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Saturday 30 April 2016

Fanzine Focus II: The Undercroft #2

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 & 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, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council—also the publisher of he recently released Something Stinks in Stilton—in July, 2014, issue #1 of The Undercroft was an engaging initial issue, full of intriguing and useful material. It was followed in September, 2014 with issue #2 and as with all second efforts, especially after successful first efforts, the problem of the ‘second difficult album’ has to be addressed. Essentially can the editor and authors maintain the consistency and interest achieved by issue #1? It is even a concern raised by the editor in the opening sentences of the issue’s editorial, but it is clear that the editor is not only unconcerned by the problem, he is proud of The Undercroft #2. That is of course, his prerogative, but the truth of the matter is that The Undercroft #2 is a ‘second difficult album’, or rather a ‘second difficult fanzine’.

It opens well enough with Simon Forster’s ‘Between the Cracks’, a nasty little dungeon in which the adventurers explore the laboratory-home of a wizard-alchemist said to live beneath a pool of water. Of course he has not been seen in many years and is said to possessed a valuable treasure. What does lie below is not necessarily treasure, but a horrible monster—a little in the vein of a Hound of Tindalos—waiting for some fool of an adventurer to release it. This is all a bit of a cliché, but no less fun for it. The scenario could have done with giving a motive or two beyond the simple suggestion that the wizard’s laboratory-home be of interest to tomb robbers, but any competent GM should be devise motivations suitable for his campaign and player characters. The simplicity of ‘Between the Cracks’ means that it can easily be added to any wilderness adventure or sandbox.

As to the monster trapped in ‘Between the Cracks’, this is oddly not detailed after the scenario, but instead several pages later in The Undercroft #2. ‘That Which Slips Between’ by Luke Gearing describes a being of inhuman alienness, man-like, but not, that seemingly acts and attacks random. This is because it does and there tables to determine its next course of action and direction. It is also all but unstoppable and the only fact that this may not might drive the players and their characters into frustration is that the thing can just stop and it can head off in a random direction, so its behaviour may not be wholly directed at them. This is where it is quite clever because it leaves the player characters to wonder where and at whom it might strike should just wander off—they might even feel guilty for letting it go free... 

The other monsters presented in The Undercroft #2 are not quite as interesting. In ‘The Pit of Flesh: A Bestiary’, editor Daniel Sell offers the reader the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ and ‘The Visitor’. The former is a ram-horned, porcine-featured ape-like creature created by wizards to turn magical pollutants into slurry that has since been put use dealing with all sorts of waste, from cutting the grass to chomping down on unwanted biological masses… The latter plays the part of the ancient relative, old and sad, insinuating itself into families and feeding on their warmth and their joy, whilst slowing coming to control the members one by one. Of the two, the ‘Transplasmic Organic Bifurious Inductors’ are simply silly, but ‘The Visitor’ has the potential to be quite creepy.

Two or three monsters would seem to be sufficient in a twenty-four page fanzine, but The Undercroft #2 offers yet more. Matthew Adams, best known for his illustrations for the supplement, Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, draws and describes in turn ‘The Storkman’, ‘The Briar Witch’, and ‘The Snailing’. The first swaps newborn babies for reasons unknown, the second haunts ruins covered in briars, and the third are former misers turned snail-like demons that obsessively hunt and collect certain objects. All three are accorded a full page illustration and barely half a page of text without any stats. What this means is that none of them amount to very much, not helped by either the swathes of empty page or Adams’ scratchy art style which does not really work as full page pieces. Further none of them with stats, so they are not immediately useful. Given how much space they take up—one quarter of the issue—all three entries feel like page fillers. Which is odd given how much little space each takes up on their respective pages.

Fortunately, Tony A. Thompson offers up something with a little more substantial in the form of ‘Piteous Potions’. This details a dozen potions of weirder sort—ones that cause the imbiber’s toes to fall and be replaced by hooves, to become disorientated, make a vow of poverty, and so on. All twelve are weird and wonderful and should put the player characters off trying any potions they find for quite a long time. Lastly, the issue is rounded out with Simon Forster’s ‘Blood’, a sanguine piece of horror fiction that just is.

Physically, The Undercroft #2 is generally well presented, but this is not the problem with the issue. The problem is that too many—in fact, more than half—of its pages are devoted to uninteresting material, primarily, too many monsters. This is not to say that any of the articles in The Undercroft #2 should not have seen print, but rather they should never have seen print all together in the one issue. The result is that a decent scenario and an interesting monster and some potions are drowned in the underwhelming rest of the issue. Ultimately, a poor choice of material and dearth of interesting ideas after the promise of The Undercroft #1 explains why The Undercroft #2 is a difficult second issue.

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