Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: Oubliette #1-4 Print Compilation

As promised, starting now I [Carter] am going to periodically review certain OSR products, as the mood strikes me. I had initially thought to inaugurate my foray into the world of product reviewership by doing a tour de Raggi, reviewing all the Lamentations of the Flame Princess modules that I own. That day will come (and soon!), but I recently received an item in the mail that, through the strong favorable impression it has made on me, demands to be reviewed first: Peter Regan's Oubliette Issues 1-4 Compilation.

One of the things we hear a lot in response to those "Where is the next Carcosa?"-type blogosphere discussions is that the best RPG products usually emerge from the pen (or word processor) of someone who really cares about the adventure / ruleset / publication being created. Those old-schoolers who express anti-D&D IV sentiments often do so based upon the assumption that post-1e iterations of D&D have tended to be produced largely as a result corporate or economic imperatives rather than out of sheer love for the game itself. Of course I'm grossly over-simplifying -- 1e AD&D also had commercial considerations factor into its design, and clearly there are folks at WotC who care deeply about 3.5 and 4e -- but bear with me here.

As an unrepentant old-school gaming partisan, I am particularly taken by the idiosyncratic, the baroque, the unusual, and the odd. I love low-budget, , offbeat, and "independent" films / games / books because, as James Maliszewski puts it so eloquently, I too like to see the "rough edges" in works of creativity and art. Stuff without rough edges bores me. I will take a John Waters film or a Swords and Wizardry White Box over a Christopher Nolan blockbuster or a D&D 4e product any day of the week.

So Oubliette Magazine is in many ways my dream OSR periodical. Which is not to say that it has "rough edges" in its physical presentation -- it is well laid-out and comes across very nicely in its print version -- but merely to say that it is clearly an intrinsically motivated labor of love on the part of its primary creator, Peter Regan. As Regan states in his editor's introduction to Issue #1, his intent with Oubliette is to capture "the spirit of those early issues [of White Dwarf], whilst embracing the Old School Renaissance movement," and in this, Regan has admirably succeeded. Not so glossy nor quite as varied in tone as Fight On!, Oubliette feels like a cross between White Dwarf (of which I too am a fan and former subscriber) and an informal campaign log from Regan & Co.'s home gaming table. And I like that; I like it a lot. Whereas the typical issue of Fight On! feels like a hodgepodge of LOTS of different people's ideas about what constitutes good gaming, Oubliette is more focused, and more personal: it has (so far) about three regular contributors, with Regan himself penning the majority of the articles. This relative consistency of point of view gives Oubliette a down-home, friendly, organic feel that FO!, for all its general excellence, does not so noticeably provide.

There is a surprisingly abundant amount of game-applicable material to be found in Oubliette's pages.  In fact, most of the non-review articles contain nuts-and-bolts gaming suggestions and content.  By contrast, while I typically find three or four truly useful pieces in the average issue of FO! (as well as a few others that blow my mind but that I will probably never use), Oubliette has a much higher "use-value" for me, in part because Regan and his cohorts are playing Labyrinth Lord in (what appears to be) a fairly "classic" Gygaxian mode, as I am.  Yet there is also a general emphasis in Oubliette on providing practical, modular, usable content, which, as a major stealer / horker of other people's gaming ideas, I appreciate.

Oubliette's straightforward focus on Labyrinth Lord-style gaming could be seen as a strength or as a limitation of the mag, depending upon your point of view. Regan and Co.'s approach is of particular value to those of us who play old-school D&D-type games in a classic "dungeon-crawl" and/or "sandbox" style, and (as I will highlight in some of my individual article comments below) would hold especial interest for neophyte to intermediate RPG'ers just getting their feet wet in the hobby. Whereas FO! frequently includes a lot of "high-end," detail-rich stuff relating to Tekumel, Arduin, advanced sandbox / megadungeon design, etc., Oubliette hews a little more closely to the basics: variant monsters, simple tricks and traps, low- to mid-level adventure scenarios, and articles with practical advice for referees and players. This is a very good thing, and this kind of material can be every bit as inspirational to we seasoned D&D pros as any of the weirder, more esoteric or setting-specific stuff regularly featured in other old-school periodicals.

