Sunday 8 October 2023

[BLOG] Year Seven: Old School Rebuilding

The Hall of Mirrors shifts...

This blog started on 5 August 2016, making early August the time of the year to engage in stock-taking and irresponsible conjecture. Adjusted for inflation, this means early October. This will be a slightly laconic report: most of the things I have to say are fairly close to last year, and I don’t wish to repeat myself too much.

The State of the Blog

This year, Beyond Fomalhaut’s activity amounted to 28 posts, which seems to be the constant (the last two had 29). 18 of these were reviews, and that’s not including the stuff I read but didn’t review. Pattern recognition has helped a lot in weeding out much of the dreadful stuff, but from the clunkers that have snuck through, there would have been no joy in eviscerating most of them. I also failed to review some genuinely good material, including titles recommended by their authors. For that, I apologise: sometimes, the stars are just not right, or I didn’t have much that was worth saying.

On the average, the 19 reviews scored at 3.3, slightly above the seven-year total average of 3.11. Some of this year’s best have come from edited collections. The No Artpunk Contest has produced a high-quality lineup this year, and I haven’t even finished reviewing these adventures. One time can be luck, but two times is skill, and skill can be improved and honed through the spirit of competition and self-improvement. In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard was more of a mixed bag, from really strong stuff to one of this year’s worst efforts, but I can see it becoming another collection worth watching. Among the other titles, we can see the continuing trend where the shovelware people have largely moved on from the core of old-school gaming towards more distant systems, so a lot of the crap has just disappeared.

Here are the year’s results and special 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 loom high above the lower peaks, and have not been equalled.
  • 5 was awarded to two releases. Vault of the Mad Baron, by Christian Toft Madsen, took one: a rich, complex sandbox adventure set in a corrupt city beset by a mysterious plague, combining faction intrigue with dungeon-crawling in an accessible format. Tomb of the Twice-Crowned King by Hawk came from the No Artpunk Contest, capturing high-powered AD&D at its best: from standard building blocks, it constructs a tomb-robbing adventure with tightly-constructed gameplay and a strong personality. Among other things, these two modules show that great content and effective presentation can be reconciled, and the latter lies in practiced skill, not gimmicks.
  • 4 was awarded to seven releases: Wyvern Songs, a collection of weirdo mini-adventures filled with creative exuberance; The Crypt of Terror, for excellence in stickman art living up to its title with its dirtbag combat challenges and imaginative dungeon tricks; The Black Pyramid, a temple-delve with active competition; The Cerulean Valley, a JRPG-style mini-sandbox; Shrine of the Small God, a dungeon that builds expertly on Meso-American mythology; The Ship of Fate, which brings Moorcock’s high-level cosmic adventures to your game table; and the weird puzzle module Alchymystyk Hoosegow.
  • 3 was awarded to six products. This year, five of these have been slightly flawed, but generally strong entries, with Caves of Respite as a good beginner effort worthy of encouragement.
  • 2 was awarded to Expedition to Darkfell Keep, a shoddily-made dungeon crawl; and DNGN, an overproduced dungeon-in-a-zine that took common wisdom about presentation and layout so seriously it ended up killing whatever attraction might have had. These entries have been conveniently placed in the pillory. Speaking of…
  • 1 was awarded to two products, both outright terrible. In the case of Winter in Bugtown, this is entirely deserved: the high-concept premise masks a twee Starbucks fantasy setting and a complete mess of execution which would work decently as a parody of badly done artpunk – but sadly, it is completely earnest. The recently reviewed Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is more of an accidental hit on an inept low-level OSE module (it being OSE is also accidental; top dog systems always attract this sort) – but I picked it up because it looked interesting, and it turned out to be a showcase of bad adventure design practices. Unfairly singled out? Probably. Honoured with one star? Deservedly.

All in all, this was a good year for well-made adventures, and the variety of styles is good to see. It would be decent, though, to see the same quality in wilderness and city adventures, or even good situation-based scenarios. This is underexplored territory, on which more later.

Sword & Magic Covers by Peter Mullen and Cameron Hawkey

The State of the Fanzine & Other Projects

This year, EMDT released eight titles, with two more to follow next weekend. Some of these are major Hungarian publications: the Hungarian Helvéczia boxed set with two regional supplements last December, plus the soon-to-be-published Sword & Magic are the key titles. This sort of took the wind out of my sails elsewhere, so the zines have been more modest. I published one issue of Echoes (although a fairly thick one), the second issue of Mr. Volja’s Weird Fates, and two modules: The Forest of Gornate and Istvan Boldog-Bernad’s excellent low-level death-fest, The Well of Frogs. Gornate has received a Czech edition, and Outremer Ediciones has recently concluded a successful Kickstarter for the Spanish release of Castillo Xyntillan.

The largest undertaking of 2023 has been the second edition of Sword & Magic, a slow-burn project finally reaching fruition. The original edition of the game was published on 15 October 2008 (a few days after the similarly imaginatively titled Swords & Wizardry), and the release of the new one is planned for 15 October 2023, exactly 15 years later. Writing and producing two thick hardcovers (168 and 268 pages, respectively) and a 80-page regional supplement is no laughing matter even if it is a revised edition, a lot of groundwork has already been laid, and I had the Riders of Doom on my side to give advice, do thorough proofreading, and help shape the rules from the broadest to the most obscure. It was exhausting, endless, and it feels really good to see it done. What remains now is to receive the bound books and start shipping.

