Sunday, 6 August 2017

[BLOG] One Year On

I started Beyond Fomalhaut one year ago, and slowly but surely, it has been lumbering on ever since. Most people seem to do their “this year in gaming”-style posts around Christmas or New Year’s Eve, but I will henceforth be doing them this time of the year, as long as the blog lasts.

Fair warning: since this post is inevitably personal, there will be a lot of “I”s in there.


The State of the Blog

Blogger tells me I have 55 published posts including this one (and eight reviews reposted from TheRPGSite), which is not bad. It could have been more, and I have a lot of respect for people who can keep up a steady stream of good posts month after month, year after year, but I am not one of those people. I also do my shitposting elsewhere on the Internet, which cuts down on the dross a little.

Among all those posts were 24 reviews, 8 old and 16 new. I did some counting in a spreadsheet, and it turns out I’m a fairly consistent reviewer, since both my old reviews (from 2012-2013) and the new have hovered around a 3.0-3.1 average. The ratings went out like this:
  • 5 with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence () to Anomalous Subsurface Environment #1 (but that’s from 2011, and the review was a repost). So far, the only other products I’d put in this category have been The Tome of Adventure Design and Yoon-Suin.
  • 5 went to one new product, Secrets of the Wyrwoode. There is another one that looks like a candidate, but it’ll need more reading to decide.
  • 4 went to one old product and four new ones: Yngarr #1, Dispatches from Raven Crowking, Sunken City, and The Tomb of the Sea Kings. Along with the previous rank, these were the supplements to impress me this year.
  • 3 went to nine adventures, ranging from the evenly good (like The Phoenix Barony) to the uneven with good spots (like The Fall of Whitecliff). These are goodish, and you would be having a good time if you ran them at your table.
  • 2 went to seven adventures. I’ll be honest: this would include a lot more titles, but a lot of small adventures I picked up from RPGNow this year were bad in such uninteresting ways that I couldn’t be bothered (and mean enough) to tear them up in public. I feel there is a real problem with the “20 pages, overlong intro that doesn’t affect gameplay, dungeon with 10-20 rooms” adventure module.
  • 1 went to no new adventures, because I filtered out the real stinkers before I bought them this time.
Reviews have turned out to be fairly easy and fun to write, so I’ll be keeping up the habit, and I’ll keep focusing on the rough gems and dodgy homemade materials. There are only so many reviews the world needs about the high-profile releases, so unless I feel like I have something interesting to say about them, or they are really relevant to my interests, I’ll pass. Sometimes it feels like reviews are a cop-out from real blogging, and I’ll try to look into that.

Got this thing out
Through the year, I kept a campaign journal going, now at its 11th instalment. This has proven to be a tremendous amount of work, something I already learned with the City of Vultures campaign. It seems to get rather few readers, and ironically, they might come more from Hungary than the English blogosphere, but I have a soft spot for it. It is a way of sharing and documenting our collective memories of a fun game (with occasional missteps and frustrations), and I’d like to look back on it twenty years from now and say this is what we were doing. I will keep going while I can – so far, entries have been late, but never more than by one session, and that’s what I’m aiming for.

And I also had a bunch of discussion posts; fewer than I thought I would have as I was setting out. One reason I have always liked forums is that I prefer adding to existing conversations rather than coming up with a detailed OP – and half-assing it doesn’t feel right. That has carried over to my blogging, where you don’t really have a way to be reactive, so you just don’t say anything. There is another reason, too; I tend to feel I have mostly said what I had to say with regards to game theory, and would rather focus on the practical side.

One additional lesson that bears repeating here: flamebait sells, bigly.

The State of my Projects

One of the many reasons I dropped out of the old school gaming scene around 2013 was that I was starting to focus on gaming projects with a larger scope than it could be summed up properly in small chunks. It was also around this time that both of the big old school fanzines I was writing for, Fight On! and Knockspell ceased publication (and the two founding fathers of old school gaming who had been running them, Calithena and Mythmere both seem to have vanished). I didn’t have much to say in small form, and the places where I was saying it were gone. Therefore, I turned my attention elsewhere.

