Friday, May 15, 2009

REVIEW: Knockspell #2

As a general rule, I avoid reviewing any products with which I have even a slight association, but I am going to make an exception in the case of issue 2 of Knockspell magazine. I do so because I think it's both a noteworthy product in its own right, as well as another milestone in the development of the old school renaissance. That said, do bear in mind that I contributed two short articles to this issue and weigh my words here accordingly. Although I believe I can offer a fair review of this issue, the possibility of undue bias nevertheless exists and I'd be remiss not to mention it.

Issue 1 of Knockspell was an excellent kick-off for this magazine devoted primarily to supporting Mythmere Games' Swords & Wizardry. Issue 2 builds on the virtues of its immediate predecessor by expanding its page count (t0 86 pages, up from 61) and improving on its presentation. In addition, this issue sees the announcement that Knockspell will now be the "official" magazine for OSRIC, as well as for S&W, although Matt Finch states in his Editor's Note that he doesn't "like the word 'official.' Don’t look for any offi cial rules or official anything else to be coming out of this magazine, but you can expect to see more 1e material starting to show up in these pages as we continue to expand the magazine’s scope." Such a statement is nothing new in the old school community, of course, but it's always good to see this philosophical point restated, as it's at the core of the Old Ways it hopes to revive.

As I noted above, the presentation of this issue is a vast improvement over that of the first one. That's almost certainly due to Jeff Preston's coming on board as art director for Knockspell. Everything looks a great deal more polished than it did in issue 1 but without losing that hobbyist quality that's so essential to the appeal of endeavors like this. The interior illustrations are terrific, with many old hands like James Holloway and Liz Danforth joining the best of the new generation of old school artists. The color cover by Peter Fitzpatrick, depicting an adventurer being lowered down into a forgotten ruin, is inspiring and nicely sets the tone for this issue, a good portion of which is devoted to the thief character class.

Given how much material is packed within its 86 pages, it'd be impossible to comment on it all in any reasonably-sized blog post. Therefore, here are some of the issue's highlights in my opinion:
  • Allan Grohe's discussion of "dungeon dressing," using the example of doors and how they can be used in different ways.
  • Jason "Philotomy Jurament" Cone's expansion of his superb essay on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld."
  • Four alternate thief classes for Swords & Wizardry, two each for the Core Rules and White Box versions of the game, plus an additional one in an interesting article task resolution in S&W.
  • Another fine Fomalhaut adventure by Gabor Lux.
  • Interviews with Stuart Marshall, Chris Gonnerman, Dan Proctor, and Matt Finch, where they each talk about the retro-clone games they've created.
  • Michael Curtis offers up an amazing article on "Dungeon Oddities" that has already inspired me as I continue to work on my Dwimmermount megadungeon.
  • Spell Complexity rules inspired by the fantasy supplement to Chainmail.
  • An Arnesonian magic system.
  • Many new magic items and creatures.
This list doesn't do issue 2 justice, as there are many more articles, both large and small, to be found within its pages. What's remarkable, I think, is not just the diversity of articles, but their quality. There wasn't a single article that left me wondering, "How did that get in here?" Furthermore, each one gave me something to think about, even the additional thief classes, which is high praise given that I've already written a thief class of my own (and which appears in this issue).

Issue 2 of Knockspell really does exemplify Mythmere Games' tagline "Imagine the Hell Out of It." For $10.15, you get an impressive amount of imagination, to be used as-is or to inspire your own creativity. I'm not exaggerating to say that this issue reminded me of Dragon during its Golden Age height. What we have here is a hobbyist periodical that manages to walk that fine line between amateur and professional that I consider the "sweet spot" for old school products. This isn't something thrown together in a slapdash fashion nor is it a slick and soulless cash grab. It is, I think, a textbook example of just what hobbyists can do nowadays, given the technology currently available.

Knockspell #2
thus sets a very high bar for its future issues and for future old school products in general -- something about which I doubt anyone can complain.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
7 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're looking a terrific collection of articles to inspire your old school fantasy adventures and campaigns.
Don't Buy This If: You've already got all the inspiration you need.


  1. My copy is on the way. It's too bad that I finished a short piece on an optional rule for the thief class just as issue 2 made it's debut. Talk about missing the boat!

  2. Is it not available in pdf format? Unfortunately for us Canadians, Lulu's shipping rates are insanely overpriced.

  3. I think the pdf is up now on the storefront. I'm slammed today - my kid's bar mitzvah - but if it's not up (I think it is) I will add it tomorrow.

