Thanks to a recent Lulu sale, I finally decided to dip my toe into the impressively wide range of OSR periodicals available on the site. The fanzine instinct was strong in the early RPG hobby – in particular, as Playing at the World illustrates the pages of Alarums & Excursions were a crucial hotbed of early discussion – and so it’s only appropriate that as part of the effort to explore lost and neglected modes of play and engagement with the hobby that a range of OSR fanzines would pop up. Interested in dipping my toe into them, I picked up compilations of the first issues of three of these publications.
The grandaddy of them all is Fight On!, which first emerged in 2008. Edited in a bare-bones manner by the pseudonymous Ignatius Umlaut, the pages of its first compilation are absolutely stuffed with gameable content. Although all major retro-clones (and thus, all TSR editions of Dungeons & Dragons) are covered, it even slips those bounds a little, offering (with the blessing of their respective creators) material for Arduin, Mutant Future and the original Empire of the Petal Throne.
That’s cool enough in itself, but what really impresses me about Fight On! is the fine editorial balance struck. On the one hand, there’s a downright eclectic range of voices represented here, from OSR usual suspects like James Maliszewski to folk more associated in the minds of many with more recent gaming trends (like storygame patriarch Vince Baker), to people who don’t seem to have much of an online blogging presence who just happen to have submitted interesting stuff. On the other hand, Umlaut clearly hasn’t just thrown in everything people offered – the content here, though roughly presented, crackles with imagination and can be richly mined by DMs to yield weeks if not years of play. What especially distiguishes it from, say, any random collection of gaming blogs is the lack of pure opinion pieces; almost everything here presents stuff ready for use at the table, the major exception being some reminiscences of gaming with Dave Arneson (appropriate enough given that the issue in question was the Arneson memorial one).
This contrasts, a little bit, with Knockspell, a zine produced by Matt Finch of Swords & Wizardry fame. Sensible enough not to cater solely to his own retro-clone, Finch pitches the magazine as covering all the TSR editions of D&D and their clones, which is a reasonable stance for an OSR magazine, but unfortunately does not show quite the same editorial discernment that Ignatius Umlaut exerts over Fight On!. It feels like Knockspell is a little more prone to reprint people’s previously-published blog posts than Fight On!, for instance (indeed, so far as I can make out Fight On! consists of 100% original content), making it feel like it offers less value for money by offering less exclusive material. Furthermore, pages are wasted on bitter griping like Tim Kask’s rant in issue 1 about how Wizards of the Coast has totally taken Dungeons & Dragons in the wrong direction, when I feel that a) if you want to promote the OSR – or any other style of gaming – slamming other people’s fun is less effective than explaining why you find your way fun, and b) if you must slam other people’s fun, do it on your blog or a web forum, don’t take up space in a magazine which might be used for gameable material.
In addition, despite Matt Finch’s regular use of his (increasingly grating) slogan of “Imagine the hell out of it!”, Knockspell falls into nostalgia-ing the hell out of it a little too much. There’s an accumulation of slightly too many OSR sacred cows, like a tendency to take Appendix N in the original Dungeon Master’s Guide as a checklist of books you need to read and enjoy in order to have old school credibility as opposed to entertaining the shocking notion that you don’t need to be a fan of elderly fantasy stories to be a decent DM, amd taken all together it feels like an ideological exercise in a way which Fight On! doesn’t.
Oubliette, on the other hand, is a rough diamond. Rather than going broad church, it focuses on Labyrinth Lord (and, via said clone, Basic D&D as it existed from Moldvay onwards), and rather than being the product of a wide range of fans it’s churned out by one dude Peter Regan and his mates. And whilst it does kind of show in the charmingly unpolished voice of most of the articles, at the same time that’s 90% of its charm – it has the feel of a by-product of a single gaming group’s actual play, and as such acquires a particular personality and charm of its own. It helps that it completely avoids griping about other people’s fun and has no pretensions of being the voice of any particular movement.
One thing all three magazines have in common is that they are all dormant. Fight On! is in theory going to wrap up in its next issue or two, though these issues are taking an awfully long time to manifest. Knockspell hasn’t had a new issue for nearly 3 years now, and after 8 issues Oubliette has gone on hiatus due to Regan no longer having the time to dedicate to it. Whilst I’m inclined to get the next Fight On! and Oubliette compilations, I don’t think I’ll be dipping back into Knockspell personally – maybe I’m judging it too harshly based on a rough beginning, but the combination of reprints and axe-grinding turned me off just a little too much.