Got this thing out, too
One of the results has been Helvéczia, my picaresque fantasy RPG. Helvéczia is about looking at D&Dish gameplay and aesthetics through the lens of swashbuckling romances, 17th century novels about lowlifes and scoundrels, local legends and the works of the Brothers Grimm. It started as a slightly out there campaign idea and quickly decided to grow into its own system, a mixture of the strange and the familiar. We published a great-looking boxed set and a short range of adventures with a printer friend of mine (the game is in part a love letter to the typography and cheap pamphlets of the 16th and 17th centuries), and I’d like to bring it to a larger audience. I believe I have something worth saying with Helvéczia, a new look at historical fantasy gaming – even in context of the other stuff out there – and the updated, expanded English edition is the product of that. I have the rulebooks ready, and want to translate the adventures before I start thinking about moving it into publication. Not much progress through the year, but it is picking up again.

The second large project is Castle Xyntillan, which I have covered elsewhere. Xyntillan is the successor to my unplublished Tegel Manor manuscript; what started as an update of the legendary Judges Guild adventure has become a whimsical homage to it. Work here is still ongoing, but it is getting there.

In the meantime, I have published less via my blog than I meant to when setting out. Here is what I did: 
  • The Technological Table, a collection of vaguely sinister high-tech items.
  • The Smugglers of Cliff Point, a small lair dungeon from the remains of a never completed sandbox supplement.
  • The Ruined City, a transcript of my first dungeon module (very RJK of me).
  • In the Name of the Principle!, probably my favourite adventure I have ever written. Predictably, almost nobody gave a fuck.
  • And the manuscript for the German version of Cloister of the Frog God (including the grotesque and hilarious, never-seen-before wilderness segment), to be published in the fanzine Abenteuer.

I am mostly thinking a blog is not a good venue for publication. Stuff gets plussed on Google, a few comments come in, but posts sink like a stone and never resurface. This is one more reason to start a fanzine (homemade? POD? stone tablets?), which I am more and more eager to finally do, and will start thinking about seriously after at least one of the two big projects come close to completion – close enough to safely free up thinking capacity.

Still working on this one
Right, and then there are the two books whose covers I used to illustrate this article. This Spring, I published my long-delayed monograph, Reindustrialisation in Central Europe, a work surveying the regional transformation processes, outcomes and current challenges of industrial development in post-socialist Central Europe. This is something I have worked on for the better part of ten years; over successes, setbacks, reorganisations and personal losses. Sometimes writing it was a joy, and sometimes a burden I am happy (if a bit wary) to have finally put down. I put my heart and soul into it, and it simply feels right to hold it in my hands.

The second book, The Routledge Handbook to Regional Development in Central and Eastern Europe collects the results of a large research project on the various transformation processes of the macro-region, and where it all leads to. This one was a work of a large team, mostly from our research institute, and some abroad, and took a lot of fiddly work to coordinate and massage into a cohesive, unified whole. I took the first steps on this journey with my late mentor and boss, who died the same day I could tell him our book proposal got accepted; and the final ones with the help of my colleagues who had supported me along the way. The people at Routledge have done a tremendous job through the publication process (I was very much impressed by their professionalism and attention to fine detail), and I think the end result is solid, honest scholarship in a seriously good-looking, crisp package. I feel good about it, and that's how I hope it will go down with the readers. (As a matter of personal pride, I selected the cover images for both volumes, and think they came out very well.)

The State of the Old School

Slowly declining.

Roleplaying games are as strong as the creative networks around them, and you can see it in the various communities that there is less going on than it used to, either in discussion, publishing or actual play. It can be spun as “things have settled down to a normal level”, or “there is less but it is generally better”, but it is there. This is not a bad time to be – it is pretty good for those who are a part of the action – but look three years ahead, or five years ahead, and there are some mighty dark clouds on the horizon.

Very much a work-in-progress version
Sometimes I think there are a few prestige products too many in this corner of the hobby. Coffee table books, bookshelf books, don’t mark them up books, Kickstarter perks, gold foil special editions. It doesn’t beat the asinine hobby of collecting original shrinkwrap in its ridiculousness, but seriously, folks, you do remember why so many of us got away from the gaming mainstream, right? Right? Are we still on the same page? Actually, is there anyone still out there? Helloooo?

