Interview: Melan

Today, I’m proud to present you a very special installment of The Prussian Gamer. To broaden our horizons, Hungarian Gamer “žMelan” will talk about the gaming scene in his lovely part of Europe. Let’s welcome our guest;

Jó napot kivánok, Melan!

Guten Tag, Settembrini!

To be honest, I’m interviewing you basically because you are from Hungary. How do you feel about that?

I”™m tolerant of the idea. I usually enjoy reading similar interviews or articles about roleplaying in other non-US countries. That”™s something you rarely hear about… for example, I”™ve read a review of DSA in the RPG supplement of a computer games magazine of all places (and that was way back in 1993), and own the d20 version of Engel, but apart from these, my knowledge of German RPGs or the people who play them is extremely limited.

Note that my opinions are mine alone, and probably don”™t reflect the thinking of the average Hungarian gamer.

What’s your personal gaming history?

My first contact with gaming was around 1990 or early 1991. I was involved in the Scouts at that time, and someone in my troop ran his own freeform game based on recollections of having played years before. We explored an abandoned pyramid that was very conveniently 2D (but not top-down: the ref worked from a sidecut map). Traps and monsters were completely absent, it was all about the exploration. After these two occasions, I found the Fighting Fantasy game books, which became very popular in Hungary at that time. There are a lot of fond memories about the beautiful “Titan” world guide, which is pretty much one of the most fun introductory fantasy settings ever designed. Late 1991 or early 1992, I came in contact with people who were experimenting with Harc és Varázslat [Combat and Magic], the first Hungarian FRPG, after which we moved on to Photocopied AD&D, then the most popular system in the country.

It was a chaotic period when actual rulebooks were still a bit hard to come by, but most clubs had servicable collections of photocopied and very unofficial translations. They were based on different sources, from pre-Unearthed Arcana 1st edition to the new 2nd ed. Many were also customised or house-ruled in various ways, or offered translations/interpretation at odds with the standard and usually forgettable TSR fare I got to know later. While there was a lot of silliness (+8 vorpal maces and gauntlets of Arnold Schwarzenogre come to my mind), the same time had the admirable quality of exuberance and playfulness that later Hungarian products invariably lack. The idea that RPGs should be Serious BusinessTM wasn”™t as widespread, and that was a good thing.

Of course, I eventually bought in the 2e AD&D product family, and started DMing for my own group. However, this was already a time when the scene was changing in an altogether new direction ““ historical simulation, more plot-based adventures usually revolving around intrigue and character acting, etc. ““ and I didn”™t feel at home anymore. This turn coincided with my growing dislike of “TSR D&D”, and my inability to realise what I really missed. I just wasn”™t enjoying my hobby any longer. It was time to get out and do something better.

I returned in 1999 with Palladium Fantasy Roleplaying, later moving on to 3e D&D. Around the same time, I started to discover the wealth of older A/D&D materials designed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and also that they embodied the same principles I liked ““ freeform adventuring, emphasis on action and exploration, stronger sword and sorcery influences, etc. The good people on the Necromancer Games forums deserve a lot of credit for this; I owe a lot to their discussions and recommendations. This also lead to writing free adventures for the fun of it, involvement in some publishing efforts and so on. For a few years, I have been moving away from 3e towards my own C&C-based system. I am also more interested in games with a very strong sword and sorcery, planetary romance or “weird fantasy” element, finding relatively little excitement in orcs and elves anymore. In any case, I am having fun now, run one campaign and play in another.

If I understand correctly, you are pretty deep into the gaming scene on the internet, what’s your standing in the Hungarian scene?

Most of my contact is with the English-speaking scene, while I have much less common ground with the Hungarian. I post on RPG.HU (the largest RPG-related website in the country), and even moderate the D&D/AD&D forums there, but all in all, that”™s not too much. I used to be more active, and was a long-term contributor to the Chaos Ultra diskmag/e-zine a few years ago. It just turns out that my interests coincide more with people who are active on English boards.

Did you draw maps or write for some products?

I only drew maps for my own free stuff, of which there are probably 8-10 at the moment, and of which I am most proud of Zothay and The Garden of al-Astorion. As for print publications, I was a contributor to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set by Necromancer Games and Judges Guild, and co-wrote the soon-to-be-published revision to Tegel Manor, another old Judges Guild product. JG”™s design philosophy is very close to my own, and I feel honoured to have been a part of its revival. I hope people will like it ““ it is a very playful and whimsical adventure with a good dose of humour and surrealism.

There are several Hungarian RPGs, please tell us about them.

