This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. …It is not early August right now? No! That’s LIES, and how dare you?
The State of the Blog
Over five years, Beyond Fomalhaut has turned from a fledgling blog (lots of posts, 55 and 42 total in its first two years!) to an accomplished and mature one (much fewer posts: 37 in year three, 33 in year four, and 29 in year five). It did not drop off of the face of the Earth, but it has obviously turned from an essayistic blog into a review blog (17 posts were reviews, and some of the others were various news items, previews, and updates). However, it remains a blog with an active publishing arm, which is fine as far as I am concerned. I have always preferred the practical, meat-and-potatoes side of gaming, and even considering the limitations of the ongoing Covid-19 nonsense, this year has delivered on that promise.
The 17 reviews posted on the blog represents a slight increase from last year. The average score on the five-point scale ended up as 3.1 (the total average over five years is 3.06, which means at least my scoring is consistent). Last year, I moved towards a “swingier” scoring approach, and I have stuck to this principle ever since. Fewer average ratings, and a few more high- or low-scoring supplements.
Here is the year’s breakdown, with 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 maintain their lofty perch above the holloi-polloi.
- 5 was awarded to three supplements, making it the “best” year for this rating since the blog has launched. One award went to Visitor's Guide to the Rainy City, a zine describing the last metropolis of a flooded world and its strange denizens: its flawless execution, wealth of adventure hooks, and creativity make it a natural winner. The Palace of Unquiet Repose, a merciless sword & sorcery adventure about a desert-swallowed tomb-city created by divine hubris, is noted for its mighty energies and a consistently approachable style. Last but not least, Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness is an extension of Keep on the Borderlands’ wilderness section – into a devastated land of colourful and deadly imagination. This is Geoffrey’s best work since Carcosa, and has none of the latter’s ghastly elements.
- 4 went to four products: Hideous Daylight, a creative wilderness adventure set in a magically warped, off-colour hunting preserve; Fire in the Hole, a well-realised humanoid lair; She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a grotesque marshland/dungeon adventure with a lot of individual flavour; and Tetutuphor: Norkers and Xvarts, one of the few actually worthy Caves of Chaos homages. It is interesting to note that three of these ratings were awarded to rather modestly produced materials that did not attempt to bedazzle readers with glitzy artwork and acrobatic experiments in graphic design. They were plain, useful, and well made – the kind of honest, imaginative work we can always use more of.
- 3 was awarded to four products as well. These were basically decent – from Hunters in Death (the kind of modular content you can just immediately add to a campaign – I did to mine) to the wild, unruly Crypt of the Lizard Wizard and its gonzo elements.
- 2 went to three adventures, which were either flawed, or just did not offer much of interest. Of these, Bridgetown is the greatest waste: solid idea, but lacking execution.
- 1 was awarded to three products. For your edification and amusement, these miscreants can be viewed at the pillory. I must single out our late contestant, The Pit, for its utter awfulness: if something can be done wrong, The Pit does it wrong; and this is all from a lavishly illustrated, slightly over-produced release!
There were multiple omissions and delays – including a few promises which have remained as such – and I will try to rectify some of them. It also happens that sometimes, you do not have much useful stuff to say. Sometimes, things are just good, and it is all in an obvious, straightforward way – to cite Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As for the junk… yes, there could have been more ones and twos. However, I do not set out to deliberately seek out these clunkers, and even when I meet them, some are bad in a way that is more depressing or boring than interesting enough to dissect. It also happens that you mistakenly buy something that’s a complete and obvious dud, but so insubstantial as to make a review a venture in uselessness. Yes, most Mörk Borg releases are written by people who have no idea about functional game writing. Yes, Troika supplements are mostly the same, but with an artsy veneer that draws oohs and aahs from the people whose life mission is to serve as a practical demonstration of the Veblen effect. No, it is not useful to review these products, and usually, there is nothing substantial to review anyway (see illustration).
|Three Dollars Americain. You Motherfucker.|
This year, EMDT’s release list grew by nine titles, although the numbers are slightly misleading, since they are component parts of a single, larger title (the two boxed sets account for five booklets). The remaining four include two Hungarian modules – The Forest of Gornate, a forest-based wilderness adventure with mini-dungeons that was inspired by (US) Steve Jackson’s seminal gamebook, Scorpion Swamp; and The Vaults of Volokarnos, a first-level introductory dungeon for Basic rules that eats through characters and henchmen like a busy little wood chipper. These two will see English release this year (Volokarnos will be in Echoes #09).
