Wednesday 26 October 2022

[BLOG] OSR Module O5: 2e is Still Not Old-School

“The point is the culture that drove 2E. It wasn't a

Zeb Cook anomaly, he was just a prominent

individual steeped in the overall boring-as-hell

“hail m'lady” culture, overdosed on sage,

nag champa, and witchy bush.” – EOTB

“Why so mean?” , asks the man inviting the whole world into the big tent until the noise within swells to an unpleasant cacophony, rubbish accumulates, the venue gets thrashed, tentpoles are removed from their place by loud people who don’t believe tents need them, and the whole edifice collapses on the ugly spectacle. Many such cases. After the Artpunk Foe, let us now turn our attention to the sinister menace of second edition.

* * *

When something takes off and becomes successful, you will invariably get a lot of interest, and a lot of people who will want to get involved. Success is infectious. The people who got involved invite other people who are also interested, and they in turn also invite yet more people who are vaguely into the thing, maybe, but they are a lot more into being part of a big crowd. However, the defining boundaries of what made that specific thing so interesting in the first place also become blurry. Definitions are drawn up and debated, edge cases are tested, and you get a sort of fuzzy boundary between “this is the thing” and “this is not the thing”. It is helpful not to overdefine. If you try to make an airtight case, you will miss out on a lot of good fringe stuff that’s not exactly the thing, but it is actually very good. Purity policing is blind. It will not see Encounter Critical as an inspiring text of the old-school, even though EC preceded OSRIC, and inspired many of the ideas that define the modern old-school movement way more than a lot of second-rate TSR modules did.

You also get cognitive blind spots where your definition shall lead you astray. For example, parts of the old-school crowd are so wedded to B/X purism and its procedure-based gameplay (“the gameplay loop”) that that they end up ignoring AD&D, and with it the actual defining tradition of the classical era; as well as neglecting OD&D, the wild primordial soup of runaway creativity that gave us the strange thought experiments that are now worth examining and reconstructing. In comparison, Moldvay/Cook is good but you will eventually run into its limitations if you don’t use AD&D’s case law to interpret it; and BECMI is a bland game that hacks away the rough edges so successfully that nothing interesting is left. BECMI is the SKUB of D&D. And then there is 2e.

In recent years, you can see a common approach to define “OSR” by viewing it as a single continuum which was broken when Wizards of the Coast overhauled the D&D system, and released the 3e books. As long as you are on the “TSR” side of the divide, you are OSR. There are persuasive arguments which support this position, at least on the surface level. There is mechanical compatibility. People can get tribal over OSE vs. B/X vs. S&W vs. LL (they are the same darn thing), but once you take a deep breath, you can convert materials on the fly among these systems with minimal effort. Even in a worst case scenario, the gaps will never be insurmountable. Game concepts are recognisable across the board. The vocabulary is common. There is personal continuity through the TSR years (although the endpoints have barely any connection at all – David Sutherland, Skip Williams and Jim Ward were the main people who were there from the beginning to the end). There is also a web of references that form the D&D “lore” (this is a magical Renfaire glitter pony of a term I am using only to express my utter disdain for it), exemplified by things like the drow, beholders, the planar system, or the hand of Vecna.

The Worst Encounter Ever
However, this is precisely the point where we lose the clarity of our vision, and with it the ability to distinguish ourselves and argue for the things we actually hold dear. Even though there are a myriad links between old-school D&D and 2nd edition, these links exist to be severed, and the test of the TRV OSR Taliban is a sure hand and keen eye while bringing down the blade. Justly so! Old-school gaming came not to praise 2e but to bury it; it quite clearly got established by guys who hated 2e’s guts as much or even more than they did 3e’s. More than this antipathy, old-school gaming is a deliberate rejection of the 2e legacy, a style and school of thought which set itself up as its polar opposite in aesthetics, focus, design principles, and GMing style. Its advocates saw 2e as a corrupted, bland, corporate husk of the original D&D spirit, and thought it was like a swig of clear spring water when they could finally get back to what they saw as the buried genius of those creative origins. This is why it is named old-school after all: from the vantage point of 2022, all TSR D&D might seem old, but for those in the early and mid-2000s, the 2e era was still kind of a fresh wound, and in no way was it considered worth preserving.

