Friday 21 August 2020

[BLOG] Year Four: Fighting On!

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making earl August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …You say it isn’t early August anymore? Yeah, that’s part of it. So:

The State of the Blog

In its first year, Beyond Fomalhaut had 55 published posts (but some of those were reposts); the second, 42; the third, 37; and this one a princely 33. You could say it is not much less than last year, but it is obviously less than two yeard ago. As it goes, at first you don’t notice a blog is posting less, then you don’t notice a blog is still around. Part of it is quality control: I don’t want to half-ass posts. Part of it is motivation: my heart was not into writing extensive updates. But the main reason is fairly prosaic: managing my shrinking free time, the blog had to take a backseat to actual gaming and publishing. This was the price of playing fairly regularly (indeed, more than any time since college), and completing, or moving forward with projects that had been on the drawing board for years. There are posts I miss not writing – as they tend to stay unwritten once the initial spark is gone – but that’s the way of it. And this paragraph will be the end of this year’s pity party – on with the better stuff!

The posts I wrote were mainly reviews, and there were a healthy 15, almost as many as the 18 least year. My average score was a nice, round 3.0, close to the total average of all published reviews (3.0625). However, this score now conceals more variance than last year; with more high- and low-scoring reviews. Truthfully, I did not review some averagish supplements I read, but there was also good cause for the outliers.

Here is how the scores break down:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. For the first time in the blog’s history, there was reason to award this rating, and it went to the Wormskin fanzine, a joint effort mainly by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk. This is not a rating awarded liberally, and I thought long about giving it out, but Dolmenwood, the setting introduced in Wormskin clearly deserves it for an original, flavourful, and highly playable take on D&D gaming. It is deserving of your attention, although I also hear a consolidated book is in the works. 
  • 5 was also awarded once, to the idiosynchratic Broken Castle, a mega-module and regional adventure supplement by Gene Weigel. Broken Castle is a mess of editing, and sometimes presentation, but it is full of heart, and the true AD&D spirit. Taken together, or as individual pieces, the adventures and setting therein perfectly capture what old-school gaming is about (even its warts).
  • 4 went to three products, all worthy materials: the exotic, dark wonder of Ben Laurence’s Through Ultan’s Door 2; Jeff Bezio’s excellent B/X vanilla module, Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag, and Brian Richmond’s Rakehell #01: The Rift of Mar-Milloir, a great “backwoods France” mini-setting.
  • 3 went to five products, mainly decent ones, and the sometimes inspired, but hellishly uneven and definitely assholish On Downtime and Demesnes (mainly by Courtney Campbell).
  • 2 went to only three adventures – it could have been awarded more often if I reviewed everything I bought from DriveThruRPG, but unlike Bryce, I have a low pain tolerance, and most of these things are bad in ways that is neither entertaining nor educational.
  • 1 was, however, awarded two times: to a cynical piece of shovelware art, and an adventure showing off a range of dreadful design trends. Head over to the pillory, and gawk!

We will be continuing from this point with a one-star review, so stay tuned! .)

Some swag

The State of the Fanzine

There is a feeling of accomplishment after releasing a publication, and the same goes for taking the picture of the year’s lineup for this post series. (My ultimate goal is to create a hell of a hall of mirrors effect with successive years’ pictures.) The EMDT series has grown by five titles (one of these in two languages), and the only reason you don’t see the whole back catalogue in the back row is due to me taking insufficient copies on my vacation. Here are two zine issues and two modules, and I am happy with all of them. As always, I owe my thanks to my printer, a good and steadfast friend, and my illustrators, who have given form to sketched ideas and given the zine its visual identity: Denis McCarthy and Stefan Poag, Peter Mullen and Matthew Ray, Graphite Prime and Jerry Boucher. Thank you, gentlemen!