Ahem. Sorry.

You can’t eat production values, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind if you have good art, but there is form, and there is function, function and function. Game-relevant content. Things that come right from some guy’s game table and it is so hot it’ll burn your hands when you slap it down your game table. Certainly, I have been guilty of it – sitting too long on something, overthinking, missing opportunities to just do it and publish, all of it – and all I can promise is that I’ll try. That’s why I want to do that fanzine.

Something I am seeing reflected in the reviews (mine and others’) is how few good generic AD&D modules get released. Something is missing. Whatever’s out there mostly turns out disappointing or just lacking the spirit. For all the old school scene’s roots in rediscovering older editions, I really haven’t found anything decently AD&Dish outside The Tomb of the Sea Kings (from the crazy tournament dungeon tradition) and maybe Sunken City (from the “I was actually there” tradition). I will keep looking, including checking out some older titles I missed out on, but this lack of good material is worth examining more deeply. What makes them hard to do? Why can’t people do them well? (Or, as an alternative explanation, why aren’t the people who know their stuff putting their skills to good use?) Has the Gygaxian spirit departed from gaming, if it was ever there in the last years? It also feels like a challenge, and yes, I’ll try my hand at it.

As it is, the most significant old school accomplishment of the year comes from unlikely quarters, and right at the last possible moment: Next Friday has come, ITZ has happened, Hell has frozen over, a golden baby can fly, and

Grimoire: Heralds of the Winged Exemplar is finally finished and available for purchase
(for one week only, there is a five-dollar discount that will not be offered ever again).

This blog will dedicate more detailed posts to the most highly anticipated Wizardry-like of 1997 (and 1998, 2001, 2004, 2013, Next Friday, and so on), but for now, let it suffice to say that it is authentic, enchanting, Gygaxian (by way of that other giant of the age, D.W. Bradley), a little crazy, and yes, sometimes rough around the edges. It is rough and idiosyncratic because it is the real deal. For all the setbacks and vexations, the time of tremendous Incline is at hand!



  1. I've been debating whether or not to do my own one year anniversary (blogaversary?) blog post which is two days away.

    Best of luck on your second year!

    1. Do it! I enjoy posts like that.

      And thanks.

  2. Congratulations on all fronts! Especially on the monograph. Regarding the Cloister, it is in the pipeline. But not all authors are as productive as our gracious host here, so we are waiting for some more announced contributions;-) I am finishing up #7 of the regular issues for a late August release (lots of old school content, even a proper 1e module and die-drop nu-old school stuff) and then it hopefully will be the SPECIAL ISSUE containing the cloister.

    1. Thank you! Looking forward to it. I am used to the wait - both books I mentioned here took a lot of time in editing, especially the Hungarian one, where I had to change publishers after the first one (which had already accepted my manuscript but didn't sign the contract yet) discontinued the monograph series where it would have come out, and the second one went through a buyout. Journals can be even more finicky. Compared to that, I'm convinced Abenteuer will come out early. :)

  3. BTW, I did like "In the name of the Principle!". It has this special kind of benign cynicism that I cannot ever come up with myself. Love it!

    1. Good to see you liked and especially that you noticed that element - it was a conscious stylistic choice, and if it came across, that's a success.

      I actually have something to say something about cynicism vs. earnestness, and how it touches on gaming and adventure design. Subject for a future blog post, but I need to think more about it before my thoughts are clear enough.

    2. In the Name of the Principle and Urban's Warhammer 0E are my fondest of con experiences.

      Plus, I've also got to GM Principle to my gaming crew. They also blew up the aqueduct, and one of the players accidentally killed himself, too, while storming the palace. Fun times.

  4. Still eagerly awaiting your translation of Helvéczia.

    P.S I tried google translate, but it is not as good with Hungarian as other languages. My Hungarian vocabulary of nem, egan, and nem beszélek magyarul is not of much help.

    1. Thanks - coming, but a bit slow in the making. Had to take a break due to work, but hope to make good progress through August.

