Inside Pulse 12

Tabletop Review: Gygax Magazine, Issue #4

Gygax Magazine #4
Publisher: TSR
Cost: $8.95 (Physical)/$4.95 (PDF)
Page Count: 76
Release Date: 06/10/2014
Get it Here: DriveThruRPG.com

Gygax Magazine had a fantastic 2013. They released three top-notch issues AND won our “Best Tabletop Related Magazine” award in our 2013 Tabletop Gaming Awards. For a quarterly magazine these days, getting three of the four projected issues out in a calendar year is practically unheard of. Only Pathways by Rite Publishing seems to come out like clockwork, and considering that’s a free monthly, that’s pretty impressive. Well, I guess I could include White Dwarf and The Rifter, but those are more paid advertisements for Games Workshop and Palladium respectively.

Anyway, after such a great 2013, Gygax Magazine seemed to disappear. There was very little talk of Issue 4 from them, whether on their home page or via social media. Then all of a sudden, I got my reviewer copy and an email from TSR to all subscribers (of which I am one – full candor here, am I right?) stating that since they were having a problem with the publisher, they were going to push through the digital version before the physical one. I was perfectly find with that considering my physical copy of Issue #1 arrived two months after the digital one and Issue 2 suffered a similar fate. I’m used to getting the PDF version before the dead tree one and honestly, I want to read the magazine – I’m not too picky as to which format I get. I wasn’t expecting the magazine to hit this month, but as soon as it did, I downloaded it, put it on my Kindle Fire HDX and then read the issue from cover to cover. What can I say? I miss gaming magazine. As a lad, I used to have subscriptions to Dungeon, Dragon, White Wolf and even Inquest at some point (gift subscription). I loved reading about a wide variety of games I had never heard of or might never get to play, along with ones I knew inside and out. I loved the articles, comics, art and even the mailbag. I’m pretty sure tabletop gaming magazines are why I was more than happy to spend six years writing for the Pokémon magazine (sometimes nearly the entire issue) for my Pikachu-minded overlords. Even in this digital age, there is something special about a magazine as opposed to a website or blog. It’s not a generational thing because the Pokémon magazine was geared towards kids and that sold like crazy. It’s just a matter of reaching your target audience with high quality well thought out articles and that’s exactly what Gygax Magazine did in 2013 – it hit the Zeitgeist. Now the question is, after a six month break, can TSR recapture the same magic in 2014? Let’s take a look.

I have to admit, I marked out when I saw the cover. Now it probably won’t mean anything to you unless you’re in your late thirties or older, but it’s a continuation of a series of covers that started with Dragon Magazine #83. Jayson Elliot’s very short editorial (only a paragraph this time) gives a very brief history of it. As someone that owns every issue of that damn magazine, continuing Den Beauvais’ series was a great way to really highlight how Gygax Magazine is the spiritual successor to the Dragon.

Instead of the editorial this issue, Gygax Magazine has introduced a mailbag. Well, one letter really, which highlights the great nostalgia of the mailbag from monthly magazines but also the downside to publishing delays. The letter in question asks a timely question about how to get better at describing locations to his players. God only knows when this was written, but in the age of instant email and Facebook replies having to wait six months for an answer to your question would kind of suck. The mailbag might be better used for less time-oriented pieces, like inquires about the publication process, why some game lines get covered and others don’t, comments, criticism and so on. So now, let’s look at the ten articles and two comics in this issue. I have to admit, before me get into this issue, there was very little that appealed to me personally as a gamer. While the issue was well written and technically sound, there wasn’t a lot geared towards my particular tastes, wants or needs. That doesn’t make it a bad issue – just the weakest yet in terms of what I play and/or am interested in. That didn’t keep me from appreciating a lot of the articles though because even back in the day I never played Star Frontiers or Al-Qadim, but I still read articles about the games when they showed up in Dragon.

1. Men and Monsters of Polynesia. This article offers a brief look at Polynesian folklore and various beings from its folklore that you would encounter in a game that uses Polynesian culture as a setting backdrop. At first I was surprised the article used AD&D 1e stat blocks for the creature, but then I reminded myself that Al-Qadim and Maztica did pretty well in the era of Second Edition AD&D, so why not do a high fantasy game with a Polynesian bent instead of a Euro-centric one? The article was well-written and you get a fantastic description of each creature, allowing a DM to really make use of them. Do I think most of these creatures would work better with a “real world” game like Call of Cthulhu or Chill? Sure I do. Would I ever personally make use of the article? Probably not. Is it still really well done and fun to read? It sure is, and that’s what matters. 1 for 1.