That leaves two more. Baklin, Jewel of the Seas is a city guide that got delayed and delayed, and ended up much larger than ever imagined. I knew I was trouble when I noticed I was nearly at my expected page count… before delving into the Undercity, which would end up adding roughly the same amount of material. So Baklin may count as two, perhaps even three supplements. It ended up big, and I think it ended up chock full of fun adventure hooks and play-relevant background material. The way I see it, Baklin is best used as an adventure hub: a place you can start out from and return to over the span of a campaign, and one that also holds its own in intrigue and action. You really do not have to use all of it all the time (obviously, not even we did), but anywhere you actually end up going in town, there will be something interesting waiting for you.
As for the zine zines, there was one of them, which is not much (even if it was a larger than average issue). This is a situation I would like to rectify in the future, and now that the larger game projects I was working on are completed, it will be time to return to smaller publications. The next Echoes issue will come out in late September or so, and I hope a third one can appear near the end of the year, or barring that, early 2022. On the other hand… yes, that’s two whole damn boxed sets in a single year! Boxed sets are a particular source of happiness; perhaps even more than Xyntillan (my first hardcover), they represent the kind of aspirations small-press RPG publishers have. In 2016, even the idea of releasing a fanzine seemed like a pipe dream, and a hardcover, let alone a boxed set, was clearly a fantasy. This year, it so happened that I first published a boxed set; then a hardcover in a boxed set with maps and extras combo. Damn right that makes me happy.
One of the boxes, written by two friends, is Casemates & Companies (Kazamaták és Kompániák, abbr. “KéK”), a Hungarian B/X-inspired system with a players’ and GM’s book, an intro adventure, ref sheets, character sheets, and dice. Hungary never had a proper B/X variant, and now we have one. This is a game that collects a handful of sensible house rules, rulings, and best practice that have emerged in community discussion, and all that makes it a strong contender for my favourite B/X take. The feature that sells it (to me) is its heavy focus on the titular “Companies”: recruiting and managing henchmen is something that has fallen by the wayside in gaming, but which is a lot of fun at the table. Moreover, KéK’s henchmen help to recreate the enormous parties OD&D had assumed, and calibrated its rules and procedures around. Bring a bunch of guys into the dungeon, and see who comes out rich and kicking – that’s the way.
The Helvéczia RPG, of course, is the other one. It took two years to go from the 2013 Hungarian boxed set to the first English draft, and six years from that point to the eventual release. While a lot of that was spent in procrastination due to burnout and other interests, the English release is a proper second edition that cleans up the game’s original inconsistencies and minor issues. I believe Helvéczia does something that other RPGs have not managed to pull off right – marrying European folklore and an old pulp tradition to more modern swashbuckling stories and the D&D game framework – and that the boxed set (pardon me, the hardcover in the boxed set, booyah!) looks good doing it. Helvéczia was meant to be played, and it will be supported with future adventures – some are simply waiting to be translated, while a second regional supplement exists in an early draft (this one may be in the Hungarian first). And of course, my good friend Istvan Boldog-Bernard (who co-authored KéK, and wrote In the Shadow of the City-God) has made a promise about the Catalonia supplement, and as Helvéczia proves, these diabolical pacts are to be honoured!
|The hall of mirrors gets deeper|
When I came back to the online old-school community in 2016 after a few wilderness years, my mind was set on publishing two large projects: Castle Xyntillan, and Helvéczia. I did not know when that would happen, and I sure did not think they would be published by my own enterprise (with a lot of help from my printer, illustrators, and for Xyntillan, Rob Conley as my cartographer). In the end, it happened, and it has been a great journey. Long, too! Now that it is over and done with, it is time to set sights on new vistas.
As recounted last year, we spent the first lockdown period of the Bat Plague with a campaign called The Four Dooms of Thisium; an accursed city damned by the very gods to fourfold destruction… unless… Well, the Thisium campaign is something that would work well as a low-level, very open-ended Basic/Expert adventure series (we capped things at level 6, but a first level party may advance to levels 7-9, and that includes a whole lot of character deaths), or it can be taken apart and used as a mini-sandbox for the popular “Fucking Around Around Thisium” kind of game. Normally, Thisium would be well on the way, but I unexpectedly got a second group to playtest the campaign, which is still ongoing (probably 2/3 or 3/4 finished; they are a very different bunch from my trigger-happy, hyperviolent first testing team). Delays will naturally result from this. Thisium will be a very different beast from Xyntillan – less interwoven, broad instead of deep, a bit more unruly – but I think it will be fun to play and run, as a whole or in pieces.