      Google Translate has problems with the Hungarian, but Helvéczia is an outlier even there as it uses a slightly antiquated orthography and style that draws on sources like Reformation-era pamphlet literature, Johann Peter Hebel (whose "Treasure Chest" became the default "voice" of Helvéczia), and the Romantics. I pity the automatic translator that tries to make sense of it! (The English edition tones this aspect down a bit.)

  5. Gabor---

    I really enjoy your campaign journals, but haven't gotten back to catch up on them since the TPK at #5, given my spring/summer convention and publishing schedules. So, I'll read some tonight (some have been sitting open in browser tabs for a month or more!).

    I'd like to see both Castle Xyntillan and Helvéczia, as well as your newsletter, of course.

    You've raised some good, and worth-pondering points about the state-of-the-state of the old-school hobby. On first blush (I'll save the thinking for later ;) ), I think some of the perception of decline stems from two market forces at work:

    1) The lack of unified enthusiasm for the hobby---things are far more fractured with no front leaders anymore really, on either the publishing front or the thought-leadership front, and there just haven't been that many things that are exciting happening on the adventures-publishing front, which is where I think that the OSR's hat should be hung (rather than on ever-more-segmented and specialized rulesets).

    2) The fractionalization isn't just in rulesets either, but in communication platforms too: many fans and publishers are more-active on G+ or FB or Twitter (or other platforms I'm not savvy to) rather than blogging or forums, so it's harder now to get the word out about good-quality content, whether new blog posts, new publishing titles, or anything that's not a Kickstarter. With social media posts are ephemeral---a few clicks and likes, and then they're gone, so there's no real committed engagement that follows for the most part.


    1. Allan --

      I agree with your assessment. I have to add that I'm not on Facebook, and that side of the hobby is invisible to me... but I share your concerns about its fleeting nature (which was actually on my mind when I started this blog - see the second post).

      To add to your first point, I am somehow feeling - and this is more a feeling than definite knowledge - is that while enthusiasm has been high about exploring how far you can stretch D&D thematically and rules-wise (pretty far), the middle has been left abandoned.

      Absolutely agree about thought-leadership, and especially the importance of adventures. That's where I haven't seen enough recent contenders filling the niche I call "good vanilla" (no artificial additions and preservatives!). People are inactive (Mythmere, Jeff Rients) or focusing more on discussion than writing (most people on K&KA). Maybe someone will take up this flag.

    2. What I find quite astounding is that there is not many people playing straight 1e or OSRIC online, for example in ROll20. Lots of variants, but not much 1e, as far as I can see.

    3. Perhaps the 1e crowd are less willing to play through online media, and prefer to play at the table??


    4. What are some "good vanilla" adventures that came out of the OSR? Demonspore and Pod-Caverns, maybe? (Man, I wish Finch was writing more stuff like those)

    5. Tomb of the Iron God (although it'd need some filling out). Some of James Boney's AA modules come close, but they're higher level than I tend to prefer.

      Demonspore and Pod-Caverns are more in the weird fantasy corner, although they wouldn't look too out of place near the odder TSR modules (like Tharizdun or Shrine of the Kuo-Toa).

      Otherwise, I'm mostly drawing a blank. I tended to focus on the more sword&sorcery / weird fantasy products, and weren't happy with many of the pseudo-Gygaxian releases (like Alphonso Warden's wannabe novellist offerings).

  6. I agree about the middle being left abandoned. I scratch my head at the low-level hostility often directed at older materials in our own "scene", but then I remember that it's been over 10 years since publishing began again in earnest. I suspect that some portion of gamers being those who read more than play also drives the need for fresh themes, as the entertainment life of any idea is shorter.

    These things have a way of swinging back around, though. I greatly enjoy Twisting Stair as a new zine, and hope more material firmly foregrounded in utility stokes the fires.

    I love K&KA; it's my primary online RPG home. But there is a lack of effort/drive directed through it as a focus point, even though the membership itself aggregately churns out a respectable amount of output. I think in some ways Mythmere drifting into more professional efforts left a managerial sort of role unfilled.

    1. I am perplexed by the seeming "lack of memory" that affects things which aren't recent, but suspect that's human nature, amplified by the internet. Still, there are a few new classics which have successfully stood the test of time (Matt's stuff tends to have this timeless quality, and walks the fine line between novel and traditional).

