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Hungarian RPG-scene

by Sandor Szigeti

Greetings from Budapest
A Short History of Roleplaying in Hungary

The beginning

The whole thing began around the early 80s. There were a couple of people who got hold of some AD&D books, usually from a parent who went abroad to the West, of course -- mind you that this was a very big thing back in those "Communist" days (in reality, in Hungary never were communism, just a simple, petty dictatorship); it was still relatively hard to get to the West, even for a small trip. They learned, and taught their friends the rules and together they formed small "home parties" -- still a popular form of roleplaying in Hungary.

For a long time these clubs and parties remained isolated, and the hobby was almost entirely unheard of in Hungary along with fantasy, with the exception of The Lord of the Rings, which was brilliantly translated by our current President of the Republic, Arpad Gancz. Back in those days everything that was connected to science fiction or fantasy (be it books or films or games) centered around the (only) science fiction monthly (of some international renown), "Galaktika" (Galaxy). This magazine occasionally published fantasy, and somewhere around the Big Change in '89 it started a short-lived fantasy magazine, "Atlantis". Until Atlantis appeared -- that is, until the end of the 80s! --, fantasy was treated by the Galaktika guys as an obscure unimportant offshoot of science fiction.

The good old days

By the time Atlantis was first published, the Hungarian Fantasy Club (HFC) and a couple of smaller RPG clubs had also been founded. HFC was basically a Budapest-based RPG club whose chiefs worked at Galaktika, then later at Atlantis. Those HFC times were the "good old days" of Hungarian roleplaying: lots of home-made character sheets; rules passed on mostly by oral tradition; the veteran "Sages" who could read English and knew all kinds of mysterious stuff (like how exactly a Wish spell works) etc. A xeroxed DMG or Monster Manual was a fantastic treasure -- but not even an original DMG could be compared to the Ultimate Sacred Magic Items: the polyhedral dice. Those who had a whole set of dice were the gods of the club. Parties hunted for them, because you couldn't start a game without dice. This club was the place where a lot of the later "hard-core" roleplayers got to know roleplaying (and each other), and also where Hungarian roleplaying slang was developed. At that time probably AD&D was the only game known in Hungary. HFC saw the publication of the first written Hungarian RPG stuff. It was published by the buddies of the club chiefs and it was a fanzine-like, 32-page, xeroxed booklet, with a short description of the races and classes of AD&D, and a list of the names of the spells.

A zillion new publishers. Promises and the first Hungarian RPG

After the Change in '89, there was (and still is) an interesting turmoil all over the place, including the book market. The big old publishers slowly went broke; a zillion new publishers appeared (most of them had as much practical knowledge about book publishing as our politicians about the art of politics). A lot of worthless books were published (because people were at last allowed to publish anything). But at the same time much fantasy appeared, too, English as well as Hungarian. For some time Fighting Fantasy (Jackson & Livingstone) books enjoyed incredible success, but not long enough for the publishers to start considering the publication of real RPG stuff. Publishing AD&D was continuously on the agenda of the HFC. It was always scheduled for the NEXT summer, or Easter, or winter. Actually, the AD&D Player's Handbook finally came out last winter (1996).

AD&D didn't come, but to everyone's surprise, in 1990 there came a full 2-"volume" (rather 2-booklet) roleplaying game, published by an unknown firm; a ten-sided die included. Its title was Harc as Varazslat, "Combat and Magic", and it was basically a D&D clone. It used percentile dice, D&D-like class system, very cumbersome combat and magic system, had a number of bugs and a rather dorky world, but at last it was in Hungarian. This game has vanished by now, but it was very popular for some time. Probably no-one mourned over its fall too much.

Shops and new games. Magazine?

At the beginning of the '90s, a number of other important changes occurred. The first RPG shops opened; thus people got to know other systems than AD&D. It was really fascinating, after years of club gaming where at most you could catch a glimpse of a xeroxed DMG, to see (and be able to buy!) all those different books and systems. This was the time when "progressive" parties started to try out (or even switch to) Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, etc.