Okay. The first RPG to be developed in Hungary was Harc és Varázslat (Combat and Magic, 1991). It is a good embodiment of what the contemporary scene found fun ““ unrestrained although often nonsensical fantasy, being a mixture of Tolkien and Howard. What I still like about H&V is how much more lively it was than its successors. There was a strong human quality to its implied heroes, as opposed to the stone-cold professionals in later RPGs, and a hodge-podge world that made no systematic sense but it was colourful and custom-tailored for adventure. You could, and were encouraged to make it up as you went, which is really the best thing a game can teach you.

While H&V died an ignoble death, the second game, published as a local alternative to AD&D, took off and still remains the most popular Hungarian RPG. M.A.G.U.S. (1993) was a fantasy system that mostly followed the AD&D conventions of ability scores, races, classes and so on, but added enough to feel distinct, from new classes to different magic systems such as the black magic of warlocks and the seduction of witches, to the “mosaic-magic” of wizards, who assembled their spells from smaller components (making them either pathetically weak or ridiculously powerful, depending on player ingenuity). M*, as it is often called, is an interesting beast, especially because, along with a very popular novel line, it had a crucial role in shaping the imaginations of the majority of Hungarian gamers. It presents a world strongly resembling Renaissance Europe, with an emphasis on political intrigue/backstabbing. The typical M* adventure involves some political scheme, a few assassin/black magician types and a party of adventurers who are usually coerced into action through blackmail, slow-acting poison or similar plot device by a corrupt local notability. This model of play came from cyberpunk and books like James Clavell”™s Shogun ““ admitted influences for the designers. M* is strongly humanocentric, although “aquirs” ““ a powerful, dying race of demonlike entities ““ are a constant presence in support materials and adventures. Later on, a new generation of designers introduced a strong dark fantasy/historical simulation element into the game; this change was received with mixed feelings, although eventually accepted by most fans.

While there is no hard data about print runs, we know that the first edition of M.A.G.U.S. sold over 35.000 units in its first years; a significant figure in a small market. But things weren”™t going in a good direction. The publisher didn”™t realise that by focusing on a supposedly more “sophisticated” and “mature” style, it was also driving away new potential players, while attempts to revise the rules produced editions that were close to unplayable. After the final dissolution of the company, the intellectual property was divided among multiple parties, making any further publishing attempt a legal minefield. An OGL version released in 2004, heralded as the foundation of a new age, was troubled by irrational business decisions as well as a lack of direction, and sunk almost immediately.

With the success of M*, the mid 90s saw the appearance of multiple smaller RPGs. All of these were labours of love, and none lived beyond their core rulebooks and a supplement or two. Armageddon 2092 ““ Mars was a cross between regular science fiction and cyberpunk: set on a halfway-terraformed Mars dominated by giant corporations, it depicted a society on the edge of total disintegration due in part to social pressure, and in part to the appearance of hostile aliens who had already succeded in destroying Earth and were preparing to do the same to the rather feeble colonies. Armageddon was troubled by too complex rules (licensed from Ars Magica but greatly expanded) and a poor physical appearance, never really taking off. Auvron was just like H&V without its charm and four years too late. It was savagely panned by critics and none of the planned supplements materialised. Gallia, a mini-game by the same people, fared a lot better: it is basically an unlicensed Asterix RPG.

The second game to take off and create a following was Codex. Created by the guy behind most of the M* system, Codex expanded on its concepts, but moved towards more culture simulation and intrigue. The world, Abryss, mixes Far Eastern cultures with European Renaissance, and presents extremely hierarchical and sophisticated societies governed by strong codes of conduct. Codex is a bit of a problem product. It has the most stylish rulebook ever made, printed on creamy yellow paper in brown and red ink, but gives almost no information on what a group of PCs is supposed to do in the setting ““ which worked so well that anything except courtly intrigue and maybe smuggling was out of the question. Thus, the designers suddenly discovered that Codex was a “dark” game of inquisitors and whatnot; completely falling in line with current fads and coincidentally destroying what made the original concept unique. Nevertheless, Codex had a good number of fans, and only an unfortunate business mishap (placing trust in people who should never have been trusted) stopped it from remaining a minor but solid hit. It is still a cult favourite, but barring a miracle, I don”™t see a revival happening.

Since Codex, there have only been two attempts of note (and an unsuccessful Wild West mini-RPG). Requiem continued the “dark fantasy plus feudalism plus unhealthy superiority complex” trend, creating a thoroughly unoriginal hodge-podge of Ars Magica (also popular at the time) and Codex. Apparently, the designers believed that a “realistic” feudal hierarchy, exacting attention to mining rights, monopolies and crop rotation, complemented by the oh-so-surprising “I am darker than thou” wizards-versus-inquisition idea would result in an enjoyable game. Billed as arty and original at the time of its release, I don”™t think Requiem has more than 50 active players today.

