I first got my hands on Fight On! Magazine in a free PDF giveaway about six or seven years ago. It was linked to me somewhere along the line and I was fascinated by it. To be totally frank, I have not been terribly involved in the online RPG culture in a long, long time; not since there were individual websites with weird wallpaper hosting VtM character sheets and I was sorting through OGL 3.5 character utility programs to find my old 2E automated Excel ’97 formatted spreadsheets for character generation. I think I probably dipped out of talking to people online in depth about RPGs – beyond “I like D&D! I played GURPS!” – sometime around 2003 or 2004 or so and didn’t check in again until the whole 4E/Pathfinder eruption that convinced me I should probably stay gone. Who has time for all that? So when I got my hands on a PDF of Fight On! magazine, it was a surprise to me entirely that there was a community for the games I wanted to be playing. Until that point, I honestly didn’t realize that there was anything resembling a coherent OSR, let alone a new scene for OSR zines, which means, in many ways, I had missed a lot of great stuff.
Fight On! and Knockspell were the only two zines I knew of until fairly recently, so I thought it’d be a good place to start for reviews, since this blog largely reviews stuff several years late anyway! I figure I’ll review my copies of these first, and then move on to the many wonderful zines suggested to me by Twitter some time back that I have slowly been working my way through. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to read some zines. Let’s begin with the first issue of Fight On! (which was actually the second issue I read, as I recall):
Fight On! #1, Spring 2008
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1. ART First of all, the art. Let’s set a precedent here where I address the art first, because why the hell not. With the exception of a few public domain historical pieces, the artwork comes from members of the community, most of whom are still active today, a decade later. Stefan Poag, James Maliszewski, and Gabor Lux all contribute illustrative work here. Nearly all of the art seems hand-drawn, right down to the maps, with very few exceptions. The maps are especially charming. Some pieces are rather impressive, like James Maliszewski’s contributions, which would be at home in a B/X module.
2. CONTENTS Second, the words. At front we see a tribute to Gygax himself (and not the only trace of his legacy herein, either). The zine is a small, manageable size of about 30-some pages, suitable for reading easily in a single sitting. The content of this inaugural issue is broad and covers everything from adventures to advice to monsters and modified rulesets for classes. It’s a general zine in this approach, tackling just about everything of interest to the OSR community. It’s clear how fruitful this group has been as we see authors like Jeff Rients, Gabor Lux, and James Maliszewski contributing extensively on this project and, like the art side of things, they all remain deeply involved in the OSR scene to this day.
3. STANDOUTS James Maliszewski’s adventure for level 1 parties, The Ruined Monastery (pp 7-11) including a very pleasing old-school map that really warms my heart with nostalgia. The adventure itself is fun and compelling and should provide your group with a good time. The Tomb-Complex of Ymmu M’Kursa is an adventure by Gabor Lux which I also enjoyed reading through, with plenty of treasure for the party that craves XP and glory.
4. OVERALL A great first issue with two adventures that would suit an old-school table very nicely.
Fight On! #2 Summer 2008
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1. ART The art for Fight On! #2 is much, much more polished and plentiful than in the first issue. This is the first Fight On! that I read, and it is what introduced me to OSR zines (albeit, like I said, late to the game). It’s got a lot of cool pieces in it; Kesher’s art on page 4 is wild, as are Justine Shaw’s contributions to the article on Penguins as Player Characters by Patrick Farley on pp 10-11. Anthony Stiller drew a great chariot for this issue as well. Public domain art appears again in greater number, which is expected given the sheer increase in page count. Hand-drawn maps are, thankfully, still present, and are just as fun to look at as in the first issue – there are several with color, this time around, and it’s just a pleasure to look at in a nostalgic sort of way.
2. CONTENTS Content here is massively expanded over the first issue. We open with a tribute to Dave Arneson, the co-creator of D&D as we know it and referee of the original Blackmoor campaign setting. Again we see contributions from community stalwarts such as Jeff Rients and Gabor Lux, but this time around we have a huge variety of new names – including some, such as James Raggi, whose own projects have found great success. This issue of Fight On! contains nearly 90 pages of content, which just about triples the first issue in size.
3. STANDOUTS Vincent Baker’s Monster Machine on pp 14-19 is a charming random creature generator that seeks to keep the tone similar between results to match your campaign. J. Brian Murphy’s Shields Shall Be Splintered on pp 28-29 is some cool flavor and mechanics for shields, an often overlooked but historically critical element of combat. A big article from James Raggi on pp 36-43 generates a very detailed inn, its patrons, and events related to the location; on pp 46-52 we have a hex map with tons of entries from James Maliszewski, easily enough to keep your party busy on an old school map romp for a good long while – big value here. Lastly – an interview with Dave Arneson himself!
4. OVERALL A tremendous value for the dollar. Highly recommend this issue – I liked it so much, I got the others completely blind!
Fight On! #3 Fall 2008
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1. ART The cover for Fight On! #3 is by far the most ambitious yet. Though it has a very impressive cover, with the wispy sort of concept art style found in many famous publications, it is not to my taste. Steve Zieser produces some lovely work on several pages, especially the third page; Patrick Farley is back with some great pieces such as the barbarian on page 33 and a monster on page 70; and a special noteworthy appearance of art(!) by Jeff Rients. Again we see public domain art sprinkled liberally throughout the zine, all of which is of course classically gorgeous. Very little in the way of hand-drawn maps this time around, giving way to digital works in most cases; one great example, however, resides on page 53 amidst the latest installment of the Crab-Men dungeon by David Bowman.
