The Adventure Games Journal is a new magazine published by (not surprisingly) Adventure Games Publishing, which is, in the words of its editor and publisher, James Mishler, "dedicated to role-playing games, most specifically, Castles & Crusades and the Wilderlands of High Adventure Campaign Setting. Every issue will be filled with new adventures, monsters, treasures, classes, races, and the campaign setting information that you as a player and/or judge can use to improve your role-playing game experiences." In short, AGJ roughly follows the model of many old school game periodicals, particularly Judges Guild's legendary Pegasus and The Dungeoneer. The Judges Guild connection only makes sense, of course, given that "no less than half of every issue ... will consist of coverage of ... Wilderlands of High Adventure." Likewise, Mr Mishler has repeatedly expressed his admiration for both Judges Guild and its founder, the late Bob Bledsaw, whose importance in the history of the roleplaying hobby cannot be underestimated.
The connection to Pegasus is made even more explicit in Peter Bradley's evocative cover art, depicting the eponymous Invincible Overlord, Hygelak XI, seated upon his throne, surrounded by his two closest advisers. The throne is surmounted by the carving of a pegasus, its wings outstretched. Longtime fan of the Wilderlands setting though I am, I can't honestly recall whether the throne of the City State was ever described in this way or not, but I have no doubt that Mr Mishler knows, as his knowledge of the setting is encyclopedic. If the device is entirely his invention, it's well-chosen and a respectful nod to the hobby's past that I can't help but appreciate. If it's based on Wilderlands lore, the fact remains that it's a terrific reminder of the pioneers of this hobby and all that they contributed to its early success. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
While the physical format of AGJ #1 is similar to that of of the previously-reviewed XXXI, it's clear that AGP has improved upon its initial offering in many subtle but welcome ways. Firstly, the magazine has a proper cover and a clear title, so there should be no confusion as to what you are getting. The back cover is a map of a single hex in the Wilderlands setting and the insides of both the front and back covers have advertisements for current and future AGP products. The remainder of the product's 48 pages -- the cover pages are still numbered, unfortunately, so the actual journal itself doesn't start until page 3 and ends at page 46 -- uses the same densely-packed two-column layout as XXXI.
There's quite a lot of material in these pages, but it's all easy on the eyes and breezily written. It helps too that the material chosen for the first issue was, for the most part, very engaging. I have some qualms about specific elements of the content, but I'll save those for after I give an overview of Issue #1's articles. They are, in order:
- The Bully Pulpit: This is Mr Mishler's editorial column, where he introduces both the AGJ generally and also its specific content. He notes that "The articles you find within these pages are designed to be usable right away in your games." I find that a commendably old school approach. He goes on to say that "What you won't find are any articles about 'game theory' or 'game style.' My philosophy on such is each player and judge must develop their own through experience and game play." Again, much as I love theorizing about games, I think this is a praiseworthy approach.
- The World of the Wilderlands of High Adventure: This 12-page article is an overview of the cosmology and geography of AGP's take on the Wilderlands setting. There's a lot of very fascinating material here, some of which I'd never seen before (such as the names of the Wilderlands three moons, one of which is called Ioun -- pure genius!). Even those things I had seen, such as capsule descriptions of the various maps, called "districts" here, of the Wilderlands, included new tidbits and spins that made them refreshing. However, this first article is quite long and at times somewhat dry compared to the rest of the magazine. I certainly see much value in it, but I can also see how someone who isn't interested in minutiae would find it dull in places.
- The Invincible Overlord, His Concubines, and His Children: This 5-page article is the first installment of "Hanging Out in the City State," a regular feature detailing some aspect of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. Though I was initially quite skeptical about the utility of an article dealing with the Overlord's twelve concubines and many children, complete with capsule descriptions and game stats, I have to admit that I found it quite fascinating reading that gave me plenty of ideas for adventures and long-term plots. In particular, the notion that one of the leading contenders to rise to the rulership of the evil City State is a 15 year-old Lawful Good wizard struck me as ripe with possibilities.
- Knights of the Realm and FEAR: This 4-page article describes several orders of knighthood active in the City State. Many include simple game mechanics to represent their unique fighting styles or talents, which I liked a great deal. The article also describes a secret society called FEAR -- the Fraternity for the Eradication of Armored Riffraff -- made up of knights and nobleman who see adventurers as upstarts unworthy of the armor they wear. FEAR is a delightfully old school organization and one's reaction to its name and existence are, I think, a Rorschach Test whose results will tell a lot about one's gaming sensibilities. The article is rounded out with some sample knights and rules for ransoming captive knights and nobles.