Chaos was Requiem”™s polar opposite. Its origins lie in a popular series of novels initially derived from some guy”™s 1st edition AD&D campaign that has gone from fresh and dynamic pulp fiction to stale and repetitios pulp fiction. Consciously low-brow (featuring, among other wonders, pus goblins and acid-vomiting ogres as playable races), it nevertheless remained another failure, most likely thanks to a combination of uninspiring rules, unfocused design and weak writing.

As you can see, the history of Hungarian gaming after the original M.A.G.U.S. has been a history of failed systems. Most of these were failures because the designers didn”™t have a clear idea about what they were really doing; others died because they tried to be niche in a very small field. Moreover, I don”™t think any lessons have been learned from this: fan thinking is still the same barren field of narrow-mindedness and a (false) sense of superiority. It remains to be seen if there will ever be another successful paper RPG here, or if computer games have already won the battle. I”™d put my money on the computers.

I got the impression that WoD is pretty popular in Magyarorszag. Any reasons for this?

First of all, everything that goes for the rest of the world (goth/metal aspects, Anne Rice, etc.) goes for Hungary as well. I also think that having an active live community is very helpful”¦ it builds groups, maintains continuous interest and attracts people better than other, relatively insular tabletop games. And while it is a completely prosaic reason, it must also be said that the people who publish the Hungarian version are a lot better businessmen than others in the field. Not necessarily stellar ““ just not dangerously incompetent.

Which RPG influenced the development of the Hungarian Scene the most? The least?

Undeniably, M.A.G.U.S. had the strongest influence, through the game and the accompanying novels. In the US, later games had to define themselves in the context of, and often against D&D. M* plays a similar role in Hungary. There is another strong influence in cyberpunk, but it is hard to tell how much of it is on its own (e.g. Shadowrun, CP2020, etc.) and how much through M* itself.

A/D&D”™s influence is different. First, you had the earlier players, until maybe 1993, who were reading classic fantasy, but were mostly inspired by actually playing the game without too many preconceptions. That”™s a different style from those who experienced the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance stuff, or even Baldur”™s Gate first. If you are familiar with the stylistic differences between 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, it is a bit like that, except almost nobody in Hungary is directly familiar with 1st edition AD&D ““ they identify its style with the aforementioned Chaos novels.

Ars Magica, Codex and Vampire were collectively influential in the late 90s. Except for Vampire, I doubt they are that relevant anymore; and of course, people seem to play Vampire differently now ““ at least I notice less introspection and angsting but much more straight hack and slash.

“Least influence” is not a sensible question. But it may be notable that science fiction roleplaying is conspicuously missing. Star Wars enjoyed a brief period of popularity, but I don”™t know anyone who still plays it. If RPGs had been popularised ca. 1983 instead of a decade later, the picture would likely have been radically different ““ Galaktika (which was “the” SF periodical) had a print run of 95.000 copies, and popular novels went a lot higher. A lot higher. In that sort of environment, Traveller would have become bigger than Jesus.

Is there a predominant mode or style of play?

Play is event- or situation-based. Site- and environment-based games are less common. Dungeon crawls are rarer still, even in AD&D (and often looked down upon). Player narration and other Forge concepts are completely unknown outside a very narrow circle.

How important are translations?

MERP, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, Ars Magica, Star Wars d6, AD&D 2e (PHB only), D&D 3e, Vampire and 7th Sea have been translated (I may have missed a few here). Shadowrun, Vampire and 3e were the most successful; both get new releases periodically, although the NWoD didn”™t seem to catch on here. At the moment, the only games in print are translated ones, so I”™d have to say they are quite important.

Are there any conventions of note?

Several minor ones and a few that have been going for some years. I don”™t visit them, so I can”™t comment on normal attendance or significance. The last time I did, there were a few hundred attendees, and I think the event was marginally profitable.

When and how do people come in contact with RPGs?

That”™s easy, they usually don”™t. “¦ More seriously, dissemination through friends is the common way in. That”™s how I and most of my friends got involved. Fighting Fantasy was a very strong influence until 1993. While M.A.G.U.S. was in print and widely available, there was a higher possibility of just picking up the book and becoming a player; plus you had a lot of novels with helpful ads in the back… Now that it isn”™t, and translations are too expensive to just impulse-buy, we have gone back to the traditional method. A few older people are also experimenting with procreation, which, as I have heard, can achieve good results.

Where there RGPs before 1989? Which?

