Wednesday 7 August 2019

[BLOG] Third Year’s the Charm: The End of the OSR

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.
Kassadia Rises
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

No U
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 * * *


  1. I think the thing to keep in mind that irregardless of the personalities and attitudes involved, the open content is still there and the barrier to publication and distribution is still ridiculously low.

    That there were always be people playing, promoting, and publishing for classic editions of D&D. Other older RPGs that are available have their own groups and there is considerable overlap.

    1. You are correct: classic D&D will stick around, because it is a time-tested and attractive way to run a game. It appeals as much to twenty-somethings as it does to old hands... and sometimes more. That's why it is a classic, even if it will stay a niche interest. (I think the old-school scene's main credit is to explore and codify the previously neglected potential of these games.)

      What is gone, I think, is the broad "big tent" community that - as Allan has pointed out - could keep projects like Fight On! or Knockspell running.

  2. Congratulations on your 3rd Anniversary!

    1. I prefer blogs that post less but maintain quality: where each post is a rich, useful and entertaining article, instead of a vague directionless rumbling of low gaming value. So I'll tell you, don't worry if you post less: the quality of each posts here is still among the best to be found!

    2. I eagerly await the "Thief PC Game" to "D&D" lessons article. Let me guess it's key points: 1) Verticality in scenarios; 2) Nonlinear open endlessness; 3) the element of sound in world simulation by the DM; 4) NPC/Enemy conduct adjudication while a PC is stealthing?

    3. The zine is amazing, so keep it going! The Nocturnal Table and the upcoming Xyntillan Castle are also top notch products.

    4. If it's the end of the "OSR Movement" but "old school gaming" persists and grows, I'm OK with that! I frankly don't pay much attention to the "indie/artsy" wing of the movement or the internet dramas going on, so I haven't felt too much the impact of the split myself.

    1. Thanks! 2. is one of those unwritten posts. I will try to put my thoughts down. You are not wrong about your assumptions!

      WRT 4, I had touched the drama and perhaps the drama had also touched me. Let that be a lesson to all. .)

  3. A great summary, as always, Gabor!

    I think that part of the disintegration of the OSR can be attributed to the lack of common projects that bring diverse gamers together, as well as the shuttering of G+ communities, slow-down in blogs, et al, that you mentioned. Since Fight On! and Knockspell have been respectively silent since January 2014 and the fall of 2011, with their demise we've lost our two flagship collaborative publications. As a result, perhaps it's a natural outcome to see more solitary atolls in the OSR seas over these past 5+ years?

    Lastly, have you checked out Ben Laurence's _Through Ultan's Door_ yet?---it seems to me that you would like it: it's low-fantasty, local vibe would fit in well with the seedier, more urban environs of your campaigns, although it's tonally a bit more EPT than JG WL.


    1. You may be on to something here. The heydays of Fight On! and Knockspell is something I miss - a lot of raw creativity, even withouth the lack of quality control. Perhaps partly due to the lack of quality control.

      I have both issues of Ultan's Door, and enjoy it very much - it is the kind of exotic fantasy that appeals to me. The City of Vultures has a lot of similarities to it - my main inspirations were also EPT, Kharé from Steve Jackson's Sorcery!, Harold Lamb's historical pulps, and Fritz Lang's paranoid fantasies (particularly The Tiger of Eschnapur). When it makes it into print, people will see the parallels - as well as the differences (naturally).

    2. Thinking back on it (and a quick dates check confirms), FO#13 was also published in 2011, so really it's been eight years since we've have a community zine supporting our old-school hobby. Others have carried that torch since (and Echoes if certainly among my favorites!), but the successor zines are largely more-narrow in scope in terms of contributors (and Tony and I are certainly as guilty of this as anyone else with TTS...).

      Perhaps the rise of the Kickstarter fits in here too, in a similar capacity (individual projects/visions vs. collaboration); the first I supported was in 2011. And the end of Grognardia---its last post was Dec 2012---also overlaps with these timeperiods....

      I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying Ben's work too---I'd be curious to hear about how you adapt it into one of your games, if/when that comes to pass at the table =)


    3. If I recall correctly the main reason both Fight On! and Knockspell shut down because it was a ton of effort to make it happen. And life circumstances changed enough that the principles behind both were unable to continue for various reasons.

      The fact that Fight On! and Knockspell were able to exist is because it possible to do these within the time one has for a hobby. Thus when one not longer has that time for a hobby we see projects shuttered, posting dwindle, and releases are fewer and fewer.

      Google+ papered over this a bit because it was an effective aggregation tool for the OSR.

      Trying to do something Fight On! again will ultimately lead to the same issues if nothing else happens.

      But I think there is still life. Alex did a solid by using his server to support a new type of blog aggregator called a planet.

      Ever since I linked to it on my blog, I been seeing some of the variety I used to see a couple of years ago.