[Note: This is not to say that other OSR periodicals like Fight On! don't also include good nuts-and-bolts stuff; they do. I own every issue of FO! and Knockspell and will continue to buy those great mags so long as they exist. The above comments are meant to provide contrast to the content Oubliette, NOT necessarily as evaluative statements in their own right.]

Now, a few remarks about some of the specific stuff included in the Oubliette #1-4 print compilation, to give you a flavor for what you actually get:

+ Artwork: Oubliette's art, by The Marg, is one of the great strengths of the magazine. The Marg is the sole visual artist contributing to Oubliette so far, and her artwork sets the tone for the mag perfectly. Particular favorites of mine include the thief on p. 19 of Issue #2, the barbarian tableau on p. 4 of Issue #3, the front cover of Issue #4, the back covers of all the issues (see below), and the Orcish Heavy Pistol on p. 16 of Issue #4.

+ Monster Club: a regular feature, and one of the consistently best in the mag. Particularly strong are the charts for monster skeletons (Issue #2) and monster zombies (Issue #4).  However, the "Best Monster Club Ever" award goes to the eminently useful "Monster Scaling" article (Monster Club #7) in Issue 4 -- I often need to generate less powerful or more powerful versions of monsters in my campaign, so Peter's comments and chart here will be indispensable to me.

+ Adventures: "Halfling-Proof Fence" (Issue #1), while cleverly named, is a bit too tournament-y or board-gamey for my taste, but I suppose this type of scenario is standard fare for RPG periodicals, and I do like its black humor and general ethos. Even more to my liking is the low- to mid-level town adventure "Hornet Hill" and the shorter adventure / room scenarios presented in "Monster Club" #'s 1 and 2. One of the strongest features of the mag in general is its tendency to provide modules that tie into the other gaming content provided in the same issue. For example, Issue #3 has an article delineating a Barbarian class, then it provides an adventure, "The Sacred Heart," intended for a party of Barbarians. Or, as the culmination of the "Firearms for Labyrinth Lord" series (Issues 2-4), Issue #4 presents "Weapons Test, a Labyrinth Lord Adventure with Guns." This format seems especially valuable for gamers attempting to incorporate new ideas like these into their campaigns for the first time.

+ "Inheritance" campaign setting by Christian Kitchener (Issues 1-2).  This ongoing chronicle of the particulars of developing a campaign world for Labyrinth Lord is well-written and reminds me a little bit of the kind of thing I'm up to with my own Lands of Ara blog.  I like world-building articles (especially getting to read the "under-the-hood" stuff like this) so I am enjoying seeing this series unfold -- I hope there is more to come.

+ "Developing House Rules for Labyrinth Lord" (Issue #1): This is one of the best articles I've seen in Oubliette. Consisting of basic guidelines for concocting effective house rules, this is GREAT advice for inexperienced DM's, the type of introductory article we veterans should probably produce more of of we want to expand the hobby to new players.

+ "Improvised Traps" (Issue #1): Another great article that is both useful for the novice and inspirational for the veteran. Certain of my players seem to thrive upon coming up with MacGyver-esque stuff like this; but it is nice to see a comprehensive list of simple, straightforward, yet imminently useful suggestions of this kind.

+ "The Rentalist" (Issue #1): If I had to choose a single article that best exemplifies what's great about Oubliette, "The Rentalist" would be it. An innovative idea that is easily slipped into practically anybody's campaign, "The Rentalist" -- which describes a particularly difficult-to-reach magic-item rental shop -- is immensely useful as a game feature, makes a lot of economic sense when you think about it, and is quite entertainingly presented. I suppose anything with a funny name AND a lot of use-value always wins me over.

+ RPG Product Reviews: Tend to be short, succinct, and very helpful.  I like that Regan reviews older, out of print RPG products as well.  Also made me aware of a few products I hadn't otherwise heard about, like the Labyrinth Lord Turntracker.