Now this probably does sound a bit extreme. “The OSR Taliban” was not a term of endearment. Some of the debates surrounding the emergence of old-school gaming were ugly, bitter, and acrimonious. But clarity is often like that. You don’t challenge common wisdom without creative conflict. You can’t play “right” without also identifying “wrong”. In the end, old-school gaming has thrived on this wedge issue. It shone light on a neglected approach to play, it established its distinctive identity, and gained bountiful creative energies in the process. These energies still drive it, although much of the momentum has naturally become exhausted over time, or become unfocused.

Let us now make a brief attempt to explain where the points of disagreement lie. There are a lot of details which are incidental, or which have little significance on their own, but work their way through small, subtle shifts that add up. Instead, let us try to look into the heart of the thing: two visions of (A)D&D which look very close from a distance, but are very far apart on a more careful look. These are not detailed comparisons; rather, they try to capture the respective essence of the two, and why these are not interchangeable.

* * *

For all their continuity and rough compatibility, AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition are far enough from each other to be different games. They rest on different literary traditions, their rules serve different purposes, they place emphasis on different sorts of adventures, and they play fairly differently. You can easily see this by their online communities, which generally do not mix or even communicate much.

1st edition AD&D is a single man's vision about a broad, campaign-level implementation of D&D. Its stylistic quirks and idiosyncrasies make it a personal work, even if he did, in fact, get help from a tight, handpicked design team who had helped him refine his ideas. Gary Gygax had peculiar tastes in fantasy, even in his generation: he had little interest in Tolkien and other sorts of epic fantasy, and instead liked violent sword & sorcery pulps and books on historical warfare. His main sources of inspiration were Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, and Fritz Leiber, although he had even more eclectic tastes, and an uncanny ability to adapt ideas into the game, from 50s SF blob monsters and flying saucers to Japanese plastic toys.

Wenches n' Renfaire Dorks
The resulting game assumes a grittier sort of world with tough, often shady heroes, corrupt civilisation, and rugged frontiers where laws are stern and might makes right; underground empires inhabited by ancient and malevolent civilisations, and supernatural powers – demon lords, devil princes, gods and goddesses – playing chess with their mortal pawns (in a very Ffahrd & Mouser way!) There is a lot of strangeness around the edges, too. The rules integrate these assumptions into their fabric, from character types with dubious morality (assassins, a focused illusionist class), or an ethical code focused on the swift dispensation of frontier justice (giant-killing rangers, monks, paladins). The game's most important rule declares that advancement is mostly found in loot and plunder, gained by hook or crook. Characters then have to train to advance in levels, seeking out various masters, or competing in class-centric hierarchies (you will only become Top Druid if you first defeat one of the previous top Druids). There are lots of quirks and edge cases. Some of this is not “codified law” D&D but “case law” D&D where commentaries and edge cases are used to help you understand the finer design, not to be memorised and employed in all their detail (that way lies ADDICT).

The mechanics are often baroque in their totality, but they can be scaled well (this feature is one that is shared by 2nd edition). The game comes with a badly edited and rambling but supremely useful Dungeon Masters Guide which offers solid and wise advice on constructing adventures, and setting up a complex, interconnected campaign that's more than the sum of its parts. In its first years, it was also served by a very solid collection of adventures, which were very thoroughly playtested, and still serve as the most consistently good collection of scenarios for any RPG (early Warhammer Fantasy and CoC come close in their own niches). These modules are slightly different from the campaign-oriented vision of the core books: they are good, but they are often convention scenarios with standalone premises and higher deadliness for competitive scoring.

