Tuesday, April 27, 2010

REVIEW: Knockspell Issue 4

In an age when Dragon, the original RPG magazine, is no longer available in printed form, it's remarkable to note that the old school renaissance has not one but two regular print periodicals. Of the two, Knockspell, produced by Mythmere Games and published by Black Blade Publishing, is probably closest to Dragon in terms of its content and presentation -- and grows ever moreso with each new issue. Issue 4 was just released and I very impressed by just how professional it has become. Nearly everything, from the artwork to the layout to the editing is top notch and there's a unity to this issue, a sense of cohesiveness and planning that's undeniably appealing.

Issue 4 kicks off with another delightful installment of Allan Grohe's "From Kuroth's Quill" column, the second part of a piece on the use and theory of gates in campaign dungeons. In addition to providing thoughts (and random tables) on what happens when adventurers try to destroy a gate, the article also provides many magic-user spells pertaining to gates. As a referee who recently made a gate an important part of his ongoing megadungeon-based campaign, I found Grohe's column particularly useful.

Joshua Jervais's "Beneath the Crossroads" is the first adventure included in this issue and the first to include rats, an ongoing theme in this issue. Suitable for a party of 1st and 2nd level characters, the adventure presents a small dungeon connected to a cult of a rat god. It's a well-done and evocative little scenario that can easily be dropped into an ongoing campaign. Jeff Talanian also provides a rat-based adventure, entitled "Rats in the Walls." Also for low-level characters, it has a strong pulp fantasy feel to it without being unsuitable for inclusion in most fantasy campaigns. Slightly less immediately useful is the third installment of Gabor Lux's terrific series "Isles on an Emerald Sea," which describe locales from his science fantasy Fomalhaut campaign. As with its predecessors in the series, this article is inspiring but would take some work to adapt to more traditional fantasy campaigns, given its "weird" elements.

Matt Finch's "Megadungeon Tactics: Mission-Based Adventuring" is a useful discussion of how to approach a megadungeon as a player (and, by extension, as a referee). What's remarkable is that, while the article is clearly aimed at players whose experiences of dungeon adventuring are not of an old school variety, Finch nevertheless manages to pack quite a few nuggets of wisdom of interest even to old dungeoneering hands. Meanwhile, Marcelo Paschoalin provides a solid overview of the options and difficulties confronting online rolelpaying games. Michael Curtis (whose Dungeon Alphabet is reviewed later in this issue) shows us how to mine the Greek historian Herodotus for sandbox campaign ideas in "Stealing the Histories." Al Krombach offers up some excellent advice on how to use the mechanical looseness of old school games like Swords & Wizardry in "Free-Form Rules as a Referee's Toolbox," which I found quite engaging.

What old school magazine would be complete without articles filled with random tables? Issue 4 gives us Robert Lionheart's useful "Random Tavern Generator" and "Weird Weather and Other Unexplainable Phenomena" (by several authors). It also includes Scot Hoover's astounding "Artifact Types and Attributes," which is a system for creating artifacts and relics that clearly draws inspiration from Eldritch Wizardry and the Dungeon Masters Guide, while being wholly original (and Open Game Content). Rounding out the issue are new magic items, a reworking of the spell slot system, and an interview with artist Christopher Burdett.

In sum, it's an impressive issue, one with a lot to offer old school fantasy fans. As I noted, Knockspell is increasingly professional in every respect. To some, this is unreservedly a good thing, as it puts the lie to the notion that the old school renaissance cannot compare to the improvements in presentation made since the days of yore. To others, though, I have little doubt that Knockspell might feel a little too "polished" and lacking in the rough edges many old schoolers love. Personally, I think there's more than enough room for both approaches and the fact that Knockspell is now appearing on game store shelves pretty much demands that it put its best foot forward, which is unequivocally does. Knockspell Issue 4 is thus well worth a look, whether in print or PDF form.

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

Buy This If: You're looking for a collection of ideas and resources for use in your old school fantasy campaign.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer to come up with your own ideas rather than using those of others.


  1. "Polished" is a very good thing, IMNSHO. I, for one, can clearly distinguish between nostalgic, sentimental affection for sh*tty line drawings and appreciation for professionally done art and layout. As a graphic designer/marcomm person, I really like it when the presentation shows quality and attention to detail.

  2. Minor niggle: the links in the last para point to the print & pdf versions of issue #2.

  3. I liked the adventures very much, especially "Rats in the walls." So much so, in fact, that I'm keeping track of the web site and considering buying "Astonishing Swordsmen" when it comes out. The megadungeon tactics article was of less interest to me, but that's because worlds where dungeons are so common that one can develop set tactics for them don't interest me. (They lose their "special" feeling.) But, it was well-done nonetheless.

    I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

  4. My favourite issue so far.

  5. Thanks for this.

    Does anyone know of any reviews of The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor from Expeditious Retreat Press? Has anyone played it? Thanks.

  6. Of course if you dont like rats , you can always have ULSIOs

    INTV…..… +0
    ATTK…. +0/ one bite
    DMGE……. d4
    AC…….…. 7 [13]
    Fort..…..... -1
    Will………. +0
    Move……… 6”

    “The Martian rat is a fierce and unlovely thing. It is many-legged and hairless, its hide resembling that of a new born mouse in repulsiveness. In size and weight it is comparable to a large Airedale terrier. Its eyes are small and close set, and almost hidden in deep fleshy apertures. But its most ferocious and repulsive feature is its jaws, the entire boney structure of which protrudes several inches beyond the flesh, revealing five sharp, spade-like teeth.in the upper jaw and the same number of teeth in the lower, the whole suggesting the appearance of a rotting face from which much of the flesh has sloughed away . ..
    Its only weapons are its jaws since its broad splay feet are armed with blunt talons. With its protruding jaws it excavates its winding burrows and with its broad feet it pushes dirt behind. To keep the jaws from his flesh then was Turan’s only concern and this he succeeded in doing until chance gave him a hold upon the creature’s throat. After that the end was a matter of moments. Rising at last he flung the lifeless thing from him with a shudder of disgust.”
    (ERB's the Chessmen of Mars, XII, p.116)