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


  1. I am very surprised by the continued praise for ASE. I run this megadungeon, the first book part anyways, and my players were not interested in exploring it. This is a similar issue that was reported by Gus L in his AP, he had to move the campaign to the outside world because the dungeon was boring. Perhaps the second book offers some incredible gameplay, but I will never know.

    1. ASE is great. I've played some 12 (?) sessions as a player. We've cleared the first floor, established our own base in it, hired some mercenaries and workers, and basically became our own faction. Sadly, the campaign died to time issues as we were just exploring the deeper megadungeon and interacting with the wider world.

      Still, it was great, and I fondly remember my player robot who recruited the first floor's robotic sentries to our side but then died in an attempt to save his companions who foolishly attacked a lower floor via a ladder in a well. Good times.

      It's a great environment to play, but I guess not everyone is interested in gonzo dungeoneering.

    2. My views are mainly articulated in my review, which I reposted here in August 2016. I see the connectivity and complexity of the dungeon as its main advantages. Some of the potential is unrealised because the later installments after part 2 never appeared, but what is there is quite good. It is a good environment for player-driven schemes.

      The main thing about ASE, though, is how it combines everything into something where the individual parts work, and the whole also works. It has vision, verve, and execution.

      Mind you, I did not run it, so this is a reader's opinion.

  2. I never cease to be amazed by your motivation and productivity. You make it sound like this year has been a bit slower when you've in fact done a lot of great word. As always. What would we do without Melan?

    I'm excited to see your DMG when it gets there. And yes, translating that many pages will take a lot of time, don't worry about that too much. But...

    What's that Erillion book on the picture on the right? I guess it collects your Erillion materials that have been published in Echoes + converts them to Sword & Magic. Is there new material in it or it's "just" a collection and translation of those?

    1. Well, my annual plan would have included Khosura and at least a second zine issue, so I see it in that context. But you are not incorrect that the game was a lot. It felt that way, too. Receiving the first complete copies from the binder was quite the thing.

      The Erillion book is a collection from Echoes - the hex entries, Beware the Beekeeper, The Mysterious Manor, and Gont. The new thing is the writeup of Heartless Hugo's Keep (on the forest's borderlands), various rumour tables, and cleanup. It is not the whole Erillion corpus; this is how much would fit into a an A4-sized saddle-stitched book. (80 pages is about the largest they can get.) Some day, I hope there will be an English Erillion hardcover. But it will not be this one.

  3. Well spoken. Onwards! City adventures is a great idea for an upcoming NAP.

  4. Your work ethic always amazes me, Gabor. And thanks for the mention!

    Here in the spanish shores of the OSR I see a very conflicted time. There are a lot of people who say that they want OSR games, but in the end, '5e is the best edition of D&D so why try anything different?'. If you knew the quantity of people who asked if we plan to release a 5e compatible ruleset for Castle Xyntillan... In the supposedly OSR telegram groups! Sometimes I really feel that our efforts are vain. But we need to continue to forge our path!

    About wilderness, that's funny for you to suggest. We are planning to release in 2025 our own retroclone (Maybe we don't apport very much to the english-speaking market, but I think that we can make a difference in the spanish speaking one!) and the format that we decide is rulebook + regional wilderness sandbox (with a lot of dungeons, settlements, etc). I really think that a wilderness sandbox is the way to go, because you can add all what you want. I think that if we manage to do it right we have a very compelling game with a more compelling setting. And we'll try to publish also in english, because I think that the english speaking market is the place to go for the OSR...

    Nevertheless your projects amaze me. The covers for Sword & Magic are fantastic, and I'd really dig the game. Maybe in the future... Who knows?

    Sorry for the long ass message. TL;DR: The war is hard, but we fight on. 

    1. Old-school gaming will always be a minority taste, although it is not a tiny minority. Hope your plan will work out, and a regional wilderness sandbox would be just about the best kind of thing you could release along with the rules.

  5. God, I hope one day to translate my city campaign into English (it was published in Ukrainian)...

    1. That would be great to see! If you already have a base text, translation should be less work than the original writing process. Good old-school cities are mostly still a niche waiting to be filled.

