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Friday, 30 March 2018

Fanzine Focus X: Virtual Ritual Assembly #5

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 & DragonsRuneQuest, 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. Leading the way in their support for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have been the fanzines The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published in the Winter of 2015 by Red Moon MedicineVacant Ritual Assembly #5 follows on from the solidly done issue #1issue #2issue #3, and issue #4evoted to both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause, the issue marks a break for the fanzine as the editor and publisher takes time to work on other projects, most notably, The Driftwood Verses. Indeed, it would be another year before Vacant Ritual Assembly #6 would see publication.

Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 contains just five articles, providing the Game Master with a setting, a new Class, a faith, a disease, and an interview. The setting is Judd Karman’s ‘Koster’s Knob’, a Hobbit shire best known for its pipe weed, the occasional stalwart adventurer, and as a rest home for overworked wizards. It is far from the rural idyll that most Hobbit shires are depicted as, there being a distinct divide in social class between the rich and the wealthy—who live in the Knob, a hill at the centre of the shire and the various farming families and surrounding their lands. Most of the inhabitants of Koster’s Knob possess a strong sense of cynicism, especially with regard to the inhabitants of the Knob, Hobbits who go on adventures and come back, and wizards who come to take a rest. The attitudes of these Hobbits really shine through in this article which includes details of notable NPCs, some encounters, and a guide to ‘Weedwise Wizarding’ and the pipe weed of Koster’s Knob. Besides the samples of different pipe weeds, it adds the Pipe Arts skill, which enables a Wizard who smokes pipe weed to forget spells he has prepared and recover Hit Points in return. Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay is  not a fantasy roleplaying game known for its inclusion of Hobbits, but ‘Koster’s Knob’ adds a cynical, almost knowing twist to their treatment and is all the better for it.

‘The Ritualist’, by Kathryn Jenkins, is the new Class. This takes up the idea that magic is illegal, taboo, and dangerous and applies to a variant of Magic-User who has to go to great extremes to both hide and cast his magic. Instead of the traditional spell slots, the Ritualist has access to a limited number of spells and what spells he knows varies from one day to the next, but can cast those spells as often as he likes each day. Unfortunately, doing requires a Ritualist to sell part of his Soul—represented by the permanent loss of Hit Points or Ability points to the greater power he has entered into a pact with. Further spells require the use of rare ingredients—monster bones, gems, herbs, and so—to cast. Accompanied by eight sample spells (the included Wall of Flesh is quite vile), the Ritualist as a Class is designed as a something akin to a witch, scholar, voodoo practitioner, and so, all having to put a lot of effort into casting their magic. It is an interesting concept, especially for the Referee and player who wants to do and roleplay magic differently to the standard ‘fire and forget’ spellcasting of the Magic-User, but here feels underwritten and deserving of greater development.

The fanzine’s editor takes us back to his home campaign with ‘Unholy Inversion of Hope’. This describes the Synod, the dominant monotheist faith in his campaign. It is profoundly anti-magic, so would work very well with the Ritualist. It covers its core beliefs, leadership, major divine beings associated with it—sort of like saints, and its guardians and inquisition, the Templars. There are no stats provided, but then all of this information is given in a couple of pages, and anyway, a Referee should be able to provide these should he need them. This is accompanied by ‘The Sineater Wolves’, which brings Lycanthropy to Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, and of course, gives it a twist. The twist is that the Sineater Wolves is actually a heretical order of monks, which in its desire to cleanse all sin from the world, abandoned the humanity of its members and embraced the curse of Lyncanthropy. Now the order uses the bestial strength of the wolf to confront and battle evil, but this perhaps the aspect of the order and article which is left unexplored. It does include rules for Lycanthropy, a secret or two, and a schism, which is all useful. It just does not fully explore what the order does.

As per usual, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 is rounded out with an interview of an Old School Renaissance personage of note. This time it is with James Raggi IV, the designer and publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. Now Raggi has been interviewed lots of times and is probably the most interviewed man in the Old School Renaissance niche, but the interview is light and informative, if a little dated. The latter of course, being due to the much delayed nature of this review. The only complaint would be that the title of the interview, ‘On the Raggi’, is both trite and tasteless.

Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 well presented, decently written, and comes with some good artwork. The cartography of ‘Koster’s Knob’ is good too. If there is one problem with Vacant Ritual Assembly #5, it is the lack of space. Too many of the articles feel as if they needed a page or two extra and thus room to better develop and present their ideas. This is not to say that the articles in question—‘The Ritualist’ and ‘The Sineater Wolves’ are bad, rather that they have not realised their full potential. Just as with the previous issue, Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 presents a good mix of content, all of which can be added to a campaign with relative ease. Overall, a good selection of material for the Referee to pick and choose from as well as a good point at which to put the fanzine on a hiatus.