Guest Review: Knockspell Magazine

Guest Writer: Nick Monitto

Today’s review is on the debut issue of “Knockspell Magazine”. This was published early in 2009, identified in its contents as “Spring 2009”, but also as “February 2009” in the page footers. In the lead Editor’s note, Matt Finch describes it as “…the official magazine of the Swords & Wizardry project, a fan-based group dedicated to reviving and supporting old-style, free-form fantasy gaming”. Finch was the lead creator behind the “Swords & Wizardry” game which debuted about a year before, meant as a modern reinterpretation of the Original “Dungeons & Dragons” game from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Cover art Knockspell issue #1

Cover art Knockspell issue #1 © Matthew Finch

2009 was a few years into what is called the OSR, for “Old School Revival [or Renaissance]”. In the face of a “D&D” that had gone in a new direction with its d20 reinvention in 2000, and was heading towards what some termed a ‘video game’ format with 2008’s Fourth Edition, many players looked to products of the past for their modern gaming. If your preference and nostalgia fell with First Edition “AD&D”, Moldvay’s “Basic” or the Original “D&D” itself, you could find something to suit you in “OSRIC”, “Labyrinth Lord” or the aforementioned “S&W”.
I was a late arrival to all of this; 2009 was in the second of my gaming gaps, so I did not see this magazine when it was new. My first impression of it was a pleasant memory; it felt like opening up a classic “Dragon” magazine. Sixteen main items run the gamut from commentary to new gaming ideas to a couple original adventures.

The Editor’s Note summarizes the general feeling behind OSR, and how this magazine would support it. Although Finch has direct ties to “S&W”, he assures us that “Knockspell” would serve all three of the retro-clones mentioned earlier. The first article is an op-ed piece from Tim Kask, the first editor of that “Dragon” magazine, and a major early figure around “D&D” and TSR in general. “Who Sucked the Fun out of RPG’ing?” is a bit of a lament over how early “D&D”s free-wheeling style took a turn into the feeling of being too strict and confining. Unlike many pieces which take this position, and usually lay the blame somewhere around the Third or Fourth Editions, Kask states, “It all starting [sic] going bad with the publishing of AD&D, The Player’s Handbook”. As that was the period where I came into the game, and played it the most, I would respectfully disagree with that feeling. I will note, of course, that I was a kid at that time; it may be that my age let me hang onto the casual laissez-faire feeling which Kask felt was rapidly disappearing.

Alan T. Grohe Jr. (or “grodog” as he is known online) establishes a column about design called “From Kuroth’s Quill”. The first piece is a good one, tackling “One Way Doors, Variable Stairs, and the Accessibility of Sub-Levels”. I always enjoy when elements of design are written about; too much is never enough for me!

Next is a series of articles on new classes. Scot Hoover writes a very detailed (eight page) piece on the Necromancer, intended as an NPC class. He describes the abilities of the class, powers gained by advancing levels, and even a number of unique magic items that they would use. For the PC side of things, we are given the Paladin and the Monk (by James Maliszewski). While not as lengthy as the other, a good amount of information is given for anyone who wants to use them as a change of pace (and gain more aspects of the classic “AD&D”). Later in the magazine, David Bowman introduces the Thrall, an intriguing way to begin with a Level 0 character and ultimately bring them into a more traditional class.

James Carl Boney draws upon more than a quarter century of gaming experience to give his “Three Principles of Adventuring Success”: Set your goals and stick to them. Look past the rules. Avoid the dice roll as much as possible. Giving some clever examples of how to play these out makes it into a rather useful think piece.

Gabor Lux gives us the short adventure “Isles on an Emerald Sea”. At four pages, it is brief but by no means easy; the tricks and monsters promise a challenge for most any party. Small maps are included along with stats for those monsters, so it is ready to drop in with a little preparation. Later in the magazine, we have “Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent”, by Jeffrey P. Talanian. This one is much longer, eleven pages including two beautiful full-page hand drawn maps! It is designed for the “Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers” game, but easily adaptable to others.

After enjoying those adventures, you may want to dive into “The Dungeon Alphabet” by Michael Curtis. In the course of returning to the game from a long absence (something which I understand very well), he decided to explore the kind of tropes that give dungeons the old-school feeling we love. Entries like “F is for Fungi” and “K is for Kobolds” make this a fun read with plenty of “I remember those!” moments.

In “Ruins & Ronin” Mike Davison makes the case for Japanese samurai films as a source for “S&W” adventures. After describing background and examples to watch, he gives the tease that he is preparing a game supplement under that “R&R” name. [SIDE NOTE: It was first released a year later]. I am a casual fan of those films and enjoyed what TSR attempted with the “Oriental Adventures” path, so it is nice to see genre stretching here too. Similarly, the “Fighters with Flair!” piece by Akrasia introduces fighting styles, allowing players to steer Fighter characters in such diverse directions as “…Aragorn, Conan, Robin Hood, or Sinbad the Sailor”.

The same author also contributes an article on “Class-Based Weapon Damage”. Rather than using the typical system where a Cleric or Magic-User is heavily restricted on their choices, this suggests that anyone can use any weapon at any time. The main balance is that Clerics always get lower damage dice with weapons than Fighters, and Magic-Users get even lower than that. Three possible restrictions are given for magical weapons, which could otherwise break the system.

Robert Lionheart presents a useful “Random Hireling Generator”, with charts and notes to quickly generate any number of ones for a party to encounter and hire. “Masterminds and their Minions” features the work of two authors: Salvatore Macri writes about The Shadow-Kin, dark creatures from outside the Prime Material Plane, while Editor in Chief Matt Finch describes the Artificers of Yothri and their creations, the Amphorons. Finch also has one of the last pieces in the magazine, “How Do You Open This Thing?!” a three-column chart that uses d100 rolls to generate random ways of opening a door or latch. The magazine ends with a classified section, promoting several publishers and resource sites, and a “Glorydaze” comic.

Overall, I found this to be a good magazine. I liked the nicely mysterious full page color cover by Peter Mullen, a regular artist for “S&W”. The presentation style was simple, but I see that as a positive. There is only a small amount of art in the body of the issue, and I am fine with that. The content and its layout were pretty good; I noticed a few typos, and there were a couple places where unrelated articles could have used more space or a border between them. The font chosen made for comfortable reading, which cannot always be said of magazines like this. I was disappointed to learn that the magazine only ran for six issues, but I will definitely look to get what was made.

Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970s and ‘80s. He is determined to find all of the classic RPG magazines that are hidden on the ‘net.

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