Potion of Extra-Barbarism
This game shall not be translated – there are enough old-school systems to pick from, and translating, producing and supporting Sword & Magic in a second language would be beyond my means. However, that does not mean there will be no dividends for the English-speaking reader. The second volume is planned to see release as an OSRIC supplement under the title Gamemaster’s Guidelines Beyond Fomalhaut. This will be a comprehensive guidebook to creating and running old-school adventures and campaigns, ranging from basic and advanced GMing techniques, optional rules, to an in-depth coverage of adventure design, campaign management, fantastic worlds, and even a simple mass combat / domain management system (it is not ACKS, but it is mine). The guideline section is supplemented with several monsters including extensive random encounter tables; treasures of all sorts, and several random inspiration tables from adventure concepts to fantastic civilisations, curses, islands and that sort of thing. The idea is something offering practical help for novice GMs getting into old-school games, and further advice and a smorgasbord of stuff for experienced people. The book’s Hungarian version is written, illustrated and laid out, so there is a completed manuscript there that “only” needs to be translated and slightly revised for the international audience. Now that is 268 pages of “only”, which is an obstacle. I cannot promise a fast-tracked release with my day job and other projects, but as they say, “I’m on it”.

In the “wanted to do but didn’t” category, we have Khosura: King of the Wastelands, the much-delayed city and wilderness sandbox module. This is another case of “only”, where a lot of the work has already been done, but the plans for Q1 2023 proved fabulously optimistic. Perhaps a year later would be workable?

Final Proofs With Small But Obvious Error

The State of the Old School: Rebuilding

This year seems to be continuing previous trends, which are not as exciting as grand upheavals and radically new stuff, but sometimes, this sort of quiet rebuilding is for the better. It does make for a shorter closing section, too, but them’s the breaks. For years, old-school gaming was drifting apart and losing focus, slowly diminishing its value. That process is probably complete. On one hand, this produces games which offer a lighter form of old-school gaming, tempered with the aesthetics and design concerns of games like 5e. The success of projects like Shadowdark and OSE / Dolmenwood demonstrates the demand for these middle-of-the-road solutions. These are probably ideal for disgruntled 5e players who are looking for something simpler and more free-flowing, but they will somehow have to find a way to preserve the virtues of old-school play from the influx of dysfunctional playing practices and the deluge of shovelware that success brings.

To an extent, you can also see some old hands returning to the scene: a new edition of Swords & Wizardry has been published (and don’t overlook the AELF License it comes with – this is the quiet background work you would only notice if it was not there); Labyrinth Lord and Dragonslayer seem to be focusing on B/X in their own way, and there are rumblings around OSRIC as well, with a new edition targeted as new players instead of publishers, and solid VTT support in Foundry. Adventurer, Conqueror, King is getting a second edition, and Sword & Magic also fits into the trend. It remains to be seen how much creative energy these projects can muster. The specific challenge they will have to navigate (and this is one I am acutely aware of) is that successful Kickstarters catering to a base of collectors is not quite the same as relaunching living games which produce healthy creative communities and good offshoots. Shiny new games have a starting advantage here, while second editions, reprints, and expanded editions have to play to slightly different strengths to succeed in the long run.

A Voyage to Thellas With Seven Voyages of Zylarthen

As a third group, creative communities with a renewed focus on the core of the old-school experience are also thriving, in smaller size and a less commercial form. This is no longer the same as the OG old-school community found on Dragonsfoot, Knights and Knaves, or the OD&D Discussion forums – all of which have largely fallen quiet over the years – although it shares some people and objectives with these places, and it resembles them in their heyday. Their members were often people discovering old-school ideas as a fresh thing, and they have moved from this rediscovery to self-improvement and continuous refinement. Things like the No Artpunk Contest or the Classic Adventure Gaming podcast (which now has a promising discord) are two examples of creative efforts coming from these places, but there is more. These are not large endeavours, but many of the guys involved have a high batting average, and this makes their materials trustworthy – you can expect something good when you come across their adventures, even if the production values are homemade and there are occasional weird spots. Even some of the best adventures from In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard come from these quarters.

There are still places which are not explored sufficiently well by this latter group. They have gotten great at dungeon design, but much fewer have tackled wilderness scenarios, and only the mighty Buddyscott Entertainment, Inc., has delved into cities (as far as I can tell). Nobody has really made a properly old-school situation-based adventure that does not suck. The NAP-II collection was overall very solid, but it was all dungeons. In this sense, Fight On! and Knockspell magazines had more to offer, and Dolmenwood promises yet more. I would love to see a wilderness pointcrawl, a complex sandbox area, a strong open-ended city adventure (in the vein of Istvan Boldog-Bernad’s Shadows of the City-God and Well of Frogs – OK, I published them, but I published them because Istvan is the absolute master of this sort of thing), or a setting gazetteer. The NAP-III collection’s focus on high-level adventuring should deliver good content in an underserved area (hopefully some extraplanar material as well), but perhaps there should be room for a “Not a Dungeon” contest, too.

So that’s where it stands now, I think. Work in progress, some of it looks like a pile of stones and timber, but it is getting better where it matters.

Get to work, dogs!

Motivation Will Be Provided