      The reader/collector side of the hobby definitely has an effect on what gets produced and what gets praised. It used to be less prominent among old-schoolers due to a very strong, very practical play orientation, but that has faded over time.

      OTOH, I also find that a lot of vanilla products have a flatness to them; AD&D's goblins-and-peasants mediaevalism without the touch of oddity and transformative quality. It'll be interesting to see what Twisting Stair brings to the table; it would be good if it could get people on K&KA contributing.

    2. There's a constant tension that people creating and publishing stuff want to do something different than what's come before - and the more active they are, generally the more different they become over time. It'd be nice if more talented people were willing to publish stuff that fit more squarely within the Gygax-AD&D mold (which isn't the same as "vanilla fantasy," including both its own odd flavor and a strong element of personally-active gods and demons and commonplace travel between worlds/dimensions) but if that's not what they want to do I can't make them do it (nor do I have authority to edit their stuff into that mold, which I think is a significant element when looking at TSR's output c. 1979-82: I suspect the manuscripts as-submitted varied more in tone and style than what was ultimately published, but TSR modified them all to conform to their "house style," something that doesn't happen in the age of self-publishing).

      As for why I just talk and don't publish adventures of the style I'd like to see, it comes down to that I haven't had an active campaign-group for more than a decade, and am not likely to anytime in the foreseeable future, because the level effort required to build (and maintain) such a group outweighs the benefit for me - I neither want to deal with the hassle of playing with strangers nor to try to force non-strangers to play who aren't genuinely interested.

      Without that active-play environment, I'm uninspired to put in the amount of effort required to write something publishable, and even if I were wouldn't want to try to foist something unplaytested onto the public.

    3. That's what I get for not defining your terms properly. I meant vanilla as the baseline "early TSR AD&D" sense, in a much more narrow context than people tend to define it, including 1980s-style second-gen Tolkien / SW /Campbell imitators. Also, it must be stated clearly and unequivocally that there is no shame in tasting like vanilla. Vanilla is a wonderful, rich and complex flavour that gets lost in its bland imitations. That's how my analogy is meant to work.

      I can relate to the lack of an active group - I've got a good one, but have to travel quite far to reach it, while the players I used to game with locally have mostly moved away (the curse of college towns). Sometimes I consider forming a new party, but bringing all players to the same page while trying to avoid the bad habits that plague most gaming groups around here feels like a tremendous sunk cost.

      Choosing not to write adventures if you don't have a group going probably makes you one of the few honest men in gaming, because it sure doesn't bother the majority of "the industry" (nor, I am sure, the amateurs).

    4. Trent, I'd love to see more on the "Gygax-AD&D mold" of published stuff. K&KA discussed Gygaxian *system* stuff pretty thoroughly, but not so much modules and settings, which I think you are alluding to. Maybe worth starting a K&KA thread, or posting on your blog?

  7. Yeah, Grimoire was a *bit* rough around the edges. Thankfully it only ate my saves I didn't want to continue. My current party contains a giant warrior, a saurian berserker, a rhattu thief, a durendil bard, a barrower cleric, an aeorb sage, a drow wizard, and motherfucking Lil Rosy. I'm just about to reach level 3 and going to Aquavia. What about you?

    1. I am waiting for a version that won't eat my saves. If the current update proves bug-free until next week, I'm in. (Since I played through most of the superdemo over July, I can take a small break without feeling the addiction. :D)

      I have a six-PC party with a few changes from my superdemo setup: human warrior, barrower berserker, wolfin ranger, drow thief, aeorb sage, human wizard, and Little Rosy (which feels like cheating). Have a few upgrading plans too once they hit tenth level.

      Once most of the serious bugs are gone, I'm taking the plunge. Definitely the best CRPG since Crusaders of the Dark Savant.

    2. You are wiser than me. The save issue was fixed a few versions ago by the way, although who knows what micro-issues will mess up something again in the future.

      Rosy didn't feel that much of a cheating compared to having a bard. Music skill increase was insane until the last patch! My bard reached 100 in music by level 2 and with Slumbering Lute in right hand, Thistle Whistle in the left she was an unstoppable crowd control machine, that sometimes turned into a god of death.