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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Fanzine Focus V: Black Pudding #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. That said, compatibility with other Retroclones will be an issue for the latest fanzine to see release that makes use of the Labyrinth Lord rules.

Black Pudding #1 is a new fanzine from Random Order Creations that has been brought to print via Squarehex, the publisher of Oubliette Magazine. Written and drawn by James V. West, Black Pudding #1 presents a mix of house rules, character classes, monsters, new spells and the tome they are from, hirelings, and adventures. The starting point defaults to Basic Dungeons & Dragons which the inaugural issue bookends with two sets of house rules under the ‘Doomslakers!’ title. The first set is physical, allowing Halflings to oddly avoid the Race as Class limit, plus modifications that allow for Multi-Classing, expanded Critical Hit and Fumble rolls, greater damage rolls, and Luck points to be spent on rerolls or extra actions. The second set covers magic, allowing wizards and other arcane casters the possibility of retaining their spells, expanded spell failure, and the use of wands to enhance spell casting, block spells, and even in arcane duels. Both sets of rules add relatively little complexity to the standard play of Labyrinth Lord and push the game towards a cinematic style of play. 

The tone changes though with the first of the seven character Classes in Black Pudding #1. This is a Chainmail Chick whose ideal armour is the chainmail bikini (losing all abilities if full armour is worn), can use her sex appeal to improve reaction rolls, and gains bonuses to attack and damage those who gawk at her looks. The male counterpart to this is the Sinewy Barbarian, another fighter who fights best with a two-handed weapon, can use his musculature to improve reaction rolls, attack with savagery to gain a bonus to hit and damage or an extra attack, and can hack, gut, or decapitate opponents. The tone continues with the Catgirl Class, who fights like a Thief, can turn on the charm, attack with two claws per round, and literally has nine lives, but gets distracted by shiny, dangly things… The Barbaribunny! is a Fighter who can leap, has an effective kick attack, lucky feet, and can perform a barbarian style cleave daily.

The tone is less of issue with the Sword Slinger Class, a Fighter-type Class that again does not wear armour, but wields two swords to gain extra attacks, parry and attack with precision and finesse, and even throw their swords. The Black Knight is an incarnation of death that lives for battle, blood, and victory, and can hide in shadows, cast Darkness each day, suffers no penalty in darkness, but does so in sunlight, gains a bonus to Armour Class and to hit when wearing black, and at higher  levels call upon forces of Chaos for certain blessings. The last of the Classes in Black Pudding #1 is the Witch, which at two pages is the most detailed of the seven Classes in the fanzine. The Witch can learn any spell, create charms and hexes, gain several familiars over the course of its Levels, fly once per day, commune with extra-planar beings, mix natural potions, but is limited in the amount of the damage she can inflict using spells. This is a richer, deeper Class at odds with the other six Classes and would not only be easier to add to another campaign, it would also be more interesting to play. In some ways, it is disappointing that the other six Classes do not match this complexity or degree of engagement.

‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’ presents eight NPCs, using a mix of Classes from Black Pudding #1 and Labyrinth Lord, ranging in Alignment and Level, from First Level through to Fourth Level, that the player characters can employ as hirelings. Each is simply described, but the detail given is nicely done and should really help the Referee portray any one of them with ease. Where these nine NPCs will be directly useful is in the issue’s two scenarios, ‘Buried Temple of K’lixtra’ and ‘Crypt of the Worm Idol’ as they are both written for characters of Second to Fourth Level—or an army of First Level characters—and so they may need support of higher Level NPCs. Both are literally fit on the one page each—so they are difficult to read*—but they pack in a lot of information and are dark messy dungeon affairs that again fit the fanzine’s genre.

*SquareHex has printed both adventures on A4 laminated sheets, so that the Referee can use a write-on/wipe-off pen to mark damage done to the monsters and so on.

Both dungeons are linked to each other should the adventurers delve into the nooks and crannies of their respective underground complexes. ‘Buried Temple of K’lixtra’ also includes a treasure detailed in a following article. The owner of the ‘Glittering Tome of the Silver’ can detect silver, but also gains access to a book full of silver, mirror, and reflection-related spells. For example, Silver Salve allows the caster to work a piece of silver into an oil that heals wounds, but inflicts damage to lycanthropes; Silver Tongue makes the caster’s words sound always true; and Reflection of the Soul lets the caster put his life force into a mirror for safekeeping! 

‘Iron Devils’ offers eight magical swords, each nicely illustrated and given a pleasingly succinct description. For example, ‘Bittercut’, a +1 Broadsword whose inflicted wounds can only be cured with magic and then only half the time or ‘Zeger’, a +2 Two-handed Sword, which grants +2 versus fear, the ability to cast Fear once per day, and can slay some creatures on a roll of a natural twenty. On a roll of a natural one, the wielder must attack himself since ‘Zeger’ tolerates no mistakes! The swords are all nicely done and would easily slip into most campaigns. Whereas the monsters of the ‘Black Bestiary’ may not necessarily do so, but they are a weird and imaginative mix that should add variety to the more run of the mill demons seen in standard Dungeons & Dragons-style settings. The weird and imaginative mix also adds to the Swords & Sorcery genre that Black Pudding #1 is supporting.

Rounding out Black Pudding #1 is ‘Quick Init!’, a quick and dirty guide to the running a game. It is the most personal section in the fanzine, but also provides some simple guidelines aimed to speed up the game and get everyone involved. They again support the cinematic style of play that the rules in the endpapers engender.

Since Black Pudding #1 is doing Swords and Sorcery, what comes with that is a certain degree of misogyny, most obviously in the form of Chainmail Chick, the Catgirl, and the Barbaribunny! Character Classes—chainmail bikinis, bare midriffs, burgeoning chests, anthropomorphism, and so on. It is at best ‘cheesecake of a dubious nature’ which at its worst may be viewed as sexist. Whether or not the cartoon nature of the artwork—and it is good artwork—exacerbates the issue will be in the eye of the beholder. Even the inclusion of the Sinewy Barbarian Class cannot offset this issue, nor can the inclusion of the well-done Witch Class. In fact, what the inclusion of the Witch Class with its two-page length and comparative extensive detail really does is highlight how disappointingly short and underwhelming the other Classes are in Black Pudding #1.

Physically, Black Pudding #1 is fantastically presented. The artwork is consistently good and fun, the writing is good, and professionally presented. What is notable about Black Pudding #1 is that it is presented in the gonzo style of underground comics of the sixties. This could have looked a complete and utter mess, but the effect is both engaging and consistent.

Named for the Dungeons & Dragons monster rather than the traditional British breakfast foodstuff, Black Pudding #1 is an impressive first issue. Its swords & sorcery theme pleasingly runs throughout without being belaboured, it is stylishly presented, and the content is engaging. Unfortunately, the cheesecake nature of the artwork will be an issue for some and if truth be told, this will not be helped by the design of several of the Classes. Had they been better, even more extensively designed, then this issue might have been offset. Nevertheless, there is a lot to recommend in Black Pudding #1—fun, genre enforcing rules, fine magical items, good one-session dungeons, and more.