The first installment of Gygax magazine is 68 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page ToC, 1 page introduction, ~17 pages devoted to advertisements (two pages of my count represent accumulated smaller ads that don’t take up a whole page), leaving us with a total of ~48 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
James Carpio kicks off the issue with an appropriate overview of the roleplaying systems that have developed from our hobby’s humble beginnings via a massive galaxy-style spread-graphic. The article per se is very meta-game and as a first introduction/primer – while a daunting task, the overall graphic is surprisingly beautiful, though not complete, as was to be expected. Generally, I applaud the idea of the article and it is well-written, but the article, even when taken on its meta-level, has an issue – In order to properly depict a genesis/overlook of the systems, one would either require insight into the respective design-philosophies or simply more space for a proper scientific and extensive look at the genesis. In the space allotted to it, the article serves to whet one’s taste and sate basic curiosity, but not more.
The second article by Tim Kask, “Still Gaming after all these Years” is a look at the fascination of gaming and effort to determine what the true essence of the fascination of tabletop rpgs is all about – and it’s not a bad article. Unfortunately, I am perhaps the single worst person to comment on it, since I’ve read a couple of dissertations in sociology that necessarily took a more complex and analytical approach to explaining the dynamics and components of gaming. Now, that being said, if you want an essay-style article to formulate some components of the fascination of gaming out for you or make an eloquent point, then this might be just what you’re looking for.
Lenard Lakofka’s contribution is a direct continuation of the “Leomund’s Tiny Hut”-articles, now under the name of “Leomund’s Secure Shelter”. Beyond an overview and reminiscence of days of old, old-school gamers (and guys like me who fondly remember COMPONENTS of old-games – all in all I’m VERY content with the direction gaming has taken…) get a table and calculations that seek to answer the old question “Is +1 damage or +1 to hit better” in the context of THACO. One of my players got a chuckle out of this table, since he actually did a spreadsheet for all ACs/THAC0-combinations to optimize his attacks. Yeah. In 2nd edition. My players were and still are insane sometimes. And yeah, I would have appreciated a concise THAC0/AC-rundown table here as well.
Ronald Corn offers us an article that depicts the ecology of the banshee, perhaps my most favorite incorporeal undead creature – and it is a great article, even if you don’t directly use the old-school, rather rudimentary mechanics provided by the article. The optional abilities mentioned can easily be transcribed to a wide array of systems and apart from the slightly trite genesis that is provided for the banshee and a lack of ties to elven/faerie lore, this article, as the first with actual content, does its job well indeed and should provide some neat ideas for you to scavenge.
Luke Gygax shares an extensive anecdote on the acquisition of Dragon #8 and Nevin P. Jones tells us about the virtues of tabletop gaming and his good experiences with the Roll20-community and system in particular. The latter article is split in half, btw., requiring you to skip to later pages.
Dennis Sustare brings us an article focused on bringing the magic back to a game and making magic feel more magical – something I can get behind and often have commented on with regards to spell, curses, incantations and how the codification of enchantment and sense of entitlement has imho hurt this central aspect of the game. What I can’t enjoy about the article is that it essentially boils down to pointers towards e.g. the Quicksilver or Mistborn-RPG/books. I don’t need that and it doesn’t help me – it’s a pity, really: I fondly remember Denis Sustare’s ideas and this article is surprisingly bereft of them and remains basic advice that did not bring anything to my table.
James M. Ward makes, especially in contemporary fantasy, a very good point in his article “Playing the Science-fiction Way” – the boundaries of genres have been blended in modern fantasy/sci-fi, with hybrids like steampunk, cyberpunk etc. influencing the parental genres and said influences often being seen as “wrong” by grognards – even though classic modules of our youth were trailblazers in this blending of genres, with often extremely remarkable results. Giving said influences a chance can enrich any given game in my opinion and the author makes a concise and poignant case in defense of sci-fi elements in fantasy. Something to think about when the knee-jerk impulse to condemn psionics, nations like Numeria in Golarion or the inclusion of space-travel (whether in Spelljammer ships or proper space-crafts…) kicks in next…Variety adds spice and contemporary fantasy literature is richer for the facets the blending and cross-pollination of genres has provided us with.
Cory Doctorow has an interesting article to bring new players into the fold – advice on DMing for toddlers! Beyond the basic math and similar skills learned while playing, the advice is, as far as I can tell, having no children, sound and makes for a good article that might not only make your children appreciate the hobby from an early age, but actually help them develop their skills as they play – while not in a scientific way, then at least in a fun way that will prove to be more efficient and fulfilling for both parent and child.
On the more crunchy side of things, Steve Kenson gives us 9 new powers complete with stunts (often multiple), limits and which cover e.g. evolution forwards and backwards through time, before Ethan Gilsdorf takes us on a meditation on the past, present and future of roleplaying games, how they changed the world and what the future may hold for them, while Ernest Gary Gygax Jr. shares with us some personal memories on how the art of storytelling to make children sleep in the house of Gygax evolved – a heartwarming article, to be sure, though again one that was split in the middle.
Players of the Godlike-RPG will enjoy 3 new Talents by Dennis Detwiller and we also have a massive article by Michael Tresca who talks to us about conversion and the subtle traps of converting modules and content from one edition of D&D to another – an intriguing one, that, and there’s quite some potential here – in future issues, I’d love to see concrete conversion guidelines for respective systems, though, instead of just general pieces of advice.