At the same time, as the Hobby seemed to be spreading (and because this was a time of rampant experiments in private enterprise), some people started to think about making a roleplaying magazine. There were a few feeble attempts (the very first being the above-mentioned Atlantis RPG column, "Magisterium"). The former HFC guys (who had founded a publisher called Valhalla, and were publishing all kinds of quality sci-fi & fantasy) had long been promising to start a magazine called Rana, but for a long time this "magazine" was only a few-page-long RPG column in a computer monthly. Another group of veteran players, however, did start their magazine, called B'borhold. At first it was a very amateur-looking AD&D-centered publication, but it slowly grew out of amateurism, and its publisher, B'borhold Budapest Ltd., became the main competitor of Valhalla.

The two magazines

Rana ("Rune", 1993--95, and 1997--): this was a bulky (the longest issue was 128 pages!), beautifully designed quasi-monthly. It was a quasi-monthly because it usually failed to come out regularly, partly because it was hard to collect that much stuff in one month, and partly because the printing cost was very high (about 40% of the pages were full color); this eventually led to its fall. It was a good, high-quality magazine, with articles mostly about AD&D, Star Wars and M.A.G.U.S. (Valhalla's own game, see later); with sci-fi and fantasy short stories and some other "related material" (films and music).

B'borhold ("Purple Moon", later Holdtalte, "Full Moon", 1992-95; reviewed by Shadis Presents magazine #20): this was a 32 (later 64) pages long, black and white monthly magazine. Around number 5 or 6 it started to become a professional publication. Its shortness and lack of fancy design as compared to Rana were balanced by the broadness of topics it covered. There were interviews with Gary Gygax, Mark Rein-Hagen, Steve Jackson, to name a few; nearly all the RPGs that were on the market were reviewed; and the magazine published supplementary material for many games (AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, Vampire, etc.). After three years, however, the bad management sentenced it to oblivion.

The two magazines, because of the mutual unfriendliness (to put it mildly), created a "bipolar" RPG society. You were either a B'borhold guy, playing Shadowrun or CoC or Vampire (or another game favored by that magazine), or you were a Rana guy, playing M.A.G.U.S. (their game -- see next section). Your regular duty was to abuse the other group's favorite game(s) and magazine, and to hoo and boo at your magazine's conventions when the name of the other magazine is mentioned.

The First Two

If Combat and Magic was the "zeroeth" Hungarian RPG, the first was M.A.G.U.S., A Kalandorok Kr'nikaja (M.A.G.U.S., The Chronicle of Adventurers), published in 1993 (again after years of promises for the next Christmas, Easter, etc.) by Valhalla. It was developed from the Valhalla guys' own AD&D world, Ynev (featured in a popular fantasy series that they write under the pseudonym Wayne Chapman).

The game belongs to the fantasy genre, trying to unify many subcategories of it. The setting is very rich and detailed, thanks to the continuous support of novels and supplements from its publisher, and this is the most popular rpg in Hungary, without question. The game system has too much resemblance to the AD&D than one would accept, and has many flaws, but in roleplaying the system has only secondary importance, and the setting that is counts. The majority of its supporting novels and anthologies of short stories are high quality, beating most of the like material, that is, stuff published (and available in Hungary -- not a tight spectrum!) by TSR, White Wolf and the others, with ease -- both stylistically and on grounds of plot and depth of the story. These works almost always belong to the category of high fantasy, though they were written to meet the highest needs of commercial entertainment. The firm's best authors, Wayne Chapman (Csanad Novak, designer of M.A.G.U.S. and Andras Gaspar, a renowned sci-fi writer) and Raoul Renier (Zsolt Kornya, master of dark fantasy) give M.A.G.U.S. an edge which has not yet truly been beaten on the Hungarian RPG market -- not even by English publications.

The second game immediately followed. It was a translation of MERP by ICE, and it was published by Odin, the firm of one of the founders of B'borhold.

M.A.G.U.S. was a success (it was reprinted three times and a revised/expanded edition came out last December), and became one of the most popular games in Hungary. MERP, however, was forgotten very fast. Not that the book was ugly or the translation was bad -- it wasn't --; MERP itself isn't something that reflects the wonders of Middle-Earth correctly.