Zines and modules are selling rather well – my big Excel file says I have shipped 1568 packages so far. They are now seeing reprints (indeed, every issue up to #06 have been reprinted at least once), and despite the gap left by the Bat Plague, these sales are sufficiently good that I don’t have to worry about financing future projects, even if they are fancier stuff. I did have to put up the printing costs for Castle Xyntillan, but even though it was a hefty sum, it has made it back and then some. As of now, the 500 copies of the first printing are gone, and 90 more of the second have also been shipped. This is, I think, as successful as it gets for module sales in old-school gaming. This feels damn good. [Word now underlines “damn”, telling me “This language may be offensive to your reader.” This, on the other hand, feels fucking stupid.]

I could finally get to publishing the core materials of our City of Vultures campaign, which would be plain too much continuous work in a single supplement, but the piecemeal approach has proven successful. The campaign itself (the third in this locale) goes on, and as we revisit the materials, new ideas and possibilities emerge, and unforeseen combinations gain significance. Game materials are never a finished deal; they grow, shift, and surprise us with every reuse. The zine issues have now focused on these relatively exotic materials, although this balance is temporary – the next issues will be more vanilla fare, even if some of it will become independent modules due to size and scope. My main debt here is Baklin, City of the Merchant Princes, a supplement detailing Erillion’s ruling city, from its teeming ports to back alley intrigues and what lies beyond the surface. This will be my next project (one, a Hungarian wilderness module that will also see English publication, is already done and 95% ready to go.) Of course, as cities go, the year has been fairly good, but then EMDT is a city-heavy publisher: Trail of the Sea Demon as a collection of three loosely connected, city-based mini-adventures, the City of Vultures, and the excellent In the Shadow of the City-God, which, I believe, fulfils the unkept promise of David Cook’s Veiled Society.

My happiest accomplishment is, of course, Castle Xyntillan, which was finally completed and released after several years of on and off work. As Rob Conley had wisely noted back in 2012, “The work on a RPG Projects increases geometrically not linearly with the size of the locale being covered. Writing nine levels of a mega dungeon is not nine times the work of writing one but more.” I can once again confirm this post (and it turns out I already did last year): writing, editing, laying out and publishing a 130-page hardcover is in no way the same as three, or even four pamphlet-sized things of similar length. It is about the magical 90%: half the work happens after a project is 90% done. But done it is, and to my pleasant surprise, it has not just sold well and reviewed well, it has given rise to a number of active campaigns, and stood the test of actual play (this campaign journal is worth checking out).

Speaking of debts, I have not completed the upgraded PDF edition yet, and for that omission, I am genuinely sorry. The cause is burnout: as the newly minted deputy editor of a quarterly academic journal, and the editor of a new book that has gone to the publisher this year, I am thoroughly burned out on editing work, and burnout has lead to procrastination. The update will happen, and I hope it will happen relatively soon.

Helvéczia - books from the first edition

The State of My Other Projects

Here is the big one: I have finished editing and layout on the rulebook for Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Remember that Rob Conley quote? Yeah. Helvéczia was originally published in the Hungarian in 2013 (rulebooks depicted), and the English translation was quite ahead by 2016. Well, mostly – and it burned me out so bad I could not look at it for years. Now I am getting into it again, playing in one campaign and gearing up to run another. It will not be ready by late 2020… but I hope it will be ready by early 2021. In my defence, Helvéczia is bigger than Xyntillan: the rulebook runs 200 pages, and when all is said and done, the supplement that goes with it will also be a hefty thing. That is to say, it is more than a system framework or a hack: it is a game that has substantial support material in the form of (mostly) new spells, creatures and magic items, extensive GMing advice, and a range of adventures to showcase the system’s workings.

In the end, I think Helvéczia is something that has not been done yet. If you will, it is a D&D-style game building on most of the same game concepts old-school gaming does (from classes and levels – six of them – to spell memorisation and alignment, and from random encounters to hex-crawling), but viewed through the lens of a different “Appendix N”. D&D is built on pulp fantasy and North European influences; Helvéczia, on the other hand set in an alternate Switzerland ca. 1698 – on historical adventure movies, 17th and 18th century picaresque novels, the work of the Brothers Grimm (mostly their less known work on German legends), local folklore and historical oddities. That in turn influences everything.

