- John Power Jr.
PUBLISH & BE DAMNED: THE MERRY MUSHMEN
Since dropping through our letterbox in the Spring of 2001, “old school gaming Bric-à-Brac” KNOCK! has quickly become one of our favourite, and inspiring, RPG publications, each issue packed full of new rules, creatures, wild ideas, essays and art from some of the most talented names in the OSR scene.
With three volumes of KNOCK! now on our shelves and A Folklore Bestiary on its way, we caught up with The Merry Mushmen behind it all to find out where it all began and what they’re up to next.
So, first of all please introduce yourselves, just who are The Merry Mushmen and where did that name come from?
Eric Nieudan: We are two aging RPG people from France. I've been professionally involved in tabletop games since the end of last century, and gaming since the 1980s.
Olivier Revenu: I worked mostly as a freelance graphic designer all my life and played my first D&D game in 1981.
EN: Olivier came up with the name so I'll let him answer that part.
OR: If I remember well, we needed a name quickly before launching the first Kickstarter campaign, and I had in my current campaign at this time a group of NPCs I liked: a bunch of scary smiling myconids.
You've known each other, and been involved in the French RPG publishing world for quite a while now, right? Can you just tell us a little about how you met and your gaming histories...
EN: We met in the office of a games publisher in Paris circa 2002 and did some work together. I was in charge of Archipels, a third party D&D campaign setting back in the days of 3rd edition and the d20 License and I realised that Olivier and I had the same taste and influences, I asked him to write some silly fantasy pirate stuff for us.
A couple years later, I moved to Ireland and we lost touch entirely. Until that day in 2018...
So, fast forward to 2018, what happened then?
EN: I got an email entitled 'message from the past' with a proposal for an OSR magazine...
OR: I had completely lost interest in RPGs around 2002. But in the summer of 2016 a friend of mine suggested that we play Tranchons & Traquons, with our children, it’s a very cool OSR game by Kobayashi, that’s perfectly adapted for young people.
It was fun, so then I started to get interested in this strange thing called the OSR. I discovered OSR blogs, independent creations, zines etc. All at once. A shock! A Pandora's box.
I found almost everything that I read was great, hyper creative, and, very often, very modern.
So that's when I got the idea for KNOCK! And as I saw that Eric was one of the cool actors in the OSR scene, it was only natural that I contacted him to do it together.
KNOCK!’s focus is on old school gaming which, like the term OSR itself, seems to have a dozen definitions depending on whom you ask, how do you define it and what is its appeal for you?
EN: I think most definitions are valid, who am I do decide what's what? Speaking for myself though, I like my adventure-slash-old-school games to have three things: open situations or sandboxes, simple and loose mechanics that can we can amend or elaborate on as needed, and a fair referee who isn't afraid of letting the dice decide what happens.
OSR games are typically lethal, especially if the players make the mistake of looking for combat without being prepared, but characters are easy to roll up, and your next beginner adventurer just might be the one who gets to become a hero!
Most of the original articles in the first KNOCK! were culled from blogs, why did you think it was important to have these in print?
OR: I've always preferred to read on paper than on screen and I love the book as an object. Gathering all these articles in a single "place" that can be consulted at any time allows us to show the incredible variety and creativity of the OSR community, and that was the original idea.
Now obviously there's hundreds to choose from but is there a particular piece you've featured in KNOCK! that you think sums up the spirit of it?
OR: It's really hard to say, especially since one of the strengths and charms of the OSR is its diversity, the different points of view which answer and complement each other like in a ping pong match. Each article is part of a more global reflection of the authors' OSR own community.
But I would say that if you have to read only one article, for me I’d say maybe try one of those written by Arnold K.
You now have an open submission policy for KNOCK! So what advice would you give someone who might be taking their first steps in creating content for games?
EN: Write good!
If you know the amazing fonts of creativity that are the various OSR sub-communities you'll have an idea of what we like. Otherwise, just browse one of our issues and send us your best pitches, blog posts, etc.
Oh, and be patient. The new projects we're on take a lot of time away from responding to emails.
We love the look of KNOCK!, It’s modern yet still nods back to the original RPG aesthetic, eclectic without feeling like a mess. What was the biggest challenge for you in terms of design?
OR: The KNOCK! layout is really fun to make. I work mostly in InDesign and only do one document with all the 200+ pages in. This allows me to easily move between all the articles, change a bit here or there, reduce the length of an article, add a visual on another, and have a global view of the bric-à-brac at any time.
Seriously, it's an easy job and super fun. It's supposed to represent the diversity and abundance of OSR blogs and authors, so I think it works on that level. I've been told that the layout of the #3 was a bit quieter than the previous ones, maybe it also depends on my mood at the moment.
Vol. 1 was a huge success and it’s just grown from there, did you think there’d be such an appetite for it when you started?
