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Monday, 2 April 2018

Fanzine Focus X: Crawl-thulhu: A Two-Fisted ’Zine of Lovecraftian Horror Issue 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 Dungeon Master 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. Another popular choice of system for fanzines, is Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, such as Crawl! and Crawling Under a Broken Moon. Some of these fanzines provide fantasy support for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, but others explore other genres for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.

Black Powder, Black Magic: A ’Zine of Six-Guns and Sorcery is one such fanzine. Published by Stormlord Publishing, it takes Dungeon Crawl Classics to the Wild West and the Weird West of the 1880s. Crawl-thulhu: A Two-Fisted ’Zine of Lovecraftian Horror is another. What both do is introduce their settings and set them up for play with Zero Level characters by sending them through what is called a ‘Character Funnel’. In this, a feature of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, each player controls not one, but four Zero Level characters, and whichever one of them survives the ordeal of the scenario has proved themselves strong enough to advance to First Level and so gain a Class in the traditional Class and Level, Dungeons & Dragons set-up. In the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, the surviving characters go on to be Fighters, Thieves, Clerics, Wizards, and so on; in Black Powder, Black Magic, the surviving characters also go on to be Fighters, Thieves, Clerics, and Wizards—but with changes to them to reflect the combination of horror and the Wild West—as well as Gamblers and Prospectors; and in Crawl-thulhu, the surviving characters will go on to be Adventurers, Docs, Roughnecks, Scholars, and Socialites. This though, is the subject of future issues of the fanzine, for the inaugural issue concerns itself with just the Zero Level characters and their survival (or not).

Published by Discerning Dhole ProductionsCrawl-thulhu Issue 1 presents the means to create Zero Level characters, the rules for probably sending them mad, and then sends them scampering around Dunwich on a day trip from hell as they react to the dread events of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. This being based on a Dungeons & Dragons-style game, means that both the approach to the Mythos and the game play is more Pulp than Purist. That said, the limitations of playing Zero Level characters means that there is relatively little scope for truly Pulp-style play, at least in the given adventure. That though, does not mean that this adventure, ‘A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair’, will not be fun—or at least horrifying!

There are two obvious issues with Crawl-thulhu Issue 1. One is that it requires the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game to play. In fact, despite it stating that it does, the Judge and players can really just get away with using the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure, at least for this issue. For future issues and adventures, the Judge will probably need the full rules. The other issue is dice. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game uses a lot of dice outside of the standard six polyhedral types, including three-sided, five-sided, seven-sided, fourteen-sided, sixteen-sided, twenty-four-sided, and thirty-sided dice. These do not quite make their presence known in Crawl-thulhu Issue 1, unless that is, one of the characters gets hold of a Thompson Submachine Gun. If they do though, the Judge may need to resort to an online random number generator unless he wants to buy a set of Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.

An character in Crawl-thulhu has six attributes—Strength, Agility, Stamina, Perception, Intelligence, and Sanity. All are rolled on three six-sided dice and Sanity replaces Luck of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, as there is no Luck in this universe. Similarly, there are no Alignments as these are irrelevant. Hit Points start between two and four, which considering a small pistol does 1d6 damage, makes for a potentially deadly game. But this is the set-up for game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, so what you expecting? A table provides a list of first names and surnames common in the 1920s and an Occupation table. The Occupation, just as in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game provides a weapon and some kind of trapping related to said Occupation. Unlike Dungeon Crawl Classics, what a character does not have is an Augury, which modifies how a character’s Luck will work, as well, there is no such thing as Luck in this universe. Instead, it has a Celestial Alignment table, which determines the star under which a character was born and what the modifier from his Sanity ability applies to.

Our sample character is Harold ‘Doc’ Reese, a former Classics academic who returned from serving in France in the Great War a broken and battered man. A gas attack damaged his lungs and shell barrages shattered his mind and he could not settle down to academic or normal life. For many years he has ridden the rails across the United States, more recently in the company of a dog. Harold is slowly recovering and has regained much of his mental acuity. He is terribly short of breath though and cannot run for any length of time.

Harold ‘Doc’ Reese
Zero Level Human Hobo
STR 16 (+2) AGL 12 (+0) STM 04 (-2)
PER 08 (-1) INT 17 (+2) SAN 11 (+0)
Hit Points: 2
Saving Throws
Fortitude -2 Reflex +0 Willpower +2
Celestial Alignment: Celaeno, Home of Universal Knowledge (spell checks)
Starting Weapon: Pocket Knife (1d3)
Trade Good: Cardboard box and a dog, Rex

Sanity in Crawl-thulhu is a multi-purpose tool. Rolled on a scale of three to eighteen, it can used, on a point for point basis, to improve any roll that involves an character. This is an expensive use of Sanity though. In the main, it is used as other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, to measure an character’s ability to come to terms with the true nature of the universe. Sanity checks are made on a twenty-sided directly against a character’s Sanity ability. Roll equal to, or under, then the Sanity check is made, but if the result is over, the check is failed. In which case, a player rolls on the Insanity table. The size of Insanity die to be rolled is determined by the degree of exposure to the Mythos—cast a spell and it is only a four-sided die, but encountering a Mythos entity means that it will be a six-sided or eight-sided die or more, and any encounter with a god of the Mythos, is always rolled on a twenty-sided die. The roll is adjusted by the character’s Sanity modifier. The result gives a variety of different effects, but primarily it involves the reduction in the affected character’s Sanity ability.