Michael Curtis provides us with the lengthiest article in the magazine, the village of Gnatdamp – a fully depicted town, including a one-page b/w-map and extensive information on the village as well as 3 sample adventure hooks – a great article, though I would have enjoyed a keyless (i.e. no numbers etc.) version of the map to show to players without breaking immersion by denoting the village’s “hotspots”.
Kobold-in-chief Wolfgang Baur also has his corner in the Gygax magazine, providing us with more crunchy morsels, this time especially nice for fans of AGE: Randall Hurlburt has 16 new magical miscellaneous items for the AGE-system ready, while Rodrigo García Carmona brings inventions to the system with concise rules for the new engineering focus (subset of cunning), the invention talent as well as rules for blueprint-creation and gadgetry. Nice!
Marc Radle also has something up his sleeve that is especially relevant for players of Pathfinder (or other d20-iterations, though these require potentially more work!): We’re talking feats. Not feat-bloat, but rather an alternate approach to a couple of them, namely feat-chains: We’ve all been there: All right, we have two weapon fighting, that means later we’ll have to get the Improved and greater varieties. And let’s face it, they’re boring. Useful, yes, but oh so bland – Marc Radle’s approach is the following: Kill these feat-chains. The feats herein are designed to replace whole feat-chain with organically-scaling benefits that have their powers unlocked gradually. The process by which more of these can be made or some excluded is laid bare and rather simple, making it possible for DMs to customize how many they’ll use and create new ones. Mechanically a great contribution ad actually imho more streamlined than the basic Regular-Improved-Greater-progression.
There is one thing the article omits, though, and it is a crucial piece of information DMs NEED: Balancing. Replacing 3 feats with 1 is a net-power gain of 2 feats that can be allocated in a different way. If you take a fighter, he can get A LOT of complete feat-chain-feats via these rules. And “The
GM will need to decide how to handle these grey areas should they arise.” is NOT a valid piece of balancing advice. Now don’t get me wrong, design-wise I LOVE these and enjoy them quite a bit, but just thinking how much easier normally feat-intense tricks become available to classes like e.g. the bard or rogue makes my head spin and requires proper balancing advice.
We also get some comics, “Marvin the Mage”, “What’s new?”, “Order of the Stick” and “Dungeon 101”. Since humor is highly subjective, I’ll refrain from commenting on these.
Editing and formatting are top-notch; I didn’t notice any glaring mistakes – though I don’t particularly care for the articles split in the middle. They annoyed me back in the day and have thankfully died out mostly here in Germany – I hope future issues of the magazine will have them all in one place. Layout adheres apart from some pieces of advertisement to a relatively printer-friendly b/w-3-column standard that proves that the 3-column standard can work when done right, so nothing to complain on that front. The b/w-artworks are thematically fitting and hearken back to the days of old in flair and execution and are solid, though not mind-boggling. As a mayor comfort-detriment, especially with the presence of split articles, I’d rank the fact that this magazine has no bookmarks – in this day and age, where even some files with less than 10 pages feature them, this is a serious blunder. I’m also not sure whether any part of this magazine’s rules is open content since there is no SRD included – not sure whether I like that.
Oh boy, how to review this? Gygax Magazine seeks to provide something for everybody while hearkening back to the days of the old Dragon-magazine – but does it succeed? Yes…and no. The presentation and overall flair of the magazine is dauntingly old-school and evokes that same feeling that puts it in a direct line of succession with the classic. The magazine “feels” right, it tugs at your heart’s strings and provides that warm, fuzzy feeling of nostalgia so many of us crave. And nostalgia isn’t bad or foreign to me – I do own ALL Frog God Games/Necromancer Games-products ever put out and have a complete collection of just about every obscure 2nd edition setting out there as well as a myriad of old Dragon and Dungeon issues.
And still, a nagging feeling of something missing just wouldn’t go away. First, I attributed it to the magazine covering a variety of systems – but that wasn’t it – I own all KQ-issues and never minded that they covered a multitude of systems. Nor was it the eclectic range of articles. No, it was something different. And then it hit me: Ideas.
Roleplaying is about ideas and they can be great, no matter what the system. And that is where the issue finds me unsatisfied. THACO-math is nice, but system-relevant and not about ideas, to give you an example. The general problem I have with this magazine is that there are not enough inspiring ideas, not enough content. The non-crunchy articles, the non-fluff articles are universally not bad reads – in fact, most of them are nice and even compelling at times – but too much space is devoted to establishing the old-school credibility of the authors and reminiscing. Somewhere along the line I didn’t feel like I was reading a game magazine, but rather as if I was listening to some people tell me about their gaming stories and anecdotes. There’s nothing wrong with such articles, they can prove to be insightful. But at this extent, we simply need more gaming content instead of moderately exciting talk about gaming and if we do get articles like this, I’d like them to have a proper punch-line, a point that is not readily apparent to 90% of DMs.
Even if you pull the card and say that this magazine is made to recruit, introduce new people to the fold, is not valid – a system-spanning magazine with this target demographic simply doesn’t need to establish many of the things established in here – the audience is already listening and in the know.
Not due to any lack in quality (apart from the jarring lack of working bookmarks), but due to a lack in content, I can’t rate this higher than 3 stars, in spite of it having some leeway due to being the first issue – even for those wearing the sepia-tinted glasses of nostalgia. If you’re like me, you’ll get something out of this issue, yes, but if you don’t care for old-school gaming or simply lack a nostalgic vein, then this might not be for you. In spite of the criticism, though, I consider this a promising first issue of a magazine that could develop into something great. Future issues will show whether Gygax Magazine can manage to add some substance to its bones without losing its charming old-school appeal.
You can check out this issue here on OBS!