Tuesday, November 9, 2010

REVIEW (and Editorial): Fight On! Issue 10

I certainly don't envy anyone whose job it is putting together a magazine or a newspaper in this day and age. The ubiquity of the Internet must make it nigh impossible to create something that one can justify selling to people rather than simply giving away for free. This difficulty is even more pronounced when the magazine you're producing caters to a fandom of one sort or another. Fans, being fanatics, will often create reams of material -- some of it very good -- in support of the object of their obsession and disseminate it widely without a thought of charging for it, making it even more difficult for publishers to suggest that others pay for the privilege of reading what they have to offer.

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.
These aren't all the articles in issue 10, but they're a good cross-section of what we get in the latest volume. Most of them are serviceable and a handful are quite good, but comparatively few of them strike me as the sort I think ought to be preserved in a print product. Now, again, maybe that's an inappropriate standard against which to hold any magazine, especially one that caters to a fan community, I don't know.

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.

45 comments:

  1. Oh James, going all Raggi on us with what is almost a rant, albeit an articulate and considered argument. I agree with you about FO! - articles are too lengthy or blogfodder.

    (As my nephew has already coloured mine in I suggest they make a colouring book issue, that's what my OSR needs: conan vs cthuloid paint-by numbers)

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  2. Snark snark snark! Snarkity snark von snark! In fact, I find it interesting that you snarky snark with snark on top when snark snark snarkle snark. Snark? Snark snarkle? Snarkle barkle blark! So nex time you snarkity bark von dark, snarky snark!

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  3. Not to discount your other points, but I find it odd that you say this: "First, provide material that can't easily be presented on a blog or forum, meaning lengthier, more substantial articles," ....and then specifically criticize several of the articles for being too long.

    Maybe it's just that the specific articles are overly wordy for the amount of actual content?

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  4. Maybe it's just that the specific articles are overly wordy for the amount of actual content?

    You're right that what I wrote is contradictory. What I meant to convey was that many of the articles are too long for what they are. I don't see any reason why, for example, a mini-setting needs to take up more than 20 pages. That's not an article; it's a supplement.

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  5. I agree with your thoughts here James, especially regarding things like NPCs, reviews, material for Encounter Critical and the like, ho-hum spells and magic items, rehashed blog posts that we are now having to pay for...but I have to defend the Khosura article by Gabor Lux. He has produced a wonderful campaign world that is sadly mostly in Hungarian, with the largest bulk of the English translation having appeared in Fight On!, starting with issue 1. For someone like me who has purchased every copy of the magazine, it has made available a detailed weird fantasy world with maps, gods, countries and a decent range of adventures. And to me this is one of the highlights, the gold, of this magazine. I wish more of the content was of this depth and value.

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  6. "Education of a Magic-User: Sue me -- I find this comic quite funny."

    Same here.

    Not mentioned above, but I also liked the Fast Company chargen article quite a bit. I could imagine myself using it to start up a quick game sometime.

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  7. "rehashed blog posts that we are now having to pay for"

    While I agree with the general sentiment that perhaps #10 did not achieve the lofty heights of previous issues, I must note that no one has to pay for any of this stuff.

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  8. These big issues never turn out quite as well overall, but I'm not sure it's the actual content, which in most cases I think is great. I think (1) it's just too much to process in the way we process magazines and (2) the really long articles, even when super-duper-great (and I like all three of the long setting/adventures in issue 10 quite a bit, I think they're really awesome), are hard to read through in that format and in some ways would be better served by independent publishing. But, paradoxically, published independently they probably would not get the 500 or so readers that every issue of FO! eventually gets.

    I will say what I said a while back to the redoubtable Trent Foster about issues 3 and 4, about which he had similar feelings: I do think that if you took the best 88 pages out of these longer issues they would be as good or better than the great standard-length issues (2,5,7,8).

    But, I think quality control on proofreading and editing/rewriting can't help but slip some when we get out to this page length, even if the content is good, so I am going to reaffirm a promise I made to myself and the community a while back: 88 pages unless absolutely necessary to go over it.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. The only downside is that now we know you're really the yourdungeonissuck guy - you can run, but you can't hide!