Nothing domestic, everybody was playing AD&D. There may have been a few Rolemaster or Cthulhu groups, but not very many. As far as I know, organised roleplaying goes back to approximately 1985-86, and scattered groups to approx. 1982-83. I heard there is one guy who actually started with the White Box. He may just be an urban legend, though.

Is there any social stigma going along with playing RPGs?

There is nothing, and there had never been anything comparable to the moral panic in the United States. When M* hit, it was targeted by a few childrens”™ psychologists and a strange neo-protestant cult, drew a few local bans from religious schools, but that was the extent of it. I don”™t know anybody who was seriously harassed because of gaming. Social ridicule is a bit more widespread, but not excessive”¦ plus most people today identify RPGs as a 90s thing, and would be surprised to hear they are still around.

Is there any special demographic group that dominates the gaming scene? In Germany male college students would be overrepresented, something like that?

It is the same here. 20-28 years seems to be the average age. Males are in a significant majority (unlike, as I”™ve heard, Poland, where a lot more women play”¦ I”™ll have to look into that).

What’s the thing you hate most about the Hungarian Gaming Scene?

Narrow-mindedness and its outcome, intellectual stagnation. The idea that some forms of gaming are “improper” to enjoy (or even, “cannot be enjoyed”), while there are supposedly “mature” and “sophisticated” methods everyone should follow. This may sound stupid, but I”™ve met gamers who refused to enjoy action-based adventures, and were looking embarrassed when they did nevertheless. There is very little thinking about what makes games effective, what makes them enjoyable”¦ just a lot of dogmas inherited from magazine articles written in 1995 or 1996. The trouble is, people who take up designing games can”™t look beyond these dogmas. They don”™t know what will attract new fans into the hobby. I don”™t think they were even looking to please new fans”¦ just sell the same recipe to the same group of people again and again. That”™s not a healthy perspective.

If we want to see another game which can attract newbies and become successful, designers must think harder about ideas like accessibility, good GMing advice and encouraging a positive and player-friendly experience. There is no good reason why it can”™t be done.

What is the thing you love the most about Hungarian Gaming Scene?

All the above said, the people I have known have usually been well-mannered and fun to hang out with even if we disagreed on gaming priorities. I don”™t have any horror stories to share, which seems to make Hungary different from the US, where there are supposed to be a lot more dysfunctional people doing RPGs.

How hard is it to get RPG products?

In-print localised RPG books (D&D 3e, Vampire, occasionally Shadowrun) can be found in most medium to large bookstores. Several mid-sized towns and all larger cities have dedicated hobby stores, although the selection is usually collectible cards and novels with only a few shelves of RPGs. The bigger stores have a decent selection of foreign games, and of course, it is growing ever easier to order online.

What’s the status of the connected hobbies, like CCGs, Wargaming and TableTop?

Magic has several fans and there were two big local CCGs, although I think they aren”™t in print anymore. Miniature players are a small but dedicated group who play Warhammer Fantasy or WH40K. But these lines are too expensive for your average hobbyist. It looks like Mage Knight (?) and D&D miniatures have enough popularity to have a store presence almost everywhere. PBEMs, notably TúlélÅ‘k Földje (Survivor”™s Land) and Ősök Városa (City of the Ancients), both games with a strong streak of quirky humour, enjoyed a lot of success and still have several active long-term players. Lastly, sophisticated board games started to appear about five years ago, and are a growing hobby. I think one of them, Vilayet (a historical game sert during the Turkish occupation of Hungary), was translated for the German market. I am not active in any of these associated hobbies, though, so the info may not be completely accurate.

How about LARP?

This is mostly a WoD thing with some live fantasy, and I know very little about it. But there are enough events to indicate a degree of health.

Which single Element of the Internet Gaming Scene do you find the most puzzling/noteworthy/strange?

I don”™t get the people who are obsessed with canon (in rules or settings). To me, RPGs are all about expressing your own creativity; play aids are for encouraging instead of replacing the same. I don”™t want products to tell me how to do it all; I want to do the majority of the work on my own, from adventures all the way to house rules and system variants. For a weird reason, several people like the handholding, and some of them are openly hostile to meddling by “mere non-designers”. I wouldn”™t enjoy playing with them. Gaming can”™t be professionalised, since its essence is about a group of amateurs sitting down and enjoying themselves. It is a very personal game in an age when communication is becoming increasingly de-personalised and indirect. It is about inviting people into your home, for heaven”™s sake!

So: I”™d like to see more amateur products, fan created content and less obsession about conforming to someone else”™s ideas. Go out and do it yourself! No computer can provide you that experience.


It was my pleasure!

Please discuss here.

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