If you are unfamiliar with the genre (and they are a lot of fun to read), picaresque stories are surprisingly close to modern “adventurer fantasy” – they tend to be about disreputable scoundrels and unfortunate everymen making a name for themselves in a corrupt and dangerous world, and about the vagaries of fortune along the way. If that sounds like RPG adventurers you have known, the feeling is not accidental: a Jack Vance or Fritz Leiber story is a picaresque tale, just set in a fantastic land instead of historical Europe (which is, also, a fantastic land of its own to our modern selves). Helvéczia is a game that captures that kind of freewheeling spirit, concerned more with colourful and fantastic tales than moralising, or historical and social accuracy. As a game, it should be familiar, and fit comfortably like a set of old clothes, but it should also be new and unfamiliar – every rule and concept has been examined an customised to fit the source material.

This is not going to be a game for everyone, but I think there will be an audience who will get a kick out of it. Want to play a French duellist, a German landsknecht, a student from Prague versed in the occult, an Italian preacher on a mission to punish the wicked (and sample some of the region’s choice temptations), or a crafty vagabond from Poland out for fame and fortune? Teach those louts at the next table about manners with Judicious Lesson or Splendid Ludmilla’s Spinaround Spell? Hunt the dreaded threeyard cat or go toe-to-toe with a krampus (just don’t forget they come in groups of 1d3, and have 1:3 to carry 1d2 naughty children)? Gain devilish assistance in a tricky situation with a deck of cards, or heavenly aid with the Holy Bible? Go dungeon crawling in Hell and live to tell the tale, or wander into the faerie realms and strange uncharted locales of the Mittelmarch? Or just swing from a chandelier, intercept a stagecoach, woo the local lasses, win a noble title of questionable value at a game of dice, and find yourself pursued by very angry agents from the Gebrüder Lehmann banking house? All that in a single evening? If your answer to these questions is yes, welcome: this is very likely the game you are looking for.

We have not crunched the numbers with my printer yet, but I am foreseeing a one-book hardcover edition for around the same price as Xyntillan (to be followed by a PDF), and a more expensive, but fairly priced boxed set containing the rulebook, the first supplement, eight hex maps (four each for the GM and player), and a few odds and ends. In 2013, we made a very sturdy boxed set for the Hungarian edition (it is rated at 1d6 damage), and we hope we can do it again. The initial supplement, an A4-sized softcover, will serve as a hex-crawl-based regional supplement to the mountainous cantons of Ammertal, Zwillings, the Oberammsbund, Bundli and Oberwalden, and include a selection of adventure scenarios from larger affairs to minor “penny dreadfuls” (as the game refers to situation-based mini-adventures).

Adventures in Fantasy Catalonia...

Gaming Under the Bat Plague

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade; when life throws you a global pandemic… what else to do but start two campaigns set in doomed cities? Yeah, this thing knocked out our real-life games for a few months, and killed our slow-going Kassadia campaign. But necessity is the mother of attention. At the local university, an entire decade was spent hemming and hawing about digital lectures, but once the lockdown was on, the switch happened under the course of a week. In gaming, I was entirely uninterested in trying virtual tabletop, but with no other options, I joined a game, and soon decided to set up my own. It turns out this form of gaming, while not up to sitting down around a table and bullshitting around glasses of beer and various printouts, works just fine as a substitute, and even has a few useful functions which are harder to set up in real life (e.g. fog of war).

