Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 12 February 2016

Fanzine Focus: The Undercroft #1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the July 2014 by the Melsonian Arts Council—the publisher of the recently released Something Stinks in StiltonThe Undercroft #1 is the first issue of an English fanzine devoted to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the author, Daniel Sell. From the off, it looks like a fanzine in the English tradition, reminiscent of the 1980s. It has red card cover which makes it a little sturdier, whilst the layout inside is kept very simple and unfussy. It does use public domain artwork, but the selection is decent and gives the whole affair a baroque feel. The content is equally as baroque.

The Undercroft #1 sets out to provide material that will unsettle the players and their characters and make the lives of the player characters just that little more uncomfortable. It does so really in just four articles—well three actually, since the fourth is really part of the third. The first of the these is not by Daniel Sell, but by Alex Clements. In ‘Rewriting the Cure Disease Spell’, he redesigns diseases to more reflect their real world effect rather than the poison-like cure or die effect that Dungeons & Dragons and other Retroclones possess. Instead Clements’ take on the disease is that they have a chronic, longer lasting more debilitating effect, wherein a suffering player character can continue being played—albeit at less than optimum capability—rather simply dying. Further, the Cure Disease spell is no longer a ‘fire and forget’ affair, but each disease has its own Disease Hit Points, each point of these Disease Hit Points requiring an application of the Cure Disease spell. For example, Syphilis has ten Disease Hit Points whereas the Plague has just the one. In the case of the former, this feels like an awfully big number of castings of the Cure Disease spell. Perhaps I might have opted for each casting curing a random number of Disease Hit Points rather than just the one—1d4, 1d6? In addition to the aforementioned Syphilis and the Plague, the article adds a number of fantasy diseases, such as Godrickson’s Corruption, an alchemist’s blackmail device which liquefies its sufferers, and Death Eye Worm, a parasitic infection from caves that fill its sufferer's eyes and makes him see everyone as rotten corpses!

Daniel Sell’s ‘The Wager of Battle’ hints at so much and would make for interesting addition to any urban-based campaign. It describes how legal disputes are settled in Yongardy—presumably the location of the author’s campaign—between the lawyers and solicitors of that city. Matters are often settled by personal combat between the lawyers and each type of law and lawyer has adopted a certain style of dress and combat. For example, guild lawyers or barristers wear the latest styles in puffy jackets and pantaloons with the finest blades decorated with beautiful hilts, whilst practitioners of Common Law are not dandies, but are rougher characters who wield heavy duelling knives. When they duel, each duellist both grasp a heavy knotted rope and the first one to let go loses. Six type of lawyers are given, but what is not is culture of the law in Yongardy and this means that the colour of these lawyers and their duelling codes feels divorced from its setting, giving ‘The Wager of Battle’ an undeveloped feel. The article itself is rounded out with a lengthy table that enables the Referee to roll up an NPC lawyer should a player character need one.

The third article is ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is a thirty or so location dungeon that can be dropped into most campaigns. It consists of an old king’s tomb and a cave complex beneath it, the latter infested by corpse-eating scavengers called Corpse lions. The tomb is believed to be the location of a particular item—the item being determined according to the needs of the campaign—and the player characters are tasked to retrieve it. The dungeon is quite light on encounters as such, but several locations are marked with just an asterisk, the Referee being expected to populate these with entries from the scenario’s Random Encounter Table. Some of these are quite nasty, so the Referee may want to be a little more judicious in his choices from said table. The dungeon is stated as being suitable for characters of all Levels, but it is probably slightly too tough an adventure for First Level characters. ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is in general, a solid adventure, but the descriptions of the various rooms and particularly their contents do much to give it an ancient Britannic feel.

The last article describes a monster, the ‘Corpse Lion’, a large insect that feasts upon corpses, desecrating tombs and graveyards, before raiding the surrounding area for the living to hang until they are nicely ripe. Although separate, it really is a corollary to  ‘Barrow of the Old King’ as that is where the monster appears.

The Undercroft #1 is a well presented little fanzine. It needs a slight edit, but the writing is clear, barring the lack of development in ‘The Wager of Battle’. Whilst the hand drawn cartography of the ‘Barrow of the Old King’ is really rather charming, it would have been nice if the maps—both of which are placed inside the front and back covers in true Old School Style—had been labelled.

In The Undercroft #1 there are hints of an interesting society or setting, although none of its three or four articles are connected. This is mostly evident in the slightly disappointing ‘The Wager of Battle’ and that article is probably the most difficult to bring to a campaign as more context might have made it easier to adapt or adopt. The other two articles are easier to use  as they do not need the context. Hopefully future issues of The Undercroft will present more of Yongardy, but otherwise, The Undercroft #1 is a pleasing initial issue.