    Seriously, thanks for the feedback, James. And you know one way you can help kick the content up a notch - send me a couple of those articles you promised me a while back that I've been waiting on. :-)

    Best,

    Ignatius

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  9. I'll speak up in defense of "The Darkness Beneath" as being one of my favorite features of "Fight On!". I got some great play out of the first two levels a while back, and for the most part the presentation on has been spot on in terms of providing enough to be evocative but not so much detail as to be burdensome. I don't necessarily thinks its a bad thing for FO to include material verging on supplements (as with the Khosura stuff as well) because for me this magazine is a resource that I hope to call on for inspiration 5, 10, or 20 years down the line!

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  10. The only downside is that now we know you're really the yourdungeonissuck guy

    I was thinking exactly the same thing. ;)

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  11. but I have to defend the Khosura article by Gabor Lux.

    It needs no defense, as I think it's (mostly) excellent stuff. I simply think that there's too much of it in any given issue, something that was equally true of, for example, that "Oceanian Legends" series.

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  12. The only downside is that now we know you're really the yourdungeonissuck guy - you can run, but you can't hide!

    Wow, you really hit below the belt, don't you?

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  13. Hey now! I play Encounter Critical and I'm grateful for an article on it. I haven't seen this issue yet as I am currently broke, but that article is one of the main incentives to pick it up!

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  14. My prediction: everyone will agree that the less-good articles should be cut. No one will agree on which ones those are.

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  15. 'much as I appreciate both Encounter Critical and Bushido, how many people actually play these games?'

    As I've said before, I think the OSR is mostly readers/collectors and DMs/would be designers rather than players,so I don't see a problem in this. Converting ideas from other systems is what many good DMs excel at.

    The push/pull between Encounter Critical and Carcosa has spawned most of the good sci-fantasy stuff this year so having some EC is relevant at the mo.

    Gabor Lux's always steals the show though. I think more than anything, it's what makes the issues collectable. Whether it's becoming suffocating depends on your POV. I think it's pure class.

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  16. My prediction: everyone will agree that the less-good articles should be cut. No one will agree on which ones those are.

    Which is why I don't envy the job of an editor.

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  17. Whether it's becoming suffocating depends on your POV. I think it's pure class.

    Absolutely, which is why I tried to make it clear the criticisms I offered were my own. For a lot of people, I suspect the contents of Fight On! are just right and that's cool.

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  18. I've never seen any issues of NOD, so I can't really compare them.

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  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  20. "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."

    James, I don't think that is the proper role of a magazine. Other than some Gygax-penned stuff from The Strategic Review and the first few issues of The Dragon that made its way into the published D&D game, how much from Dragon magazine was of lasting value? Nothing, I think. And that's OK.

    In my opinion, the value of a RPG magazine is to offer little bits of fantasy, invention, and whimsy that tickles you enough to dabble with in your game; only to be forgotten (and even throw away) by the time the next issue roles around and you get a new supply of shiny doodads (a new monster, a new spell, a new armor system, a new class, a module, an interesting setting, or whatnot) to mess around with for a little while.

    With a magazine I'm not looking for a wife. I'm looking for a hot date.

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  21. That's a good point, Geoffrey. It isn't like everything that ever came out in Dragon got enshrined somewhere. I've been playing for 20+ years and can think of maybe 6-7 Dragon articles that made it into my game. Most of it I read and thought "that's neat" or "that's awful" but I was still in it for the next article.

    Even if one article a year really struck home I'd have a fat book of photocopied articles.

    It isn't as though someone is going to cite this in a thesis or read bits of it at a wedding. It's not Shakespeare, Milton, or Donne. If it entertains you for the time it takes to read it then it's done it's job. If 1% makes it into the game then it's done an excellent job.

    Articles in a magazine like this are like custom cars at an auto show. They're not meant to be driven. They exist so old hands can look at each others' work.

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  22. I don't know why somebody hasn't already said this but the cover of this issue is so awesome I think I may buy it for that alone. White Plume Mountain lives!

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  23. What's the reason for the 'Ignatius' pseudonym?

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  24. Um, selections from my articles are OFTEN read at weddings... :)

    I'm just hoping that The Darkness Beneath will eventually be published as a stand-alone megadungeon with some serious attention paid to formatting. And that someone makes a t-shirt out of it's meta-map...

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  25. Limit the page count to 40, price accordingly and the great material will boil up to the surface. Less is usually more.

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  26. I find that the issues usually vary a lot. Sometimes even over time. I have come back to articles which I previously dismissed. That being said, I kind of agree with James that so many long pieces leaves too little space for the usual mix of odds and ends, where you find among the highs and lows something that everyone can find interesting.

    Covering Encounter Critical and Bushido is great I think. More diversity in games in the OSR is only a good thing. I absolutely don't understand Encounter Critical, and still think so.

    Regarding the proofing I think #10 was better than #9, which surprised me by containing more misspellings and errors than I've seen before or since.

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  27. Hi James, Hi everyone. I wrote The Shrine That Glittered, a stand-alone adventure in this issue, and except a small and funny rant about my devious formatting in the glorious, albeit nonsensical, Your Dungeon Is Suck review, all I read as far as reviews as concerned is "there's dungeons too, cool". It's nice to know but I'd love to read what you guys actually feel about it. One of the main points of getting into Fight On!, at least for me, is to get a proper feedback of the OSR players, the other one being, obviously, to share whatever I'm up to. Please shoot!

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  28. From what I've seen of both magazines, Fight On has more useable articles than Dragon did.

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  29. Thanks for the review, James!

    "That being said, I kind of agree with James that so many long pieces leaves too little space for the usual mix of odds and ends, where you find among the highs and lows something that everyone can find interesting."

    It's only a percentage difference though. Since issue 3 or 4 all the different features have been in every issue; it's just that when there are lots of extra adventures the percentage of total space they take up is smaller.

    Ignatius was the editor of the legendary California generic gaming magazine "The R'Lyeh Text" back in 1985, and so when Jeff Rients and I started working on putting the original issue of Fight On! together I tapped him to run the show for us.

    There's a lot of good stuff in issue 10 and we'll try to keep bringing you the best FRP material we can find in future issues to come.

    Peace,

    Calithena

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  30. Actually, James, you yourself were a major force behind the early issues of FO! too, and we'll be happy to look at more of your stuff any time!

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  31. And just to jump on the Gabor Lux love bandwagon - to my mind the Khosura underworld is easily worth $10 all by itself. Maybe a fanzine isn't the best format to process it the first read through, but this is some seriously excellent work - you won't find dungeons of this scope and excellence presented with this brevity and incisiveness very many places. Gabor is becoming one of the all-time greats of classic dungeon design in my view, even if he's come to us thirty years after most of the rest.

    That's all I got. Hope people enjoy the issue!

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  32. "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?"

    I’m not one to give anyone “flack” and didn’t immediately know how to reply to these comments. But by asking, “why are these articles here,” and “how many people… play these games” you are, I think, overlooking some of the spirit of the OSR. Bushido is certainly an old school game and E.C. is a retro clone and simply because they are not in major distribution with other retro clones or the world’s most popular FRPG is no reason to leave them out of our gaming “movement.”

    I think one thing we can all agree on about the OSR is that we are seeking variation. This seems evident by the various retro clones that have been produced. The OSR is about making the game/s up as we go along as we believe Mr. G would have us do. I believe someone else has pointed out that DMs borrow material from system A and convert it to system B all the time. Thus the E.C. and Bushido articles can serve this purpose if nothing else.

    But to leave articles about lesser known game systems out of an indy rpg fanzine is much like suggesting that Rolling Stone should never publish articles about Johnny Cash.

    signed, one of less than 1000 Encounter Critical players

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  33. With a magazine I'm not looking for a wife. I'm looking for a hot date.

    I can understand the sentiment, so here's a question: why a magazine and not a blog or forum post? It seems to me that, in 2010, ephemera are best served by a virtual format rather than a print one.

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  34. Articles in a magazine like this are like custom cars at an auto show. They're not meant to be driven. They exist so old hands can look at each others' work.

    Again, I can understand this sentiment but I must ask: why use print for this rather than a virtual format? For me, print implies a degree of permanence and thus the content ought to be tailored accordingly.

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  35. Please shoot!

    I liked "The Shrine That Glittered" well enough. It's the kind of adventure material I'd prefer to see in FO!, since it's brief, modular, and includes lots of clever little ideas that are easy to loot even if I don't use the scenario as written.

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  36. From what I've seen of both magazines, Fight On has more useable articles than Dragon did.

    Even if that were true (and I'm not sure that it is), I'm not sure it's a fair comparison, as, during Dragon's heyday, referees didn't have ready and immediate access to hundreds of pages of free ideas from their counterparts across the globe. My big beef is not that FO! isn't a good magazine -- I think it's, overall, quite solid -- but that I increasingly worry that its content isn't sufficiently good that I'd be willing to pay for it.

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  37. Actually, James, you yourself were a major force behind the early issues of FO! too, and we'll be happy to look at more of your stuff any time!

    Thank you for the offer and, should any of my article ideas gel into something I think worthy of committing to print, you'll definitely see a submission from me.

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  38. Thanks for the comment, James, these are exactly the ideas I had in mind while designing it, so I guess I've hit the right nail, for your needs at least. On the review as a whole, I think that we might have stumbled into a rather philosophical issue here instead of a standard content review. You and Ignatius both seem to consider FO as a reference for the OSR. This point acknowledged, I think that "reference" rings a different bell for both of you. From FO's POV, being "referential" implies covering as much of the ground as possible, offering published space to all the OSR tendencies, however obscure and minor and regardless of their format, as long as quality standards are met. From your, it seems that the same standpoint implies short, sharp and spot on dedicated content. Both views are fine, as far as I'm concerned but they serve a different purpose and sprout from a different philosophy.

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  39. James wrote: "why a magazine and not a blog or forum post? It seems to me that, in 2010, ephemera are best served by a virtual format rather than a print one...For me, print implies a degree of permanence and thus the content ought to be tailored accordingly."

    I live in Colorado, and to buy Fight On! with cheapest possible shipping would cost me a grand total of $13.98. My contributor PDF of that issue is 140 long. Crunch those numbers, and you see that each page delivered to my mailbox is 10 cents. That is precisely how much per page it costs to print-out things from the internet at my local library. And don't even get me started on how much it costs to buy your own paper and ink and printer to print-out stuff at home.

    Bottom line: You're not paying for the content. You're paying for the convenience and visceral pleasure of having someone print all that stuff out, bind it, and mail it to you.

    Many people, including myself, will give a closer reading to something if it's printed. I tend to skim on the internet. Plus the convenience of grabbing a magazine to take to your game session. I have NEVER taken a computer to a game session, and I never will. Ick.

    To re-emphasize: Nobody is getting paid for this stuff. The writers donate their work. The artists donate their work. Sean donates his efforts. You're paying for the paper and the ink, not the content. IMO, nothing in Fight On! or in Dragon or in Polyhedron or in Dungeon or in Knockspell or in etc. is of "lasting value". It's all merely periodical fodder for your game. I think the proper place for any magazine is the trash can by the time it's 6 months old. And that's how I like it.

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  40. Full disclosure: I love RPG magazines. Some of my fondest memories of D&D involve thumbing through the latest Dragon magazine (before the 3rd edition era, anyway) and buying it or not based on a 5 or 10-minute perusal. I got more bang for my buck and more enjoyment out of Dragon (and now out of Fight On!) than I have out of almost any other D&D product. The exceptions from over the last 30 years I can count on my fingers.

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  41. "Wow, you really hit below the belt, don't you?"

    Sorry, James - this was intended in jest and not meant to give offense.

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  42. For what it's worth, I guess it would be interesting to know the percentage of sales for print versions vs. .pdfs. Personally, though I love FO!, I totally agree that the longer issues are a bit taxing sometimes to "mine". I personally buy .pdfs & only print a few articles, ones I think I will use. That may be one article, or four. I also agree that less is more though, however, it is tricky given the different formats. I guess it comes down to how much "time" you wanna spend on perusing the things. Possibly James feels he "has" to read through the thing b/c he is now a link in the review chain? Other readers dont really have that pressure. But again, I can feel a lot of what yr sayin... Ok. out.

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  43. If you want to check out some issues of Fight On! and decide for yourself, today only you can get 20.10% off with the code VETSDAY305. So...

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