Stu Horvath is a writer and editor whose podcast and Instagram account Vintage RPG documents and analyzes the history of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. He is also editor-in-chief of Unwinnable, and he previously worked as a photo editor at The New York Daily News.
Q. What is Vintage RPG? What inspired you to do this?
A. Vintage RPG is, on Instagram, a daily exploration of the art, history and design of tabletop roleplaying games, as well as some elements of pop culture that influenced, or were influenced by, them. The podcast is a bit of a deeper dive on a weekly basis, in which my co-host John “Hambone” McGuire and I discuss games. John has a very different set of aesthetics than I do, so it leads to different places.
Like a lot of folks who’ve been into RPGs since they were kids, I lost a lot of my original collection to a combination of flooded basements, unreturned loans and other ravages of time. A few years ago, I idly started to replace what went missing and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, discovered that a much wider, weirder world of RPGs existed than I previously realized (even from publishers I was already familiar with, like TSR and Chaosium).
One thing lead to another, and I wound up with … a lot of stuff. It was an impossibility to find time to play it all, so the next best thing was to read it all and share it with folks, hence the Instagram and, later, the podcast. If you think this sounds like an elaborate, after-the-fact justification for an extended bout of eBay fever, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Q. How do you decide on topics for the podcast and themes for the Instagram posts?
A. It basically comes down to caprice and a general lack of time. Writing on stuff when I don’t necessarily have something immediate to say about it leaves a lot of dents in the walls and sore spots on my head, so I take the path of least resistance and write impulsively.
I build out themes and such as I go, though I do try to balance old versus new and D&D versus everything else, for the sake of the audience’s sanity. This is why it took me so long to get around to Forgotten Realms, arguably the most popular Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting while finding time to digress about the Time/Life Enchanted World series or weird toys.
The podcast topics depend on what I am equipped to talk about, which requires an entirely different set of brain cells. Basically, we’re constrained to stuff I have just written about, am currently reading or the rare items, like Masks of Nyarlathotep, that I have internalized to the point I could ramble on about them for days.
Q. A big part of Vintage RPG is the focus on the aesthetics of D&D and other games. Why is the artwork of that period so enduring?
A. I think the enduring enthusiasm for the early aesthetic of RPGs, from the inception of the game in 1974 through about 1980, is driven by a couple things.
For one, it was largely free of commercial interests and other aesthetic constraints — publishers might have wanted Frank Frazetta covers, but their budgets meant they had to settle for hobbyists. Those hobbyists were at all different levels of talent. Some, like Greg Bell, cranked out stuff that was about the level of quality you’d see in the algebra notebook of any given monster-obsessed middle schooler. Others, like Erol Otus and Dave Trampier, were raw talents cutting their teeth (Otus would, interestingly, go on to get formal artistic training after his time at TSR).
The result is this massive output of art that lacks a lot of the baggage that comes with most commercial art, and it winds up functioning as a sort of mini folk art or outsider art movement. And because it reflects the DIY material created by folks playing the games, they develop a sense of ownership of it. And I think that vibe of “I can do that” has suffused RPG art ever since, even as commercial concerns, distinct talents and nostalgia have also asserted themselves. It is still there in the core.
This is one of the Big Questions about RPGs that I think about a lot, and I reserve the right to not defend that tooth and nail. That said, it is where my thinking is at currently.
Q. What should we look for from Vintage RPG for the rest of 2020?
A. More of the same! I’ve got tons of books left to go through. I keep unearthing obscure treasures from the past, and the independent scene keeps putting out amazing new material.
I’ve resolved this year to get out of my comfort zone and learn about some key games I am not very experienced with, like Warhammer Fantasy, Shadowrun and Traveller, so there’s that. There are a couple of secret projects rattling around, too, but the geas won’t let me tell you about them. Our patrons will hear about them first, when the time is right.
Follow Vintage RPG on Instagram and listen to the podcast.