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

Friday, 14 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: The Wizard's Scroll #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, as has Swords & Wizardry.

The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is a new fanzine written for use with Swords & Wizardry. Published by Seattle Hill Games, the fanzine differs from most fanzines in that it contains not the vision of one writer, but many. Its fifty-four pages includes two ‘Race as Class’ Classes, one NPC, four monsters, seven new artefacts, three scenarios, and three rules additions—and more. The fanzine is cleanly laid out and nicely presented with some well done artwork. The cartography is a little variable in quality, but not enough to detract from any of the three scenarios.

The Wizard’s Scroll #1 opens with the two ‘Race as Class’ Classes. D.J. Chadwick’s ‘Testudo’ are tortoise men who can either be Fighters or Magic Users and imbue their shells with sigils that enhance their Armour Class or spells that can be cast like scrolls respectively. Though renowned as being wise, their description feels underwritten, but there are points here that a Dungeon Master can easily develop should he want to add more detail. The second ‘Race as Class’ Class is the ‘Ratfolk’, the first of six submissions to the fanzine by Charlie Mason. The ‘Ratfolk’ are either Fighters or Thieves, though better at the latter than the former. They are naturally stealthy and resistant to poison and disease, but have a reputation for being thieves and spreading disease.

James M. Spahn—best known as the designer and publisher of White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying—gives the first of the rules additions in ‘Bind a Familiar’. This presents the Find Familiar spell for Swords & Wizardry, offering a small range of possible animal companions and the accompanying powers they grant a Wizard, such as the cat and its Dark Vision, the frog and its swimming speed, and so on. The potential disadvantages—losing a familiar is possibly fatal for a Wizard—slightly outweigh the benefits of having one, but the advantages still make having one useful. Charlie Mason’s ‘Critical Hits’ provides a means for handling critical hits in Swords & Wizardry, including the range on the twenty-sided die that widens as each Class gains Levels and the effects, such as tripping an enemy or maximum damage. He also provides a means of handling skills for the rules with ‘Basic Skills’, handled on a roll of a six-sided die in a fashion not dissimilar to other Retroclones. Again, the range on the die grows as the characters rise in Level. No specific skills are covered, but the primary purpose of the mechanic is to handle situations not covered by the rules so is workmanlike enough to do this.

Tod Roe offers the only NPC in The Wizard’s Scroll #1, a Sorcerer from Carcosa known as ‘Niptuk’. Driven insane by forbidden sorceries, Niptuk delights in the manipulation of the flesh of his prisoners and often uses their skins to change his identity. The first monster in the fanzine is the ‘Skin Bag’ by David Przybla, a nasty construct that is literally the skin of its victim containing only the victim’s soul. It can thus pass as the victim despite no longer needing to eat, drink, or sleep, and is often sent to spread disease or do the bidding of dark gods. James V. West—the creator of the fanzine, Black Pudding—offers the ‘Lightning Monk’, a diminutive blue-skinned humanoid that worships with others of its kind in Storm Temple and defends itself with its Inner Storm if disturbed. There is not as much application for the ‘Lightning Monk’ in a game as there is of the ‘Skin Bag’ or of the next monster, the‘Shield Guardian’ from Charlie Mason. The ‘Shield Guardian’ is a golem-like construct whose purpose is to protect places or things. Its face is on the massive shield it carries and this face constantly comments on any battle it participants in. Charlie Mason also details the ‘Abominable Beastman’, a terror of the north that likes Elf-flesh, especially that of Elves who make toys for Yuletide, though his aggression can be abated with jolly songs. The description of the ‘Abominable Beastman’ marks the first appearance of a slight streak of silliness that runs through the fanzine, but the monster works with or without it.

The first of the magical items described in The Wizard’s Scroll #1 are all ‘Weapons of Legend’. Redneck DM details six such weapons, such as ‘The Mocking Bird’s Hungry Bow’ which turns arrows fired from it into +2 arrows and some arrows each day to explode upon impact and the ‘Force Saber of Lucas Star-Born’, an energy weapon that works as a +2 two-handed sword and grants an Armour Class bonus against missiles. As can be seen, these weapons continue the silliness—even if just knowing silliness—that runs through some of the articles in The Wizard’s Scroll #1. This need not be enough of a reason for a Dungeon Master to avoid adding these weapons to his game, but he may want to change the names so that the inspirations are not as obvious. The other magic item in The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is the ‘Fuhrung (Magic Ring)’ by David Przybla, a pleasingly simple magical ring that is worn by officers to grant the men under their command bonuses to their saving throws, Armour Class, and their rolls to hit and do damage.

The first of the three scenarios is ‘The Demon-Shattered Tower’ by Steven A. Cook. A side-trek encounter for four to six characters for Levels Two and Three, this has the adventurers coming across a pack of Gnolls camping over a dungeon once the possession of a Wizard. Amounting to just ten locations, this is nicely detailed, fairly simple dungeon that can easily be dropped into a campaign. As can ‘The Bandit Caves of Cyrus Blacknail’ by Doug ‘Merias’ Maxwell, a location designed to be explored by five or more First Level characters. Consisting of eleven locations, this describes a disused series of caves, once a bandit den, now home to a goblin band. This is not as detailed or as interesting a dungeon as ‘The Demon-Shattered Tower’, but it is perfectly playable and can easily be adapted to a setting of the Dungeon Master’s choice. The third and last scenario is Charlie Mason’s ‘The Wizard’s Tower’. This describes the tower home of a Wizard—and a tough one at that—and truth be told, that is all it is. The tower and the Wizard both just exist, there is no plot to the adventure and the Dungeon Master will just have to develop one himself. One option might be for a Thief to have to burgle the building, another might be that the Wizard has knowledge or a spell that the adventurers need, but either way, the lack of a plot in ‘The Wizard’s Tower’ also makes it the easiest of the three locations to drop into a setting.

Rounding out The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is a recipe, or rather, ‘How to Cook a Halfling.’ Fortunately, an alternative ingredient is suggested instead of Halfling—useful when there are so few Halflings to be found at Sarehole Mill these days—though it does continue the silliness that runs through some of the articles in the fanzine. This is followed by a simple puzzle, the clues to which are dotted throughout the fanzine.

Physically, The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is clean and well presented. Much of the artwork is excellent, the cartography is decent, and all together it feels like a tidy package. That said, some of the articles feel underwritten and some suffer from a silliness that may not find favour with every reader or Dungeon Master. The fanzine does include some well-written rules that add to Swords & Wizardry without overcomplicating the roleplaying game. That said, this is not an outstanding fanzine, neither very good or very bad, rather, The Wizard’s Scroll #1 is competently done and provides reasonable support for Swords & Wizardry.