Saturday 8 October 2022

[BLOG] Year Six: Old School Reconquista

An Autumn Landscape

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. Unfortunately, duties at my day job have haunted most of the year (and continue to usurp valuable time I could spend blogging), so here we are. Autumn is the best season anyway.

The State of the Blog

Beyond Fomalhaut’s activity this year was as much as in the last: 29 posts, of which 19 were reviews. Obviously, I am being left in the dust here by Messrs. Lynch and Nothing, but a good many of these reviews were long-form discussions of really complex, good stuff, which took time to think over and grasp properly. These also reflect changes in old-school publication patterns, where activity has decreased, but size and complexity has gone up (more on this later).

The average score for the 19 reviews ended up at 3.3, above the six-year total average of 3.09. It was a fine catch, and there are multiple reasons why this is so. First, selection bias. The No Artpunk contest has raised the average: this was a bumper crop of adventures by people who either knew what they were doing, or were making a jolly good effort to Git Gud. Two of the top scores came from this contest, and three more were in the “very good” category. Even the mid-ranking ones were clearly ambitious and showed signs of promise. The second reason is that the market has become cleaner; a lot of the grifters and shovelware artists polluting DriveThruRPG have departed for other lands, and pattern recognition makes it ever easier to avoid the releases which will inevitably be disappointing. These are still reviews of things I hoped to be good. The third reason is related to the second. Zinequest is winding down after the absolute winners who were making a lot of money on it cancelled the guy who was running the programme at Kickstarter (here, I refer the readers to the immortal Snake Poem), and the alternative game jams have not created much of interest to old-school gamers.

So here are the results and the highlights:

  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence. This rating was not awarded this year. Wormskin, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, The Tome of Adventure Design, and Yoon-Suin dispassionately survey the field beneath like the great stone faces of Mount Rushmore. Shall a new face be carved upon the unfeeling rocks? The next year will tell. Git Gud! 

  • 5 was awarded to three releases, similar to last year’s pick of the crop. One of these went to Oakes Spalding’s Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, a reimagination of LBB-only Original D&D. Seven Voyages combines smart, simple mechanical innovations that fit flawlessly into the OD&D framework with a slightly different implied setting where these rules changes are a natural fit. It has been the first old-school system in a while to make me pay careful attention. The Temple of Hypnos by Olle Skogren deserves praise for an adventure that balances high imagination with a solid basis on the nuts and bolts level. And of course, Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls by Trent Smith, with its effortless skill and unfolding complexity: this is how AD&D is done.
  • 4 went to four releases: Vault of the Warlord, turning a clever tomb-robbing adventure into a developed village-wilderness-and-dungeon scenario; Dust and Stars, a high-level dungeon presenting a tough but fair challenge for powerful characters with advanced capabilities; City of Bats, a Mesoamerican dungeon paying homage to the great Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan; and The Bone Place of Dreib, a dungeon adventure that takes you to a place of primordial wrongness. These releases were, notably, all low-fi efforts. None of them came with fancy art, a hard cover, or Kickstarter extras, and they relied solely on solid content to earn their deserved place.
  • 3 was awarded to nine products. This is a wide circle, from decent material you could easily use in your campaign (e.g. Temple of 1000 Swords or the promising Swords & Sewercery) to projects which showed grand ambition, but did not live up to their goals (Cha’alt being the prime example).
  • 2 was awarded to one release this time, City of the Red Pox. This was a case of an excellent idea (corrupt fantasy Venice) that was not realised as well as you would expect.
  • 1 was awarded to two products, conveniently displayed at the pillory (rotten tomatoes and bad eggs available at 2 copper pieces a throw). These, regrettably, come from the Artpunk / Mörk Borg community, and make a good case for why the stereotypes are true. Of the two, Colour of the Void looks like an honest effort by someone who sadly knew no better (to quote the Tragedy, “her sin is of the age which had birthed her”), while Crashmoon does not have that excuse – it is the contemptible result of artsy flourishes masking an artless core.

