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Monday, 17 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: Black Pudding #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 have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Although Black Pudding is nominally written for use with Labyrinth Lord, it is still compatible with other Retroclones. Published by Random Order Creations via Square Hex, Black Pudding #1 was released in 2016 to no little acclaim. The inaugural issue was praised for its consistently singular look and feel, cartoonish, slightly tongue in cheek, yet still fantastic and weird on a small scale. Drawn from the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules, its genre was firmly Swords & Sorcery and thus was accompanied by the genre’s sexism with its chainmail bikinis and mighty thewed barbarians. Whilst Black Pudding #2 retains the Swords & Sorcery genre and cartoonish style, it tones down the sexism, and so is a very much better issue for it.

Black Pudding #2 contains the same mix as the first issue of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. Specifically, six new Classes, a spellbook and eight spells, multiple magic items, eight new monsters, eight NPCs ready to hire, and a wilderness encounter and a short dungeon. It also includes two character sheets designed to be used with the issue’s various Classes, one for spellcasters and one for non-spellcasters.

The issue opens with the first of the new Classes. This is the Keeper, an archer and hunter dedicated to protecting the forest and who can track like a Ranger, attacks better with a bow, and can not only cast Druid spells and element-related Magic-user spells, but also imbue them into arrows. It is followed by the Blind Guardian, a holy warrior who gives up his eyes to gain Blindsight, ‘see’ evil and malice at will with Righteous Vision, cast Read Magic and Read Languages daily with Eyeless Understanding, can deliver a Righteous Blow to deliver a killing blow to Chaotic or evil enemies, and even absorb blows or spells intended for an ally with his Shield of Light. In return, the Blind Guardian must be Lawful or Good, is only trained in the one Holy Weapon, and as a Defender, must avenge any innocent who suffers as result of his negligence or failure. The Blind Guardian is a powerful Class since he gains all of these abilities at First Level, but there is plenty of roleplaying to be found in the Class too, especially if the Dungeon Master ties the Class to a particular god and faith.

The Werewolf Hunter is fairly self-explanatory and quite specialised. He can work silver to silver-edged arrows and weapons, is resistant to a werewolf’s bite, can prepare wolfsbane, fight all wolves effectively, and track and detect werewolves and eventually other lycanthropes. The Werewolf Hunter is really too specialised for general play and needs a Gothic land infested by lycanthropes to come into its own. The Mouldwarp is equally as specialised, a ‘Race as Class’ Class that anthropomorphises the humble mole and turns it into a digging hunter with an innate feel for the underground world and anyone who tells lies and a saliva that is particularly toxic to the worms that the Mouldwarp loves to consume. Lastly, the Fey Savage is a second ‘Race as Class’ Class, but is much odder. The Fey Savage is the battle-loving offspring of a dainty fairy and a human barbarian who must choose between his fey and human heritage—Barbaric Rage or Fey Charms, hates goblins, can cast a single magic spell once per day, and whose innate Fey Savagery allows him to attack with a bonus on his first attack and potentially avoid ignore all damage in combat. The Fey Savage lies towards the tongue-in-cheek approach to Class design, so is compatible with some of the Classes given in Black Pudding #1.

The six new monsters in Black Pudding #2 include goblin angels, fungus-infected kissing undead, alchemically-infused hairballs, and more. The Angel Mama, the goblin angel, can transform dead goblins into Shadow Goblins who can turn incorporeal and in return they can turn her incorporeal while she demoralises others with her eye beams; while the Kisser is fungus-infected undead that kisses others to steal their Constitution and whose fungus can be turned into Potions of Unhealth that also steals the Constitution of the imbiber and then heals Hit Points as well as granting the potion maker Hit Points! The Scurramancer is a Harley Quinn-like demon with Illusionist spells, a staff that emits laughing gas, and who taunts for lots of Psychic damage. Overall, the monsters are not all that serious, but are just weird enough to suit the fanzine’s genre.

The spells in Black Pudding #2 are all contained in Elegrain’s Fearful Book of Death and are all related to death. For example, Death Augur lets the caster divine facts about the deaths—past, present, and future—in the immediate vicinity, whilst Death Denial gives the target a chance to survive death. Unless the player characters include a priest of death or a necromancer amongst their number, then this is really a set of spells and a dark, dark tome for an NPC.

The first of the two adventures is ‘Mace of the Ape King’, a jungle-set encounter for experienced characters of at least Fourth Level. It is a simple, though tough combat encounter, easy to drop into a campaign and replete with a fun variable weapon that any warrior would want to own. The second adventure, ‘Vault of the Whisperer’, is the highlight of Black Pudding#2 and its lengthiest piece at eight pages long. Again written for experienced adventurers, it is a thirteen location mini-dungeon that can be dropped into a wilderness sandbox—with perhaps its strange cult preying upon nearby villages—or into a larger dungeon. At the heart of the dungeon is a great demonic maw attempting to chew its way into this world that whispers seductively to all and sundry as caged and bell-helmeted cultists dedicate themselves to the maw in order to hear its whispers. A strong vein of the Weird runs throughout the dungeon, in the creatures of course, but particularly in the magic items that are hidden throughout the complex. Notable items include the Gauntlet of Goorph, a tentacled glove that increases the user’s Strength and gripping damage, but can decrease his Wisdom, and the Staff of the Slug, which can be slapped against a surface to aid climbing, used to slap and grab objects, and to control slug-like monsters. This is a really nice little dungeon that should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

Rounding out Black Pudding #2 is a feature continued from Black Pudding #1. This is ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’, a collection of NPCs ready for hire by the player characters. The majority of the eight involve the standard Classes—Fighters, Magic-users, Thieves, and more, though a few do include Classes introduced in this issue, such as Trey Mottle, a Second Level Fey Savage and Fay May, a Third Level Keeper. Each comes complete with a hiring cost, likes and dislikes—which affect attempts to haggle with them, a line of background, and more as well as the traditional attribute scores and Hit Points. Although perfect for hiring, these NPCs can also be used as replacement player characters or even rivals if the Dungeon Master wants to further develop them. This is a decent mix and the Dungeon Master should have fun roleplaying any one of them.

Physically, Black Pudding #2 is almost as professional a fanzine as you might want. Perhaps some of the entries are underwritten, but the writing is otherwise clear and simple, though it does contain strong language in places. The fanzine is profusely illustrated and the cartoonish artwork gives the fanzine a singular, consistent look, from the fun front cover to the back cover character sheet.

If there is an issue with Black Pudding #2 it is that its tone may not be compatible with the style of Dungeons & Dragons that a Dungeon Master is running. The tone of Black Pudding #2 is lighter, weirder, and in places just sillier than the baseline Dungeons & Dragons game, so the Dungeon Master should take this into account when using the content of the fanzine. This though, should not be held against the fanzine or its authors.

There is a tendency for the second issue of anything to be not quite as good as the first. This is not the case with Black Pudding #2. It is a balanced issue with a good mix of content, a solid Weird element, a delightful dungeon, and just enough sexism to uphold its Swords & Sorcery genre.