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Monday, 29 August 2016

Fanzine Focus IV: The Stronghold #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 by Blue Moon Ink Press, The Stronghold though, is not a fanzine devoted to either of those retroclones, but rather to providing support for Dungeons & Dragons 3.x style campaigns along with edition-neutral material. Which means that it is still compatible with other retroclones with just a little effort upon the part of the Dungeon Master. Released in February, 2016, The Stronghold #1 comes with its regular features already set up and with tables aplenty.

The first series of tables falls under ‘Found’, as in treasure that can be, and the first gets as ‘Old School’ as it can by requiring the use of the thirty-sided die. Whether or not the player characters will view the contents as treasure is debatable, it being an assortment of the mundane and the parochial. For example, entry thirteen consists of '1 soiled rag, 1 stamp in the shape of a lion’s head, 3 flower seeds, 1 human ear'. On one level it is just a collection of any old rubbish, but with a little effort upon the Dungeon Master’s part and even the players’ imagination, there is something more to be made of these items. An example or two is included in the introduction showcases how they might be used. This is followed by a singular item or artifact in ‘Malevolent Materials’, in this case, a Vat of Variance. A horrid device, it either annihilates any creature placed inside it or transforms it into a mindless thing of horror, altered in strange ways such as gibbering mouths, eyestalks of power, or extra choking arms. The thing is also horribly intimidating, but beyond that, the Vat of Variance is of limited use. Primarily this is because it only does one thing, so it probably best left lying some ancient vault for the adventurers to discover and work what it does to their detriment or be in the possession of some nefarious villain ready to unleash its horrifying effects upon one of the adventurers or an NPC.

‘From the Menagerie’ offers a new take upon a classic monster—the Mimic. This is typically seen as chest, treasure chest that turns on the curious and the greedy to chomp at their hands and their limbs. Here instead are offered variants in sizes and shapes other than chests. Kegs and casks, mattresses and bedrolls, clothing—including trousers(!), pictures frames, tableware, and even stains. Each type has their own different form of attack. For example, Trouser Mimics slam and grapple rather than the feared bite, whilst Key Mimics are small enough to bite and gore their way into their victim’s flesh. There is a pleasing, if simple invention to all of these variant creatures given that should serve to put even the most jaded of dungeoneers on edge again, whether that is down the dungeon or even at home!

Thankfully, ‘Missives from the ‘Hold’ is just a page long. After all, it is unlikely that the author could sustain a set of tables for establishing up which nostril an NPC has stuck which finger from which hand. It is well put together, but it is at best silly, at worst, a waste of a good page. ‘Treasure Tables’ complements the earlier ‘Found’, but the content its tables of things to be found are obviously more useful, whether that is equipment or weapons, gems and jewels, or minor magical items. The treasure element often comes in the form of better quality items, so could be a ready supply of replacement equipment as much as items to sell.

Rounding out the first issue of The Stronghold are the paired articles ‘NPCs, Nasty and Nice’ and ‘Peculiar Places’. The former describes and gives stats for ‘Rkoga, Chieftainess of the Chot Lake Tribe’, the leader of a Gnoll Tribe to be found in the latter, ‘The Environs of Lake Chot’. She is a devious thing who loathes the crudity of her tribe and seeks to improve both their lot in life and their intelligence. This NPC is very much designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, with its extensive use of Feats and application of a character Class to a monster. The result is a fairly detailed creation, equal to a Thirteenth Level Fighter at the very least. This may well count against it though, since although the Old School Renaissance does encompass Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, it does not do so as readily as it does earlier iterations of the RPG and adapting much of the mechanical detail here to the earlier rulesets does represent a challenge.

Accompanied by a map, ‘The Environs of Lake Chot’ is a description of the territory ruled by Rkoga and her tribe, but even with the combination of both the description and the map, this is an underwritten setting. Certainly the map could have been much smaller for all the detail it contains and that could given more space for describing both the tribe and its land. (Alternatively, ‘Missives from the ‘Hold’ could have been ditched in favour of more development of these two paired articles.)

Physically, The Stronghold #1 is nicely put together. The artwork is decent—the cover is actually really quite good—and the map nice and clear. Another edit would not have gone amiss, but really, that can be put down to first issue issues. One nice touch is that the quality of the cartography—although wasted on too large a map in the book—continues on the envelope that fanzine is shipped in, which comes with a fetching map in its back.

The content of The Stronghold #1 feels in parts parochial and ephemeral. There is a lot here to add to a Dungeon Master’s campaign, much of it small details rather than the big picture, that can be used to inject flavour and oddness. This where this first issue works best since—barring the menagerie of Mimics—its larger subjects suffer from a lack of application or lack of development. Nevertheless, The Stronghold #1 is a solid first issue with the good definitely outweighing the not quite as good.