Although properly speaking not an RPG, but because it is incredibly popular among roleplayers, we have to mention here the play-by-mail game, T'l'l'k F'ldje (TF; "The Land of Survivors"). It is run by Beholder LP. It was started in 1992, and has been growing in popularity since then. Currently there are about 3000 players, many of whom runs several characters. The gamers hold big conventions two or three times a year. In 1995 Beholder started a sci-fi PBM game, "Kaosz Galaktika" ("Chaos Galaxy"). There were other attempts to create a PBM by many other firm, of course, but they all failed because of various reasons.

The Second Two

The next two games were two science fiction systems, again a translation and a Hungarian development. The translation was Star Wars (1994) by Valhalla (not too popular), and the Hungarian was "Armageddon 2092 Mars" (1995), written by Sandor Szigeti and published by B'borhold Budapest.

The latter was a cyberpunk/science fiction game with some postholocaust-like feeling. The time is 2092, the place is the more or less colonized (but still quite alien) Mars. One day six comets dash into the Earth out of the blue. It seems that everyone has died and the colonists of Mars are left on their own. As if it were not enough, alien spaceships appear at the edge of the solar system and mysterious alien warriors start a vietkong-like terrorist activity on Mars. The system worked like this: there were five main attributes, with 3 subtypes in each main attribute (as in Wizards of the Coast's Envoy system, used with written permission), each ranging normally from -5 to +5, 0 being the average. The skills were linked to these attributes. When using a skill (either in combat or elsewhere), you had to add the value of the appropriate attribute, the modifiers and the result of 2D6 to the skill, and if this sum reached the target number, you succeeded. By using not only the sum of the dice rolls, but also the difference between them (as a damage multiplier), you could determine the success of an attack and the damage with a single 2D6 roll (the system used only six-sided dice). Later B'borhold Budapest published an anthology of short stories based on the world of Armageddon (its title was "Angyal, ha langol" -- "Angel, flaming".) From these stories you learned more about the fate of Earth, and the aliens, for example that they weren't aliens at all, but they the descendants of the long lost Dravidan people, who were more advanced in science and magic than the rest of humanity, but their hands were tied by the strict theocratic system. (A bit like the Fremens in Dune, but they obviously aren't the same.) The RPG was printed in 2000 copies, which was sold out in two weeks. It was a success for the publisher, but not -- at least in economical terms -- for the author: he didn't receive a buck for all his work, so he didn't care about it, and the game slowly disappeared (it was not supported at all by the publisher, who soon went broke anyway).

The Fifth and the Sixth

The fifth game was a somewhat amateurish D&D-clone called "Auvron" (Auvron is the name of the game world). It had a characteristically "Combat and Magic"-like afterburn, and it was so badly written and designed that (in spite of the efforts of the publishers to honestly support it) people never really started playing it.

In the meantime, Beholder striked with a translation: Shadowrun ("'rnyvadasz"). It was a good translation and people liked the setting (thanks to the Shadowrun-dumping in B'borhold). It is still popular; several Shadowrun-novels and supplements have appeared and this December saw the publication of the official FASA Shadowrun Hungary guidebook ("'rnyekMagyarorszag" -- "ShadowHungary"). The book was mostly written by former B'borhold people and -- as far as we know -- might appear in English soon.

Collapse, bankruptcy, collectible cards, dark ages. Cries of vultures over the Hungarian RPG life

The end of 1995 saw the collapse of B'borhold Budapest and Valhalla's rpg division. Both magazines disappeared (for good, it seems), though since then Valhalla have published a couple of novels and some M.A.G.U.S. stuff. 1995 also saw the gradual but swift decline of RPGs as Magic: the Gathering and all the other collectible cards entered the market. People went mad, just as in the US, and those RPG-veterans who remained faithful to the Hobby started to speculate about the death (or long slumber) of roleplaying. It didn't took long for the first, then the second Hungarian collectible card game to appear ("Hatalom kartyai" -- "Cards of Power" by Beholder which is based on the world of the T'l'l'k F'ldje PBM game -- interestingly enough, some of the more powerful player characters in the game appeared as cards; and "M'tosz" -- "Myth" (no relation to Chaosium's Mythos) by Imperium). The card-fans soon had their own magazines, too: Alanori Kr'nika ("Alanorian Chronicle"), and Talizman ("Talisman").

