LEVEL 1, what else are you working on?
CHRIS
: We’re so busy! We just wrapped up delivering on our latest THE EXCELLENTS campaign, and we are hard at work on writing and testing the three ZINEQUEST RPGs that we did this year – REBEL SCUM, SAVAGE SISTERS, and the VERY GOOD DOGS OF CHERNOBYL. All three are very different, but all three are POLYMORPH games.

EGG: Three? Wow, I’m looking forward to seeing those during zinequest! Thanks for talking to me about this project. Where can fans follow your work and learn more about this project?
CHRIS
: People that are interested can join us over at THE MAZE on DISCORD. You can follow 9th Level Games on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more @9thLevelGames. You can always find us on the web.

MAZES Fantasy Roleplaying from 9th Level Games
“A return to the classic sword & sorcery dungeon crawler with simple modern rules. A high quality hardcover, digital options, and more!”
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry

JEB

Hero
Presumably by coincidence, the core mechanic sounds a bit like the made-up (then no-longer-made-up) RPG at the center of Kieron Gillen's Die.
 

Banesfinger

Explorer
Question about the dice mechanics:
What happens to a person who chooses a d4 for their die, and who later has to make a 'Bones' roll (shield/tank) which only succeeds on a 5,6,7,8,9 (which is impossible on a d4)?
Yes, they could roll a '4' (crown) but that could be either a failure or success (depending on darkness)...
Is this purposely done because the d4 has a high chance (25%) of rolling a '1': a 'key' (critical)?
 

thomkt

Explorer
Question about the dice mechanics:
What happens to a person who chooses a d4 for their die, and who later has to make a 'Bones' roll (shield/tank) which only succeeds on a 5,6,7,8,9 (which is impossible on a d4)?
Yes, they could roll a '4' (crown) but that could be either a failure or success (depending on darkness)...
Is this purposely done because the d4 has a high chance (25%) of rolling a '1': a 'key' (critical)?
As long as it's something that fits the character's role, a 1 always succeeds. And like you said, depending on the Darkness level (which is largely under the player's control) a 4 may succeed as well.

The same holds true for a Bones character trying to succeed on a Books roll. They need to hit a 2 or 3 (and depending on what it is and Darkness level, a 1 or 10) on a d10.

There's some other things that aren't mentioned. A Treasure track to show how much wealth the party has. Character gets Hearts (hit points) equal to their die and Stars (special effects) inverse of their die type, I can't remember the exact, but a Books character has the most Stars while a Bones character only has 1. Losing all of your Hearts don't kill you, you take a condition, which gives penalties (disadvantage on certain rolls, class rolls not succeeding on a 1, ect) and resets your Hearts and Stars.

I've been playing in an on-and-off again Mazes game for the last year or so and am really liking the system.
 

Banesfinger

Explorer
I've been playing in an on-and-off again Mazes game for the last year or so and am really liking the system.
Thanks for the response.
What has been your group's thoughts on this: With only 4 dice types (and players limited to a single dice each):
-Do they get bored with that?
-Do characters all feel 'same-sy' with limited variation? Or does the skills/abilities (advantage on rolls) make each PC feel unique (i.e. niche protection of old school games)?
 

thomkt

Explorer
Thanks for the response.
What has been your group's thoughts on this: With only 4 dice types (and players limited to a single dice each):
-Do they get bored with that?
-Do characters all feel 'same-sy' with limited variation? Or does the skills/abilities (advantage on rolls) make each PC feel unique (i.e. niche protection of old school games)?
We've played a couple of adventures, each being 3 or 4 sessions and no boredom or sameness.

We have 6 players with two Boots and two Blades. The characters are as different as can be. There's a few customization points - Aspect (Sorcery, Skills, Swords) kind of a high-level "this is where my powers come from"; Class (Sea Hawk, Forgotten One Scion, Old Wizard) a more refined definition of how your powers work; and Edges, these are the things that can give advantage on certain rolls, but can be other things - the Forgotten One Scion has the Magic Weapon edge, the Sea Hawk has the Noble edge and the Old Wizard has a familiar via edge. You start with three Edges and gain one for each three adventures you complete.

I don't know if the Aspects and Classes are hard set, or if they're more guidelines/flavor. The Edges are defined in the rules.
 
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