Monday, July 07, 2008

Review: Adventure Games Journal #1

The last couple posts around here have been a bit of a bummer, so it's obviously time for some unbridled enthusiasm! Adventure Games Journal is the magazine side of industry veteran James Mishler's growing one-man FRP empire, Adventure Games Publications. James comped me a copy of AGJ #1 to review here and I dug it so much I signed on for the long term with a 6 issue/installment subscription. I say "issue/installment" because James is rolling out a modern day version of the Judges Guild campaign installment system. The subscription I paid for is good for 6 issues of AGJ and 6 campaign installments of the Wilderlands of High Adventure. Note that's High Adventure, not High Fantasy. This Wilderlands is a new licensed version of Bob Bledsaw's original, statted up for Castles & Crusades and fleshed out with lots of original material. I can't wait to get my first campaign installment.

But anyway, back to the magazine. Physically, the book is an 8.5" x 11" black & white affair running 48 pages. The cover depicts the Invincible Overlord on his pegasus throne, with two of his trusted aids at his side. I believe this is the first time I've ever seen an illo of that dude. And the weirdo in the robe is creepy-tastic. This piece and all the interior art and cartography are by Peter Bradley and I think his linework is pretty dang good.

James uses the interior covers for fullpage ads for his products. The first interior page is a table of contents and OGL declaration, while the next page is an editorial explaining what the magazine is about. The rest of the mag is chock full of pure gaming goodness, all written by Mr. Mishler. I'll give the rundown article by article.

"The World of the Wilderlands of High Adventure"

This is where James hit one out of the ballpark and got me to pony up for a subscription. In a dozen pages he gives a fabulous overview of the Wilderlands' cosmology and astronomy, thumbnail sketches of each of the 18 regions of the setting, and similar descriptions of the rest of the continent of Rhadamanthia, of which the canonical Wilderlands are but one small part. Each subsection of the article is full of meaty stuff you can spin into adventure fodder, NPC background material, or treasure item histories. But there's not so much there that you can't fill each place full of your own material. In terms of efficient delivery of inspiring setting info, the only two settings I can compare to Mishler's work here are Gygax's Greyhawk and S. John Ross's Uresia. Most settings deliver half this much awesome in twice as many words.

"Hanging Out in the City State: The Invincible Overlord, His Concubines, and his Children"

An article with the word "concubines" in the title had the potential to go south quickly, but Mishler handles this quite well. For those of you who like adventures full of politics and intrigue, this article is your huckleberry. The strange life and times of Hygelak the Dread, Invincible Overlord, his 12.5 concubines, and their children is a situation teeming with plot potential. A braver GM than I could build a great adventure where all the players assume the roles of various concubines during an assassination attempt or somesuch. For less ambitious or crazy GMs, all you need is a way to hook the PCs into the court in order to launch some high stakes fiascos. (PC to party: What didn't I tell you my sister was married to the Overlord? Must have slipped my mind.)

"Knights of the Realm and FEAR"

The first part of this realm is a detailed outline of the institution of knighthood in the City State. Lots of great details here in terms of the probably character levels of various knights, their equipment, their obligations to the Overlord, and their lifestyle. The second half of the article deals with the Fraternity for the Eradication of Armored Riffraff. The organization known as FEAR gets a brief write-up in the old Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets. Their basic deal is that they like to beat up low class PCs running around in platemail. The info Mishler provides here gives some great background to the organization, taking what looked to me like merely an excuse to pimp over the PCs and turning it into an important and relevant social institution. And they know this wicked combat maneuver called Great Plate Crush they can use to pummel the bejesus out of uppity PCs. The article ends with rules for ransoming knights, something D&D has needed for a long time, and brief C&C stats for various forms of plate armor.

