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Sunday, 26 May 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVI] Black Pudding #4

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 & 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.

Black Pudding is a fanzine that is nominally written for use with Labyrinth Lord and so is compatible with other Retroclones, but it is not a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style  fanzine. For starters, it is all but drawn rather than written, with artwork that reflects a look that is cartoonish, a tone that is slightly tongue in cheek, and a gonzo feel. Its genre is avowedly Swords & Sorcery, as much Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as Conan the Barbarian. Drawn from the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules and published by Random Order via Square Hex, Black Pudding’s fantasy roleplaying content that is anything other than the straight-laced fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, but something a bit lighter, but still full of adventure and heroism. Issues one, two, and three have showcased the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules with a mix of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. Now Black Pudding #4 includes a similar mix of new Classes, NPCs, and an adventure, but is something different for the fanzine.

It opens with the author’s ‘OSR Play book’, his reference for running an Old School Renaissance game which elements of Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry White Box, and The Black Hack, so a mix of the modern and the old. The most obvious of the former is the use of the Advantage and Disadvantage dice and being able to improve attributes at each Level, but simple Attribute checks of having to roll under the appropriate attribute, a variable amount of luck available to spend per adventure, rules for subdual damage and stunning an opponent, exploding damage dice, and so on point towards a more modern sensibility. Character creation is the standard roll three six-sided dice six times and assign the results as desired, but an attribute can be lowered to improve another on a two-for-one basis. Class options primarily consist of the Wizard, Thief, and Fighter, but no Cleric, and references are made to the new Classes in this this issue of Black Pudding as well as the preceding three issues, plus those from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition or Advanced Labyrinth Lord. Only those Classes new to the issue are given in Black Pudding #4, so the Dungeon Master will need to refer to the other sources. Characters also get Specialities, such as the Wizard’s Legendary Lore or the Thief’s Thug, whilst the Thief gets two. Other tables enables a player to add relationships, parentage, a skill or talent, roleplaying traits, backgrounds, and so on to the character. 

Zax Grith
Fighter Level 1
STR 18 (+3) DEX 14 (+1) CON 12
INT 09 WIS 07 (-1) CHR 14 (+1)

Armour Class: 12 Saving Throw: 14 (+2 versus Poison and Death)
Hit Points: 8 Luck: 1
Speciality: Fists & Feet
Weapons Mastery: Fists & Feet (+4 to hit, damage 1d3+4)
Skill/Talent: Cooking
Vice: Beer
Trait: Mellow

Hair Colour: Yellow
Eye Colour: Green

Relationship: Good friend of Nimashte Hrog, the leader of the Doom Cult of Dread
Raised by… politicians
Background: Cheesemaker
What’s in his Pocket: Brass fork
Equipment: Mail undies

The new Classes include the Fighter, Thief, and Wizard as well as Dwarf, Elf, and Halfing, the latter three treated as Race as a Class. The Fighter has Weapon Mastery with a single weapon type, rolls to attack again after rolling a critical attack, and can use Battle Moves like Blinding or Display of Prowess that are awesome stunts which do no damage. The player is free to describe and name the stunt as he wishes. The Thief gets a lot of skills like Acrobatics, Scrolls, or Thug which require a Saving Throw against the Class’ Save value. Not only does the Class have access to all of these skills, at each Level, a Thief can specialise in one or two of adding a +1 or +2 bonus to the roll as appropriate. The Wizard can of course cast spells, but also make scrolls and potions, specialise in wizardly stuff like Languages & Scripts, Battle Magic, or Summoning, can augment his magic with wands, rods, and staves which are used to store spells.  Doing so has the possibility of imbuing the item with a personality and a a desire, so quite possibly making a rod for the Wizard’s back… 

Dwarves are Fighters, but with a higher Constitution, understanding of stonework, a skill in working a particular metal or building underground, and a higher chance of having missing teeth. Elves are more intelligent or charismatic, but not as strong, They are more perceptive and can step into the Faery Realm, the home of the Elves each day. Common Elves are treated as Thieves, but with only one Speciality bonus per Level and the ability to cast one spell. Faery Elves are Wizards who heal better in the Faery Realm and have affinity (or Advantage) when dealing with a particular thing, like Earth or Reptiles. Halflings are small and quick, treated as Fighters who are better at both hiding and healing outside rather than in the city. 

The equipment section in the middle of the issue is fairly standard, although the rules for silvered weapons make them capable of killing lycanthropes with a single blow if a critical hit is rolled. The ‘mail undies; which provide +1 to Armour Class are both silly and support the Swords & Sorcery genre. 

The Class heavy focus of Black Pudding #4 continues with the Goblin, which is treated like a Thief and does have some burglary skills. It specialises as either a Sneak, a Sniper, or a Goon. The Elementarian is treated like a Magic-User, but cannot cast spells, although he can read magical scrolls, and when his ‘Fae’ Stuff roll is made, easily spot secret doors and invisible things. The Class has the advantage when deciphering puzzles and the like. Lastly, the Jungle Lord is a Fighter who climb trees and swing through the canopy better than any Thief. With a jungle scream or yell, he can even call on the animals of the jungle as his friends to aid him. Given the focus of the fanzine’s first half on the author’s ‘OSR Play Book’, these Classes feel slightly silly and a bit removed from the previous six. 

One of the best features in Black Pudding is ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’, a collection of NPCs ready for hire by the player characters. There is a decent range of NPCs given here, such as Tweets McTussle, a Third Level Fighter who can longer speak to her flying friends and the one-eyed, head-swivelling Dirty Durk of Spleevington who never trusts no-one. That said, there are seventeen listed here and at that number, they do begin to like place fillers rather than actually gaming content.

Rounding out Black Pudding #4 is a short, one-page dungeon, ‘Blackbird’s Cave’. It is straightforward and linear and reasonable enough, though the Referee may want to flesh it out a little.

Physically, Black Pudding # 4 adheres to the same standards set by the previous issues. Now that means a lot of decent if cartoonish artwork to give it a singular, consistent look and lots of quite short articles, that are perhaps underwritten in places. The obvious issue with Black Pudding #4—and indeed, any of its issues, is that its tone may not be compatible with the style of Dungeons & Dragons that a Game Master is running. The tone of Black Pudding is lighter, weirder, and in places just sillier than the baseline Dungeons & Dragons game, so the Game Master should take this into account when using the content of the fanzine, but Black Pudding #4 does something that the previous never really did and that is put the author’s approach to the Old School Renaissance into a coherent form. There have been hints of the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ in all of the issues of the fanzine to date, but with Black Pudding #4 the author showcases the rules and ideas he uses, an interesting mix of the old and the new. 

On the downside the issue just has too many NPCs and ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’ feels like it is played out as a format now. Further, as much as the new rules are interesting and playable it would be really nice to see worldbuilding in the issue, to showcase the type of game that the author’ runs as well as the mix ‘n’ match rules variant he uses given here. The ‘OSR Play Book’ in Black Pudding #4 also serves to highlight how its content really deserves to be more than just a fanzine. In terms of mechanics—as shown here, and perhaps setting—as soon as the author presents some, Black Pudding #4 showcases content which deserves to be a roleplaying game of its very own.

—oOo—

The Black Pudding fanzine will be available from Squarehex at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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