A Paladin in Art Hell

The ideal of the 1st edition campaign is not as tightly structured as some interpretations of B/X, but it does have an implied arc. From frontier localities threatened by dark forces, characters grow in stature to embark on lengthier and more complex adventures, until they can establish domains, embark on extraplanar journeys, or descend into the depths of the earth. There are adventure hooks and modules along the way, but the main drive comes from the players, and the endeavours they choose to undertake. This picture is perhaps too optimistic (there was always plenty of bad practice around), but this is the campaign format advocated by the rulebooks. It is the main way the game was meant to be played, even if many people didn’t. If you follow the instructions on the tin, you will get a good game.

* * *

2nd edition AD&D is a different beast, an attempt to create a new, accessible set of rulebooks in place of a game that became overburdened with unwieldy and dubious optional rules and character options. It was created by a committee, although, to its credit, a committee of experienced game designers who were all old AD&D hands. 2nd edition plays safe while trying to reconcile mutually contradictory demands: to consolidate a decade's worth of new materials and popular house rules; to deflect parental and religious criticism from the game and establish it as a family-friendly brand; and to serve as a springboard for several new novel and product lines. It is the kind of compromise that people can accept, but generates little enthusiasm.

2nd edition AD&D's literary roots lie in heroic high fantasy, the popular trilogies, quadrilogies, pentalogies, etc. of the 1970s and 1980s, without the seedier pulps. Best-selling AD&D-branded novels set in Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms were as much a part of this background as things like The Belgariad, Shannara, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and so on. This sort of fantasy tends to draw clearer lines between light and darkness, focuses on heroic destinies, doing the good thing, heroic protagonists and comic relief side characters, typically united against some gathering dark force through a long quest that integrates a bunch of adventures. Its implied world is a fundamentally calm, green kingdom of RenFaire aesthetics, and fundamentally good, or at most mischiveous people, beset by the forces of Evil. This is the baseline mode of 2nd edition, with significant later departures, but dominant throughout the edition cycle. The rulebooks also make references to historical or mythical heroic figures from Robin Hood to Charlemagne, but this line doesn’t really go anywhere, and the authors don’t do anything interesting with it.

2nd edition is a "cleaned up" edition, on three levels. First, it whitewashes the moral ambiguity, earnest violence, and weirdness of the earlier game, to focus on more straightforwardly heroic character types. It is squeakier, cleaner, and yes, a little milquetoast. Assassins and half-orcs are right out in the core books (yes, they are brought back in those crappy expansion books that came later, and which only Complete Weenies used). It also reduces the specificity of the game rules: the Illusionist and Druid classes, which had had their distinct rules and spell lists, are folded into the general Wizard/Cleric character type, where they no longer stand out. The Ranger and Bard also lose a lot of their flavour. This is not to the game's benefit. The third aspect of cleanup, on the other hand, is beneficial: 2nd edition is easier to grok, has more coherent mechanics, a rudimentary but functional skill system, and a combat system that moves from attack tables to THAC0, a badly explained but ultimately quite easy formula. Crucially, though, the Main Rule is muddled: the bulk of experience is now awarded for “story awards” (or whatever they are called), with some for monsters (this has continuity with 1st edition) and some for class-specific stuff. Much less laser-like precision.

A M'lady
2nd edition has cleaner rules, but, at the same time, somewhat less interesting ones. The weakest part of the core game, however, is the Dungeon Master's Guide (now with an apostrophe). This book, simply put, does not teach the beginning Dungeon Master anything particularly useful. You don't really get concrete advice about developing your adventures, campaign worlds, or even much about running the game. The first edition's massive and packed appendices are not present, nor is its storehouse of good advice. At the table, the DMG's role was mostly as a magic item reference. It is not a good guidebook to run the game, develop adventures, or manage grand campaigns, and its advice is unhelpful for the beginner. (I am speaking from painful experience here: I learned more about adventure/setting design from Fighting Fantasy and Titan than the DMG.)

