The World Really Does Need Another RPG Periodical
Written by John Enfield
(The Twisting Stair is created by Allan T. Grothe Jr. & Tony Rosten)
Once you receive The Twisting Stair in your mailbox, not your email, you understand, but that metal box outside your home where small packages you’ve ordered appear, you can turn off your Internet-accessing gadgets for a while. It’ll be time to get out your graph paper, notebook paper, pencils, compass, protractor and your stack of RPG books. Prepare yourself to carefully descend into the fantastic world of old-school adventure design and game preparation.
Our guide on this journey is old-school in-and-of-itself. It’ll come to you in a big envelope. It’s printed in black ink on matte finish, heavy duty, almost card stock quality paper, stapled together in booklet form. In fifteen pages, we find seven articles with their illustrations, charts and maps and nothing else; no pages intentionally left blank, no bits of unrelated filler content and no advertising except for a brief mention on the back of the magazine of other Black Blade Publishing products coming soon. Even the cover uses only a narrow, two and a half inch wide strip of the left margin for the title and neat cover design of a twisting staircase. The rest of the cover is devoted to the first article in which co-founder Tony Rosten lays out an excellent case for what this magazine is about and why you should read it. Tony says “Tabletop role-playing games are tactile, tangible things, meant to be experienced in a communal setting,” and “The Twisting Stair…champions the aesthetic of pen and paper role-playing games.”
Don’t worry though; The Twisting Stair isn’t one massive block of text. There’s just enough white space to keep things readable. The print is large and in a clear enough font to make it easy to read too. Sub-topic changes in articles are labeled in bold print so that you can find specific topics again later. It could use a table of contents though. Some articles have tables with alternate lines lightly-shaded, making it easier to read across them without getting off on the wrong line. There are few illustrations and they are in black-and-white, but they are well-drawn with adequate detail such as the picture of the sasquatch in the ‘Critters & Glitters’ article. Example maps used to illustrate dungeon design concepts are very easy to read.
Each article is full of useful information and handy tips gleaned from over thirty years of RPG experience. For example, in the “From Kuroth’s Quill” feature, Allan T. Grohe Jr. explains why we should use treasure maps more often (and how to use them,) so they are actually interesting enough to help tell the story while keeping the game moving, complete with several examples. The “Critters and Glitters” feature tells us of a great way to use the sasquatch in your game, and of a Ring of Reflection that’ll protect its user in ways you maybe haven’t thought of. Stats for creatures and items are given, based on the Black Blade Publishing game OSRIC, but can be adapted to any RPG system. Examples of how game design concepts are used are often based on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons since the authors assume that it’s a common frame-of-reference for people interested in old-school RPGs, and yet the examples in The Twisting Stair are explained in ways that make sense even if you haven’t played AD&D yet.
The big article in this issue (and we’re told, future issues of The Twisting Stair,) is “Down the Twisting Stair: An ongoing exercise in megadungeon design.” Based on the premise that the best way to learn something is to do it, Tony leads us through the process of designing our very own dungeon. Each issue will focus on a different aspect of dungeon design and will feature another level in the megadungeon map. After several issues, we’ll have a big enough dungeon built to run for days, even to build an entire campaign around. We’re encouraged to copy or scan the dungeon maps in the article for use in our own campaign and to modify them all we want. They even include “geomorphs” – little map pieces at the end of the issue – to insert into the bigger maps, making customizing easier. The article starts with how to read, use and draw dungeon maps as well as how to set up replayable encounters. Encounters that are fun to experience more than once are among the “holy grails” of game design and can really flesh out a campaign, keeping the players busy while also making life easier for the DM.
With-in the larger “Down the Twisting Stair” feature are other, smaller features on such things as setting up wandering monsters in groups that work well together, clever encounters with Dolores the Harpy, a Crypt of 171 Skeletons (diabolical!) and Pennies from Hell.
Finally, there’s the all-important, but seldom-read Open Game License disclosure in the back of the magazine. Anything published, for sale or for free, that’s based on game mechanics that have been made available to all through the OGL agreement has to have this fine print in it to be covered by that agreement. Anyone considering publishing their own RPG stuff really needs to understand what this says.