Friday, 18 March 2022

[Review] Rackham Vale (and the Four Eras of OSR Publishing)

OSR-adjacent Indie RPG publishing has come a long way since 2008, and has I think passed through four different eras which are quite distinct - albeit with considerable temporal overlapping between them.

The first was the DIY era, in which people were simply putting out material as hobbyists, and the emphasis was almost entirely on content over style. Think the original Carcosa; Raggi's original Random Esoteric Creature Generator; ScraPatrick's original Deep Carbon Observatory; probably Stonehell. A grungy and unpretentious aesthetic - this stuff didn't need to self-consciously go out of its way to look as though it had been printed out and stapled together in somebody's basement; it was only a baby step removed from precisely that.

The second was, for want of a better term, the FLAILSNAILS era, which I think coincided with the early explosion of interest in G+. Characterised by reliance on POD outlets (though not exclusively), the material produced here was very MS-Wordy - still amateurish, but with a higher level of emphasis on looking 'polished', and often with good art supplementing the text. I suppose Yoon-Suin fell into this camp, as would Fire on the Velvet Horizon, Vornheim, maybe the original Into the Odd and the early Kevin Crawford books.

The third era is that of the first Blockbusters - when Kickstarter really came to supplant POD options. Maze of the Blue Medusa, A Red and Pleasant Land, Veins of the Earth; many of the works produced in that ScraPatrick-Zak-Raggi confluence, but also many stemming from the Hydra Cooperative and other such groupings. This was an era of game-raising in terms of productive values and art, but also cost - one in which creators began to aspire to produce books that would look good on a bookshelf, or even a coffee table.

We are now in a fourth era, one characterised by a great proliferation of semi-professional material, in which a combination of customer expectation, healthy competition, experience, good-practice sharing and mimicry has raised standards in production to a level that often meets, and sometimes surpasses, the quality of major industry players in the 1990s. It is now the case that one can very easily find books, sold by their creators, that look better than the average TSR 2nd-edition era splatbook. Whether the quality of content has kept pace with developments in the field of design is another question.

Rackham Vale is in many ways an indication of how far we've come. Produced off the back of Kickstarter last year, it bills itself as a volume of 'fantasy adventure from the art of Arthur Rackham', and in terms of how it looks and feels it is streets ahead of what any of us were even daring to dream about in 2008. The art (admittedly most of it in the public domain) is beautifully integrated with the text; the layout is sound; the book has sidebars and inserts and lovely little decorative motifs. It flips nicely. It is pleasant to hold and touch. It is packed with tables and charts, so that there is precious little wastage of paper or, really, any empty space at all. I have slight misgivings about the use of black text, sometimes in quite a small typeface, against a grey background. But aside from that, the book is an absolute exemplar of modern OSR-inflected design.

If Vale demonstrates the advances that have been made in terms of style, though, it also demonstrates how comparatively difficult it is to make similar leaps in terms of content. Which is not to say for a moment that the content of the book is not satisfying. It is wonderfully evocative of the mood of Rackham's art. It is full of imaginative flourish and dripping with fairy tale charm. It is not just a valuable resource for imagining a Rackham-esque world, but really for any kind of setting influenced by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, William Morris or similar. The writing is solid. It has brilliantly usable monsters and lovely ideas. 

The standard, in other words, is high. But I find myself noticing that improvements in the quality of content across the industry have not quite kept pace with improvements in production values. This is perhaps to be expected, as it is true of almost literally every field of artistic and creative endeavour, and it would not be fair to criticise Rackham Vale as a consequence. I do find myself wondering, though, where the next genuinely transformative leap will take place with respect to the substance of all of this stuff we're making. Where do we go next, after "random tables are your friend" and "sandboxes are good"?

There are also a few areas in which I think Rackham Vale could be improved. An experienced DM would know how to use the material in the book. But an inexperienced one, I think, would not. The manner in which everything is presented is a little breathless, and would be improved by a page-long introduction at the beginning: here is how to use this volume. Likewise, individual sections (the faction map in particular) would benefit from more explanation - particularly deploying examples - regarding their use. The creators put a lot of energy into filling every space in their zine with usable material, and that's grand - but it is always worth taking the time to arrange things in such a way that somebody relatively new to DMing could see, explicitly, how to get from the pages of the book to good sessions at the table.

Overall, Rackham Vale looks lovely and has charming and imaginative content. It goes some distance toward filling the "fairy tale" void at the heart of the OSR. In those terms alone it is worth seeking out. 3 3/4 becs des corbins

[Rackham Vale is available for a variety of prices and formats. As a disclaimer, I was sent a free copy for review.]


  1. Are you sure there is a fairy tale void at the heart of the OSR? What about Dolmenwood, some works by Daniel Bishop and Zzarchov Kowolski?
    Whenever this sort of topic comes up, I am reminded of "The Meatginder" (reviewed by Vorpal Mace). The layout is readable rather than stylish; the artwork inspiration rather than good (by conventional standards). But does it read and play well? Definitely.
    Just from scanning the preview Rackham Vale looks nice. Maybe it needs a competition along the lines of write an adventure inspired by a couple of the art pieces, and see if people play and enjoy the entries.

  2. Thanks for this. I hadn't seen Rackham Vale, and am a big Rackham fan. His style immediately conjures fond memories of browsing the prints outside the used/rare bookshops on Cecil Court in London.

    Your "Where do we go next?" is a really interesting question. Big, big picture? *adjusts prognostication hat* I think AI/machine intelligence will radically transform aspects of the RPG experience well within the decade (along with everything else). It's hardly a stretch to imagine the "supplement of RPG tables" being rendered obsolete, for starters. I'm a little surprised, given the Venn union of RPG players and AI nerds, that this isn't further along.

    Technofuturism aside, in terms of actual human output I'm hoping for a syncretism of the hardcore OSR's high expectations for content quality, with the open-mindedness and engagement of e.g. Critical Role. A lot of non-OSR indie RPG stuff is extremely lightweight and under-cooked. I firmly believe that creative work can be both superlative and accessible, but IMO I don't think there's an RPG example of that, yet. A man can dream.

    TLDR: Where's my RPG Middlemarch?

    1. Interesting to read what you say about AI/Machine Intelligence. I am planning a project which utilises some random content, generated by a twitterbot I wrote. The bot is fairly procedural, just relies on a lot of random decisions, but yesterday a friend suggested that I use GPT-2 instead, and... I'm very interested, probably going to go down that route now.

    2. If nothing else, training GPT-2 et al can quickly produce some wacky hooks and ideas. I think that's the leap from big random generators to machine learning. The random generator's output is bounded by your inputs, but AI's isn't (or at least isn't in the same way).

  3. It’s easier to perfect the flintlock than to invent the percussion lock. My own guess is that a leap forward will be made by a group who has managed to extract something meaningful from post-1984 fantastic literature (Appendix Z) and is willing to purge the Gygax/Arneson legacy.


  4. I also hadn't heard of this, it does sound very interesting. Having been delving into public domain art a lot recently, it's struck me how suitable much of Rackham's art is for the kind of fairytale fantasy setting I'm mostly writing for.

    If I were to pick and artist to give a similar treatment, I would love to do something with the work of Sidney Sime. I actually a book I wrote as a kid full of stats for the creatures in Sime's Bogey Beasts (one of my favourite books in the world). The Snide in particular is a textbook high level D&D monster. And Sime's illustrations are so beautiful, right up there with Rackham's. There is something about that late 19th/early 20th century style of illustration which seems to me so well suited to fae fantasy gaming.