The first post on this blog went up 5 August 2016, so this is the time of the year I do my usual stock-taking and retrospecting (as all Internet blowhards are wont to do). What has happened last year, and what is yet to come? Well:
The State of the Blog
You know the way blogs work. They start high and they kinda taper off into gruff “I am still here… anyone? anyone???” kind of updates. Beyond Fomalhaut’s first year had 55 posts, the second had 42 posts, and this last one had 37 posts. That puts me in the “still mostly alive” zone. (How does David McGrogan do it? It honestly beats me.) This year, I had a lot of unwritten posts – the kind of elegant, well thought out arguments you put together in your head, hone carefully while taking a walk or doing your shopping, and never actually end up writing. There were a lot of these, and they were great. Next year, there will be more of them.
I continued reviewing old-school products – there were 16 in the first year, 23 in the second year, and 18 this year (about half my posts). The average rating has climbed slightly, from 3.1 and 3.0 to 3.3. For some reason, I came across more good materials than last year, while deftly avoiding the bad ones. Most bad adventures share fairly similar problems – bad scope, overdeveloped front with little actual meat, excessive linearity and low interaction potential – and after a while, you mostly filter them out. The gems, on the other hand, are mostly unexpected and highly individual. Not necessarily “special”: high-concept can easily obscure shoddy execution. Great adventures simply go beyond expectations.
This year’s ratings break down this way:
- 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.This rating was not awarded this year. (Note: this is a lack of effort on my part. I do know something that deserves this rating, but I never sat down to write a proper review that could do it justice.)
- 5 went to one new product, Sision Tower. This is an obscure gem of an adventure with a haunted atmosphere and great exploration-oriented gameplay in a unique environment. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
- 4 went to six products. Some of them are highly polished (Anthony Huso’s Mortuary Temple of Esma and Keith Sloan’s Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords are both honest-to-goodness high-level AD&D), and some are oddball things that deserve your attention (The Sea of Vipers is a terse, modern Wilderlands-like setting which would make for a great hex-crawling campaign).
- 3 went to eight adventures. “3” ratings are for the decent stuff, or for things which are highly creative but flawed in execution. My picks from this category are Into the Jungle, a Nam-meets-D&D thought experiment, and The Black Maw by “Craig Pike”, back when he had not yet been revealed as “Bryce Lynch” trying his hand at adventure design.
- 2 went to three adventures. A lot more bullets have been dodged based on vague hunches and sheer laziness.
- 1 was not awarded this year. If I came across one, it would have happened – these things tend to be annoying enough to merit writing about them – but this year has been fairly quiet, for reasons I will soon go into.
|A Year Later|
The State of the Fanzine
This has been a good year! In the latest annual round-up, I could mention two issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut and one module, The Barbarian King. This year, I had a bit of trouble including all the printed stuff in a single picture. EMDT’s print catalogue has grown to thirteen titles, even if this involves some sleight of hand (since some releases have technically seen publication twice). I could not have done this without help. Help from my co-authors who have written three of the adventures, published stand-alone or as zine articles; my illustrators (particularly the heroic Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, as well as Peter Mullen, Matthew Ray and Andrew Walter – a lot of dead Victorians have also contributed), my printer (who also plays Orestes, a retired legionary in our Kassadia campaign), regular or occasional playtesters, and all the people who have bought an issue in print or PDF. Thanks!
Echoes is now in its fifth issue, and the sixth is slowly taking shape. As the zine has settled into its place, I have found that it is best served by medium-length articles. This is a natural outcome of the campaigns we play: individual adventures take between one to three sessions to play, and re-usable background materials are usually of a similar scope. There are exceptions – typically campaign-defining “tentpole” locations, or utility products like The Nocturnal Table – and these will be better off as separate releases.
The fanzine’s focus through its first five issues has mostly been on our Isle of Erillion campaign. Together, these materials represent an almost complete mini-sandbox, consisting of modular pieces you can use as a linked whole, or take apart and use in different contexts. This year will hopefully see the completion of Baklin, the isle’s capital city – a neutral port town of merchants, sailors and the occasional thief. Since Baklin is too large for a single zine issue, it will be published separately. There are more materials I would like to publish from this campaign, but they will be even more general, with only hints of setting-specific information.
|The City of Vultures|
The next year will have a slightly different focus. One of my big plans for the zine (and one of the main reasons for launching it in the first place) has been the release of materials set in The City of Vultures, a sinful fantasy metropolis known for shady conspiracies, glittering palaces gone to rot, and great multi-level dungeon complexes hidden beneath the street surface. The city, which has served as the backdrop for three of our campaigns (one now ongoing), would have been impossible to tackle as a single supplement – it was always too sprawling, too forbidding to even begin. An introduction was published in Knockspell, issue #3, but of the adventures, only Terror on Tridentfish Island has seen release. To be exact, it needed a fanzine. Starting with Echoes #06, I am planning to publish my materials for this grand metropolis – focusing, most of all, on its dungeons and secret societies. See you in… The Gallery of Rising Tombs!
We have also started a new campaign with a new group, set in the lands of Kassadia. Kassadia, located south of the Isle of Erillion, is based on the premise that the local equivalent of the Roman Empire never fell, only decayed to the point of disintegration. It is now a land of early Renaissance city states, fallen grand projects, surviving imperial traditions, pastoral hinterlands and strange old villas in cedar groves. The campaign moves relatively slowly (scheduling, jobs and travel are constant issues), but we have been having a lot of fun with this one. Two modules are already written (the first one by my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernad), playtested and basically complete in the Hungarian – they will be translated for release late this year, or more likely early 2020. Some of these materials will also appear in Echoes.
When I started Echoes, I had a fairly limited understanding of the business end of publishing, and it would be arrogant to claim I understand it now beyond a basic hobbyist level. But on that level, things have worked out fine. No niche fanzine is ever going to be a moneymaker, but mine sells well enough to pay for the art and printing, and generate some extra I can invest into larger and more expensive projects (Castle Xyntillan has been this year’s main money and time sink). My big excel file tells me I have shipped 759 packages (including larger wholesale orders, but not convention and personal sales), which never fails to impress me.
Businesswise, most EMDT releases are done in print runs of 240 copies (Hungarian ones are in 80, but even that’s only because I am building a catalogue for the re-release of Sword&Magic). It is 240 copies because the coloured paper for the cover comes in packs of 250, and we have to submit 6 printed copies to the archives of the National Library. It turns out that’s a good, sensible number for an old-school fanzine, too. Echoes #01 to #03 have sold out their first print run (Echoes #01 has also sold through a 120-copy reissue, and is in a 60-copy third printing). The Barbarian King is nearing the end of the first batch, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. I would like to keep the zines in print and available, even if subsequent print runs will invariably be smaller (I don’t want to convert my home into a warehouse, so the number of cardboard boxes I am willing to put up with is naturally limited.)
Would I recommend zine publishing to others? If you believe you have something to say, hell yes! Publishing a zine has been one of the most rewarding forms of hobby participation I have been involved in (nothing, of course, beats sitting down to game with friends). It is a creative outlet which produces tangible results, and while time-consuming, it handily beats computer games and television (both activities I have mostly dropped or reduced to a light level). Do you have time for a fanzine? You probably do if you convert your junk time into quality time.
|Castle Grounds (art by Denis McCarthy)|
The State of My Other Projects
Recall all those empty promises I have made on the blog about Castle Xyntillan? Yeah right! In fact, it is actually happening, and hopefully happening before Christmas! This will be a large funhouse dungeon for Swords&Wizardry (but compatible with most other old-school systems). Xyntillan is intended as a beer-and-pretzels experience with a versatile application: you can run it as a one-off, a convention game, or as a complex dungeon-crawling campaign that takes characters from first to about 6th or 7th level. It can be played as a mostly hack-and-slash affair, but there is enough background complexity to add plenty of interaction and intrigue to the mix, and let the players devise complex schemes in the context of a fantastic, not entirely serious dungeon.
Most of the layout for Xyntillan is done. Illustrations are coming in (the one above is by Denis McCarthy), and Rob Conley has completed a set of poster maps which are really the bee’s knees (or the cat’s meow). The book will have four map sheets on the usual heavy-duty paper, two for the GM and two for the players (one each will be double-sided). The physical book will be an A4 (letter-) sized hardcover, about the size of the idol cover PHB. We are shooting for a durable, accessible, good-looking book that can withstand a lot of play.
