Consequently, I am keenly aware of how hard it must be to produce four issues of Fight On! magazine each year. Merely laying out each issue must be a mammoth undertaking. Add to that the challenge of choosing which articles to include and you've got the makings of a thankless job that I could never take up. My proverbial hat is off to Ignatius Ümlaut and his assistants. They deserve a lot of gratitude and praise for soldiering on despite the difficulties inherent in making a magazine in the 21st century, especially one whose readers likely visit blogs, forums, and websites that release material very similar to its own contents and do so gratis.
So, how does one justify charging for material in a magazine like Fight On! at this time? I don't think there's a single answer to this question and, seeing as I'm not the one who labors to produce an issue each quarter, I'm not sure that my opinion on the matter amounts to much anyway. But, were I the one making the call, I'd focus on two criteria for potential content. First, provide material that can't easily be presented on a blog or forum, meaning lengthier, more substantial articles, not ephemera like spells, monsters, or magic items. Second, provide material that has lasting value, which is to say, material to which readers will want to refer later rather than simply read once and never look at again.
Now, obviously, such criteria, if taken seriously, would complicate producing even a single issue a year, let alone four, which is why, armchair editor that I am, Ignatius Ümlaut and company should take my advice with a huge grain of salt. However, I offer the advice sincerely and with the hope that the spirit behind it will be well-received. Fight On! is, in my opinion, one of the pillars of the old school renaissance, attracting an audience well beyond the echo chamber of the blogs and forums. For that reason, it ought to be of the highest quality possible, with content that allows it to stand head and shoulders above what most of us can read daily on, literally, hundreds of online venues.
From the beginning, Fight On! has been special and, having read the recently released issue 10 ($9.99 in print, $7.00 in PDF), I worry that its specialness is slipping, at least a little bit. At 138 pages, issue 10 is a very hefty one, the second largest to date, I believe. While its content is solid, very little of it comes close to meeting either of the criteria I set out above. I regret saying that, because it might give the false impression that I felt the current issue was significantly below the quality of previous ones, when that's not the case at all. I do think, despite its length, that issue 10 is one of the weaker Fight On! volumes. That's doubly disappointing, both because of the role Fight On! plays in the old school community and because this issue is dedicated to the memory of Tom Moldvay, one of a handful of people whose work back in the heyday of the hobby laid the groundwork for its continued endurance. I wish this issue had been as strong as, say, the one honoring Erol Otus, a man whose contributions, while significant, don't compare to those of Tom Moldvay.
Rather than continuing to speak in generalities, let me illustrate what I mean through some concrete examples:
- The Time-Displaced: This is a new character race for Mutant Future and it's pretty well done, adding something that's genuinely lacking in the rulebook. It's an example of the kind of thing I'd like to see in Fight On! since I think it has lasting value.
- Cult Leader: Though more fitting for NPCs than PCs, this is similarly useful.
- Grognard's Grimoire: I think there's potential in presenting new spells, but, in general, I find most installments of this column brief and under-developed in a way that is fine for a blog or forum rather than a print periodical.
- Knights & Knaves: I've honestly never seen much value in presenting fully-statted up NPCs outside of an adventure.
- Khosura: City State of the Four Mysteries: I love seeing snippets of other people's settings, as well as scenarios, like this one, that give a taste of what it's like to adventure there. These shouldn't be too long, though, and I fear this one is.
- The Gozillas Will Breath on You! and Futa-kuchi-onna: I expect to catch flak for this opinion but here goes: much as I appreciate both Encounter Critical and Bushido, how many people actually play these games? Both these articles are short, yes, but, even so, why are they here?
- Education of a Magic-User: Sue me -- I find this comic quite funny.
- Trolls Will Be Trolls: I've been critical of the one-page dungeon format in the past, but I do think it works really well as part of a magazine feature.
- The Heart of Darkness: The same goes for the one-page wilderness format.
- Artifacts, Adjuncts, & Oddments: Like Grognard's Grimoire above, I think there's potentially a place for such a column but I'm not sure I've ever seen an example of it that struck me as "magazine-worthy."
- Lost Dragonia: This is a neat "lost worlds" style mini-setting and feels somewhat Moldvayan in character, but it's very long and I think unnecessarily so.
- Dungeon Modules: I like the idea of plug-and-play dungeon locales.
- Moulin Rouge 1955: I'm as big a fan of cross-dimensional fantasy gaming as anyone, but I really don't know what to make of this article, which presents a Las Vegas hotel and casino, for use with ... some game or other. It feels very out of place.
- The Darkness Beneath: The latest installment continues a long-established trend of being overly long and quirky. There's much to like in this level, but, again, does anyone use this?
- Reviews: This is the kind of content that works best, in my opinion, on blogs and forums.
- Everyone is Here to Have Fun: A reminiscence of Tom Moldvay. There should have been more articles in this vein.
I get the sense that, for a lot of people, the mere fact that Fight On! exists as a printed journal is good enough and, on some level, I am sympathetic to that point of view. And, in its early days, maybe that was enough. I'm not so sure that's the case any longer, though. There are now so many old school blogs and forums that I can't keep up with them all. Many of them produce a great deal of material of very high quality and it's available for free. In such a world, what role does Fight On! have?
That's a question that I am glad I don't have to answer for everyone, but I can answer it for myself. In an ideal world, Fight On! would serve as a kind of "archive" for the best free material already out there, cleaned up and edited, with accompanying artwork, and supplemented by new material not well served by an online format -- character classes, useful random tables, modular settings and adventure materials, etc. Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure what I even mean by suggesting this. I'm not even sure it's a coherent idea.
I can only say that, after reading issue 10 of Fight On!, I can't shake the feeling that the 'zine needs to "find itself" again and more firmly establish its purpose within the old school renaissance. Right now, it feels somewhat adrift -- unfocused and unsure of itself. If so, the fault for that lies as much with us as it does with its editorial staff. A fanzine is only as good as its contributors and, if Fight On! seems less than it once was, then any of us who complain ought to put our money where our mouth is and see what we can do to change that.