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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Fanzine Focus III: Mystic Pangolin #2

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 by Blackie Carbon/Cloudstepping Media, Mystic Pangolin #1 was released  in the Autumn of 2014, but beyond its vibrant cover, the contents never quite succeeded in being all that interesting. The second issue, published in February, 2016, promises “...a terror bird’s ton of treats”. The question is, does it deliver on that promise? Further, does it improve on the underwhelming first issue?

Well, behind what is a fantastically good cover, Mystic Pangolin #1 is initially unpromising. The first article is part of the Down ‘n’ Dirty Dungeon Dozens series, which presents short, sharp lists of useful information for world-builders and GMs. Now the inaugural entry in the series, ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’, from Mystic Pangolin #1, suffered from a surfeit of facts and a lack of application, or at least suggested application. Not so, ‘Textile Treasures’, which at cloth in all forms and fashions, from simple bolts of cloth and tapestries, carpets, and rugs, to mummy wraps and human skin suits. There is not only description here, there is history and there is usage. In other words, there is application. So we learn what tabards are and why they were worn, what not to do with an altar cloth, and so on. This absolutely the right amount of detail and depth for an article like this, with the author’s going beyond mere description to explain each item’s use being both helpful and suggestive to the GM. It is a solid, thoughtful article and shows off the potential of the article series that ‘Casks & Barrels – terminology and definitions’ did not.

‘All the Fun of the Fair’ details a small troupe of travelling entertainers comprised of two Thieves, a Cleric, and a Fighter, all of Third Level. Although nicely nicely detailed with a background fully worked out, what sets these NPCs apart from the similar offerings is that none of them are interested in theft, that is they prefer to use their thievery skills for the purposes of entertaining the crowd rather than robbing them. So no pickpockets working the crowd then… Although there is nothing wrong with this, it begs the question, how do you use these NPCs? It is not a question that the article sets out to, or indeed, actually answers. It is a solid piece of writing, but a scenario hook or two would not have gone amiss here.

Big, mostly flightless, but definitely predatory birds are the subject of ‘Terror Birds’. It describes and gives stats for a selection of real world, prehistoric birds such as the Phorusrhacos, the Kelenken, the Anthropornis Penguin, Haast’s Eagle, and more. These are great for ‘Lost World’ and primordial settings and really should inspire terror. After all, the Phorusrhacos is ten feet high, and can claw and kick its prey before delivering a downward death strike with its beak.

Designed for characters of between Fourth and Seventh Level, ‘The Haunting of Kilderkin Fell’ is cliché, but a well done cliché. Lord Doric of Kilderkin Fell has fallen ill, bedridden with some kind of living death, further threatening the decline of the family estate. Can the player characters determine the cause and restore Lord Doric to the land of the living? There is a lot that will be familiar to the plot of this scenario—a worried family, an isolated and moldering castle, and dark secrets. This is less fantastical than a typical Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure, owing much more to the gothic stories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and perhaps even just a little to Shakespeare. Despite the familiarity of its plot, ‘The Haunting of Kilderkin Fell’ is well written, solid scenario.

Rounding out Mystic Pangolin #2 is another entry in the fanzine’s ‘Ports of Call’ series. This describes ‘Walrus Bay’, a way station and refuge in the far north that can provide warmth and safety should a passing ship and her crew be forced to winter there. It is customary for passing ships to carry enough wood and provender to restock any of way stations should they be forced to winter at one of them. Walrus Bay is a rough hewn place, home to territorial walruses, predatory white bears, and perhaps a man eating wendigo… Stats are provided for the various creatures and a new magic item, but no NPCs are given, but really none are needed. Where the description of the port of Haeford in Mystic Pangolin #1 was overlong, this is about the right length and feels complete without meandering…

Physically, Mystic Pangolin #2 is cleanly, tidily presented. There are nice pieces of artwork and each of the articles is pleasing to read. It does need a tighter edit in places though.

If Mystic Pangolin #1 proved disappointing, promising ill for the next issue, Mystic Pangolin #2 is a revelation. A small revelation to be clear, but all the more welcome for it, for Mystic Pangolin #2 is a huge improvement over Mystic Pangolin #1. The content is a good mix, each of the articles is interesting and readable, and above all, good enough that you would want to use it in a campaign. Behind its great cover, Mystic Pangolin #2 hides some solidly useful and gameable material.