Sunday, 25 November 2018

[BLOG] A Year of Anniversaries


By coincidence or unknown heavenly purpose, 2018 has been a year of gaming anniversaries: multiple games which have had an impact on me are celebrating something. The oldest of them is M.A.G.U.S., Hungary’s most popular role-playing game, now 25. M.A.G.U.S. is both an AD&D imitator and its own thing, and its effects on the local gaming scene has been tremendous, even though the original publisher is long defunct, and no popular edition has been released in a long while. I have had a conflicted relationship with it, and my tastes are often in opposition to the surrounding play culture, but I recognise its basic appeal. But more on that in a later post. The second game is Thief: The Dark Project. Thief is not an RPG, but it has captured my imagination like no other computer game (except maybe Wizardry VII). Thief is going to be 20 at the end of November, and I will, again, write about it a bit later (right now, I am working overtime to have my anniversary fan mission playtested). The third game is closer to this blog: it is none else but Swords & Wizardry. Matt Finch’s take on OD&D is 10; there have been several edition, a boatload of modules, and it has an enduring popularity as one of the simpler, easily moddable old-school rulesets. But this article is about a different game: mine. Accordingly, most of this is inevitably personal, and none of it is an objective, outsider’s view.

Cover designs for Sword and Magic modules
Sword and Magic (“Kard és Mágia”) shares its name with S&W, and by some unseemly miracle of timing, they share a release date: both were published on October 15, 2008. There is an abbreviated English-language version of the basic mechanics, but this is not really the full game, which is a complete RPG in three booklets with some 190 very densely typeset pages (and no illustrations whatsoever). The real game is in those details. Sword and Magic, which I would be ill advised to abbreviate, was published as an effort to introduce the idea of old-school gaming to the Hungarian gaming scene, in the form of a free ruleset, and a range of fan-made adventures and supplements. This is a plan I had had since at least 2003: at that time, I published a homemade d20 module (The Garden of al-Astorion), but never followed up on the initial effort. But the idea, inspired by Judges Guild, Necromancer Games, and their ilk, was always there: I envisioned people sharing and sometimes selling their own home-made content online and at conventions, and creating a creative community from which all could benefit.

The effort was in part borne of the enthusiasm to share an exciting discovery (the old-school playstyle, then newly rediscovered, and still in the process of taking shape in discussion and flame wars around the net). But it was also an effort to get away from the top-down content creation model dominating the Hungarian RPG scene, where amateur efforts had died off to yield to a supplement treadmill mainly consisting off – no offence – unplaytested, unplayable, and often actively play-hostile rubbish. I felt like an outsider in that world, but recognised there were a lot of other gamers who would appreciate something different. After all, I could sell my group on the idea – why not the others?

Sword and Magic was created around the same time as the first Castles&Crusades playtests. It arose from the same discussions, but ended up going in an entirely different direction. Ironically, so did OSRIC, the legal precedent for retroclones: our disagreements were wide, and often very acrimonious. Sword and Magic is mechanically closer to the idea of a “d20 light” system than a faithful retroclone like OSRIC, and makes much fewer compromises towards recreating a specific “AD&D feel” than C&C. It also has a simplified skill system, which neither of the other two games ended up adopting, and which dyed-in-the-wool old-schoolers tend to scoff at. However, it guts the 3.0 rules without mercy, and cuts out much of the game’s subsystems (Feats, most classes) and mechanical complexity (almost all special cases, the byzantine rules to stat monsters and NPCs), and creates a game that is medium-powered, dirt simple, and sword&sorcery-flavoured (much more than any of the big old-school systems, but not in a purist way – people have used it to play on Titan, the Fighting Fantasy world, and there is a very elegant Middle Earth-focused variant). It is also a game you can hand to a new player, and have them playing in your game in about 15-20 minutes (real-life statistics).

Sword and Magic was mostly system complete by 2006, along with its Monsters & Treasures booklet, but took two more years to publish due to the third. I spent two years writing and polishing Gamemasters’ Guidelines, a comprehensive, bottom-up guidebook on gamemastering, from running a game to designing adventures, campaigns, and fantastic worlds (as well as a treatment on different playstyles, pulp fantasy genres, a brief domain management system, and a set of random tables). Nobody had really done this before in Hungary (actually, very few have done it in the US either – most games traditionally gloss over teaching you GMing in a structured, bottom-to-top way), and it took a while to get right. I think you could probably hand the resulting guidelines to any starting GM, and it would be useful – my hope was that it’d spread beyond the specific system, and prove itself as a general play aid (this did not work in the short run, but apparently, it has had some success over the years).