After Xyntillan is out, I would like to dedicate my attention to the unjustly neglected Helvéczia RPG. Yes, the translated rulebook has been languishing mostly untouched since 2016, along with the first supplement. This is the curse of large projects: I have learned by personal experience (and not a few Kickstarters I have lost money on) that a big release is not equivalent to five or six small ones of equivalent length. No – the complexity of tasks increases along what seems like an exponential curve, while the chances for failure and delay multiply. Fortunately for all of us, I did not take any Kickstarter money for Helvéczia. I think it can come out in 2020, probably as a hardcover / hardcover-in-a-boxed set dual edition. Quasi-historical RPGs have been kind of a minority taste, but I believe I have something worth saying with this one – it is, probably, the closest to where my heart actually lies.
The State of the Old School
So it actually happened. The old-school community split this year, and its surviving pieces have gone their separate ways. It is gone. There has been surprisingly little talk about it, and most still speak in terms of a general scene, but in my eyes, the divorce has clearly taken place. The fault lines had been present for a few years, and the conflicts were visible for all to see. Google+’s shuttering by its corporate overlords provided a good opportunity for things to come apart, but it has also obscured the OSR’s disintegration. I never liked the term, not when it was coined, and mostly avoided using it except as a shorthand or in mockery. It sounded pretentious, and too much like an astro-turfing attempt to create a brand. It was hubris. But I was proven wrong after all. There was undoubtedly something there for a few years, and now there isn’t.
Is it a tragedy? No, although it is a loss of creative potential – for now. It was for the better. Late 2018 was the absolute nadir of the community as it became clear that people could not coexist in a single space. Every creative community has its in-fighting, contentious issues and scenester posturing (this is probably crucial to their creative well-being, even if it stinks). Splinter groups drift off and new people come in with their new ideas.
Trying to go after people for ideological missteps of failing to demonstrate appropriate piety is something else. That’s really at the core of it. If people can’t put their differences aside and get along without being at each others’ throats, no creative dividends are worth it. Ironically, the last and most prominent target of these sorry fights was no one else but Zaximillian Wokespierre, one of the principal drivers of the OSR’s ideological witch-hunts. Here is a man who has had his reputation destroyed more thoroughly and permanently than the people he had set his sights on. I think there is a lesson there; maybe more than one.
But enough of the dead. What exist now are separated communities which have increasingly little in common, and do less and less communication as time progresses. There will always be individual connections, and some people will doubtless remain involved in both spheres. Things are never tidy and clear-cut. But there is no big tent “old school community” in the way there was one on Dragonsfoot ca. 2004-2008, the blogs ca. 2007-2012, or G+ for a few years afterwards. These will be smaller groups with more focused interests.
On one side, there seems to be yet another round of re-examining what made D&D in the first place. These discussions always involve a slightly different bunch of people, and always come to slightly different conclusions. Increasingly, the people who ask the questions and provide answers have no direct connection to (A)D&D as it had actually existed from the 1970s to the 1990s, but nevertheless see something in it that modern editions do not offer. That’s a clear testament to the game’s staying power. However, the split has definitely brought a lull to both discourse and published material. There are notably fewer people around, and I suppose every missing contributor represents eight or ten missing lurkers.
On the other side (which I am not really familiar with), there seems to be a drift away from D&D’s baked-in assumptions towards a general use of its lightweight systems, and a convergence of old-school and indie sensibilities. To be honest, its first big effort, “Sword*Dream” sounds like a deliberate straw man caricature of online progressivism, and the first DreamJam’s output kinda lives up to the stereotype (GOONS is probably more my style). If your answer to “So what do you do, I mean apart from the Class Struggle” is “Urm, but everything is Class Struggle”, that might be a problem there. But what do I know, I did not shell out $7 for the dragon fucking game, so I might have missed something. I actually like some of the stuff that has been retroactively “sworddreamed”, so perhaps there will be more of those down the line.
In the end, I will be controversial and say it was worth it. For one thing, the OSR as it had existed had clearly outlived its usefulness, and the community around it started to get acrimonious. Second, the separation has removed a lot of conflict from the community. MeWe has been pleasantly light on drama, and the blogs and forums I am part of have just kept on discussing old games and their modern applications. I assume the other community feels that way, too. Who says divorces have to be acrimonious?
|In the Grim Darkness of the Post-OSR, There is Only * * * SWORDDREAM * * *|