  4. My answer to your very good post, Melan.

    1. Anthony. I think clones and reprints will allow AD&D to live on for future generations. That game has a unique appeal for any age. I was born in 85 and play and prefer OD&D and AD&D styled games.

    2. Indeed! As I have written under Anthony's post, I see a lot of people in their 20s and 30s discovering the classic editions. They are lightweight (well, AD&D is more baroque, but AD&D-as-usually-played is still lighter than 5e), versatile, and charismatic.

      In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was often said that AD&D (which meant D&D in general) was only enjoyed as a legacy game kept afloat by a giant corporation, and would die off with generational nostalgia, to be superseded with superior alternatives. And that's just not what happened.

  5. Has Gygaxian prose ever been supprased in gaming? Haven't yet found a writer who is more engaging. His books will still be there and at the least be read. What is not imatable cannot die.

    1. It can't be surpassed because it is personal. From the same period, I very much enjoy Bob Bledsaw's idiosynchratic style - very close to the way I like things - and M.A.R. Barker's dry academic wit (he was, to be entirely truthful, a much better technical writer than EGG - EPT is cleaner than even AD&D in that respect).

  6. I'm one of those people whose usage of "OSR" has changed a lot. Initially, it meant OD&D and Swords & Wizardry to me, then also Mazes & Minotaurs and Stars Without Number (and Sword & Magic, because of pattern recognition), and even less directly compatible stuff (like NGR, Into the Odd, and Blood & Bronze). "OSR" wasn't an acronym to me anymore - it was a word (just not written as *ohassar) with its own meaning, which undoubtedly had something to do with old-school. Much like D&D isn't just a brand or a game system - it's a phenomenon.

    Sometimes I did use it in dubious contexts (such as "the OSR produced this or that"), but more often than not it was a modifier - an OSR game, an OSR adventure, an OSR style of refereeing. And I will keep using it this way, because even though it might not refer to a community as it used to, it's still a useful shorthand to me.

    At any rate, congratulations on your bloggaversary; I'm really looking forward to seeing those posts you mentioned, and of course Xyntillan (and, while I'm at it, I ought to order a few copies of the zine, too)!

  7. I agree that the "OSR" has broken up as a scene and that the end of G+ covered it up. I agree too that it probably had to happen--that social media app was holding together groups that by the end couldn't really cohabit and couldn't really escape.

    I miss the conversation though. The micro worlds that have replaced it for me (forums, discords, twitterverse) don't do the same thing. They make it easy for me to talk to people I already know pretty well. But I can't post an idea and instantly have a creative sprawling conversation with all kinds of voices chipping. I'm also in touch with many fewer people. And there's nothing like the awesome feed that we used to have. (For my tastes MeWe is pretty dead and a lot of folks I like to talk to didn't head over that way.)

    I'm a little worried that it's going to take the steam out of the creative production end of things as the market, such as it is, becomes fragmented and smaller. Some would say that would be a good thing (back to "pure" hobbyism), but I don't really see it that way.

  8. "Why do good things come to an end?" is a refrain that has haunted me since me favorite band as a (very) young boy, the Beatles, broke up.

    It's a topic I find endlessly fascinating. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the OSR. It is doubly valuable since you were so intimately involved.

  9. And 2019's Monocled Bird of Excellence goes to... whom? I'm dying to know.

  10. Great post Melan, I'm also glad for the quality and not the quantity. And your post also inspired my traditional, bi-annual blog post.

  11. I was unemployed and poverty-stricken when the OSR first took off. In the past few years I've been able to afford to buy physical stuff (rather than just seeking out pirated pdfs) so I'm still catching up with all the old OSR stuff using eBay and Lulu (I haven't tried Drivethru's POD yet). Knockspell magazine is one of the things at the top of my wishlist!

    I'm glad your stuff is selling well, and I'm looking forward to Castle Xyntillan and Helvéczia. Your style is exactly to my taste.

    I've just realised that if the UK leaves the EU with no deal on October 31st I may have to pay customs charges, VAT and handling charges on items worth over £15 sent from Hungary. International postage is annoying!

    1. Thank you! I am very happy to hear that.

      WRT shipping changes, we will have to see how it unfolds. On my side, the difference between EU and worldwide postage is $1.10, and the EU rate does apply to multiple non-EU states across Europe. Sadly, there may be some new tariffs on the UK side. I will keep my eyes open and try to offer the best available option.

  12. Congratulations on the 3 year anniversary! Your blog is pretty much the only one I read with any regularity now, and I am happy to report I have enjoyed all of your publications.

  13. Interesting read. The OSR may well be over, as I've been away from the hobby for a few years and I'm just now learning about it!
    I must say I've been reading lots of 5_10 year old blog posts and learning a lot about the depth of the OD&D games. Things that never occurred to me because I was in 7th grade...