- Maze of the Mad Mage: This 4-page dungeon (with 1-page map) is an old school adventure locale sure to infuriate players, both with its labyrinthine layout and its teleporting corridors that will frustrate mapping efforts. The adventure is written for C&C, but game mechanics are minimal enough that it should be easily convertible to other systems.
- Monsters & Treasure: This 2-page article gives us several varieties of "orblings," creatures distantly related to prysmal eyes (C&C's name for a beholder-like species, since beholders are not Open Content). Two new magic items are also introduced, the wand of witchery and the cauldron of wisdom.
- Rash'l: God of Tyranny: This is the first installment of the "Lost Gods of the Wilderlands" column. Over 2 pages, this lesser deity is described, as are the beliefs and practices of his followers. Also included are stats for the god himself -- another old school touch I appreciated. Rash'l is no pushover, but neither is he so mighty that a group of determined adventurers could not slay him, which I appreciate. In a setting like the Wilderlands, the mortality even of gods should be a given.
- Esgalbar -- Hidden Dwelling of the Elves: This 7-page article (with maps) is the first installment of the "Lost Lore of the Wilderlands" column. The article describes an elven waystation in the Dearthwood. Housed in a beech tree over 240 feet tall, Esgalbar would make a nice base of operations for adventurers in the region or a memorable set piece that illustrates elven ways and magic. The hex map on the back cover covers the region around Esgalbar and the article itself includes random encounter tables for it. I found this article quite fascinating and "modular" in the best sense of the word.
- Rumors Around the Wilderlands: This 1-page article is, as you would expect, a collection of rumors from different locations in the Wilderlands, some specific (e.g. Viridistan) and some generic (e.g. "Any village or hamlet"). I liked this brief article a great deal, because of the flexibility of its content. It'd be very easy pick a rumor and spin it into an adventure and I like that.
- Shopping List: This 1-page section lists upcoming and recent fantasy RPG releases from a variety of publishers.
- Adventure Finder: This 2-page section lists 122 different fantasy adventures, from a variety of publishers. The adventures are arranged according to their recommended level.
That said, I have a couple of concerns. Firstly, I worry that, as time goes on, AGJ will pile up the minutiae of the Wilderlands. I enjoyed and appreciated the details in the articles on the cosmology of the Wilderlands and the Invincible Overlord's family. Both gave me lots of ideas for adventures and situations. However, I would hate to see too many articles with that level of depth in the future, since what makes the Wilderlands so attractive is its "sketchiness." Beyond some broad details, it's a wide open sword and sorcery setting that can easily be altered to suit a lot of different approaches. In future, I'd much prefer to see shorter "toolbox" articles that introduce locations, characters, items, rumors, and so on. Issue #1 already includes some of this, but I want more in this vein. I think there's a genuine need for "plug and play" fantasy gaming material and AGJ is well-placed to provide it.
My other concern relates to the irregularity of its publication. Issue #1 is listed as January/February 2008. Even though Issue #2 was supposed to have been released in March and Issue #3 in May, there's no indication that either is forthcoming anytime soon. Subscribers to the AGJ are also supposed to get a 48-page Campaign Installment every two months as well. As of now, no Campaign Installment has been published to coincide with the first issue. I imagine that, for a variety of reasons, AGP has run afoul of many of the problems small businesses encounter and that's responsible for some of the delays. Likewise, the death of Bob Bledsaw, who granted a license to AGP to produce Wilderlands materials, has probably wreaked some havoc as well. I fully understand this and can sympathize.
But the delays have prevented me from subscribing to the Adventure Games Journal as I'd like to do. I have no doubt that the material we will eventually see will be of similarly good quality to the first issue and very likely even better. When we will see it, though, is a question to which I have no answer as yet and it's disappointing. I see a great deal of potential in this magazine and would love to see it succeed. Right now, I see untapped potential -- a tantalizing taste of something that could be remarkable and unique. I'll admit to a certain amount of frustration at this; I want more issues to read and enjoy and I'm not getting them. That's a pity on many levels and I hope that whatever problems are plaguing AGP's release schedule, they can be rectified before long. A magazine like this is just what the old school gaming community needs.
Final Score: 4 out of 5 polearms