Tesco Value layout

The game was released on 15 October, 2008, with a range of four modules, and the odd techno-Hellenic world of Fomalhaut as its example setting. I consciously chose a minimal design style for the product line, sometimes expressed as a “Tesco Value” (i.e. “store brand”) RPG. There were no illustrations beyond the simple and op-art-inspired cover logos (I live in Victor Vasarely’s hometown, and quite like his geometric style); layout was two-column 9-point Arial; and it was, and to this day remains absolutely free in PDF. (There were no print edition at the time, although I broke the rule with my second RPG, the lavish Helvéczia boxed set, and the new 2018-2019 releases). It received no store distribution, and was entirely dependent on word-of-mouth – local game magazines had died out by the time. For all that, Sword and Magic found its place in the Hungarian gaming scene. Not without the usual acrimony and rejection – quite a lot of gamers had been deeply convinced by the makers of M.A.G.U.S. that “AD&D” was a primitive, worthless game, and it was only suitable (perhaps) for small children… despite having the oldest fanbase of any locally available RPGs. But in the end, you can’t win them all, and acrimony is publicity.

Most of the game’s fans came from the wider D&D community, an even mixture of veterans (who had fondly remembered the amateur roots of the local gaming scene) and newcomers (who had discovered it as a new thing). Its most successful years were between 2008 and 2013, when the surrounding forum community was the most active; since then, things have settled down a bit, but it is still surrounded by a fairly good community of active players. It did not take the hobby by storm, but it has established a foothold and legitimised a previously neglected playstyle.

It is also fairly well supported by the standards of a small non-English-speaking country. Someone looking at the back cover of the latest Echoes From Fomalhaut issue could note 33 supplements (the rest are either for Helvéczia, or in English), about a third of which are by guest authors. These are mostly short to medium-length; however, all are game-friendly and playtested, having withstood the test of actual play. (Having been burned by quite a lot of bad game materials, which ended up driving me away from the hobby in the 1990s, it has been my firm policy to publish playtested materials only, and insisting on giving playtester credit.)

Over the years, much of the community around the game have embraced new systems (5e has been a strong rival, although I am arrogant enough to claim my game does the same things better, and with less work), while keeping around some of the game’s ideas and house rules. It has inspired the creation of new rulesets – Kazamaták és Kompániák (Dungeons and Companies, a more OD&Dish game with robust follower rules, now gearing up for a second edition), and more recently, Kardok és Másodteremtés (Swords and the Second Creation, which is Middle-Earth-based). The community has also created its own series of mini-conventions, entirely focused on getting together and gaming for a day: Random Encounters had had 6 events (mostly focused on old-school systems and indie games), followed by The Society of Adventurers, which had its 8th event yesterday (this one also has a robust 5e presence, but this particular instalment was in celebration of our 10th anniversary). As much as anything else, this is what makes me the most happy: inspiring people to go forward and develop their own ideas (the “Fight On!” principle). And of course, keeping it play-oriented, bottom-up, and close to the actual fans. This is our game; perhaps not the largest in town, but it is ours.

Cloister of the Frog God: 10th anniversary module
What has the anniversary meant for English-speaking gamers?

Well, Echoes #04 is going to be slightly late, an early 2019 release. Beyond my day job, a lot of my time has been taken up by my Thief mission for the 20th anniversary contest (now in late playtesting stages, to be released in early December), and four adventure modules. One of these, Cloister of the Frog God, a 40-page wilderness-and-dungeon module, has already been published. This module has a complicated history. It comes from my old, never released Tegel Manor manuscript, which I largely cannibalised for this module, and later for my upcoming megadungeon, Castle Xyntillan. (Note, bits and pieces may turn up in Frog God Games’ recently kickstarted take on it – but that one is mostly going to be Bill Webb’s work, and I am interested in what that fiendish mind will come up with!) The Cloister dungeons were published in the Frog God edition of Rappan Athuk (it is one of the wilderness locales), and will also be part of the new, revised 5e volume. Accordingly, I am not going to publish it as a separate module. However, the wilderness section will become a standalone adventure, and the main feature for Echoes From Fomalhaut #04, with an excellent Matt Ray cover, and illustrations by Andrew Walter and Denis McCarthy. If you speak German, the whole module is going to be published in a special issue of the Abenteuer fanzine (Settembrini will be able to tell you when).

