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

Friday, 26 August 2016

Fanzine Focus IV: A Random Encounter #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 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 Nathan Ryder, A Random Encounter is different to almost every other gaming fanzine. It is not for games or for any particular game and so contains no gaming material whatsoever. Nor is it about a particular game. Rather, it is about a particular game designer and even then it is not actually about said designer. Rather it presents interview with the one designer about a variety of topics. In doing so, it draws upon the American television series Inside the Actor’s Studio for its inspiration, its questions, and its format, in particular, the Pivot Questionnaire. The aim is explore the creative process upon the part of not an actor, but the game designer.

For its inaugural issue, A Random Encounter interviews David McGrogan, the blogger of Monsters & Manuals and designer of Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land. This critically acclaimed Old School Renaissance supplement details a fantasy version of India and presents a toolkit to help the GM create his own campaign set there and if any one release for the Old School Renaissance can be said to be unique—in the true meaning of the word—then it is Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land. Thus A Random Encounter #1 promises to be interesting both in terms of its format and its content.

Having laid out the aims of A Random Encounter, the interview with McGrogan is organised into six parts, each part covering a different topic. So with ‘To Begin With….’, we start with McGrogan’s beginnings as a gamer, how he games and runs games, his gaming experiences and likes and dislikes—for example he is no fan of FATE or least Diaspora. ‘Blog-Monster….’ looks at how and why he created his blog, ‘Monsters & Manuals’ and then we come to The Pivot Questionnaire itself, the inspiration for A Random Encounter and also Inside the Actor’s Studio, the other inspiration for A Random Encounter. If you are not familiar with the questions, then then they can be found here. The good thing about the presentation of this questionnaire in A Random Encounter is that it is just a page long, because neither the questions nor the answers are all that interesting.

‘Yoon-Suin….’ explores the creation and history of the creation of Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land itself and is perhaps the most interesting section in the fanzine and probably the reason why anyone is actually reading A Random Encounter #1. Sadly it runs to just four pages out of the fanzine’s twenty-two, but it is informative. Disappointingly, McGrogan seems unable to pitch game to the reader and perhaps he should have been allowed more time to do so. The creative process is explored a little further in ‘Making Things….’ which includes booth Yoon-Suin and other works, one of which is discussed in ‘A Little Gem….’ This is McGrogan’s fanzine-supplement, the Peridot. ‘And Finally….’ rounds out A Random Encounter #1 with a few more questions.

Physically, behind the mysterious cover that proves that artist Matthew Adams is better in colour than he is in pen and ink, A Random Encounter #1 is simply laid out. It is clean and tidy, but ordinary looking. The few pieces of original artwork are decent, but there are also random pictures of dice to take up space. Of course, another edit would not have gone amiss.

Unfortunately the problem with A Random Encounter #1 is that it is neither a particularly interesting read nor format. This is not to say that David McGrogan, as the designer of Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land, is neither interesting nor worth interviewing. Rather, he is not worth interviewing for twenty-two pages. There are two reasons for this. The first is that in terms of interview material, both interviewer and interviewee have only their friendship and McGrogan’s Yoon-Suin to draw upon and that is not enough to sustain the reader’s interest over said twenty-two pages. Had there been a greater and more varied body of work to draw upon it might have been another matter. Second is the author’s decision to adhere to the format of Inside the Actor’s Studio, which means including questions and answers that do not necessarily appear in the final edited episode. So much of this could easily been left on the cutting room floor and the result could have been a tighter, more interesting interview.

Ultimately, the problem with A Random Encounter is its chatty, rambling format. This is not to say that there is no merit in interviewing game designers and others involved in the gaming industry, but with just the one subject and the one format in A Random Encounter, the fanzine becomes a throwaway affair because it gives no reason for anyone to return to it. (Note: I had to read it twice because I needed to remind myself of the content—draw your own conclusion.) Perhaps in twenty years’ time, when for example, David McGrogan might have published much, much more than just Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land, these first interviews might be seen as a curiosity, a piece of history, a look at a designer making his first steps into the gaming hobby at large. A Random Encounter #1 is not wholly useless, as it does at least inform the reader as to some of the creative processes involved in the publication of one of the more interesting Old School Renaissance titles, but it is far from being useful. Had A Random Encounter #1 included some actually gaming material designed by David McGrogan, perhaps a scenario or supplementary material for use with Yoon-Suin, then there would be a reason to return to it and A Random Encounter #1 would have been a better showcase for itself, for its designer, and for Yoon-Suin – The Purple Land.

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