A new beginning? The Seventh

Last December showed some positive changes: as we mentioned above, the fifth edition of M.A.G.U.S. and ShadowHungary were published, along with the seventh RPG in Hungarian: "Codex" (published by Imperium, the firm behind Talizman and M'tosz).

Zsolt Nyulaszi, former member of the M.A.G.U.S. designer group left Valhalla along with some other people including leading graphic artist and image designer Max to form their own rpg firm "N'tor". Their first work hit the stores under the name Codex, financially managed by the abovementioned Imperium. The game is a success, and threatens M.A.G.U.S. as a serious rival on the market, which, from the average gamer's point of view is highly appreciably, because of the newly erupted competition's good effects on the Hungarian rpg scene. From this it is easily guessable, that Codex, the game bears many things in common with its rival. It belongs to the fantasy genre, operates with a like mindset concerning in-game view-points and even the game system resembles the original M.A.G.U.S. approach of reality modelling, but it is reworked almost completely and freshed with many original and good ideas. The main difference that sets every minor detail in different light is that while M.A.G.U.S. was a game that based it world, Ynev, mainly on western traditions, culture and turned to western history for examples, Codex's Abr'ss is an oriental world, with philosophy, ways of life and all related cultural phenomena modelled on ancient Chinese and Japanese examples and principles. One must make a further comment here: this all does not mean, however, that M.A.G.U.S. is exclusively western and that Codex reaches no further than the oriental. These serve only as main foci: these are the parts that have gained and been given the highest importance by their creators. Both Ynev and Abr'ss deal with the other side as well, along with other traditions: we find the like of Arabian and Native American cultures as well.

Present Days

Rana magazine started again as a bi-monthly at this January. It's shine has faded, it's thinner and printed on low-quality paper, but at least it exists again. I hope it will recover soon, since Valhalla plans to publish its own CCG based on M.A.G.U.S., and if anything can be a success in Hungary, this card game certainly will be. It's designer is Matyas Massar, former editor-in-chief of B'borhold magazine and Talizman magazine.

Gabor Csigas and Sandor Szigeti are working on some new roleplaying games. They will use the same, brand new Nevermore game system. Currently three games are planned: a Death Dealer-like hard fantasy game, where we try no less than to reveal not only the Secret of Existence, but to give logical reason to why there are monsters in that world -- and of course, there will be lots of mighty battles long remembered.

A traditional horror, where the characters struggle for control of their own bodies against Atlantean Guardians -- sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, in our present days.

And a very strange and complex dark techno-fantasy, where the characters are immortal nobles of our Earth, far in the future, after an ice age, where the civilization had collapsed to a pseudo-dark age. The world is ravaged by the Mist and the Beings as well as the constant conspiracy and war of the Empire of Avalon and the Kingdom of Antarctica (inspired by "Crimson" by Edge of Sanity and "Dusk and Her Embrace" by Cradle of Filth). The games are designed to be short (about 64--128 pages long) and stand-alone, but to be as rich and beautiful as possible. We are not sure which one shall be the first to see print, as we just started the testings.

Currently there are about 10000 or 20000 roleplayers in Hungary (the population of this country is about ten million and decreasing). A couple years ago the number of gamers reached 30000 (or even higher), but the coming of the collectible card games and the ever increasing, relatively high price of the rpg books (an average rulebook costs 2000-5000 Hungarian Forints and an average supplement costs 1500-3000 Forints, while the average salary -- to understand this "average" see Shadowrun, Low Lifestyle -- is around 30000 Forints per month) reduced it drastically.

Finally, if you wish to have a look at Hungarian RPG life, here are some Hungarian links (unfortunately, only in hungarian):
Beholder, publisher of the Hungarian Shadowrun:

  • www.bppiac.hu/beholder
  • N'tor, publisher of Codex
  • Valhalla, publisher of M.A.G.U.S.

    Keep in touch and let's hope our hobby, like the phoenix, will rise again from its ashes!

    All the best,

    Csigas Gabor (freelance ex-B'borhold writer, whoisnot@freeside.elte.hu)
    Kodaj Daniel (former editor of B'borhold, danci@osiris.elte.hu)
    Szigeti Sandor (former designer and editor of B'borhold, author of the Hungarian cyberpunk game "Armageddon", szs@mail.datanet.hu)

    Budapest, 28 August, 1997

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