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

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Fanzine Focus XII: Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #6

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 2016, Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #6 saw the return of the fanzine from Red Moon Medicine after a hiatus of a year. Devoted to both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause, the issue marks a change in production values and format for the fanzine. Previous issues, such as Vacant Ritual Assembly #5 have been obviously fanzines in their stapled format. Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #6 is available in Print on Demand, so is more easily available and comes with double the content. It contains some eight entries, including three articles, a monster and an encounter, two scenarios, and an interview.

After the Clint Krause’s usual recommended listening and reading, the fanzine opens with his ‘Grigoro’s Wonders Untold: A Strange Travelling Show’, a description of a travelling freak show, its members, exhibits, and secrets. The exhibits include Growler and Howler, gentle conjoined giants—perhaps from Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land?, Baron Bicuspid, cruspucular gentleman demon, and Grembly, a legless Dwarf-sailor who can walk on water! Each of these individuals is fully stated and detailed as are the scams that Grigoro and his brethren run to extort the incredulous. This is a lovely set of NPCs and oddities for the player characters to encounter and likely lose monies to!

Krause also details ‘The Gallows on Heretic Hill: A Campaign Hub’ and ‘A Light in the Black: A New Heretical Faction’. The first in these paired articles is a counter to the lethality of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and allow a character to retain knowledge after his death, a graveyard where those buried by the hangman Penitent Jack with a noose around their necks will awake in a new body hanging from the gallow. They are undead, but retain their identities and memories, but have the skills and abilities of their new bodies. Then they are cut down, but left with the noose around their necks so that when they die, they return to a ‘new’ body provided by Penitent Jack. This is such a fun idea and sets up the second article which is more particular to  the Synod, the dominant monotheist faith in Krause’s campaign world  as described in ‘Unholy Inversion of Hope’ in Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #5. This describes the Noosefriars, a secret order of heretics which is forced to serve the Synod as a penance over and over for their crimes against angels. This is a great set-up and provides some hooks for the Referee as well as a base and some obligations for the player characters.

The monster is ‘The Grimsly Hill Cherubs: Some Murderous Children’, also by Krause. It describes some bloody knife-wielding kids to be found in The Driftwood Verses and is okay. This is followed by the encounter, ‘Papa Lathmos’ Sugar Cane Crop: A Hyperglycemic Nightmare’ by Anxy P. It presents four strange things which might be found in sugar cane fields, the occupants and field workers all old, black-skinned, dehydrated, and sweet smelling with rot. These are weird, strange encounters, probably difficult to use due to their location and the imagery they suggest. 

Kathryn Jenkins provides the first of two scenarios in the issue, ‘From Dunnholt It Rises’. Described as a’A Grim Island’, this describes the miserable island of Dunholt which lies off the coast of Scotland and has become a quarantine site following an outbreak of the plague on the mainland. The adventurers are in Duncladach, the nearest port to the island when a ship crashes out of the fog and into the harbour, spilling it pus filled, tumour-ridden crew onto the dock… The clues point to Dunnholt, but if the island is meant to be safe, what has happened and does this mean that nowhere is safe? This is a horrid pustulant affair, fairly straightforward, but riddled with the plague and plague-references. 

The other scenario is not so much a dungeon bash, but a house bash. ‘Death Planted the Esther Tree: A grim, mansion-crawl adventure’ by Kreg Mosier is set in the same world as Clint Krause’s The Driftwood Verses and begins with the player characters being hired by Beauregard Relecroix to discover what is going on at his mansion home. The wealthy merchant returned home to be greeted by a deluge of acidic rain and his being forcefully ejected from the house by something unseen. This is a sort of haunted mansion adventure, its anonymous homunculus servants adding a certain certain creepy atmosphere and the detail nicely contrasting with the ruin which has befallen the house.

Rounding out the issue is ‘Emmy Allen: Of Wolves and Winter – An Interview’. This interview, with the designer of Wolf Packs and Winter Snow’ is as informative and as interesting as the previous interviews in Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #6 is well presented, decently written, and comes with some reasonable artwork. The cartography is also good. Where previous issues of the fanzine felt a bit cramped, here the extra space has been put to good use and it is clear that this issue is full to the brim and no more. The content does vary in quality, the monster and encounter not as interesting as the two articles about the Noosefriars, which are also clever and full of potential. This does not mean that any of the content is bad, but these two articles do stand out from the eight in the issue. Vacant Ritual Assembly – Issue #6 continues the fanzine’s record of providing a good selection of material for the Referee to pick and choose from and indicates that the hiatus has had no impact on the quality of that content.