  4. Also, David Caldwell is doing a joint order for Canadians - you might contact him.

  5. Sounds really neat. I wish I could afford it.

  6. You are becoming an excellent salesman. I was going to buy this anyway, but you really make it sound snazzy.

    I am buying the S&W monster book too, have a review of that coming up?

  7. I am buying the S&W monster book too, have a review of that coming up?

    Alas, I do not yet own a copy of that volume. I will review it once I have it, though.

  8. Is there any useful distinction you could draw between Fight On! and Knockspell? They seem to draw on the same contributers.

  9. Is there any useful distinction you could draw between Fight On! and Knockspell?

    There are many, I think, but the biggest ones are these:

    1. Fight On! is not tied to any specific game system. Most of its content is "system-neutral," using close-but-not-quite D&D terminology for its stats after the manner of Judges Guild's Universal System. Knockspell is much more closely associated with Swords & Wizardry and OSRIC. This is a general tendency in both cases, since exceptions abound.

    2. Knockspell is a bit more focused on mechanical variants than is Fight On! Or, at the very least, those variants are "crunchier" than those in Fight On!. You're much more likely to see new character classes and sub-systems in KS than in FO!

    There are some "flavor" differences too, with Knockspell tending toward the more "serious" side of the gaming spectrum, while Fight On! is gloriously wahoo. To make an analogy I will almost certainly regret later, Knockspell feels more like the kind of magazine I'd create if I were creating a magazine, while Fight On! feels more like the kind of magazine Jeff Rients would create.

    But, since I've contributed to both magazines, I obviously like them both and am in fact glad that we're not limited to only a single vision for our old school magazines.

  10. Thanks. That is very useful. In fact I was expecting you to say there was little difference so far while they feel their way in the early days. I think it is good that they have an attitude right from the start.

    Knockspell feels more like the kind of magazine I'd create if I were creating a magazine, while Fight On! feels more like the kind of magazine Jeff Rients would create.Crystal clear now. I'll have to take a look at both.

  11. "Arnesonian" magic system? Color me intrigued. What can you share about it, and how does it differ from stnadard "Vancian-Gygaxian" D&D magic?

  12. The magic system is a development of the one presented in First Fantasy Campaign. It's basically spells-as-alchemy, with elixirs and potions taking the place of Vancian spell slots.

  13. What? You had your copy couriered in from Knockspell HQ over night? I'm getting old and slow...

  14. In addition to the excellent and quite appropriate Maliszewski/Rients dichotomy, it's worth noting that Fight On! has got a few more "licenses"; Arduin and Tekumel seem to crop up frequently, and material for both Runequest and Dragon Warriors is apparently upcoming. I've been poking around the possibility of submitting Call of Cthulhu stuff too, but I don't think it's going to fly. ;)

  15. Matt sent my pdf contributor copy and it is outstanding! There is a plethora of great articles within. I really liked issue #1 and this issue blows the doors off of that. I am eagerly awaiting my order with the hardcopy so that I can sit outside and read this.

  16. I think that a more fair analogy of Knockspell vs. Fight On! would be Dragon vs. JG-Dungeoneer.

    I like Fight On! more because I'm less interest in cruchy stuff. But I like both of them a lot. Many articles from KS are superb.

  17. Zulgyan took the words out of my mouth -- Knockspell seems closer to The Dragon in philosophy and content, while Fight On! owes more to the 1970s fanzine culture as far as influences go. This is of course no clear-cut distinction; for example, I have written for both and plan to continue in the future, although I am more on the 'fanzines' side of things (including homemade production values - if there is one criticism I would level at the second issue of Knockspell based on browsing my author's PDF, it is that it may be a bit too polished for its own good).

  18. if there is one criticism I would level at the second issue of Knockspell based on browsing my author's PDF, it is that it may be a bit too polished for its own good
    Perhaps, but if the magazine as a whole takes after the well-designed cover, then it may nudge the Fight On! people into upping their design and layout as a response. As long as it doesn't end up with two ultra-slick and content-free magazines, everyone wins!

  19. Does Melan, Man of Science, have a blog or organizing website I can't find? I assume this is the guy who did a topological reduction of Dungeon design and the Systema-Tartarobasis which I have just found.

  20. Kent:, but that's regrettably not in English.

  21. Melan: Thanks, nice work. Google translate helps a little.

    [Apologies to James M. for tangent]

  22. There are also these threads, although they are slightly out of date:
    Hope they are of help.