Bad Stuff
This is really quite unfortunate, because while the DMG is lacking, the adventures for the general AD&D product line – the ones you would presumably buy after getting into the game – are not very good either, so they do not establish a solid practical example. At this time, TSR did not do much, if any in-house testing, and outsourced much of its adventure design to wannabe novelists (fruity people angling for their TSR novel deal who created linear, story-heavy junk without substantial player agency), the RPGA's organised play sections (mainly rules lawyers and turboautists who could rattle off Official TSR Rulings with a bookkeeper’s consummate skill, but tended to lack even basic creativity and imagination), and Dungeon Magazine (fan content, the best of the lot but still mediocre). Accordingly, it doesn't have much of a module legacy. Who plays classic 2nd edition adventures anymore? What are these classics even? Hell if I know.

And that is the main difference: the playing culture surrounding 2nd edition is not simply a diluted version of 1st edition’s, but a hotbed of bad practice which will harm your games. Massively overwritten encounters, dungeons reduced to flat and boring hack and slash and “cabinet contents” design, blatant railroading, contrived attempts at forcing AD&D into game styles it can’t support well, combined with an unhealthy proliferation of character snowflakery: it is all there. You can run good games with the 2nd edition rules (we did), but you cannot become deeply immersed in 2nd edition fandom without coming away with bad playing or GMing habits (we did).

To its credit, 2nd edition, while it suffered from a horrible bloat of barely (if at all) playtested of filler supplements in its day, does have two strands of creative legacy that are worth noting. First is a sequence of campaign worlds, which, while not free from the sins of the age (bloat, sanitisation), are obviously labours of love in a way the core game really wasn't. People who remember the likes of Al-Quadim, Ravenloft, or (the best of them all) Dark Sun remember 2nd edition much more fondly than those who wanted to play “just AD&D, thanks”. The support material sucked just as much, but some of those worlds are pretty gud. (Planescape is not even AD&D, but some weirdo thing for weirdos. The less we speak about it the better.) Second, the second edition era produced a whole bunch of really good AD&D-based computer games. This success story begun with 1st edition-based games (the Gold Box series), but continued well into the 1990s, and included a whole lotta classics that still stand up today. Not all of them were great (Dungeon Hack and that one stronghold building game were godawful, and Baldur's Gate 1 is a colossal MEH), but the likes of Eye of the Beholder and Shattered Lands have stood the test of time very well.

The Quintessential 2e Experience

So that's the REALLY TL;DR take. In the end, it would be quite easy to run a good game with the 2nd edition rules (I have been in many), but if you have access to 1st edition, it just makes more sense to go with that one, and maybe adapt THAC0 and a handful of rules that you like.

Sure, call 2e “OSR”, what do I care. But it is not, and will never be part of actual old-school D&D. It is therefore * * O F F I C I A L L Y * * cast out into the outer darkness; and in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 


Dr. Melan, Ordo Praedicatorum & Congr. Romanae & Universalis Inquisitionis.

What the hell?!

Postscript: The New 2e and What to Do About It

Is there a purpose to this “guy between thirty and death rants about old stuff” post other than grouching and historical reminiscence? Perhaps. Actually, yes there is. There very much is. It looks like 2e is coming back, and it is now even run by another fat, woke upper-class lady like the last time.

It increasingly looks like D&D One will be shaped by very similar driving forces to 2nd edition: to consolidate a decade's worth of new materials and popular house rules; to deflect increasingly shrill political criticism from the game and establish it as a neutered corporate brand for safe and easy consoomption; and to serve as a springboard for broader monetisation as a “geek culture” property. You might easily think “surely, this will be as bad as 2nd edition”, and you would be wrong. By my inquisitorial authority, I hereby predict that it will be worse than 2nd edition in every aspect. perhaps three times as bad?