As in previous years, man proposes, God disposes: there were a few books I promised to review but didn’t. I will try to get to these reasonably soon. And again: sometimes, the reviewer reads something and has nothing to say that has not already been said. Some of the high-profile, oft-discussed projects have therefore not received their due – they were good or they were middling, but other people already explained why.

Old-School Gatekeepers

The State of the Fanzine

Last year, EMDT released six full titles (and three more which were a part of larger releases), including two boxed sets; this year was invariably more modest with four. One of these was a Hungarian Helvéczia module, Isle in the Mist, a fairy-haunted locale. Mr. Volja also completed his first adventure compilation, Weird Fates, vol. 1, which collects four one- or two-session scenarios. These are a different style of old-school than what I tend to do; more whimsical and improvisation-oriented, but a lot of fun at the table. Volume 2 has now been drafted and awaits editing, and a third volume is at the concept stage. So on my side, two issues of Echoes were published. These are both heftier volumes, and I have been happy about the range of materials therein. Unfortunately, no new issues are expected this year, but #11 is in its early stages.

Other people have been more diligent. I am really pleased about the release of Helvéczia’s Spanish edition, a mighty effort by Outremer Ediciones. Tackling the hardcover/boxed set combo is a project with many moving parts, bottlenecks and unexpected challenges (I can attest to it), but they did it, and the final result is a beauty, so I must thank them for their hard work. As I understand, people have already started to develop their own ideas and materials for the game while Outremer was demoing it, and a domain management system, as well as a regional supplement are in the works. If you create a game, you really cannot ask for more. Since Spain is the original homeland of picaresque novels, it will be fascinating to see where these ideas will go – hopefully, we will also get to see them in English some day.

It is also great to see that The Vaults of Volokarnos has received a Czech edition, where it is being sold along with the Old School Essentials boxed set. This is doubly pleasing not just because you get to see your work receiving a release in another Central European country, but also because this adventure was specifically written as an introductory dungeon for novice players and gamemasters – all the while trying to introduce not just standard dungeoneering tricks, but the scope, difficulty and complexity of old-school dungeons. Volokarnovy katakomby – as the title goes in Czech – is labelled with the “K.O.S. 1” letter and number designation. I sincerely hope there will be more from Czech designers, in one way or another, for the same reasons mentioned with Helvéczia: it is bound to create something new, interesting, and hopefully good.

The Spanish Boxed Set (image courtesy of @websterfreeman_)

The State of My Other Projects

Last year was the time when large projects that took years to complete were realised. This year was a time for more sowin’ than reapin’, and sometimes, progress can be slower than you would like. Accordingly, a lot of my efforts have gone into the Hungarian edition of Helvéczia, where I have set myself a firm deadline for this December. This involved a lot of editing, some translation, and the logistics of production. Thankfully, my printers are a real help, even if the owner’s Helvéczia character was swallowed by Hell along with his horse in the mountain pass of Hohenwart after failing to settle a debt with the Devil. Of potential interest to English gamers is that the Hungarian edition will feature a different regional supplement than Ammertal and the Oberammsbund (which was already included in the original 2013 boxed set), along with a new set of adventures. All of these will be translated in time. Likewise, I have a partially translated adventure collection, and this will also be coming in 2023.

Khosura Rises...

My other big plan for the year which did not come to fruition has been Khosura, King of the Wastelands. This is a regional supplement for levels 3 to 7 (or so, it really depends on how the players approach things, from careful infiltration to all-out action), describing the eponymous city state, its vast and interconnected Undercity, the surrounding wastelands, and multiple smaller adventures set therein. So, a sword & sorcery sandbox with lots of sand, both literally and figuratively. About 75% of this stuff appeared in various Fight On! magazine, while the rest comes from old campaign materials. Khosura is fairly far along, with a splendid cover and some really nice art pieces already coming in, and cartography and writing in progress. If it were not for real life-inflicted delays, it would be an Autumn release as a hardcover with a map envelope; as it goes, it is planned for Q1 2023. Escape from the Pits of Lamentation, delve into the Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M’Kursa, plunder the Tower of Birds and navigate the ancient customs and rigid laws of the City State of the Four Mysteries – as barbarian conqueror or decadent thief, priest in a city of jealous gods or shadowy illusionist in a land of mirages!

