Coming at us from ‘the clubhouse hidden somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey’, The Vintage RPG Podcast, and its hosts Stu Horvath and John ‘Hambone’ McGuire, has been delving into the past, present and future of tabletop games for nearly 5 years now.
To find out more about the show, and the enviable game collection that inspired it, we caught up with Vintage RPG’s founder Stu Horvath.
Wyrd Science: Vintage RPG started off as -and still is- an Instagram page to share your games collection, which sounds, let’s say, extensive... Tell us a bit about it...
Stu Horvath: My collection is born out of a couple things. First, natural attrition: I lost some stuff in a flooded basement and some other stuff was never returned after being lent out.
Second, stupidity: I sold the majority of my Middle-earth Role Playing books to Noble Knight and pretty much immediately regretted it. In the process of replacing all those lost books via eBay and similar online sources, I got curious about what else was out there, which led to the third thing: scarcity before the age of the internet.
There were so many cool RPGs out there that I never heard of, primarily because they weren’t on store shelves when I was a kid. I had no idea RuneQuest existed, for instance, which never fails to astonish me when I pause to think about it. Once I got a peak at that wider world, I wanted to read all of it, and soak up all of that art and become immortal so I’d have time to run or play all of it.
I started posting about the collection on Instagram mostly out of an enthusiasm for sharing, that was maybe slightly getting on my friends’ nerves. The collection was and is still fueled by an ongoing sense of revelation and discovery, and I think it naturally wants to be disseminated.
I do want to say that folks tend to think I have a large collection, but I am not sure I really do. I mean, I do have a lot of stuff (checking the spreadsheets: 5,688 RPGs, board games, toys, zines, magazine, miniatures, books and miscellaneous items), but there are certainly people out there with collections that are far more extensive than mine. It doesn’t feel massive to me, at least.
On the other hand, I have detailed spreadsheets to help me find where stuff is, so maybe this is simply an exercise in self-deception.
WS: And how much do you actually get to play it? It seems like you have a pretty regular gaming schedule going on...
SH: In terms of variety, I play a lot more board games than I do RPGs, thanks to my weekly board game group. I do have a weekly Call of Cthulhu game on Roll20 that started up during the pandemic, though – we did a bunch of classic scenarios, then Horror on the Orient Express and now I am running them through Masks of Nyarlathotep (my third time!).
My work schedule, which has been intense up until recently, has prevented a more robust RPG calendar beyond that but I am hoping to change that with some one-shots soon.
I’ve a keen desire to run Destroyer of Worlds for ALIEN, and Luka Rejec’s Let Us In. Oh, and The Enemy Within campaign for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. That’s sort of a one-shot, right?
WS: Going right back to the beginning, what was it that sparked your initial interest in tabletop games, and do you still have it in the collection?
SH: I recently had a very hard think about this and came up empty: I don’t know what hooked my initial interest in RPGs. There are a lot of possibilities I won’t list here, but the first products that were bought for me (circa 1985 or ’86, when I was seven or eight) were the 1983 D&D Expert Rules box set and the module X10: Red Arrow, Black Shield, both purchased the same evening at the Waldenbooks in Willowbrook Mall. I still have copies of both, but the originals are long gone.
I have to say, that one-two punch of an intermediary rules box and a wargame was not really an adequate gateway for actually playing D&D. Even with the addition of the Basic Rules, it was mostly a solo map-making game for me for a couple years. It wasn’t until I got the Gamer’s Handbook of the Marvel Universe in 1988 that RPGs really started to make sense to me as a kind of storytelling game you’re supposed to play in a group.
WS: So, as we said this all started off as an Instagram page and then a year or so after you started that the first show went up. Had the podcast always been part of the plan?
SH: Nope, not at all. It was all my co-host Hambone’s idea. All credit for its success goes to him. Never in a million years would I have guessed people might enjoy listening to me rattle on about this stuff. But Hambone was right: they do! The world is full of mysteries.
WS: Had you done anything like it before? We just listened to the first show again and you kind of hit the ground running.
SH: I had done some podcasting before, primarily associated with Unwinnable, so that got me comfortable on a microphone. That notion that we hit the ground running is a little bit of an illusion, though – Hambone edited the hell out of the early episodes and the first one in particular we recorded three or four times before we got one that we were happy with.
Once we nailed it, though, the basic formula was set.
WS: Talking of that basic formula, there's a lot to be said for a tight 30 minute show, too many podcast seem to think they need to compete with Wagner when it comes to length...
SH: Ha, our most frequent comment is all variants of “make the episodes longer.” Never going to happen! A central appeal of the show, I think, is its brevity. Leave ‘em wanting more, and all that. I am not sure I am capable of cramming much more than thirty minutes of facts into my brain at any given time anyway.
WS: The show’s recorded in the same ‘clubhouse' where the collection is stored. I go back and forth in my head between it being like Tom Hanks’s place in BIG, the warehouse from Raiders and a shed, so what's the reality?
SH: Well, for one, I suspect your usage of the word “shed” is a bit different than here in the States, where it describes a sort of small outbuilding for tools, gardening supplies and spiderwebs.
The clubhouse used to be a ramshackle detached two-car garage that I had taken down before a bad snowstorm had a chance to knock it down. My original idea when we had it rebuilt was to have a workshop on one side and a photo studio on the other, with that section open to the rafters and a loft space over the workshop.