But there is more. As part of the anniversary, my friends in the community organised a Sword and Magic module writing contest, with me as the judge. The three submitted entries were all worthy of publication, with very different takes on the game and its concepts. They include Murderous Devices by Mátyás Nagy, a sinister murder mystery set in a French Caribbean town (not unlike the Freeport series, the module doubles as a city supplement); The Enchantment of Vashundara by Zsolt Varga, a surreal adventure taking place on the home plane of a god in trouble (with an original and well-realised perspective); and The Lost Valley of Kishar by Gábor Csomós, the best damn lost world adventure I have seen. These adventures will all see publication, in both print and PDF (and this time, with worthy illustrations), and the latter two will also receive an English translation, one in Echoes, and one as a standalone (Murderous Devices, while very cool, lies a bit outside the scope of EMDT’s thematic focus). I am confident people will love them when they see them.

Until then… Fight On!

Contest winners: Coming 2019 to your gaming table!


32 comments:

  1. A great read over a Sunday morning coffee Gabor. Looking forward to reading the new content!

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  2. Oh, and the weekend's convention scorecard!
    The Gallery of Rising Tombs
    Puchka Tenyo, Fighter 5, devoured by Gurakhán the Shadow Hydra
    Nidu Porak, M-U 5, devoured by Gurakhán the Shadow Hydra
    Tamuz the Interpreter, Fighter 5, was devoured by monsters on his way out of the dungeon (using the classic "Table of Despair" when the time ran out)

    Troglolith
    Bramf, dwarf Thief 3, subdued by guards during a break-in, freed by one of his companions, but left to his fate when it turned out he could not heal him
    Bragg the Miner (NPC, replacement character for Bramf's player), shot by Henry the Shivering while making an attempt to escape from the party, who had kidnapped and press-ganged him
    Pepper Knight, hobbit Fighter 3, eaten by a roper while investigating a dark grotto
    Henry the Shivering, Archer/Thief 2/1, also eaten by a roper while investigating a dark grotto
    Oerwin the Guard (NPC, replacement character for Bragg the Miner's player), a guard charmed by the party's wizard, Hemlon the Leprous, and swept away by a muddy flood instigated by another character while he was fighting his former employer, the wizard Froboz Mulk.

    Yes, that one guy lost three characters that afternoon, one after the other. :D A good time was had by all!

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  3. An interesting read. Looking forward to the translated modules. A bit of a shame about murderous devices - sounds intriguing and potentially a good example for DIY even if not otherwise thematically quite there. Good luck with your Thief mission.

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    1. Thank you! It is mostly working, but there are still a few late-stage bugs to iron out.

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  4. Congratulations on the 10th (and beyond!) anniversaries, Gabor! :D

    As always, thank you for being my conduit for Thief-related news!: I logged onto TTLG for the first time in a very very long time (my profile still listed my old rpg.net website URL!), and will see what's brewing for the 20th! :D (I'm particularly excited about this one, since my younger son Henry has grown pretty interested in the Thief series from my descriptions of it!).

    Allan.

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    1. Thanks, Allan! The contest has motivated several authors to submit their work; there are potentially going to be a full game's worth of entries. I have betatested three of them, and they are nothing but amazing (while representing wildly different authorial styles).

      My recommendation is to install no extra texture packs and updated objects for this contest, since the missions should be enjoyed in the original graphical style. I even use software rendering these days.

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  5. Thank You for everything!
    It was a good Weekend! :)
    (Actually Másodteremtés is Sub-creation in English: http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Sub-creation)

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    1. És "Kardok" helyett "Kard", valamint Swords helyett Sword – de erre már Strato hívta fel a figyelmemet. :)

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    2. I actually tried to look up the proper term while writing the post, but didn't find it. Thanks for the correction!

      (And "F" for Pepper Knight)

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  6. I will announce it far and wide when the German version becomes available. It will arrive when it is time;-)

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  7. ==Play-tested

    Again I will dismiss the value of a 'Play-tested' as worthless because I have no idea who has 'Play-tested' the material and it is likely that I would despise them.

    ==Game-friendly

    This is more subtle because it requires definition, and of course there is no definition of such a concept because it is a MARKETING LABEL.

    MARKETING: You don't read books because you are an idiot but maybe it's not your fault but the fault of formatting. Rather than present you with CONTENT why not present you with the SUMMARY of content on bullet point form, with irrelevant colours on the page.

    Comparing 1960s maths textbooks to 2010s maths textbooks I would say there has been infantilization with bullet point BABY-TALK and COLOUR.

    What need Baby-talk Game-Friendly?

    LEVEL 1. You are too busy or unimaginative to create content

    LEVEL 2. You are too stupid to read content which is imagined for you in the standard format of paragraphs which is proven to be the excellent for for ideas over thousands of years.

    Prose used to be presented without space between words because it was considered waste. Then prose was presented without paragraphs. Paragraphs were introduced as more and more morons started reading

    My attitude to so called Game-friendly presentation is that those writing in that format assume that those reading it are among the most stupid people who have ever lived (who can read).

