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Friday, 29 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: Mystic Pangolin #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. Similarly, Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has proved to be popular choice for fanzines. Mystic Pangolin though, is written for use with Swords & Wizardry, Mythmere Games’ interpretation of the original Dungeons & Dragons.

Published in the Autumn of 2014 by Blackie Carbon/Cloudstepping Media, Mystic Pangolin #1 is wholly written by R.G. Anderson and promises to deliver “Old School Fantasy Gaming” in “an ogre’s lunchbox full of goodies”. Putting aside that image, the unfortunate truth is that this first issue does not quite deliver on that claim. The problem is that the fanzine opens with a mundane article and never quite lifts itself above being pedestrian. The first of these is ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, part of the Down ‘n’ Dirty Dungeon Dozens series, which as the title suggests gives the twelve terms and definitions for casks and barrels—and that is it. There is no faulting the facts in the article, but there is no application, no suggestion as to how the details can be used. This is followed by ‘An Elaborate System of Curious Signs – a lexicon of hobo signs for your game world’,  which draws upon the signs used by hobos during the Great Depression to communicate amongst themselves as they rode America’s railways. The suggestion is that they can be used to form the basis of secret signs and the cant between thieves and that is a nice idea. Unfortunately the author only presents the historically used signs and does not take the time to develop any for the fantasy setting that fanzines like Mystic Pangolin is written for. This is a missed opportunity, but this does not mean that a Dungeon Master could not create some of his own, plus as written, the contents of the article could be used with the recently released Gang Busters Basic Rules or indeed with the article on hobos in Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion.

The third article is part of the fanzine’s ‘Randomizer-O-Rama’ series. Initially ‘Books & Scrolls – Alternate treasure and adventure hook’ reads very much like ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, essentially presenting the various ways in which the written word has been preserved, from the clay and wax tablets to scrolls and parchment. It backs these up with a somewhat convoluted table for determining the type, material and condition of the written work and another for determining a manuscript’s contents. Again, the article suffers from a lack of application and a lack of examples. There is though more substance to the fourth article, the first entry in the ‘Ports of Call’ which describes the minehead and ore port of Haeford. The small settlement supplies the nearby towns with lumber and iron, whilst also engaging in some shipbuilding. Although there are one or two pieces of nice description, the write-up of Haeford never really comes alive and never feels like a place that the player characters might visit or do little more than pass through.

Rounding out Mystic Pangolin #1 is ‘The Reliquary of Thazur Zul’, a dungeon adventure for characters of Second to Fourth Levels. Again written for Swords & Wizardry, the adventure also makes use of the Swords & Wizardry Monster Book and Roger S. G. Sorolla’s Varmints and Vermin, so any Dungeon Master wanting to adapt the adventure to the Retroclone of his choice may need to do a little extra work. The scenario has the adventurers hired by a mercantile matriarch to retrieve the head of the corpse of a rival in an effort to restore her family’s fortunes. Unfortunately the matriarch’s sons hid the head in an old tomb and access to that tomb is blocked by rival tribes of Gnolls and Kobolds. The adventure is fairly large, taking up half of the fanzine, but as written is somewhat colourless and flat, lacking the detail and flavour that might bring it alive. There is also a certain degree of artificiality to the set-up, having Kobolds and Gnolls so close together without the latter turning on the former. There is a reason given for the stand-off between the two tribes, but it does not feel enough. Ultimately the adventure is somewhat pedestrian and the Dungeon Master will need to work hard to bring it alive.

Physically Mystic Pangolin #1 is cleanly laid out, but does suffer from a surfeit of white space. It needs another edit as the writing is clumsy in places. The use of photographs and illustrations is decent though. Mystic Pangolin #1 is no longer available in print, but is available as a PDF. Mystic Pangolin #2 is currently available in print.

Ultimately, not everything is going to be great and Mystic Pangolin #1 is not great. It is again pedestrian, lacking the application and the development that would lift it above the mere presentation of facts. This does not mean that a good Dungeon Master could not take the information here and develop it into something more exciting, more inspiring, and more fun, but that would require effort that might be better directed to writing his own material.