"Maze of the Mad Mage"

In my opinion this is the one weak point in the magazine. There's nothing wrong with most of the adventure and the key. In fact, it looks like a fun little dungeon romp in the style of the stuff in the old Dungeoneer magazine. But this dungeon comes with a gimmick and I'm not a big fan of gimmick dungeons. In this case the gimmick is that the dungeon level is chock full of instantaneous undetectable teleporters. It strikes me as the kind of dungeon that could set off riots among the players. And the teleporter key is hard to read in black & white. A full color map would have really helped here. Were I to try to run this thing, I'd probably attack the map with highlighters or colored pencils to make it easier to use. Also, one tiny nitpick is that the dungeon map has no scale marked on it.

"Monsters & Treasures"

I love these sort of meat-&-potatoes type articles. First you get stats for the Orblings, a new class of floating eyeballs with tentacles. I eat that stuff up. Michler notes that the Orblings are based upon the Steelies, an old Paul Jacquays monster from the Dungeoneer, but its not just a redo of an old monster, but an interesting new creature inspired by Jacquays work. Then you get a couple of magic items, the Wand of Witchery and Cauldron of Wisdom. With very little work this stuff should be usable in nearly any old edition of D&D.

"Lost Gods of the Wilderlands"

This one's a nice little 2 page article on Rash'l, God of Tyranny. Page one is devoted to stuff followers need to know and some neat history of the faith. Page two is stats for the dude. Even if you don't regularly feature gods popping up in your campaign, there's plenty of hash to be made out the first page of this article, including some nifty political tie-ins to the City State.

"Lost Lore of the Wilderlands"

Next we get a nifty write-up on the Cozy Cave, a wilderness inn built into a Esgalbar, a secret elven outpost in a big tree, kinda like a Ewok habitation. Esgalbar is jam-packed with dangling adventure hooks and lots of meaty Wilderlands lore. The back cover of the magazine is a map depicting the Wilderlands hex containing both sites. (Map 5, hex 3119 if anyone cares.) My favorite part about this article is the die chart for who else might be at the Cozy Cave when the PCs arrive. Good stuff.

"Rumors Around the Wilderlands"

A page full of adventure ideas in the form of short rumors. Several are specifically for the City State, while others are tied to a specific Wilderlands map. Three of the rumors are for the Southern Reaches (map 18), which will be featured in the first campaign installment.

"Shopping List"

A "coming soon" list mostly for Troll Lords, Goodman Games, and Mishler's own stuff. Out of date at this point.

"Adventure Finder"

Some of you might be familiar with Goodman Games' Adventure Finder for their Dungeon Crawl Classics line. It's basically a big chart that helps you pick the right DCC for your party based upon their level. Mishler provides a similar service but across pretty much all the publishers I care about: Goodman, Green Ronin, Kenzer, Necromancer, Troll Lord, Paizo, and WotC. And seeing as how the sky fell last month, this list is probably about as complete as you're going to get for 3.x. File this one under "Why didn't anyone think of this sooner?"

So that's issue #1 of Adventure Games Journal. Like I said, this thing made me a believer, despite the fairly high prices. The quality is just that damn good. I still work on my personal Cinder setting, but after reading this stuff I dropped the Wilderlands onto my map of the star systems near Cinder. So now the Wilderlands, like Encounter Critical's Mighty Land of Vanth and several other settings, is just one small corner of my overall campaign universe. Did you know that the Kings of Kelnore had starships and once fought a space war with the Beast from Krull? It's true.

One final thing about James's version of the Wilderlands. There's been some confusion in some quarters about his campaign maps. Mishler is not simply producing color versions of the black and white maps that appeared in the Wilderlands boxed set from Necromancer. His maps have more detail. Check out these two samples.

I'm thinking that the old black & white maps might be useful as handouts for the players.


  1. Ooh; didn't know about this. Happy to learn of it here :)

  2. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Dude. You had me until I saw the price. Not fo' us po' fokes! Like, can I get a scholarship? Or financing? =)

  3. I loved the hell out of this product. And Map #18: Southern Reaches by AGP as well. God, what a beautiful piece of cartography that is. Really, really excellent work that I hope to see more of in the future.

