The Best Product to Rule them All

As I wrote in my last post, there were a multitude of rpg products published at Ropecon. Only one provoked me to play immediately, however. I haven’t more than skimmed most of these products, but I can already tell you which makes the greatest impression to me (aside from my own book, presumably).

“Old School Renaissance” is the name I tend to use for this Internet cultural phenomenon where very old-styled gamers write and discuss their playstyle for the benefit of us young hipsters. (Not to be mixed up with the Finnish “old skool” terminology, incidentally: we tend to use that term for late 80’s style adventure gaming, the kind contemporary with 2nd edition AD&D.) I’ve been doing challengeful adventure gaming for the last 1-2 years now, and sort of flirting with this material. I don’t have any old school friends or anything, but I read blogs from the activists now and then and like what I’m seeing.

Old-school renaissance: for those who aren’t in the know, this is very traditional dungeoneering adventure, and other gaming taking its theoretical cues from it. There are some really culture-hostile people involved, but I also adore the historical sensibilities, cultural knowledge, nuanced D&D mastery and other good qualities of many people involved in this. It’s a joy to read and learn about what those old game texts are even trying to say; it’s very difficult to understand how those dungeons are best utilized for imaginative, exciting challengeful adventure gaming without modern commentaries. I recommend this stuff to everybody interested in new and different ways to roleplay.

Anyway, one of these guys happens to live in Finland: James Raggi from the Lamentations of the Flame Princess lives in Helsinki. I don’t know the guy – I’d noticed his location before from reading his blog, but I didn’t even know what, if anything, he’s actually doing in the scene. It was a pleasurable surprise when Raggi sent a bunch of his works to me as a professional courtesy, to see if I’d be interested in retailing them at our little webstore. I got the booklets at Ropecon, having been invested in my writing work earlier in the summer; they’re garage style fanzine things, perfectly adorable and functional little saddle-stitched booklets. I especially like Death Frost Doom with its detachable cover, with the dungeon map on the inside.

The products themselves include two issues of the community fanzine Green Face Devil and Raggi’s old school epic adventure Death Frost Doom. Both are excellent, challenging works, exactly the sort of thing I’ve wanted to see. I’ve been asking around for a while now for new old school product that I could play, speak about and sell; as I’ve told people, I’m personally convinced that this is a big deal for culturally aware roleplaying, full of valuable insight and new venues – I want to see this knowledge productized, but so far the stuff has proved elusive to find and nobody seems to have an answer when I ask for new stuff approachable to the modern roleplayer; everybody just suggests trawling EBay for old D&D books, which is not what I’m looking for.

But, those products: I can’t use Green Devil Face as is, it’s immensely provocative but I just can’t hack it. I need to write a whole new game (hey, I’m new-school, that’s what we do when we figure things out) just to justify the quirky situations and set-ups, something that involves travel to distant dimensions that include the sort of diabolic, whimsical dungeons the fanzine paints. Completely different from my usual fantasy aesthetics, but clearly, absolutely usable and fresh. Then we have the small dungeon module Death Frost Doom, which sells me immediately with its opposite qualities: the dungeon is completely faithful to the setting and its purpose, caring not at all of mechanical rewards, challenging the group’s old school logistics (provisioning, mapping, risk-evaluation, so on) more than anything else. Its genre is like a crazy mix of Tolkien, heavy metal, Lovecraft and three doses of sword & sorcery; I’m completely in love, and want a whole campaign book of this stuff. The dungeon is full of absolutely insane, epic poetic stuff, like the book of 40,000 sacrificial names (I’m not exaggerating, and insofar as I understand, neither is the module), the sheer number of enemies in the module, numbering in the thousands (not revealing details; this I really don’t want to spoil), the cruel game design, the epic boss monster interaction… mind-blowing.

I know that this is a personal value judgment, but this was the only product that really felt fresh to me; it was the only one (perhaps aside from Itran kaupunki and Ikuisuuden laakso) that I would have bought as a pure civilian gamer, thinking only of my own play. I immediately set up a game on Sunday at Ropecon. We got half-way through the dungeon during our session that lasted until midnight or so. The session consisted mostly of logistics and paranoia, but some treasure was found, curses were triggered, a character died and fun was had. I like being the GM in this sort of game, but am painfully aware of how thick the veil can be, how blind the GM can be to the player experience in this sort of game; the other players confirm, however: the game didn’t have lots of content due to how we didn’t finish the dungeon and bring out the main payouts, but the atmosphere and logistics were enjoyed, and we could imagine playing a whole campaign of this stuff. This one session already established for us an original fantasy setting resembling 17th century North America recently liberated from a crazy aztec empire, with player characters a mix of indian braves and musket-wielding puritans.

(In case anybody cares, I used my own far-evolved D&D set-up for the rules system. This sort of old-school material is trivial to interpret into other rules-sets that share the D&D assumptions.)

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