+ Television and movie reviews: These provide a nice change of pace, and again, their inclusion makes Oubliette feel more personal than other OSR periodicals: the TV reviews give me a sense where the magazine's editor is coming from in terms of his influences and preferences. I like that. These pieces obviously have less "use-value" in strictly gaming terms, but are essential to the organic, down-home feel of the mag.

+ Comics: I like the "Tales From Hell" ones better than the "Mouse Patrol" ones, but more importantly, I want to generally praise the inclusion of these comic strips in Oubliette. The comics section of Dragon was always a favorite of mine, and I think comics should be featured in old-school periodicals whenever possible. Keep it up!

+ The Back Covers: So funny!

 Back Cover of Issue #2, Copyright 2010 The Marg

In sum, what strikes me most favorably about Oubliette, besides its inviting, enthusiastic tone, is the sheer number of ideas you get for the cover price. Regan is working hard here. Each issue is approximately 34 pages long, PLUS it includes a bunch of downloadable "supplemental material" accompanying each issue, usually game aids relating to the included adventures.  Regan claims to want to put out a new issue of Oubliette monthly. This is a lot of old-school content for the dollar, and as I've said, if you are (1) a relatively new player / gamemaster, (2) a gamer who likes a 'zine where you can feel the personal stamp of the editor, and/or (3) somebody who plays any old-school D&D-esque FRPG in a "high fantasy" mode, you can hardly afford NOT to pick up this compilation, or to at least download the $2 pdf of a select issue or two.

The Oubliette #1-4 compilation is available at for the low low price of $12.07. Individual issues are $4.52 for print (lulu), or $2.00 for pdf (RPGNow). See also the Oubliette Magazine blog.

Creativity and inspiration-value: 5 out of 5, Peter Regan may be one of the hardest working guys in the OSR business, and his enthusiasm and competence shows in almost every article.
Use-value to DM's: 3 out of 5 to 5 out of 5, depending upon the type of campaign you are running. For a Gygaxian naturalist like myself, there is a lot to use here (5 out of 5). For more weird fantasy or sci-fi inflected campaigns, less so (3 out of 5).
Playability: Not yet tested, though given the "nuts and bolts" nature of most of the ideas here, and their having been playtested by Peter's own Labyrinth Lord group, I assume that most of this stuff would run very well. There is certainly one adventure scenario (I can't reveal which!) that I definitely plan on transplanting with little modification into my own campaign. (So players in my campaign, please do not read the adventures herein!)


  1. Thanks for the review. I've been thinking of picking up the collected edition and I think I will for sure now.

  2. Glad you liked the Inheritance stuff, I've been too busy and/or lazy to write anything else. I shall attempt to remedy that. I'll send Pete a lInk to the review. He'll be thrilled. He has the most colossal ego (no he doesn't, I made that up). The Marg is Pete's wife by the way. You thought she was a man. Tee hee.

  3. Wow! Thank you for such an amazingly detailed and positive review. Issue 5 is coming together nicely and should be out in a few weeks.

  4. Bought printed version from Lulu on the back of this review! Also bought Stonehell Dungeon at the same time. Thanks Carter.

  5. @Crusty One: Oops, sorry for that sexist assumption on my part. Will change pronouns forthwith.

  6. @Carter: Please, think nothing of it. I wear a Girdle of Masculinity when I draw, so gender confusion is bound to occur. Thank you so much for your lovely feedback. Pete may not have a colossal ego, but, since reading your review, I find that I now do. Fitting through the front door has never been more difficult.

  7. How would you compare the zine format issues with the compilation? I have all the PDFs, but I'm thinking of getting hard copies and I'm wondering which I should go with.

  8. One more follow up question regarding the compilation: are the pages renumbered for a single book and is there an table of contents? I ask because some of the other compilations I have seen are basically just sticking the smaller PDFs together (for example, the Fight On! compilation is like that).