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

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Fanzine Focus III: The Undercroft #3

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 by the Melsonian Arts Council—also the publisher of he recently released Something Stinks in Stilton—in July, 2014, issue #1 of The Undercroft was an engaging initial issue, full of intriguing and useful material. It was followed in September, 2014 with issue #2  and as with many second efforts, especially after successful first efforts, it proved a less than satisfying mix of content. Issue #3 does not have either that problem or indeed as much content as issue #2. In fact it only has three articles in comparison to the multiple published in issue #2.

It opens with Barry Blatt’s ‘van Steen’s Company’, which describes a well drilled and highly disciplined, if odd company of Dutch mercenaries fighting for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. On the surface they would appear to be an efficient military unit, but of course there is more to them than that. They turn out to be automata created from soldiers whose creator wants to plunder England’s secret magics that might have survived Henry VIII’s separation of the Church of England from Rome and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries. There is a bit more going on this this, involving both Jewish legends of Mitteleuropa and the Crusades, but for a campaign set during the English Civil War, it would make for an interesting addition. It could even be slotted in England Upturned, the recently released scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. There is even reference of sorts to said scenario in the contents listing on the back cover of the fanzine.

Although the various members of the company are described in detail as is how the company works, what the piece lacks is a scenario seed or two. Now there are hooks that a Referee can extract from the text, but the inclusion of a scenario seed or two would have topped the piece off nicely.

The second article is ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’. It is written by Daniel Sell, the editor of The Undercroft. This presents an alternative take upon the Magic User, one closer to the Druid, but much earthier, loamier, and bloodier. More an NPC Class than a Player Character Class, the Cunning Men of the Fern Court move through the deep forests from settlement to settlement, blessing children and crops, bringing and collecting news, and being seen as a beneficial presence. The near naked Cunning Men record their knowledge and their spells not in great books that could easily molder away in the damp of the forest, but directly on their skins via scarification. These skins are collected and stored by the Fern Court upon a Canning Man’s death lest his knowledge is lost, though knowledge of a spell can be lost if a Cunning Man is also severely wounded.

The bulk of ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’ is devoted to the spells known by the Cunning Men. There are over twenty of these, highly detailed and clearly laid out, ranging from First Level to Seventh Level. They range from the relatively simple, like Babble, which makes a victim unable to speak clearly, and The Spleenful Led, which causes the victim to lose his way in the woods, to the complex, like The Subtle Heart, which sear curses and sickness from everyone around the caster, though may also die, and A Black Sun Climbs the Ladder to the Heavens, in which the Cunning Man makes the victim believe that the Sun has been replaced by a pus-dripping black and shaken to the core, possibly kill him and those around him. All of these spells are described in some detail and many have a dark and gruesome tone.

There is a certain vagueness to ‘The Cunning Men of the Fern Court’, so that it is never wholly clear what and who they are. Part of this is due to their not being presented as an actual Class in game terms, but more NPCs of near myth and superstition that might be encountered in the woods. The vagueness is nicely counterpointed by the detail, feel, and effect of their spells, so that whilst they have an often horrible, but still concrete effect, the Cunning Men themselves still remain a sense of mystery and legend.

Rounding The Undercroft #3 is ‘The Bridge’ by Alex Clements. It is a short effective piece of fiction that plays upon the encounter with the Black knight in Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Fortunately it is not as silly as that, being more Pratchett-like in tone.

Physically, The Undercroft #3 is neat and tidy with some decent illustrations. Overall, despite there being just three articles in the issue, they are different enough and detailed enough to be as the editorial puts it, “...[A]ll elbows and knees.” with each other. This works very well and gives The Undercroft #3 a pleasing and distinctive mix.