I have one more English release planned for 2022 – and again, it is a firm one, with a self-imposed deadline for early December – and that is The Forest of Gornate. This is a large wilderness pointcrawl set around the same city as Shadow of the City-God, and one I am particularly proud of (particularly as I used to have doubts about the pointcrawl format, and I think this one is actually good). It fell through the cracks last year, but now, it is going to be done. The Four Dooms of Thisium still lies in a distance. We will get there, eventually.

I also had the opportunity to have my picture taken with Dr. Peterson and perhaps a zine, but while this idea had some attraction, it also felt vaguely ominous, plus it would have also cost me more money than realistically worth. So that didn’t happen, but we did hold a Zine Summit with Messrs. Ignatius Umlaut and the Settembrini clan in Café Erdős, a decent place in Budapest, after hosting Ignatius for the opening game of our new Seven Voyages of Zylarthen campaign. I think this was a better idea.

Me and the boys meeting the Artpunkman foe. Deus Vult!

The State of the Old School: Reconquista

It happened subtly, and you can miss it if you don’t look in the right places, but there has been marked improvement in old-school gaming over the last year. Simply put, there is less stuff, but more of it is good, mainly thanks to a bunch of relative newcomers putting an honest effort into understanding the craft of classic games. For a few years, what used to be called “the OSR” became so broad and unfocused that it had also become diluted. Success brings its own problems, and having to become a vehicle for every idea under the sun, only linked by a vague aesthetic (and since the dreadful, twee Corporate Memphis nightmares have taken root in some corners, not even that), led to a loss of the core identity of the old school. To quote someone I often agree with, “A game style that can be anything ultimately does not mean anything. It has no point to make and no strong features to distinguish it and give it a peculiar charm, a creative edge”.

The OSR, 2022
Important ideas were forgotten because the people who first explored old-school games were all experienced fellows operating from assumed tacit knowledge. There was a lot they practiced, discussed fleetingly, but never bothered to put down on paper in a coherent way (for example, nobody produced a new DMG because they just thought everyone would already own Gary’s). Then, some of the field started to feel uncomfortably like neo-storygames (what the hell is a “lyric game”?  where is the earnest violence?), and you started to get the idea our corner of the hobby was beset, well, not really by tourists, but cynical guys who didn’t have any affection for our old games, only the surrounding ecosystem that let them sell more than a dozen copies of their junk. But that’s old news.

The actual news is that if you look carefully, you can see the first products of a reinvigorated, smaller but more youthful old-school scene. People who often had zero contact with pre-d20 D&D have been discovering the classics, and getting acquainted with the actual design principles and aesthetic behind them. This interest, fortunately, goes beyond simply using a generified B/X, and extends to understanding the finer points of the advanced game, the underlying logic of old-school adventure design, good campaign structures that transcend the level of adventures (West Marches-style games are an example), and the practical issues of gameplay. Actual play-based communities in turn produce not just a common knowledge base, but better supplements that serve actual play as well. The big picture starts to re-emerge.

Some of the commercial ground has been ceded. Hobbyist DIY efforts are not always glamorous in their presentation, even if they are very solid in their content. This does not make tons of Kickstarter money, but then neither did OSRIC. Even greats like the Heroic Legendarium (which I solemnly swear to review next year) can arrive in the simplest of packaging. There is no harm in books looking good, cartography looking clean, and layout being functional (although Good Layout has become first a fetish, and then a vehicle to sell overpriced coffee table books). But they are no substitute for good writing, and that means both Idea and Craft. Those who master one are standing on a strong foundation, and those who master both can produce the best of the best. Gilded framing does not a great painting make, even if it can enhance its beauty. You can do a great job with the modern equivalent of Judges Guild’s production values, and much of this year’s best has been just that.