  4. Korgoth: yeah, after I calmed down I went and looked at the prices :(

    Still, such is the nature of small press ... and given that I've blown $16 on RPG supplements of that size and been burned on absolute crapola, I'm still tempted to extend beyond what I can afford to give the first one a go, since $16 on that much RPG material that Jeff thumbs-up is a risk I might be wiling to take, maybe and possibly ... because if it rocks my gaming table, that's potentially many dozens of hours of entertainment.

    If it's just fun to read, it's not worth that much cashola to me. But if it grabs me by the throat and demands to be PLAYED ... then it's a bargain.

    [does that fretful finger-tapping gesture from Wall-E]

    I must ponder :(

  5. Anonymous10:24 AM

    I never got into Wilderlands but f I could get a $5 pdf, I'd give the journal a try.


  6. I'd go $6-$10 on a PDF if the maps were kept at a decent print resolution and the pages dense with gaming groovery :)

  7. Anonymous12:40 PM

    I, too, was very happy with Adventure Games Journal #1. I'm looking forward to more!

  8. Anonymous5:07 PM

    By the way, Dungeon Crawl Classics pdfs are all half price now, since they are switching to 4th Edition soon and by the terms of the new licence won't be able to sell the old 3.5 ones.

  9. Anonymous11:46 PM

    Dungeon Crawl Classics pdfs are all half price now

    The 1e Saga of the Witch Queen is a good one.

  10. Anonymous2:49 AM

    The mag looks really great and I loved the setting but at that price for just 3 issues. There is no way, not even if my home group pitched in.

    I hate to rag on the price but they need to find a cheaper printer or make PDFs available it a reasonable cost. Even Average Joe Gamer, I seriously doubt can afford this thing and if it really is that good then this will just prompt it to show up on file share all that much quicker and when that happens, no money will be seen.


  11. Anonymous1:48 PM

    It must be mine!!!

  12. Hi guys! Sorry I've not replied earlier; I still don't have Internet access at home yet (this was written at the local library).

    The price I think is reasonable. 48 pages per issue for $12 isn't bad when you realize that there are only two ads (both house ads) and save for the cover and the index/OGL page, everything is content. Compare that to any classic Dragon magazine and you will see that there are at least the same, if not more pages of content. Also realize that Dragon was subsidized by ads, while AGJ is not, so the full cost must go to the consumer.

    As for printing, it is damned if you do, damned if you don't. I print at a Print on Demand printer, which means that the number printed can be very low, but the per unit cost is rather high. I cannot print at a standard printer, as to get even a half-decent discount I would need to print thousands of units, and the market just isn't that big anymore.

    You can also compare it to the Paizo products. 96 pages for $19.95 from them; yes it is in full color, but again, they go through standard printers and print tens of thousands at a time, getting a much, much greater discount than I ever could. It is a matter of scale.

    As for the subscriptions, a 3-issue sub actually includes three issues of the magazine and three issues of the campaign installment (the Judges Guide for the various Wilderlands settings) plus free maps and other goodies and discounts on non-sub products. So the $84 cost is actually $14 per unit, and that includes shipping and handling (all products are bagged and boarded and sent First Class Parcel). The 6-issue sub is even a better deal, at $144 or $12 per unit (six magazines and six installments). Essentially shipping is free for a 6-issue sub.

    Subs are not offered at 50%+ discounts because, again, there is no subsidy from advertising. Print media is dying because of a lack of advertising; that's what killed Inquest, not to mention many, many other magazines and newspapers. And the gaming industry is even worse for advertising. Without that advertising, the full costs must be passed on to the buyer.

    That's why the cost is so high on a per-unit basis. As a final thought, when you look around and say, "But so and so sold a 48-page product for only half that!" look to where that company is today... likely, they are out of business, as they were not charging what they needed to in order to make their product profitable...