Having nowhere else to waste our time during quarantine, we played three times a week. One of the two campaigns, run by Istvan Boldog-Bernad (author of In the Shadow of the City-God) was a Helvéczia game series set in an alternate Catalonia, in and around the town of San Escobar during the time of the plague. Much could be written about the exploits of the diabolical Don José Emilio Belmonte de Gálvez y Rivera, who reached 4th level as a Student, before having to hastily depart the party after his companions tried to have him burned at the sake by the Spanish Inquisition (long story; Don José escaped with the aid of a Holy Bible he had borrowed from Father Giusto, the head inquisitor, and is currently at large), and about Little Juan, Don José’s erstwhile protégé, and later a scoundrel and self-made soldier. Little Juan almost reached 6th level (the highest in Helvéczia), and has accordingly retired to become a freedom fighter, to be replaced by his brother Rodrigo, 2nd level Cleric, and failed Franciscan who only joined the order as a family tradition (dreadful Wisdom score, although a splendid Intelligence and Charisma). But this is a story for another time.

...and around the doomed city of Thisium...

The other campaign, The Four Dooms of Thisium, was a classic “West Marches” campaign using a local B/X-inspired ruleset, set around the decadent, coastal city of Thisium. (A region inspired by the concept of capriccio, the artistic genre focused on painting imaginary ruins in an idyllic, ruined post-Classical setting.) As the Wise Owl, the city’s oracle and patron had announced, the gods had decided to condemn Thisium to four dooms due to an unspecified list of terrible sins: one would come from the forests, one from the mountains, one from the seas and one from beneath the city itself. As an added twist, the gods also forbade Thisium’s citizens to take action, or even offer aid, reward or compensation to any group attempting the same – only a band of outsiders acting on their own volition could undo this terrible fate. The gods had left Thisium 90 days before the end; the campaign started on day 45, after it had already turned out Thisium had far more enemies than anyone who actually gave a damn.

Thus began a campaign that ran 26 sessions in a relatively short time span, two times a week, with a roster of seven players and a bazillion PCs and followers (the game proved outrageously deadly, with an impressive list of casualties). Due to the scope of the campaign, which rapidly exceeded my initial plans, and the frequency of gaming, this was a situation with high creative pressure, which necessitated the rapid-fire development of substantial campaign materials. The four dooms involved the city of Thisium itself, two large dungeon complexes, a wilderness area, and an archipelago of islands populated with ideas out of peplum movies, the Odyssey, and similar works.

The base areas soon started expanding into additional mini-dungeons, islands, and other side-tracks – the proverbial feature creep. This is where you get at least some idea about the kind of challenges Gary might have been facing when he was running D&D 24/7 in the early 70s – it required every trick and shortcut to keep a few steps ahead of the players, and come up with fresh material for our Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. I ended up throwing everything from semi-geomorph-based map generation to various random tables at the problem, while trying to stay true to the campaign’s stylistic influences – and my players ended up enthusiastically wrecking the place, losing a small army’s worth of characters to the monsters and death-traps they would encounter, as the gods intended. At the end, Thisium was saved on exactly Day 90 – and by that time, the venerable city-state had seen things that would be enough for multiple lifetimes.

I am hoping to publish the campaign materials in some form (first in the Hungarian – a lot of the text already exists), probably as a two-module set that would let you play as a campaign, a regular sandbox module, or a collection of smaller adventures. This is not going to be as polished or in-depth as Xyntillan; as trying to do it that way would defeat the purpose, bloat the stuff, and rob it of its free-wheeling nature. I feel that the only way to do it justice is to keep the raw energy, and stick to the slightly vague, open-ended notes I was working from. It ill happen if the gods will it!

And now that the campaign's over, we have returned to our original "Plan A" - to continue adventuring in the Twelve Kingdoms, a region to the northwest of the Isle of Erillion (our next session is scheduled for Sunday).