  6. Every year, I try to come up with at least one thing that revolutionizes old-school gaming. This year's contribution is the Cha'alt X-Cards. "D&D" will never be the same again.

    1. Here's a link where you can get these FREE roleplaying tools:

  7. Astonishing Gabor! Huge fan here in Chicago. Always look forward to your releases. Erillion and its environs have become a permanent fixture in my Hyperborea campaign. Its archipelago nature dovetails well with other settings.

    ‘Seven Voyages on Fomalhaut’? The purple covered issue featured in the photo .. is this forthcoming or an older OOP release?

    1. Thanks!

      The Fomalhaut booklet is for home use. Since it contains part of the Seven Voyages rules, it can't be published in this form. I would like to release a Fomalhaut setting guide in some form, but haven't decided what would be the best way to do so.

    2. A master index of sorts? The pdf's assist in finding things, but Im more tactile and prefer reading physical objects. I'd also like to say the cartography you release is bar none the best in class. The paper quality(cotton? weight?), definition and design. Have you ever considered a large map A1 or A2? I've cobbled together what maps are adjacent from issue to issue. The hex alignment etc isn't always perfect but it gives one scale across the gaming table. Thanks!

    3. Yeah, physical books are still the real thing. I don't enjoy reading PDFs too much, and prefer to print supplements on my home printer if they come that way.

      The paper I have been using is Rives Laid, a structured artisanal paper mainly used for printmaking, 220 g weight, 100% acid-free cotton. It is so hipsterish you can't even buy it. Unfortunately, that's literally the case. The French company that made it went belly up during the Bat Plague, and whatever stock remained, remained. We have recently run out, and will have to find a good alternative - a heavier, good-looking stock that takes well to pencils, pens, and fountain pens.

      Unfortunately, printing in A1 and A2 requires larger-scale printing equipment, and that'd be a price jump.

  8. Do you still intend to publish your Thisium sandbox campaign?

    1. It sort of fell through the cracks for the time being due to other projects usurping my time, but I would like to. Don't expect it next year, though.

  9. Hello Gabor. I have been reading your blog (and others) for what must be a complete year by now. My first system was Pathfinder, and the first misbegotten session I played was in 2014, at fifteen years old. Within the first few adventures, I felt the sheer disconnect between what I had heard in almost mythological retellings and the actual game before me.

    It was shit.

    I then took it upon myself to learn the ways of DMing, which had seemed so arcane. But still, I was misguided. I was treating the symptom and not the disease, and my search led me elsewhere. Astray, I had a brief dalliance with CoC, dipped a toe into 5e, and came up empty. My games never matched the fantasy. And without a greybeard to guide my apprenticeship, I ended up on YouTube and thankfully found this blog.

    Your articles opened my eyes to a new reality. The principles of old-school gaming spoke to my deep yearning and lust for authentic fantasy. Since then, I have tried to learn. But, given no agreed-upon definitions, unified treatise or impartial actors, it has been hard to parse. Of course, my players were none the wiser, and I am blessed they were so eager to try new systems. I have been running my own hexcrawl within OSE, replete with dungeons and wilderness. Up until now, I have not felt a need to comment. Every article has been informative and inspirational.

    "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..."

    So I ask of you, where? If my way, which I have forged in ignorance but with earnest hopes, is wrong, then where can I learn? I don't live in a city. Of course, I have tried to play games online, but they are not the same. Show me a path, and I will walk it. Present me a mountain, and I will climb it. But if you point to the AD&D DMG, I will get healthcare in Canada, I swear to God.

    1. Have you tried reading the AD&D DMG?

      Even more seriously, the best way to go is the direction where things work for you in the practical sense. That's why no unified solutions can be given, only directions like "you may want to check out that way, I liked that one".

      It sounds like you already have an OSE group going, which is a great way to learn by doing. Grabbing design tricks from modules is very good, especially when they are put to practice. My first good adventure was essentially a rewrite of Isle of Dread. With every game, things will get better. That sort of reverse-engineering builds skills.

      That said, I will also publish the English version of my GMing book next year. It was originally written with the idea that a novice to old--school gaming should be able to pick it up and get a general picture and a useful toolset out of it. Translating it will be my main project this year.

    2. That sounds fantastic, thank you for the advice.