2. Leomund’s Secure Shelter. This article really wasn’t for me and in a way, it highlights how anal retentive and rules-mastery/lawyery old school gamers can be. The entire article picks apart the AD&D ranged chart for missiles weapons and adds even more rules, tables and the like, which really isn’t needed. In essence, the article slows down AD&D combat EVEN more, taking away time from role-playing and instead forcing the DM to spend even more time figuring out arbitrary details in favor of more roll-playing. I personally hate that and was highly disappointed to see an article that took that stance in Gygax Magazine. The tone of the piece didn’t help either as it came off both pedantic with side commentary like the following: “(I use INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE and NEVER GROUP INITIATIVE in every melee where the players and key NPCs are involved!)” Yes, all caps and bolding in an aside for a professionally published magazine article. The magazine editor in me winced. Anyway, this was probably my least favorite article in a Gygax Magazine so far, which says something. Sometimes people really need to paraphrase MST3K and say, “It’s just a game. I should really just relax.” 1 for 2.

3. Adventuring Without the Magic. As a folklorist and writer of way too many articles on the history of something or other, Jon Peterson’s pieces in Gygax Magazine are always a highlight for me. In this case, the article looks at non-fantasy RPGs and how they slowly came about. Jon looks at several non-fantasy games where people took on roles instead of just rolling dice before D&D reared its head. Diplomacy and Braunstein (the latter of which still gets a lot of play in my old MSP haunt) get mentioned in this era, for example. The article also looks at some of our first non-fantasy tabletop roleplaying games like Top Secret, James Bond, Boot Hill, Metamorphosis Alpha (which is getting not one, but two remakes!), Bunnies & Burrows and more. I tried a lot of these games and a kid and enjoyed them, so it was a wonderful shot of nostalgia to see the names of some of these long out of print (and sadly forgotten) classics. A great read from beginning to end. 2 for 3.

4. The Necromancer’s Cookbook. One of my favorite D&D releases of all time was The Complete Guide to Necromancer from the AD&D 2e era. It was so fantastically done, I’ve kept it and recommended it as a reference for any game that uses necromancy. It’s that good. So I was delighted to see The Necromancer’s Cookbook in this issue. This piece gives you ten new necromantic creatures to throw at players. There are five skeleton and five zombie variants, along with information on how to make them. I also liked how the stat blocks tried to incorporate both old and new forms of D&D such as THAC0 and ascending AC, along with both a XP value and Challenge Rating (CR). These are some fun and imaginative cannon fodder for a necromancer antagonist and I can definitely see Ravenloft fans making great use of this one. 3 for 4.

5. Djinn Hey! A Runequest article. That was unexpected and fun to see. These stats blocks are for Runequest 6 to be specific, although I’m kind of shocked that between BRP and Runequest, there aren’t Djinn stats already. The three page article is very brief and GMs will have to fill in a lot of blanks to make these guys work in an actual game, but magazines have page and word count maximums, so it’s understandable. I found this article to be a lot of fun, reading-wise, but again, it’s not something I would ever use personally. 4 for 5.

6. Randomize Your Realm. I have a love/hate relationship with random tables. I think the sheer glut of them over at DriveThruRPG from countless small publishers are both inane and a waste. Yet, some randomizing is fun. I love making characters for TSR’s old Marvel Super Heroes RPGvia the charts and of course, HoL‘s character creation process is something you have to experience at least once. I do think that relying on random tables for that creating from scratch is the sign of a weak GM, but also that they are indispensable to new/rookie GMs in terms of helping them flesh out things. This article gives you seven d20 random tables that, when the results of each are combined, gives you a fleshed out snapshot of a kingdom. It’s fun to monkey around with, but not something I’d recommending using for an entire homebrew world, you know? You also have over thirty d100 random charts for “Events,” which will essentially give you story seeds. At six pages (Eight percent of the magazine), this is one of the longest pieces in the magazine and it feels like padding that could have been used for a more substantial article. It’s cute, but there are so many better uses of the limited space each issue has to offer readers. 4 for 6.

7. Operation: Rendezvous Oasis. Wow. I can’t believe I’m going to be talking about a Top Secret adventure. I think the last time anything was published for this old TSR game was 1990. Hell, I don’t even know who owns the legal rights to Top Secret these days. Anyway, there was a brief period in my childhood when gamers were really into this. Very brief mind you, but I still have fond memories of my character Agent NAME REDACTED. What, I was like ten! Anyway, Gygax Magazine gives us a full length adventure from the mind of Merle M. Rasmussen, the original designer of Top Secret. That is pretty cool. The only problem is that Top Secret has been out of print for decades and there is no (legal) digital version of the game available. This means only a very tiny percentage of people who pick up this issue of Gygax Magazine are going to be able to play this adventure, much less enjoy it. I mean, *I* don’t even own Top Secret anymore and pretty much had to dust off old corned off sections of my memory to make sure I still had the rules down (Funny that I can remember rules sets to games I haven’t played in forever, but I can’t remember basic Trig). You’re going to have to be middle-aged and a bit of a packrat to really be able to play this adventure, which is a shame – especially when you consider the adventure takes up nearly a full third of the issue. For those that don’t have Top Secret, which is the vast majority of you, this is going to be wasted space or a curiosity read at best. I’m so torn by this because I love seeing new Top Secret Material, but also feel that this might have been better released on its own than released widespread to an audience who can’t play or might not even remember the system. It’s definitely a choice that highlights the good and bad regarding the decision making process as to what goes into an issue of Gygax Magazine.

All that said, the adventure is well written and I’m looking forward to the cool gatefold spread in the physical copy. God knows I’ll never be able to find enough people to actually play Operation Rendezvous Oasis, but reading it made me WANT to, and that’s the sign of a good adventure. Who knows? Maybe this piece will get people to look for old copies on the secondary market or even jump start a digital release of the game. Well, probably not, but here’s hoping. 5 for 7.

8. Psionics, Without the Points. Well, this is an article I didn’t enjoy at all. I get the idea behind it, which is treating a Psychic character in an AD&D game like a spellcaster (Bard, Cleric, Mage, etc), but in doing so, you lose the uniqueness of the class as well as some of the fun. I loved the second and third edition books for Psionic characters (although 1e AD&D rules needed some/a lot of work). Retooling a class is not a bad idea on its own, but what is presented here is badly done and is even more of a mess than the original version. There’s not enough detail or description to make the class work as it’s only three pages long (along with a fourth page of spells the Psychic can use). Not only is the article not something I’d ever make use of, but it feels like a bad first draft of an idea rather than something that should have been published. 5 for 8.

9. Ed’s Effulgent Euphuism. Hey, it’s Ed Greenwood talking about 13th Age. That’s a cool combination. In fact this is one of two 13th Age articles in this magazine. I’ve jokingly referred to 13th Age as “What D&D 4e should have been,” so I’m happy to see it get press here, especially since I have yet to find anyone in my immediate area that actually plays this. Heck, I can’t even get anyone here to care enough to review releases for it! Hopefully between the presence it gets in this issue and the upcoming Free RPG Day release, it will see more mainstream (such as there is in our industry) attention. This article looks at one of the more unique and fun aspects of the system – which involves the option to rename spells in order to get some small bonuses. Not only does this personalize the spells one is casting, but you can be extremely creative (and silly) with the naming of these pieces. For anyone who wondered why Tenser, Mordenkainen and other wizards got their own spells and your PC didn’t, well this is the system for you! Ed Greenwood gives you thirty examples (stretched over seven pages) of new names and effects for classic spells. These are a lot of fun just to read and the article along should make you want to at least try 13th Age if not outright purchase the core rulebook for it. 6 for 9.

10. Melee Masters. This is the second 13th Age article in the collection. Here we get a look at three new class builds for the game. What’s interesting that you can compare this article with the AD&D Psychic one earlier in the issue and come away with two things. The first is how much more streamlined 13th Age feels, which is both good and bad, depending on your gaming preferences. The second is how with the same amount of space, this article lays out three character class builds that are easy to use and understand as opposed to the…less well done Psychic piece. It’s night and day here, people. The three classes presented in this article are best suited for the Midgard campaign setting, but can work in just about any high fantasy campaign. The Corsair would work extremely well in a high seas or pirate type of setting. Just a great job overall. 7 for 10.

11. Full Frontal Nerdity. A fun little two page comic involving a dragon and suspension of disbelief. I laughed. Mission accomplished. 8 for 11.

12. The Order of the Stick. Come on, it’s Rich’s long running and extremely funny comic. It’s weird seeing Durkon amongst the living though. Funny as always. 9 for 12.

So there you go. Although there’s only one article that I’d actually make use of on my gaming table (Necromancer’s Cookbook), I’d say seventy-five percent of the magazine was fun to read or made me wish I knew people that played say, 13th Age or Top Secret. That’s a pretty good quality-to crap ratio and so I can definitely recommend the issue just to read, even if you don’t play many (or any) of the games featured in this latest version of Gygax Magazine. Look, no two people are going to enjoy exactly the same things to the same degree and the usefulness of the issue will vary based on what you play with your friends, so what you like or dislike about this issue may vary quite a bit from my own opinions and experiences here. As usual, this issue of Gygax Magazine was a well-crafted and excellent release full of fun articles, and that’s what matters. All that remains to be seen is whether or not TSR can make a second (or even third release) this year. Here’s hoping they can.

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