The fruits of the Reconquista have already been good this year. The No Artpunk Contest, organised and judged by Prince of Nothing, and attended by 19 contestants, has been a mustering ground for people both learned and learning. The entries were uniformly a cut above the norm, and some delivered outstanding adventures that will be remembered for years to come. It was a contest that invited as much discussion and reflection as it had entries, and it will improve us. This year’s field looks even leaner and meaner, promising a Herculean task to make a final judgement about the best. Some of that effort, in turn, will find broader recognition and produce a new bounty of the Good Stuff. These are promising signs. The uncomfortable question remains (this is something you also ask yourself reading Bryce’s reviews): if the principles of good design can be learned with a little effort, why didn’t so many people publishing “old-school” adventures get even the basics correctly? That’s right. They were too lazy to.

Don’t be those guys. Aim high, practice your D&D-fu, maintain your castles and together, we can topple Sturgeon’s Law and burn it to the fucking ground.

Greetings, Warlord!


  1. A hearty cheer for the red road ahead
    In the hinterlands, beyond Milton's peak and Stuart's Ford
    We are raising an army of stout fighting men

    Morklings beware, your Titan is dead
    Hide your one-pagers and your bullet points
    With each Playtesting we triple our strength
    The age of Noartpunk has come

  2. Thank you for the part that concerns me! Working with you is always a pleasure, and Helvéczia is going strong here in Spain. Let's see how the people create his own adventures! For now the adventures that we received maybe too 'down to earth', but that's the spanish tradition for you (Cervantes mocked high fantasy novels...)

    One of my concerns with Outremer is making all around good products: good games with good physical quality (I'm very passionate about the paper grammage and that's the hill I'll die on!). That's my way of making quality games. Because mediocrity is a disease, and it's pretty easy to catch it! So we need to focus on doing our part.

    So I raise my glass of wine for you, Gabor. For 6 more years! 

  3. Thanks for mentioning our Czech translation. We're basically trying to build a OSR community almost from scratch here, using OSE as the chosen platform. I know it's not ideal (reminds me of the Settembrini vs Prince podcast) but it seemed like the most practical choice. There is a smallish OSR community already but quite scattered and mostly playing the new, minimalist "artsy" titles rather than traditional retroclones (and we've also translated and published Mausritter so I'm not innocent in this). We'll see how it goes for us.

    As for modules from Czech designers, I don't think it's happening any time soon (but thanks for wishing us luck!). Up until recently, we had pretty much no tradition of any good module writing whatsoever. It's getting better now and there are some aspiring creators, but mostly centered around Forbidden Lands which has gotten quite popular. The overall RPG tradition around here is slanted toward the "realistic" and low fantasy, something quite suited for Forbidden Realms but not as much for OSR. Complex, high-adventure modules are mostly unknown around here. I guess we'll have to publish some examples first.

  4. Loving what the new blood is doing

  5. Fight On daddy-o! Looking forward to new Helveczia material, Weird Fates 2 and 3, and all the other great stuff. It looks like the kids are gonna be alright!

  6. (A little piece of trivia: we had in-game blog entries on for a KULT campaign set in Moscow around 2010, hence my nick. Volja is not my real name either, just my lazy Russian mafia enforcer character cut out for bigger things. Sorry about the disappointment!)

  7. A thorough round up of your year in gaming and may you have more. What continues to impress me is that your English fluency and grammar is far better than my own native ability! Here is to the next 12mo of your blog and its output.

  8. Grand, Dust & Stars got bumped! :-)

  9. Glorious stuff. Thanks for lighting the way chef! . Looking forward to Khosura, King of the Wastelands. Hardback? Aces! Huge fan over here in Chicago.