EN: Not at all! With a tiny rep in the OSR, we couldn't hope for such a success. I think we owe a lot to Olivier's idea of promoting famous voices of the community, and of course to his kick-ass art direction. That let us reach deep into this sub-sub-niche and realise that there's a whole dungeon full of old-school kobolds down there!
OR: In fact I think we've been super lucky to reach the "modern OSR" community and not just the nostalgic one. That's actually where the most people are, those who are already into DIY, always active, busy, looking for and sharing new ideas.
So we just mentioned it but your most recent Kickstarter was for A Folklore Bestiary, how did that come about?
OR: I saw on the net the work of Javier Prado, a great Spanish illustrator who was working on a book, Monstros Ibericos, which included a lot of monsters from Spanish folklore There were several monsters from the folk tales of the Basque country, my country, and I asked him if we could do something together.
I wrote some stuff inspired by his drawings and the folk tales from my childhood. Those ended up as two articles in KNOCK! and started the Bestiary.
Knowing how tribal people can be about these things, was producing a 5E version alongside the Old School Essentials edition an easy decision?
EN: It was easy. Mostly because we believe that there aren't many 5E products which bring the openness of OSR design to the Ampersand Brand.
We weren't sure it would appeal to many people but, looking at the KS figures, it seems like it did. When I see the popularity of D&D in younger generations, I always worry about those who will be turned off by the maths-intensive tactical gameplay of 5E. I mean, I do love a good battlemap scrap but, on a day I don't feel like it, I know I can play something else. A lot of newcomers don't know about all these other options.
OR: On the technical side it was a lot more complicated The stats of a monster or NPC in 5E require three or four times more space than those of OSE. It required a much more flexible layout.
It also confirmed to me that the two systems, despite their common origin, really offer two different ways of both playing and approaching their fantasy worlds.
Fortunately, we were very lucky to work with Islayre who adapted all the OSE stats to the 5E system. A real titanic job.
When you write a monster for OSE, you spend 90% of the time on the history and the description, the fun things. The stats are done in a wink after that. For 5E, if you want to do it right, the stats take at least as much time to write as the rest.
What is it that makes your Folklore Bestiary stand out?
OR: The idea was to go back to the original sources of fantasy, to its myths, its popular roots. Folk tales we were told to scare us when we were kids are inexhaustible sources of stories and characters. We've been trying to tap into that, trying to forget the "formatting" of years and years of D&D practice.
Over the years, D&D has become its own genre. The main source of inspiration for D&D is D&D itself. It is a sign of its success and it is very good. But actually not that good. I have the impression, maybe I'm wrong, that all D&D fantasy, at least as far as the "official line" is concerned, has become moulded, rationalized, explained.
When you have a rational explanation for something like "why dragons like to sleep on piles of gold", and you make it canonical, you gain an explanation but you lose a lot, the mystery, the weirdness, the feeling of strangeness and unknown. You reduce the opportunities to think out of the box and each participant to make their own "inner cinema".
I find that what has become standard D&D fantasy suffers quite a bit from this, and only ends up sticking to clichés instead of exploring archetypes, forgetting all the horrific, the wonderful, the weird and the mysterious, and seriously, what’s the point of such a fantasy?
It was good at one time, because it made the fantasy worlds we loved accessible and mainstream, but maybe it's time to go back to the myths and folk tales from which our imaginary worlds sprung from. That's also why I like OSR games: they are for a lot of them exploration and survival games, which induces themes close to those of our folk tales.
So that's the direction we tried to go with our bestiary, at least that was the initial desire.
But each monster comes with a lot of gameable material, random tables, adventures hooks, magic items, NPCs, etc. The idea is that you can create a whole adventure or campaign with its own unique atmosphere just by picking a monster from the bestiary.
"WHEN YOU HAVE A RATIONAL EXPLANATION FOR SOMETHING LIKE "WHY DRAGONS LIKE TO SLEEP ON PILES OF GOLD", YOU GAIN AN EXPLANATION BUT YOU LOSE A LOT"
So after the Bestiary what's next for the Mushmen?
OR: We have a lot of things in the pipeline, a lot of ideas and desires. More than we have time for in fact. At the same time as KNOCK! #4, we will publish the second edition of Kobayashi's game Black Sword Hack, which lets you play in a fantasy setting inspired by those of the 70s (a la Moorcock, Leiber etc).
It's a great little game with a lot of cool ideas and it's illustrated by Goran Gligović, an artist I like a lot and whose work fits this universe perfectly.
If the Bestiary is well received, we are ready to unleash a second volume and we also have some adventures for Old School Essentials in the works, a generic and minimalist system to play D&D, the translation of a French game, etc etc etc.
EN: If we don't procrastinate too much, we should have a lot of fun in the months and years to come!
A Folklore Bestiary is out now published by The Merry Mushmen
order from themerrymushmen.com
This interview originally featured in Wyrd Science Vol.1 Issue 3 - The Horror Issue