Sunday, May 11, 2008

REVIEW: Adventure Games Journal, Issue #1

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.
As you can see, AGJ #1 contains a wide diversity of material. Likewise, it seems apparent to me that Adventure Games Publishing hopes that it might be of interest to more than just dedicated fans of the Wilderlands or players of Castles & Crusades. Indeed, the opening editorial says that "In the future we will have articles on other role-playing game systems and campaign settings, including the Known Realms Campaign Setting and Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure modules from Goodman Games and Rifts, Palladium Fantasy, Heroes Unlimited, and other fine products from Palladium Books. We'll be talking with more publishers down the road about coverage of their role-playing systems and campaign worlds." At the risk of overusing an adjective, let me again say that this intention is commendable and in keeping with the approach of old school magazines back in the day.

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


  1. “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.’”

    I tend to prefer big-picture sketchiness to deep minutiae as well, but I don’t understand why you would be against such supplemental articles being published in a magazine. Having them as separate articles that you can swap in or out as you choose seems quite appropriate.

    Those who want to remain with the sketchy version ignore them. Those who want more detail use them. The rest of us keep the overall sketchiness whilst cherry-picking the details we like. Seems like a win-win-win to me.

  2. I dislike minutiae because I see them as the first steps on the road to perdition. When I get around to writing "Why Traveller Ruined Everything," I'll elaborate on this some more, but my basic principle is that, once a setting starts accumulating too many little details through official articles and products, the temptation to treat these details as canon, even if the creators of the game explicitly state otherwise, is too great. No game setting I'm aware of has resisted the siren song of canon once articles about the wives of a major NPC -- complete with stats! -- becomes a staple of its support.

    The Wilderlands is far from there and I don't think one or two articles in the first issue of a magazine intended to support the setting necessarily mean anything in the final analysis. That said, I would urge Mr Mishler to focus on less fiddly, more "generic" topics in the future, because I would hate to see a setting that defines old school, sandbox-style play turn into another Forgotten Realms or post-Gygax Greyhawk.

  3. Interesting. I find the huge range of classic Traveller material that each referee can pick-and-choose from or completely ignore to be a great idea.

    But then, I’ve never gamed with anyone who took the concept of “canon” seriously beyond rhetorical purposes. In my group, even when we play a Marvel or Star Wars or Middle-earth game, it’s a given that the GM may ignore or contradict any notion of canon.

    I’ve also voiced my opinion that game companies ought to avoid any serious idea of “canon” as well. It makes no sense to worry about a publication jiving with canon when individual GMs are still going to have to mod it to fit in their own living—and thus divergent from canon—campaigns.

    Anyway, like I said, I’ve only glimpsed this “siren song” having any effect via claims on the net. No one I’ve actually gamed with has found that call seductive no matter how much minutiae gets published.

  4. Great review, thanks!

  5. Alas, the lure of canon isn't confined to horror stories on the net, as anyone who's ever played Traveller can attest. That game is an object lesson in how not to build up an official setting and I would hate to see the Wilderlands go down that road even a little.

  6. (o_O)

    But I am someone who played Traveller.

    I look forward to your future post on this topic.

  7. Apologies for thread necromancy, but as a long time Traveller fanboy, I'm very curious if your distaste for the development of the Traveller canon is directed at the accumulation of minutia via Library Data, the adventures, and JTAS, or you are referring to the disastrous venture into meta-plot circa MegaTraveller. (Or both?)

  8. This is even better thread necromancy! I just bought AGJ 1, and was curious to read reviews. I've just breezed through it, read this review, and the author's response. I find the product interesting to read, and I may use some of it. But I have mixed feelings about it, and that's due to the "canon" issue. While I've changed material myself, and pretty much make changes to anything I use, I think (and have experienced as a player myself) that some players go into a campaign wanting to experience the canon setting, or canon famous module, or whatever. Certainly a game master can do what they want, but you're dealing with a "customer base" and its expectations. That having been said, I look at the Wilderlands campaign as a whole. Various other JG products weren't connected to it, for instance, Frontier Forts of Kelnore. I have no desire to stick Kelnore into the campaign, and don't feel compelled to, since it wasn't presented that way. Now as a player and DM of JG products since the late 70's, I confess that I get a little bent when I see some things that have been subsequently "assigned" to the Wilderlands campaign. For instance, the incorporation of Kelnore as "canon" in the d20 products, or the Mayfair rewrite of CSIO back in the day. Thus my mixed feelings on skimming through AGJ 1. For instance, in an old issue of Pegasus (which I also consider sort of "new,") the three moons are identified as the Sky King, Vanis and Howla. I adopted that, but don't appreciate seeing another take on it in this product. Also, in my old copies of CSIO, there's no name given for the Overlord, but in the old Wilderlands book, the ruler is stated to be Balarnega. Now I see mention of Balarnega as someone else, a prime minister or something, and a different name given for the Overlord. You see where I'm going. Yes, GM's can always do what they want, but there are expectations, and I dislike having to ignore things that others may expect to find. OTOH, I'm a huge fan of CT and its universe, and wanted to read all the canon I could come upon. Right up until the release of Megatraveller and the destruction of the Imperium I loved so well. Funny, right? But what I came to realize is that I want a baseline setting that I can grow. I don't want publishers' metaplots to wreck havoc, I want a continuous stream of product to support that original baseline. I'll advance history myself. And I get bent, somewhat, by changes made to my beloved settings by subsequent, unrelated authors and publishers. I don't want to see the original canon modified, by whomever it is. I don't have any problem, generally speaking, with huge amounts of canon to absorb. But I'd like it to be modular, so a poor GM doesn't have to memorize volumes of data to run a localized campaign. OK, I think I've rambled enough now. Thanks for listening!