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Saturday 27 August 2016

Fanzine Focus IV: Vacant Ritual Aassembly #3

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 in the Summer of 2015 by Red Moon Medicine, Vacant Ritual Assembly #3 follows on from the solidly done issue #1 and issue #2. Devoted to both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause, the issue presents a sandbox that he has mythologised as part of his Dungeons & Dragons campaign from the woods behind his house when he was a child.

The campaign, known as ‘Dragon Trench’, is located in the Lost Forest, a wilderness best known for the long trenches created when a dead dragon fell from the sky. In the time since, the dragon’s corpse has withered away, but infused the region with magics and legends. The trenches have become thoroughfares for trade moving through the Lost Forest, patrolled and protected by the Knights of the Dragon Clan. The latter is a chivalric order best known for its victory over an Orc legion at the Battle of the Bloody Leaves, but which has since lost its importance.

Other inhabitants of the Lost Forest include the Thundercloud Druids, the Timberwives, and Sting. The Thundercloud Druids cast their magic via flutes and wield ‘thundercasters’, large bore muskets that use finely ground-up crystal shards to fire hand-crafted stone balls. Thundercloud Druids are available to play as player characters and with their focus on flint, crystal, and fire, they are very much a rougher, less nature-obsessed alternative to the traditional Druid Class. Timberwives are almost spirits of the forest driven mad, near bestial wood witches that hunt in packs at night wielding great flint cleavers. The Sting is biggest threat to the Lost Forest and the lands beyond, a demon ‘Father of Thorns’ who grants thorny protrusions, wasp-like wings, and stinging nettle hair to his worshippers. They include Goblins and Orcs, and Nettle Goblins, as well as swarms of wasps, are a constant threat to travellers in the forest. ‘The Temple of the Grand Sting’, the Sting’s vespiary is one of the few locations detailed in the ‘Dragon Trench’ sandbox. Although no recommended player character Levels are specified, this is not a dungeon for low level characters.

The ‘Dragon Trench’ sandbox is nevertheless, a relatively low power and fairly small sandbox. There are, after all, just seven locations. It is not really a location designed to be fully explored in one go. The need for higher Level characters for ‘The Temple of the Grand Sting’ is proof of that, so rather it is a location that can be dropped into most campaign settings and ideally visited by the player characters several times. There one or two hooks in the descriptions, in particular to the Ghoul Market described in Vacant Ritual Assembly #1, that link it to a wider world. Nevertheless, more would have been appreciated, especially if the GM wants his players to come back again and again. Hopefully the author will visit it in future issues.

Rounding out Vacant Ritual Assembly #3 is an interview with Rick Saada, the designer of Rogue-like computer game, Castle of the Winds. It is almost disappointing to turn to this after the gaming material provided in the preceding pages, but it is an engaging enough piece that looks at the state of creating and publishing computer games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Informative and pleasingly does not outstay its welcome.

Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly #3 is well presented, if in need of an edit here and there. The artwork varies in quality, but none of it is truly awful. Overall, Vacant Ritual Assembly #3 is a solid and likeable issue. It uses its focus upon the sandbox ‘Dragon Trench’ to present a low key, earthy setting that can be dropped into almost any campaign, but which nevertheless is still very personal to the author.

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