In our time, the real enemy is not so much Artpunk, which has spun off old-school gaming and really become something else. This statement should not be taken as automatic disparagement. What is called Artpunk can be done well, if done by talented and resourceful people. Even if it doesn’t create something good, at least it has a soul. However, nothing can fix the game equivalent of Corporate Memphis. Sixth edition, or what is called “One D&D”, will be a commercial juggernaut and a creative disaster. It will be the rebirth of that specific, 2e-style of corrupt blandness that outraged the OSR Taliban so much, and got them so annoyed they ended up getting off their behinds and actually doing something worthwhile.

Here is a threat that is also an opportunity. There is creative energy in butthurt, and setting up TRV old-school gaming as a bottom-up alternative to corporate D&D is a rare gift whose potential should not be neglected. This section of the hobby should of course be open to dissatisfied players who find their way here, but it should distinguish itself as a clear alternative. The best way to do so is by making a compelling argument for the old-school way, and cultivating excellence in game materials, sensible playing advice, and of course through lots of actual practice. Then, and only then, that which had once lived, and now slumbers with the occasional grunt and growl, shall live once more and rampage anew across the land.

Friday 14 October 2022

[REVIEW] Wyvern Songs

Wyvern Songs
Wyvern Songs (2022)

by Brad Kerr

Published by Swordlords Publishing

Lowish levels (1, 2-4, 3-5, 5-6)

Following in the footsteps of the surreal, deadly garden of Hideous Daylight and the aptly named (slightly cramped) Temple of 1000 Swords, this is an anthology of four mini-modules which can also be linked and placed in a loosely outlined mini-setting. The book – a very tidy, elegant publication in its hardcover edition – combines a whimsical imagination with strong accessibility. Many OSE modules don’t quite hit the mark, mainly due to their authors’ lack of experience or the adventures’ overly small scope, but Wyvern Songs uses the format to its fullest without getting hamstrung by its limitations. Here, it all works. 

The tone recalls things like Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Jeff Rients’ stuff, and psychedelic childrens’ cartoons (for some reason, Jamie and the Magic Torch comes to my mind), and this is very clearly telegraphed by the art. It is the polar opposite of Appendix N, featuring none of the doom and gloom that has characterised most of modern old-school gaming, nor the “mediaeval quasi-realism” of earlier eras. This is fullbright whimsy filled with quirky characters and highly fantastic, often anachronistic ideas, and leans on these themes more strongly than Hideous Daylight did. It feels modern, not old – a little twitterish and cutesy, just a little high on the sugar, but not disturbingly so. Of course, theme is not all. What is important is function: and these adventures deliver places and situations with a high interaction potential, where interesting choices may be made and interesting consequences may result. These are true funhouses where you can push your luck, come up with creative schemes, leverage NPCs for your gain, or mess with one of the many “levers” (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) to see what happens.

Of the scenarios, The Sinister Secret of Peacock Point (level 1) is a short, 25-area dungeon set in a thieves’ guild beneath an old lighthouse, overrun by the Skitterlord, a critter right out of a horror movie. This is the most conventional dungeon delve in the book, and a fitting setting to hone your dungeon-fu (appropriately enough, it also features in-game practice ranges used by the former inhabitants). The balance between the prowling horror and the sense of discovery drives the action and creates the main source of tension. There are loose ends and opportunities for expansion – what happens when you try to pawn off the stolen valuables? Or when some of the thieves who didn’t perish in their lair come back? It all segues into new adventures. **** seems right for this one.