As writing overtook photography as my main gig, I started using the studio as the venue for my D&D campaign and a regular board gaming group. Eventually it made sense to just store all the RPG stuff out there. And more and more of it, until RPG books took over the loft entirely.
It’s a ten-foot by twenty-foot space, which built in shelves at one end and a ladder up to the loft on the side, which is also ten by twenty, though under the slanting roof, so you have to be content to crouch or crawl while up there. I hit my head frequently. There are lots of posters and a couple of skulls on the walls to keep it feeling homey, too.
WS: What have you enjoyed most doing the show?
SH: Well, getting the opportunity to chat with folks like Erol Otus, Russ Nicholson and Tony DiTerlizzi, all artists whose work I’ve adored for decades, will always be tops. As with everything coming out of the Vintage RPG project though, there is a baseline awesomeness to being able to just talk about, think about and interface with RPGs as much as I do. Now I just gotta figure out how to find time to play them more…
WS: Has recording the show changed how you view games at all?
SH: I think the show has been clarifying more than an agent of change in terms of my views on games. Speaking my mind is a lot different from writing out my thoughts, I think, and this has allowed me to see how things fit together in ways I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
WS: Despite the name, the show isn't just a nostalgia fest and you feature as many new games as you do from days past, and the last 5 years of so has seen a lot of new games to keep up with. What in tabletop games has excited you most in recent years?
SH: Nostalgia is a poison that’ll waste us away, especially when there is such a feast of new and exciting RPG material out there, with new stuff coming out minute after minute.
The emergence of this whole DIY zine scene is just astounding, the way it is pushing RPGs in so many directions simultaneously, into new forms and formats, and doing it with an excess of style.
Who’d have thought the risograph would make a comeback? Or that business card games would be a thing? It’s all so fresh and vibrant and has absolutely no regard for the health of my wallet.
THE EMERGENCE OF THIS WHOLE DIY ZINE SCENE IS JUST ASTOUNDING, THE WAY IT IS PUSHING RPGS IN SO MANY DIRECTIONS SIMULTANEOUSLY
WS: Nor ours! Still, to help keep the lights on you've got a Patreon that helps funds the show, what does that give people access to?
SH: Oh man, Hambone’s the salesman, I don’t know if I can do his spiel justice. Primarily, patrons get access to behind the scenes looks at our other projects. For myself, my various writing projects like the book for MIT Press; for Hambone, his development of the 3,2,1...Action! RPG.
They also get early access to new episodes and, soon, ad-free versions. Hambone has also started running patrons through Dungeon Crawl Classics funnels and I aim to get in on that action soon with ALIEN and Call of Cthulhu one-shots. There’s also a private lounge in our otherwise public and pleasant Discord.
WS: If someone reading this wants to give Vintage RPG a shot is there a particular show you'd recommend trying first?
SH: Our recent episode on my first foray into painting miniatures got a surprisingly warm reception, so that might be a good entry point. I think folks are generally safe jumping in on any episode that features a game they’re familiar with.
WS: Outside of Vintage RPG you also have your own magazine, Unwinnable, what’s that all about?
SH: I founded Unwinnable back in 2010, initially as just a website, then in 2014 as a weekly, subscription-driven digital magazine that, in 2016, shifted to the more manageable monthly pace it continues on to this day. The magazine is very cleverly named Unwinnable Monthly and we’ve another smaller magazine called Exploits that is a sort of collaborative cultural diary.
The whole idea behind all of this was to provide a platform where writers from all sorts of diverse backgrounds and perspectives could write cultural criticism (and fiction and poetry and anything else they want) without worrying about bunk like advertising or traffic or similar limiters of thoughtful, creative expression. It’s been a dozen years of amazing storytelling.
WS: Now unlike most of us who hoard big game collections, you're actually putting yours to use, not just with Vintage RPG, but as you alluded to earlier you're also writing a book due out next year, tell us about that...
SH: I’m pleased to report that it is now past tense – I wrote a book due out next year. It’s all done, laid out, illustrated and everything as of August 17! It’s called Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground: A Guide to Tabletop Roleplaying Games, from D&D to Mothership and it will be published by MIT Press in October of 2023.
It springs directly out of the Vintage RPG Instagram feed. I selected a few hundred games from my collection that I think, year by year, product by product, from 1974 to the present, tell the story of the RPG hobby.
It isn’t a history, really, or the story of specific designers, but rather a musing on how we play and make these games, and how both have changed over the decades (and not changed – the zine scene, for instance, has really been around since the start!).
The text is accompanied by hundreds of color photographs of product covers by me, jaw-dropping paintings by artist Kyle Patterson that distill the character of each decade and spot illustrations by Evlyn Moreau, Amanda Lee Franck, and Nate Treme. It's going to look amazing and I hope it introduces folks to a wider world of RPGs, just like collecting has done for me.
WS: Finally, for obvious reasons, D&D features quite heavily on the show but your tastes seem pretty wide so if you could only keep one game, and its supplements, from the collection, what would you pick?
SH: Folks might guess, given my love of Masks of Nyarlathotep, that I’d pick Call of Cthulhu, but I’m going to swerve and go with Pendragon.
Partly because I truly believe it is as close to the perfect marriage of theme and mechanics as we’ve ever seen, and might ever see, but also because it is so rich. The core campaign alone is designed to run over 80 sessions, and that isn’t counting side quests and multi-session adventures! I could sink into that for years, easily.
For all things Vintage RPG point your browser towards vintagerpg.com
This interview originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue