Monday, November 2, 2009

REVIEW: Knockspell #3

With the recent announcement that Black Blade Publishing was to become the exclusive publisher of the Swords & Wizardry core rules and Knockspell magazine, I expected it to be some time before we'd see any new products released. Not so, as it turned out, for shortly thereafter Black Blade published the third issue of Knockspell. It's theoretically the "Summer 2009" issue, which suggests that it uses the same unique timekeeping system as many academic journals. More seriously, I suspect this means that issue 3 was likely ready to go during the past Summer, but its publication was delayed because of behind the scenes snags connected to the new relationship between Black Blade and Mythmere Games.

As with the previous two issues, number 3 is available in both print and PDF formats. The issue is slightly cheaper than both the previous ones, while its page count (68) is more than issue 1 but less than issue 2. The layout and interior art continue to be of the same high quality we saw in issue 2 and Peter Mullen's cover is nicely evocative. Knockspell is most definitely not an amateur periodical and, while it's still far from being as slick and "professional" as, say, Kobold Quarterly, it very favorably compares to Dragon at its height, both in terms of presentation and content.

And what content! I am consistently amazed at the old school community's ability to produce new material that excites my imagination, even after 30 years of gaming. Issue 3 contains a number of excellent pieces:
  • Allan Grohe's "The Theory and Use of Gates in Campaign Dungeons" is superb, both in its own right and because of its solid grounding in the great literature on the subject to be found in the hobby's past.
  • Akrasia's "Pulp Heroes and the Colors of Magic" offers up some swords-and-sorcery style magic and damage rules for use with Swords & Wizardry (or any other old school fantasy RPG).
  • John Vogel gives us a fun little chariot racing mini-game compatible with S&W.
  • Tim Kask writes another trenchant editorial, "Blame It on the Players," in which he diagnoses where the hobby/industry went off the tracks. I expect it to be every bit as controversial as his last piece on the subject.
  • Scot Hoover's "Black Armor, Black Heart" presents an anti-paladin NPC class for use with OSRIC. As with his Necromancer class from the previous issue, Hoover has done a fine job in bringing an old school classic to life in a slightly new form.
  • Gabor Lux presents "The City of Vultures," a city from his Fomalhaut campaign world.
  • There are several fun random generators, including one devoted to ruins.
  • Jon Hershberger gives us a look at "The Planes: Playgrounds of the Rich and Powerful," which provides the nuts and bolts of planar travel for use with S&W.
  • There are also new monsters, including the jin, a collection of genie-like races.
  • And there's not one but three new adventures, my favorite of which was "Labyrinth Tomb of the Minotaur Lord" by R. Lawrence Blake, but then I've always had a soft spot for labyrinths (and minotaurs).
All in all, issue 3 was every bit as good as its predecessors, perhaps even better, as I found nearly every article herein to be of obvious use to me. In addition, Knockspell continues to develop its unique editorial "voice," one that is strongly informed by Gygaxian fantasy. That's hardly surprising given the large number of contributors associated with OSRIC, whose raison d'être is the preservation and promotion of Gary's particular vision.

That's not to suggest that all -- or even most -- of its contents march in lockstep to a Gygaxian tune, but Knockspell's content is not as varied or as whimsical as that of Fight On! That's not a criticism, both because my own take on fantasy is Gygaxian in inspiration and because I think the old school community is strengthened by having different publications, each with its own perspective and style. That said, I think Knockspell has more to offer fans of "traditional" fantasy roleplaying than those who prefer wilder, more eccentric takes on the genre. Knockspell is much more conservative, even staid, in its approach and that's fine by me. The hobby needs an unyielding "anchor" that resists the currents of faddishness in fantasy and Knockspell looks to be assuming that role and I'm very glad of it.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 8 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for your fix of largely Gygaxian gaming goodness to inspire you.
Don't Buy This If: Your tastes run to more exotic styles of fantasy.


  1. Thank you much for the thumbs up to my "Labyrinth Tomb of the Minotaur Lord" adventure. I know the concept has been done to death, but I figured it could still be revisited with a cool back story and some challenging encounters.

    Plus, I also have a soft spot for minotaurs (I just don't want to meet up with one).

    Thanks again. :)

  2. It's those Kask editorials that keep me away... I have been primarily a player for 30 years, and I actually like my Players Handbook.

  3. Strident though I can be, I agree that Mr Kask's editorials strike me as a little too strident for my tastes, at least in the way they're presented, if not their content. I fully understand his points and even agree with them to some extent, but I doubt he's going to win many converts with the way he presents them.

  4. There won't be any more editorials on the topic of AD&D and whether it was bad or good, but I felt it was a topic that shouldn't be shushed if Tim wanted to write about it. I know those editorials have turned several people away from the magazine because of their vehemence, but when the choices were (a) toss the original editor of The Dragon's opinions out because they are too strident, (b) ask Tim to turn down the dial on his opinion, or (c) publish them as is ... I chose to publish them as is.

  5. > It's those Kask editorials that keep me away...

    Any worse than EGG attacking the fans/fandom back in the day?

    Will have to make a point of picking up this one /for/ that editorial and enjoying the rest, too, I guess.
    Thanks for the review, James, and good work to y'all on the 'zine by the sounds of that!

  6. I think the distinction you drew between Knockspell and Fight On! is spot on. I had not drawn that conclusion for myself, but it explains my preference for Knockspell.

  7. Though I'm on a budget, it's hard to pass up the promise of getting more Fomalhaut stuff.

    Doesn't Fomalhaut count as "exotic"?

  8. Korgoth: if this specific article does not count as exotic, I have failed in my task. ;)

  9. Melan: Is this City of the Vultures the same which we played in Pécs? If it is, I can tell that's quite exotic... a city where it's better worth it to stay underground and dungeoneer, than seeking fame and fortune on the streets... except when the "great mirza" let's his pet tigers loose... :)

  10. Your Utility score of 6/10 seems rather low given that you "found nearly every article herein to be of obvious use" to you. I recall that this score has usually been the lowest one in your reviews. What do you see as earning an 8/10 or 10/10 in Utility?

  11. As I explained to Matt Finch over at the S&W forums, my Utility score is based on how useful I see a given product being to a wide range of old school gamers, regardless of their tastes. Thus, 6 or 7 will be the typical rating for anything that doesn't strive to be "generic." Something with a higher rating would be a "must have" product for any old schooler and, to date, the main ones that I think would garner such ratings would be rules sets like S&W or LL.

  12. All of Melan's stuff is amazingly original and dripping with cool, weird, flavour -- and the "City of Vultures" is no exception. At some point it would be interesting to see a book that collected together all of his material on Fomalhaut published in FO! and KS. Fomalhaut is probably my favourite 'new' fantasy setting.

    As for my own contribution, if people want to look at it before purchasing KS#3, a version can be found at my blog (along with my other house rules for S&W).

  13. Good suggestion, Akrasia. I was thinking the same thing... collecting all the Fomalhaut goodness in one place would be way easier on my wallet.

  14. Just picked up Knockspell #3 myself. Has anyone else noticed messed up bookmarks or issues with how pages are displayed? My version of Acrobat seems to display all of one page and the margin of the other, no matter the zoom level.