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Saturday, 5 May 2018

Fanzine Focus XI: Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume One

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 showcased how 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 AssemblyAs seen in Volume Two, Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine is a fanzine of a different stripe.

Published by Inner Ham, Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine is draws from a unique source for its inspiration—the original version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Doctor John Eric Holmes and published in 1977. Specifically, it draws from Doctor Holmes’ description of the game as “fantastic, exciting, and imaginative” for both its title and its content. That content is simply a medley of monsters, magic, and more, with new spells, magical items, NPCs, and creatures created by some twenty-four or so diverse contributors, each entry drawn from a particular illustration to be found in the pages of the Holmes’ edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. What this means is that the fanzine really does consist of things that you can add to your game without any particular theme or flavour. This has the downside that some of the content is perfectly acceptable in terms of Dungeons & Dragons, but somewhat bland in terms of its fantasy. Thankfully some of the content rises above this blandness to present interesting content which will definitely add to your game.

With little ceremony, the issue jumps straight into its content, starting with magic items such as the ‘Wand of Dazzling Light’, which reduces a target’s Armour bonus and levies a to hit penalty and the Dragon Shield which grants a second Saving Throw versus Breath Weapon against the breath weapon of dragons whose colour matches that of the shield. Swords figure strongly amongst the magic items in the issue, such as ‘The Yellow Sword’ which may force the wielder to runaway when outnumbered; the ‘Sword of Demon Banishment’ can bar a demon from returning to the earthly plane if the sword is left in the body of the demon; and the ‘Scabbard of Spells & Magical Wonderment’ which comes with many possible powers which it fuses into a sword when the user decides. Each scabbard typically has four such powers—randomly generated—and they are one-use only. One other interesting item is the ‘Forked Staff’, which a Cleric or Magic-User can use to split their spells to affect multiple targets and even reduce the number of targets a spell cast at the party will affect. These are all lightly drawn, whereas ‘“Gore” – Axe of Minotaur’ is much more detailed and flavoursome, a weapon with mighty powers but also the curse of turning its wielder into a minotaur.

The new monsters start off with the ‘Unigoyle’, a wingless gargoyle with a cyclops-style horn; ‘Regal Lizard Men’—civilised lizard men and the similar ‘Iguanadyte’; and ‘Sleeping Skeletons’, the smashed bones of animated skeletons which swarm onto targets and together immobilise them. None of these monsters are really all that interesting, but where the issue does get interesting is in its development of existing monsters. So, ‘Six Orc Tribes’ provides short descriptions of Orc tribes to provide them with a little variation, whilst ‘Deformities & Personality Conflicts for Individual Orcs’ can add flavour and detail to an Orc of the Dungeon Master’s choosing, and ‘Full-Bellied Dragon’ provides rules for determining what a dragon might do on a full meal. Monsters beginning with the letter ‘h’ get interesting coverage in Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume One. So the Harpy gets the Harpy Axe which can be thrown and have it return to its fetid hands thrice a day, whilst Harpy Bones can inflict Cause Light Wounds once per day which takes the form of a large eagle-like bird pecking the target! The Queen Harpy is a stronger, tougher Harpy who commands a roost of Harpies and may be able to use certain spells. The other ‘h’ is the Hydra, which gets lots of love with ‘Seven Uses for the Many Head of a Hydra’ such as a hydra which swallows its targets for its Magic-User master and Hydra-head stew which can be boiled down to create a giant’s bane, and with ‘Hydra Lore’ which suggests some Hyra have an immortal head, whilst others breath a poison which slows men, elves, and dwarves down.

Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume One comes with relatively few spells. For the Magic-User, there is ‘Calm’, which does it says on the tin to monsters and of course, ‘Elmer’s Glue’ produces a strong adhesive, but also marks the first mention Elmer the Minotaur Wizard more fully detailed in Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume Two. Where that future issue has the one Dwarf NPC, this first issue has three, plus in ‘A Smattering of Typical And Atypical Gear for Dwarven NPCs’, a table of items and equipment for them (and other dwarves) to carry. ‘The Brothers Grymthrall’ describes three mercenary, ruthless Dwarves—Torvald the Badger (including his Harness of the Crag-Badger, which turns him into a battle-frenzied crag-badger); Ulryk the Unlovely, The Beast of Shrikesburg, disfigured and mute and bad-tempered; and Rangvald of Vulturespire, who wears the Cleft Shield of the Spire-Guard and the Helm of the Spire-Guard, both family heirlooms. All three NPCs, either Third or Fourth Level Swordsmen, are fully stated out and fully kitted, including magic items, ready as foes or hirelings!

Physically, Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume One is neat and tidy, with a reasonable mix of rough, if ready art, and full of content which is relatively easy to drop into a campaign world. That said, an encounter or two, or even a scenario, inspired like the rest of the contents of the fanzine, by illustrations to be found in the pages of the Holmes’ edition of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, would add to its pages. Now, the quality of the content is varied and not all of it is particularly interesting. Fortunately, the interesting and the fun far outweighs the not as interesting and thus in Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume One you have a good mix of material and a format ready to be adhered to with Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’Zine, Volume Two.