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

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Fanzine Focus IV: The Undercroft #4

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 the 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 outings, it proved a less than satifying mix of content. Issue #3 did not have either that problem despite not having as much content as issue #2. This trend continues with issue #4, which contains just four articles in comparison to the three published in issue #3.

As with the previous issue, issue #4 opens with a scenario from Barry Batt, again set in England during the English Civil War. ‘The Treason of the Guitar’ concerns itself with the prevailing religious attitudes towards public entertainment and the lasciviousness comes of such activities. A young virtuoso has come into possession of a guitar, a relatively new instrument from the continent, and is playing up a storm in whatever tavern he is performing in. The player characters may come into possession of the guitar, be hired to steal it, or they may simply come across the instrument and its player as part of their investigations into another situation. It is not an adventure as such, but a situation into which the player characters might be drawn or thrown and is for the most well done. Unfortunately, the situation is likely to be undermined by the conceit at the heart of ‘The Treason of the Guitar’. This is that the virtuoso guitarist in question is named James Hendricks and he is supported by Noel Reading (on viola da gamba) and Michael Mitchell (on tabor). The likelihood is that the NPCs will need to be renamed less the credulity of the players be stretched, if not outright broken. That said, Jeremy Duncan’s illustrations for these NPCs are excellent and his heavy style neatly depicts their real world likeness in seventeenth century dress.

Marc ‘Lord Inar’ Gacy offers up the first set of rules to appear in The Undercroft. ‘Classless Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ describes a point buy system for creating and advancing characters in the RPG. This includes attributes, improving Hit Points, Bonus to Hit, saving throws, skill points, spellcasting, special abilities, and combat techniques as well as Race and Class effects. Each character begins play with the same values in his attributes and receives the same number of points for further modification equal to First Level. After that, he receives a limited number each new Level. This is a means for a player to design his character as he wants and then customise as he gains new levels. So a player could build a character capable in melee and magic, cast magic whilst encumbered, and so on, but it also suggests for various types of Class, from Cleric and Fighter to Sorcerer and Weird Scientist. Many of these fall outside the Classes at the core of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and thus take the RPG away from its core concepts, but the article will nevertheless be appreciated by those who like to tinker with the rules.

Two ‘monsters’ are detailed in The Undercroft #4. The first is the ‘Smother’ by Luke Gearing, which describes a primal thing or force that appears to feed on light and sound, reaching out from the darkness with tendrils to grasp and crush sources of both. This can be literal should the tendrils take hold of limbs, torso, or head should source be humanoid and a table describes the horrid injuries that a Smother inflicts in its hunger. There are no stats provided for the Smother, but given its primal nature and the means of defeating it—starving it—they are not needed.

The second is Anxious P’s ‘Dream Trolls’. This is a thing of dream stuff or a thing that has fallen into dream that can manipulate the minds and memories of others whilst in a semiconscious state prior to complete wakefulness. It stalks its victim—from under the bed or inside the closet—often to physical as well as mental effect, but what happens in these moments between unconsciousness and consciousness, can be lost from the memory, much like dream. It is a horrid manipulative thing that is perfectly in keeping with the manipulative and malicious nature of other Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay support.

Physically, The Undercroft #4 maintains the neat and tidy look of previous issues, though the artwork is notably better in places. The issue presents a reasonable mix of articles, not as pleasing or as distinctive a mix as The Undercroft #3, but reasonable nonetheless.