Not depicted: Oompa-Loompas

Fabien’s Atelier (levels 2-4) is a puzzle-centric “wizard’s home” locale that was first mentioned in Hideous Daylight, and may be smoothly combined with it to create a more complex double feature. It is also the most anachronistic; the style of the floating dwelling is a lot more swanky 1960s lava lamp hangout/Jetsons flying saucer than, say, a grim basalt tower with gargoyles and stained glass windows. The central idea is puzzle-solving and exploration on a ticking clock, as the place is going haywire and shall crash into the ground below unless something is done. This also makes it a tougher challenge – with no time to retreat and recuperate, it will be difficult for weaker parties. The puzzles are fairly organic, although sometimes off the wall (the main solution to enter a specific room is to take a key-shaped door off its hinges and shrink it to fit a keycard slot; another requires catching a talking toucan with a key-shaped beak). Fortunately, there are workarounds, a sufficiently robust set of stuff to make mischief with (and come up with a truly original combination), and a few handy tips on nudging the characters forward if they are stalled. A ***, but a highish one.

The volume’s unquestionable highlight is The Singing Stones, a 23-location pointcrawl adventure set in an arid valley of musical rocks. Taken alone, this is close to five-star material. A central mystery is presented (the rescue of a lost prince who has gone wyvern-hunting, a task which requires solving two very significant challenges), but the real deal is found in the open-ended environment where truly complex adventures with side-plots and player-driven action can freely emerge without becoming an incoherent mess. The valley is populated with oddball characters, strange natural wonders, and has multiple things going on that may unfold and develop as the action proceeds. Most places have a surface idea and opportunities to go deeper if the characters care. Bullet points are being put to good use. The physical place as outlined is perhaps too large for the suggested six-mile hex (I would stretch it out to about four), but it is just the right size for a rich wilderness adventure. Add inventive random encounters and a rival adventuring party, and The Singing Stones is a definite winner, so we will call it a *****.

Lesbian gnome merchants!

The final adventure, The Dreaming Caldera, is a showdown with the followers of a newly emerging chaos god in a volcano lair where the god is being physically assembled by all sorts of chaotic creatures drawn here by their dreams. I honestly did not feel this one. It is not so much wildly imaginative Brad Kerr, and more Brad Kerr acting as a cover band of himself. The same kind of basic building blocks, just without the fireworks. There are still good features – a massive underground chicken farm in the middle of the dungeon with dire chickens; incompetent monsters being idiots while reconstructing their god; a rival and envious chaos god making the party an offer – but as a whole, it is somehow less free-flowing, and not as clearly outstanding as the anhology’s high points. This is a decent ***.

Wyvern Songs’ writing is smooth, effective stuff. It uses bolding and bullet points effectively (and, curiously, in a different way in each individual mini-module), and gets its point across without becoming too dry or too sparse. There are numerous quality of life features in the book – mini-maps on almost every spread (this does take up slightly more real state than ideal), short ideas on how to handle the consequences of likely PC actions, or how to expand and build on the adventures once things are wrapped up. There are even small touches like colour-coding the four adventures (neatly separating them for easier referencing), and listing their potential play times with an eye for one-shot suitability. Some of the monster stats refer back to the OSE books and are not listed in the publiction. This is a puzzling omission; not because you can’t just look them up, but for what happens when you have to manage multiple monster types working in concert or against each other. A few extra pages wouldn’t have hurt, and since the anthology packs a lot of material between its covers, it would have still been a modest-sized volume.

Charms U
The elegant presentation and the scope of the modules in Wyvern Songs would make them a good choice for novice gamemasters and players. No system mastery required, but creativity is rewarded and the experience is not bowdlerised – there are plenty of opportunities to die in entertaining and instructive ways, and there are other interesting failure conditions. Most of all, this is an adventure where you can try interesting things that lead to interesting consequences, and in various ways, they are all open-ended. There are certain limitations due to the scope of the individual adventures (again, The Singing Stones excepted) but taken as its own thing, this is the good stuff. If you like engaging with plots of pure whimsy in open-ended environments, messing with eccentric NPCs (who essentially tend to behave like modern Internet people), and coming up with non-standard solutions to non-standard problems, this is a sure bet.

This module credits its playtesters, as well as a bunch of other people who have helped with the project, surely the gold standard of giving credit as it is due.

Rating: **** / *****

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!