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Sunday 16 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VI: Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law

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, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Burgs & Bailiffs is not written with any particular Retroclone in mind. Published by Lost Pages, it is instead a generic fanzine for use with Dungeons & Dragons-style Roleplaying Games that explores aspects of the history that the medievalism of Dungeons & Dragons is based upon. It takes its tone from the strapline, “Life in the Middle Ages were some kind of extremely hardcore live RPG that went on 24 hours a day”, so is thoroughly rooted in the history that Dungeons & Dragons is based upon rather than the fantasy. Future releases in the series will deal with warfare and then pilgrimages—the latter an excellent and all but definitive treatment upon the subject for Dungeons & Dragons, but the first release dealt with the eponymous hunger, disease, and the law. One way in which the fanzines of today differ from the fanzines of the past is that they never truly go out of print. Thus the first issue, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law, published in April, 2013, is still available in Print On Demand.

The subject matters for Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law are of course, obvious. To that end, the fanzine contains nine articles exploring various aspects of these subjects and more. The issue opens with ‘Medieval Tournaments: The Real Mêlées’, an examination of what really took place at tournaments rather than the idealised versions we have in our heads, so quite simply a whole lot fewer jousts and more bloodied, day long combats for practice and the taking of ransoms, though with a few rules to prevent deaths if not injuries. As well as looking at how and why they were run, the author suggests questions to ask when setting one up in-game and then gives rules for handling the mêlée and the likelihood of fighting random knights with varying skill levels. There are lots of roleplaying opportunities in this one article, which includes some character archetypes that the player characters might encounter on and off the field of mêlée.

A similar if shorter article by Shorty Monster, ‘Bowmen, Class, & War’ looks at the role of the bowmen in English society during the medieval period. It covers how and why they trained and then how they fought in battle—literally, very dirty indeed. There are fewer roleplaying opportunities suggested in this article, but for anyone wanting to play an archer in medieval England, this should be required reading.

Upon first glance, neither ‘Medieval Tournaments: The Real Mêlées’ nor  ‘Bowmen, Class, & War’  pertain to any of the three subjects given in the fanzine’s title. The link to both though, is the law. Certainly it was a English legal requirement that all men of suitable age practice archery in the event that their lords raise them as levies in any conflict—whether for or against the King. As to the mêlées, these were at first banned as being disruptive to the public order due to their popularity, since the ban failed, they were formalised and legalised to prevent disorder and then unnecessary death which would prevent the nobility from carrying their duties to the king. The obvious legally themed content comes from Mike Monaco in the form of two articles. The first is ‘Settling Disputes: Ordeals & Trials’ which looks at Medieval justice and how it was applied. This includes ordeals by various means, including by fire walking, water, and ingestion, trials by jury and by combat, as well as punishment. Lots of gaming potential here of course, whether the player characters are the accused, aiding the accused, or thwarting him. The second is ‘The Night Watch’, which deals with the enforcers of the curfews that affected every town and city who can arrest curfew breakers. Besides giving rules for creating members of the Night Watch, the article lists the exceptions who could legally move about at night, like doctors, midwifes, nightsoil collectors, and so on, as well as random encounters at night for urban and rural settings.

The articles about hunger are more a look who medieval society is fed and what it eats. First, Paolo Greco’s ‘Food Surplus: Cities & Armies’ looks at how important food is and how useful a surplus is in feeding greater areas and even armies. Controlling this supply is potentially ripe with gaming potential, whether dealing with selling it, stealing it, protecting it, and so on. The article also comes with several adventure ideas. This is a solid article that echoes the much earlier Designing a Quasi-Medieval Society for D&D (White Dwarf #29 and White Dwarf #30) and  ‘The Town Planner’ series (White Dwarf #30, White Dwarf #31, and White Dwarf #32), both by Paul Vernon—the author of the well regarded module, Starstone. This article is accompanied by ‘Medieval Cooking or: What is in that Meat Pie?’ by Steve Sigety and and ‘Recipes: Pottage’ by Steve Sigety and Paolo Greco, both articles that add flavour to the issue (though this being the medieval period, just not very much).

Lastly, Jeremy Whalen’s ‘Pestilence & Putrescence’ and then Mike Monaco’s ‘Leeches, Clysters, and a Hole in the Head: Old School Medicine for Grimmer Games’, address the subject of disease. Together, the two provide a look at Medieval medicine and medicinal theories—primarily miasmas and humours, and treatments—including of course, leeches. Trepanation is also recommended as a surprisingly effective treatment for swellings of the brain. In some ways, these two articles show just how ‘hardcore’ life in the Medieval period was and so live up to the fanzine’s strapline.

Physically, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law is plainly presented. It is lightly illustrated and then with publically available art. The writing in places could have done with another edit and the font size is just that little too small for easy reading. The writing style is drier than in most other fanzines, but this is due to the dryness of the subject matter rather anything else.

The contents Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law will add history to any medieval campaign specifically run using Dungeons & Dragons, though the dryness of that history may not suit every Dungeon Master’s campaign. That said, its content will suit more historically-based settings like that of DOM Publishing’s Dark Albion: The Rose War or Green Ronin Publishing’s Medieval Player's Manual as well as the previously mentioned Starstone. A nice touch is that the fanzine does include a good bibliography for further reading, but the fanzine probably contains more than enough history for most Dungeon Masters. Much of the contents may be familiar with veteran gamers, but even if they are, Burgs & Bailiffs: Hunger, Disease, & the Law contains ideas aplenty as to how to bring its content and thus verisimilitude to a Dungeon Master’s campaign.

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