2. CONTENTS For content, we again start with a dedication to a pillar of the hobby, this time memorializing Bob Bledsaw. This book nearly doubles, again, the size of the last issue, clocking in at around 150 pages! It’s a massive zine and contains work by just about every name we’ve already encountered and then some. Jeff Rients of course returns with plenty of articles, and Kesher continues the series on alternative race options titled The Devil’s In The Details. This issue also includes Gabor Lux bringing Fomalhaut to the world!
3. STANDOUTS On pp 80-93(!) you get a huge introduction to the setting of Fomalhaut by Gabor Lux. There’s a great article on pp 141-145 by Jeff Wilcox on running a great con game that will attract and excite new players, and it’s generally great advice for playing OSR games with new folks and one-shots. I could probably list at least one Jeff Rients article in every one of these sections, but anyone familiar with his blog already knows he’s a great writer and produces smart thoughts and fun ideas. The big winner for the audience, though, is probably Geoffrey O. Dale’s span of pp 93-117, which contains a complete follow-up to his famous Judge’s Guild adventure INFERNO for levels 10-14; the original was a jaunt through the first, second, third, and fourth levels of Dante’s vision of the underworld and the new section is the long-awaited fifth.
4. OVERALL This issue is worth it for Geoffrey O. Dale’s adventure alone; it’s a lot of game for the money all by itself. Great stuff.
Fight On! #4 Winter 2009
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1. ART My favorite cover yet for Fight On! is found on this issue, drawn by Steve Zieser; the same artist contributes some cool pieces on pages 4, 42, and 69 in a classic old school style. FuFu Frauenwahl (I had to read that twice) drew some cool monsters on pages 77 and 78. Tony Rosten puts out a cool drawing for page 16 as well. Hand-drawn maps make a good showing this time around and of course the issue is rounded out with some public domain pieces. Pages 12, 24, and 44 have tremendous pieces too, by motorvinen. In all, I think this one has consistently fun art, maybe the best overall yet.
2. CONTENTS As far as content, we have out customary tribute page at front, this time memorializing David A. Hargrave. This zine is a little shorter than Fight On #3, but not by too much. It comes in around 120 pages or so, and it has a tone of work in it. We see the return of James Maliszewski in here, some more work by Jeff Rients, and James Raggi returns as well. Gabor Lux and a number of other contributors fill the book with a lot of tools and supplemental aids for referees. I would describe this issue and the prior issue as simply outlandish in their density of content. This issue seems to be more focused on adventures and adventure-supporting bits and bobs than some prior issues, meaning just about everything in it is playable at the table.
3. STANDOUTS Calithena gives us a huge murder house on pp 12-36 that will probably mangle your smug PCs who think a +1 sword makes them invincible. It’s got a great variety of simple hand-drawn maps, monster art, encounters, and more. Huge draw for me here. Worth the price of admission alone. Geoffrey McKinney gives us the Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer on pp 70-78, set in Carcosa, with awesome and imaginative artwork throughout by Kelvin Green and FuFu Frauenwahl. On pp 118-119 we again see Calithena, who kills it on this issue; the guest editorial on Dave Hargrave is a good read.
4. OVERALL The fourth issue of Fight On! has the slickest production quality (such as it is) and some absolutely awesome adventure content.
This is the first in my probably endless series of reviews of zines. I’m going to go through the zines I have from way back (just Fight On! and Knockspell, I think) and then move on to reviewing the ones I picked up recently, most of which have more recent publishing dates. As this is the first, it’s not necessarily what the future ones will look like as far as how I will review them, but hopefully it’s a good framework to start from and it will gel into something useful over time. I didn’t want to be too long-winded for a change, and instead I just aimed for the highlights to give the reader a general overview and an opinion. Hopefully from this yall can form your own opinions on whether or not an issue is for you. If you have feedback specific to that, hit me up on Twitter @dungeonspossums and let me know what you like or don’t like about this four-point style. Also if you’re Ignatius Umlaut and you want me to remove the screenshots of the tables of contents or the covers, feel free to hit me up too. I don’t really know the rules about that, but I think it’s covered under fair use and I mean no harm by including them herein.
I've been writing zine reviews as well: I personally recommend Broken System, a one-issue PWYW zine from ANT-LERRR, which you can find here: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/165657/Broken-System-000?site=dtrpg
David Bowman's work is a standout for me, especially the "Darkness Beneath" sections that he wrote starting in issue 3.
It's fascinating how many things from Fight On! and Knockspell later got a second life. "The Ruined Monastery" is now a standalone adventure, "Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer" got incorporated into the Carcosa reprint, "Operation Unfathomable" started out in Knockspell, etc.
I, Calithena, really appreciate the shout out on the Arduin issue, and am delighted that you also called out Patrick Farley and Jeff Wilcox, as all three of us were in the same high school D&D club. Everyone else you called out also deserves the love, as does everyone who wrote for this wonderful ‘zine.