Two projects are a bit more distant. First, I am working on the second edition of Sword and Magic, my fantasy game (on which I wrote more in 2018). Sword and Magic helped kick off widespread interest in old-school gaming in Hungary in 2008, and a second edition has been long overdue. This is a huge undertaking that will be published as two hardcovers, and need some supplemental material for launch (many of them were published in various Echoes issues) – and will take away some focus from English endeavours. It is not getting a translation, since there are so many general old-school systems out there that another one would just be noise, even if I have a favourable opinion about the virtues of my own. It is, also, not an OSR game in the way the term is increasingly understood; that is, it is not rooted in the B/X tradition (its style and scope is firmly connected to first edition AD&D, and Judges Guild’s philosophy), and its rules are based on a radically rewritten, streamlined version of the d20 System. Sword and Magic is one of the strange chimeras of the early, pre-label old-school movement, not concerned with exact duplication, but connected to old game styles in the way of, say, Encounter Critical or AS&SH.
|Cold Climate Encounter Charts, Take Two|
What I would like to bring to the international audience, though, is Gamemaster’s Guidelines, a comprehensive guidebook to running old-school campaigns. This is not really a rulebook (although there will be a few guidelines for simple domain management, mining, mass combat, and similar concerns), but a kind of reference work that shall help the novice old-school GM get his bearings, and it may also make old hands think. There will also be a bunch of random charts, a comprehensive encounter system, treasure tables, and so on. It is my attempt at doing something similar to the AD&D DMG (although not the same thing, since the DMG already exists). Obviously, it is a ways away, and the Hungarian version comes first, but once it is done, it will not be too hard to translate it.
The third project is something that would have been impossible before Helvéczia. I have long struggled with the idea of publishing a Fomalhaut supplement – the whole idea of presenting the weirdo sword&sorcery / sword&planet setting in a practical format was a problem without a practical solution. (At one time, it could have been a Swords & Wizardry supplement, but when the opportunity arose, I had to choose between writing the supplement and getting my PhD. Perhaps foolishly, I opted for the PhD.) Fomalhaut, a Wilderlands homage, does not make sense without a bunch of hex maps; and that’s hex maps with player and GM versions – lots and lots and lots of map sheets. This is something the modern OSR simply does not do, but a good printer can handle. And I have a good printer. So Helvéczia is a boxed set with nine map sheets… and I got the idea that Fomalhaut could be a boxed set with fifteen or nineteen (there are two map regions out of the nine total that are kinda-sorta blank slates), and a handful of zine type booklets, including a players’ primer, guidelines and stuff for the GM, then hex keys for maybe three regions (which is where all our adventuring was concentrated), and a starting module or two. Now, this is still vague, pie in the sky brainstorming, but it is something that could conceivably exist, and in the future, it just might. There are really no promises, and remember how long Xyntillan and Helvéczia took. But with small steps, one can cover a whole lot of distance.
|Me and the OSR: A Love Story|
The State of the Old School
In the last few years, the community calling itself the OSR has gone through a major upheaval. Something that was for a long time a nominally united thing has splintered into disparate groups with different aesthetics, design ethe, politics (hoo boy!), and communication platforms. It will not be put together again. People can pretend that the big tent is still there, but if you actually look, the canopy is gone, and the tentpole is missing too. Some of the zoo is still around (look ma! that lion is devouring a zebra!), but whatever show is on is more incidental than carefully planned.
But that is only one part of it. Some people have picked up their stuff and moved on, and may eventually come up with something good independent of old-school gaming. However, when we survey the remains of the great circus, we see more serious issues. During the big tent years, the OSR followed a “more the merrier” philosophy, and expanded into every conceivable niche. It became its own little gaming ecosystem where you could theoretically play “anything” and “any way” without leaving the tent. This did lead to a lot of really cool stuff, but it led to a loss of focus, too. 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.
Nothing embodies this deplorable state of affairs more than the loss of common knowledge that originally defined the pre-OSR old-school community. Old-school gaming at its core is a movement about rediscovering historical playstyles and putting them to practical use. It does not always create 1:1 replicas (for instance, relatively few people attempt to reconstruct OD&D psionics), and its purposes are selective. The prehistory of gaming provides several approaches to play, not all useful for our interests. A great many people had played TRV OD&D in ways which prefigure 1990s principles, or had long-running campaigns which had drifted in that direction. Yet 1990s roleplaying, even 1990s AD&D (D&D being virtually extinct in that period), is not what we are after. (For more on these traps, see T. Foster’s thread from twelve years ago. We should have listened more carefully!)