...and in the Twelve Kingdoms

The State of the Old School

When making predictions about gaming, it is easy to go into doom and gloom. I am as guilty as anyone; I have written sceptical comments about the future survival of old-school gaming since before it became an acronym. To tell the truth, I was not entirely wrong about my worries, but I was proven too pessimistic about the ultimate conclusions. This game style and the community around it has survived, and proven remarkably successful and resilient. So here is something more positive.

Last year, I was writing about the end of the OSR as a cohesive movement, as a unified community. I still believe this is the case – we now see separate sub-movements, developing in different directions and losing the common ground which had once linked them. But all in all, this is not a tragedy, just the end of a phase of development. What we have (and by “we”, I count people who want to stick with old D&D and its derivatives) has lost its mainstream commercial appeal, but matured into a classic, and transcended the status of a simple retro movement. Revivals and retro tendencies come and go: old-school D&D has proven popular and appealing since at least the early 2000s. It offers more than simple nostalgia. There have been, and there will be ups and downs, but its future is as secure as tabletop gaming itself. Like chess and Risk, it is timeless, and here to stay.

This is our game now. It is, thankfully, not owned by anyone in specific, but it belongs to everyone who wants to play it, and puts in a small effort to familiarise himself with its general rules and traditions. That is excellent news: nobody owns most of the true classics either. In our time, this is an advantage and a key to survival. Large corporations, who see the world as brands and need constant revenue streams like a junkie needs his fix, would be a threat to the integrity of the game as we like to enjoy it. Political mobs would subvert it to their ideological perversions, exclude the people they don’t like from its enjoyment, or destroy it outright for not conforming to their brochures. But nobody can actually prevent people from enjoying a classic. Even if they are owned as an IP, the material is too widespread to truly be at risk.

Old-school D&D is open and inclusive in the best sense: neither money nor power controls access to it, and there are no terms and conditions (beyond the simple and open rules of the OGL), nor any means to restrict who gets to play and how. Therefore, we can play the game according to our wishes, publish materials for it without passing a corporate or political loyalty test. This makes us better off than the players of 5e, who are beholden to corporate interests, and now considerations which control the corporations. We also possess the creative freedom to enjoy and advance our game. That’s no small thing either – this freedom is valuable, it is appealing (and this appeal will only increase as people gradually realise how controlling and unpleasant the emerging, China-inspired brave new world is going to get), and there is much we can do with it.

Not this time, Lady. Not this time!

For now, old-school gaming is all right. Its creative output last year has been good, it shows signs of creative health, and many projects which had been in development for years have been completed and made available. Some of the more recent offerings are vanilla in the finest sense, a return to the creative origins which remain as timeless as ever: Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag, Broken Castle, and Hoard of Delusion (on which I will write more later) are good representatives of the continued power old-school D&D holds. Likewise, the stranger, more odd branches are also bearing creative fruit. Altogether, this is a fine place to be: prosperous, reasonably friendly, and above all things, free. That is a peculiar word, and we will yet learn how much that means.


  1. Congrats on the all the success this year. Have been readin g the latest zine issue and am looking forward to more City of Vultures material.

    Care to recommend some picaresques? My knowledge starts and ends with Don Quixote which I take is more satire of the genre.

    1. There are three originals I would recommend as an introduction to the genre. One is Alain-René Lesage's Gil Blas (1715-1735), written in France but set in Spain, and chronicling the countless misadventures and social rise of its titular hero. This is a thick book, and it is so much to take in I would not recommend reading it in one sitting. However, it is extremely dense and fast-paced: there are more twists, turns and new storylines in the first 20-25 pages than in entire novels.

      The other two are from the German tradition, and they are Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen's Adventurous Simplicissimus, and The Life of Courage, the Notorious Thief, Whore and Vagabond. They are connected novels, both set during the Thirty Years War, and featuring roughly the same areas and events, but from two different characters' perspectives (the two even meet, have a short relationship, and split soon thereafter). Simplicissimus tells the story of a peasant boy whose home is destroyed by roving soldiers, and he then goes through a dizzying array of vocations - hermit's apprentice, court jester, mercenary, charlatan peddling fake potions, brigand, officer, and much more. Courage (who later served as Brecht's model for the vastly inferior Mother Courage, which falsifies the original character) is a female heroine in the same war, torn from her home as a young girl, and later earning a name for herself as a swindler and con-artist.