Rules are also given for firearms combat. These are kept simple and fast, their primary advantage being that they are quicker to use then the melee weapons of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. One notable feature of these rules is that characters have a greater difficulty using the Thompson submachine gun unless they have specifically trained in its use.

The second part of Crawl-thulhu Issue 1 and almost two thirds of its pages are devoted to the scenario, ‘A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair’. This puts the characters—who are all attending the annual fair in Dunwich—in the middle of the events described in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as all hell, or rather, Wilbur’s brother, breaks loose and starts smashing up the town. As chaos reigns and the festival attendees panic and flee in search of refuge, the characters—four of them for each player—are first expected to join them before then setting out on their very first investigation. The scenario is built around just eight locations and the events that that take place over the course of the day. It is in effect a sandbox adventure with villagers and visitors running scared, the cultists trying to bring about their own plans, and the player characters trying to work out what is going on. Although there is no staging advice, it can be run in at least two ways. One is with all of the players’ characters together, much like a traditional investigation in a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, working together to solve the mystery of what is going on in Dunwich that afternoon. The other is stage it as a series of cut scenes, with the Judge cutting back forth between each player and his characters as they conduct individual investigations at their location before hopefully, the survivors come together to finally deal with the problem. Even though they are Zero Level, the player characters are not wholly on their own as certain signature characters from elsewhere in Lovecraft Country do turn up to support the player characters’ efforts.

‘A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair’ is a fun scenario, nicely set up, and clearly presented to help Judge run its events. From start to finish, that is from rolling up characters—a quick process even at four characters per player—to playing through the whole of the scenario should not take more than two sessions at the very most. Indeed, it would even work as a convention scenario run in a four-hour slot. The other fun aspect of playing—and of playing a ‘Character Funnel’ in general—is that the players not only get to roleplay between each other, but also between their own quartet of characters. Given that a certain part of playing Lovecraftian investigative horror is all about characters going mad and given that each player has four characters and given that they are all Zero Level, that is four times the opportunity to roleplay the insanity!

Another thing that ‘A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair’ showcases is how spells work in Crawl-thulhu. In Crawl-thulhu, each spell gets its own table of effects, which are random each time someone casts said spell. So in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, the classic Magic Missile spell might manifest as a meteor, a screaming eagle, a ray of frost, and so on, and then its effect might be do a point of damage, standard damage, appear as multiple missiles, or a single one, so on. (The effect of this was increase the page count of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game a great deal.) Crawl-thulhu applies concept to the spells of the Mythos, although in Crawl-thulhu Issue 1, there is just the single spell—Commune with Yog-Sothoth. Its table presents just nine, wholly terrible options for what happens when this spell is cast, from utter failure and a loss of Sanity to becoming indispensable Yog-Sothoth… Of course, the outcome of casting any Mythos spell is bound to be terrible, but having the options gives flavour and detail. It is going to be interesting to see what the authors of Crawl-thulhu do with spells in future issues.

Physically, Crawl-thulhu Issue 1 is nicely put together. Although another edit would not go amiss, the issue is well written, well organised, and reasonably well illustrated. It is a pleasing little product. This inaugural presents everything a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror needs, including the rules to drive ordinary men and women mad, a spell, a monster, and a cult for them to encounter and thwart (or not), and more.

Now it has been a decade since there has been a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror based on the d20 System, not since Shadows of Cthulhu in 2008 and d20 Cthulhu in 2001, but Crawl-thulhu has the potential to fill that void. It hints at several interesting things, most obviously the new Classes and the way to hand spells, as well as providing everything needed to run the given scenario. In fact, the hints are interesting enough to suggest that Crawl-thulhu has potential as more than a simple fanzine, but would work as whole rulebook of its own, which would make a good stepping stone from the pure Dungeons & Dragons-style play of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game to the insanity inducing confrontation against the forces of Cosmic Horror in Crawl-thulhu, but with the mechanics of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Overall, Crawl-thulhu: A Two-Fisted ’Zine of Lovecraftian Horror Issue 1 is a fantastic first issue which does a good job of laying the foundations for future issues as well as presenting solid rules and a fun scenario.