By the late 2000s – when Trent posted his warning, and the “OSR” acronym was making its first rounds – old-school traditions had been fairly thoroughly discovered, analysed, and codified. (While versatile, the ideas behind old-school gaming are not particularly deep. It is a game, not a theory vehicle.) People who had shared this corner of the hobby had also shared a common wisdom about how things ought to work, and could also create house rules or far-flung game worlds while using this common wisdom as a point of reference. It was a period of enlightenment, of philosopher kings duking it out on meticulously mowed lawns, and mighty forces of creation writ large on the pages of Fight On! and Knockspell. (Also, pig-headed flame wars about trivial nonsense.)
|Times Well Spent: Listening to a Future President...|
With the rapid expansion of the scene, however, a lot of this knowledge and precision of thought was lost, while being taken for granted. To many people, the “OSR” had supplied rules, tools, and a sort of ideology about gaming (through the various primers), but not the complexity and scope of the original tradition. Without this background, the advantages of the old-school approach become muddled or lost. Function disappears and empty form remains. A lot of the late or post-OSR content I see retains features like procedural generation, random encounters, and maybe even meme-level “strict time records” because they are “supposed to” be there, but they do not actually serve any useful purpose. These vestigial remnants are echoes of a structured playstyle that made sense in its original context. It is as if the "OSR" came and went, and the people left behind it picked up the pieces and tried putting them together, but it is now something else. In the worst cases, supposed old-school adventures recreate the worst practices of game design that the original old-school movement was reacting against: railroading and illusionism, lengthy exposition leading nowhere, or things which obviously make no sense at an actual game table.
Instead, a lot of time is wasted on trivial distractions. Much of the “OSR” became absolutely obsessed by form (how we ought to present information, what a “good layout” looks like, etc.), but uses these supposedly hyper-efficient presentation styles and layout magic for trivial stuff like dungeons with five rooms, lightweight content that restates the obvious, and “experimental” games which are not rooted in play, do not serve play, and would actually damage the quality of play if they were used at someone’s table (mercifully, they aren’t). A good thing they look fancy, eh. Slightly better, but still off course, we see attempts at creating orthodoxies through the strict worship of specific rulesets, or rather some of their central features (e.g. the “gameplay loop” of Basic D&D, or the “strict time records” of AD&D). These attempts come from good intentions, but paradoxically, they tend to simplify and thus, diminish the games they champion. As more of a "culture of play" guy, sometimes I can't help but smile when people start LARPing as the hardest of the hardcore.
Where then is excellence and incline? Surely not in this sour grapes bitching! That’s right. What I suggest as a practical solution is a return to the original mission of old-school gaming: a rediscovery of gaming’s roots and original traditions, and the application of thereof to contemporary games. A re-reading and newfound appreciation of Scripture, and a new exploration of the complex traditions of play that had developed at the dawn of the hobby. We can even call it “Old School Refocus” or “Old School Reaction” (sorry, that’s my own biases speaking). Do not just read and work from newly made “OSR” materials: go back to the source, become immersed and inspired, and see it in its complexity, even some of its contradictions. To cite a concrete example, none of the core OSR games I know give you a vision of the larger campaign the way Gary’s Dungeon Masters Guide did, or the way Judges Guild’s materials show you through practical example. The TSR classics of the late 1970s and very early 1980s are still some of the finest adventures ever created (although they become a lot spottier down the line).
As I see it, the complex body of original texts still has the power to enlighten and inspire, and they are very easy to obtain these days. If you can’t afford the bonkers eBay prices, I can only recommend the various troves, which have done a lot for the benefit of gamers, and place even ultra-rare materials at your fingertips. Print them, use them, do not worry about “damaging an ultra-rare”. Read the Original Dungeons & Dragons booklets with open eyes to understand and appreciate how well the original game hangs together as a “game” game – and how much variety it can accommodate. Read the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide for Gary’s TRV vision of campaign-based play. Read Bob Bledsaw’s idiosyncratic campaign materials and marvel at their off-the-wall creativity and giant ambitions. Use the Ready Ref Sheets in actual play, run a campaign in a corner of Wilderlands of High Fantasy, introduce your players to Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor or Portals of Torsh. Read Caverns of Thracia (of course), but read The Dungeoneer’s Compendium and Dark Tower, too. Take a good look at tuff like Arduin (which I admit I appreciate more than actually like) and the Gamelords Thieves Guild materials. The list goes on. There are classics… and there are forgotten gems off the beaten path too. Seek them out or die trying. There is no other way. Fight on!
|Times Well Spent: Try the Veal!|