      Both novels are filled with a love for life, and for all their grim surroundings, they are very funny. Simplicissimus is more of a wise simpleton, while Courage is a strong woman in a mens' world, one of the great characters in world literature. Grimmelshausen can be more baroque than Lesage, with occasional long-winded philosophical musings, but it remains very readable and not less fast-paced than Dumas.

      The Spanish picaresque tradition is a rich world to itself, starting from Lazarillo de Tormes and proceeding from there. Here, I can't point to any defining work, but they are worth reading. And of course, Moll Flanders is a great specimen of the genre as well.

    2. Thanks so much. Have heard of Gil Blas but the German ones are new to me. I'll be looking them up, sounds interesting.

  2. Congrats on another year, Melan! The trade-off for fewer blog posts being more great material is worth it. It takes more than bat flue to kill off old school. We'll still be gaming and writing when we have to dodge skynet drones between dice rolls and file saves.

    1. Thanks! These days, I am fairly optimistic about the old school's longevity - those Skynet drones'd better watch out!

  3. Hello Gabor---

    You mentioned that 1) "Due to the scope of the campaign, which rapidly exceeded my initial plans, and the frequency of gaming, this was a situation with high creative pressure, which necessitated the rapid-fire development of substantial campaign materials." and 2) "This is where you get at least some idea about the kind of challenges Gary might have been facing when he was running D&D 24/7 in the early 70s – it required every trick and shortcut to keep a few steps ahead of the players, and come up with fresh material for our Wednesday and Sunday afternoons. I ended up throwing everything from semi-geomorph-based map generation to various random tables at the problem, while trying to stay true to the campaign’s stylistic influences"

    I've been wrestling with this myself since I'm running two simultaneous campaigns in Gryhawk for the first time since college, and feel like there's a good blog post or two about this kind of "just-in-time" design process: where to cut corners and where NOT to, how to leverage improv in play, where all of these toolkits and tables come into play, the real value of prepared materials that are modular and how to slice and dice them in your hour of need, etc.

    Having a well-spring of Greyhawknes in my head helps a lot, but I don't think that we have as much overall guidance for DMs and Referees on why and when to use tool W or X over tool Y or Z.

    I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this matter, and have been drafting a few posts of my own, too!


    1. That's a good topic for exploration. I will have to ponder it, since, like improvisation, it is something I find much easier to put into pratice than describe in abstract terms. Should be a challenge!

  4. Congratulations on another year well-spent Melan. For whats it's worth, I believe this is the best living OSR blog. A slight decline in quantity of posts is more than made up for by their quality.

    How goes Castle Morthimion? I've enjoyed reading about that project.

    1. Thanks! Morthimion is sleeping; we played some in the Autumn, but got distracted by other games. These campaigns tend to resurface after a good slumber, so expeditions will resume one day. (Could also make for a decent online campaign for The Bat Plague, Round II.)

      Level 3 is complete, has seen a few expeditions plumbing it, and I may post a version including it. The wilderness section is still too fragmentary and untested to be presentable (the players also became careful about venturing too far from the main roads after a TPK involving two green dragons).

  5. Just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog - it's on a short list of "must reads" for myself.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. Thank you! As the title says, haven't dropped that sword yet. .)

  6. A timely injection of optimism, to which I agree on all counts. It's better that classic D&D be set free from monetary and social demands. It is not altogether different from the earliest days of the hobby when official product was scarce and folk had to improvise.

    Good stuff. Hope the next year is as productive for you as the last. (Still waiting for that post on the "greater D&D".)


    1. Will try to write it - but here I am, making a new round of irresponsible promises...