    Good ideas need a paragraph to be expressed at minimum. What is sold as good game design are summary notes of a lecture that was never given.

    What is sold as a Game-friendly stub of phrases should be shunted to the APPENDIX to a well written MODULE in PARAGRAPHS.

    Far be it from me to tell you contemptible morons what you should read, I am telling you to excuse yourselves from the debate.

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    1. Empty thought exercises are not RPGs, Kent. They are better off in the ~:::Storygame Community:::~.

      Also, ironic to be ranting about airy presentation under a post talking about a game whose layout was all block-of-text all the time, including in its modules.

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    2. I stopped reading when the morons ruined it with their clay tablets.

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    3. There is no irony because I prefer the basic clean B&W style of Systema Tartarobasis to any of the over-styled or hyper-styled LotFP or contemporary D&D product.

      In the 1960s maths and other texts were lean, concise with simple B&W diagrams. The same subjects now have been bloated to five times the size with lurid colour diagrams. And yet the average student from the 1960s was smarter because universities were more select in their intake.

      The publishing trend of making-things-easy-to-read with truck-loads of design features is a capitulation to idiots who find reading tiresome. The reason I keep mentioning fiction is *nothing* to do with storylines or railroading in gaming but to point out how the most complex ideas are better presented in the simplest form, not encrusted with designs to interest the easily bored.

      Also it is much easier to distinguish good writing when it comes in a simple form than when it is fractured onto a structured template. For easy reference there are such established innovations as indices and no need for bullet points, perfumes or christmas lights to guide the reader.

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  8. Congratulations on the anniversary of Kard és Mágia!
    It looks there is going to be a deluge of publications coming from Melan's press. I very much look forward to having them all!

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  9. Also by coincidence, CARCOSA was released in Oct. 2008.

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    1. Must have been an alignment of the stars.

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  10. Kard és Mágia was the game that introduced me to this playstyle. Thank you! _Especially_ for the GM guide!

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  11. I would love to see at least the GM Guide Translated to English or Spanish.

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  12. Have you seen, The Last Valley - 1971.

    A beautiful looking film, well acted, but importantly a perfect low level gritty AD&D scenario without traces of the supernatural. One could place Jaquays' The Dark Tower in the valley as something to be discovered in the spring.

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    1. Great Cinema headed by Caine and Sharif, based on a novel by Clavell. Those three names already make it a Classic but it goes far beyond iconic actors and authors.
      A movie highly recommended by me as well. sry4OFFTOPIC

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    2. Don't apologize for being off topic, I specialize in that. Often I find when I visit a blog my *off-topic* comments are much more interesting than the original post, as in this case.

      Usually when hosts don't respond to my FILM recommendations it is because they are film-illiterate dweebs probably more into comics and computer games.

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    3. Don't mind me, I am just wondering how the drunken, ranting and raving hobo got into my living room.

      You seem oddly familiar. Weren't you a gamer once?

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    4. Drinking is just a means to endure popular culture/TV/web/D&D/people.

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  13. So who here can recommend a good ruin pub?

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    1. I prefer to drink alone (your choice as well, I suspect), but there are plenty of tourist traps and artsy dives in downtown Budapest. You can even catch a screening of Bela Tarr's Satantango if you're really lucky.

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    2. I thought the ruin pubs were supposed to be great. I hate tourist stuff, where is the real hungarian night life in Budapest?

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    3. Szimpla Kert has grown a bit touristy, but it's still a fun visit if you don't mind loud and crowded (or go there for the Sunday morning farmer's market). Élesztő has good craft beers. Ellátó Kert is good. Not exactly a ruin pub per se, but Pótkulcs used to be a quiet, slightly out-of-the-way place, haven't been there in ages, though.

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    4. I'll make a note. I'm only there for three days so I want to eliminate those hours of accidental dullness where I mistake the worldwide smear of nowhere metro-culture for local culture.

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    5. For all I know, it is all nowhere metro culture and dollar-eyed gentrifiers selling fake authenticity to aging boomers and people on beer bikes.

      I haven't been living anywhere near Budapest since 1999, though, so take it for what it's worth.

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  14. I like underground music (punk, noise and such) with lively people and high-brow artsy stuff like neoclassical in more posh venues, but that may not be your definition of nightlife.

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    1. I no longer appreciate nightlife unless it is small scale and intimate. Midnight string quartets in a whisky bar established in a neglected church, with graveyard for stumbling about threatening the little gods, and hip-high stones to rest tumblers on, best not to drip that stuff on the dead.

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