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Saturday 31 March 2018

Fanzine Focus X: Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!

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 & DragonsRuneQuest, 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. Echoes From Fomalhaut is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published and edited by Gabor Lux, it is a Hungarian fanzine which focuses on ‘Advanced’ fantasy roleplaying games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Labyrinth. It also showcases some of the content from the Hungarian Old School Renaissance roleplaying game, Kazamaták és Kompániák, or ‘Catacombs & Companies’.

Published in March, 2018, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! comes with a dungeon as well as two other adventures and various articles listing things. As mentioned in the editorial, the aim of this inaugural issue is to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. In ‘The Rules of the Game’ though, it sets out the parameters of its fantasy—NPCs of Fifth Level and above are rare, as are spells above Fifth Level, magical items are limited to +3, Experience Points for treasure are gained through hedonistic expenditure of said treasure, and after inflicting a killing blow, Fighters can carry damage over.

Having set out its stall, the issue leaps into its first article, ‘Bazaar of the Bizarre’, a percentile table for determining who is selling what, what they are like, and what complications they might bring. It is followed by ‘Caravan Goods’, a thumbnail guide to merchant caravans. Both are sort of filler articles, nothing really new, but decent enough spurs for the Game Master’s imagination. In comparison, ‘Philtres & Dusts’ is much more detailed, listing various alchemical bombs, dusts, and oils, such as the Dust of Mung which when sprinkled on a recently deceased corpse causes them so much agony that they are forced to answer questions or the Dust of Desiccation, which lowers water levels, reduces ponds to puddles, and anyone foolish enough to imbibe or sniff it, into a dried-out husk! There is a dark, sometimes ghoulish quality to all of the various substances described here, each of which should arouse the interest of any player character or NPC with an alchemical bent. If not that, then each is a perfect addition to the list of things to be found in a wizard’s laboratory.

The fourth article is again a short piece. ‘Morale & Men’ by Istvan Boldog-Bernad and Sandor Gebei is a short set of rules from Kazamaták és Kompániák for hiring retainers and soldiers and handling their morale once hired. The rules are straightforward and relatively easy to use and expand.

The three main pieces of writing in Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! are in fact, adventures. The first of these is ‘The Singing Caverns’, which is designed for characters of between Second and Fourth Level. The longest entry in the issue, it describes the caverns close to Heartless Hugo’s Keep. Set across two levels, they include an apiary run by mad, sometimes murderous old coot—everyone is told to ‘Beware the Beekeeper!’, a tavern in the caves run by Orcs, where most are welcome if they behave themselves, great oaks that grow out of the caverns and onto the hill, a bandit lair, and more. The dungeon has an odd feel to it, with a mix of quite civilised inhabitants are not necessarily spoiling for a fight with the player characters—hence the Orcs running a tavern, separated by mysterious rooms and passageways. There is far more of the home to these caverns than there is threat, though the inhabitants will protect themselves if they are attacked. The emphasis here then is much more on exploration and interaction rather than combat. One issue with the dungeon is the lack of reason to go there. A few hooks to that end would have helped, although the Game Master should be able to create some of his own. Another issue is that maps are cramped and scrappy, so not always easy to read, especially as they have to show a lot of detail.

The second adventure is ‘Red Mound’. It is quite short, detailing only a handful of locations and it does not suggest a playing Level, but characters of Third and Fourth Level should be suitable. It describes a great stone outcrop in the desert wastelands, a regular stopping point for travellers which is also said to be the tomb of a great hero. Guides and the Red Men of the nearby deserts never ascend beyond the lowest sacrificial chamber, so what lies on the path beyond this? The scenario manages to fit in encounter with dark god who might bestow the ability to summon ‘invisible’ Black Puddings as servants and the discovery of a thrice cursed great sword—all with caveats! This is a good mini-encounter or side trek adventure with a strong Swords & Sorcery feel to it, which would make it suitable for use with North Wind Adventures’ Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy.

The third and final adventure is ‘The Mysterious Manor’, which again is designed for player characters of between Second and Fourth Level. A shorter encounter than ‘The Singing Caverns’, it describes a tumbledown manor, once the seat of a minor noble family, and the cellar and tombs below. The family has long died out and the building is now the base for the dread pirate captain, Saydir the Kassadian, who has staffed it with monsters of sorts, all of them in his service. The upper areas are where they live and work, whilst below, the original owners have their tombs. This gives the adventure two areas with quite distinct feels to them, one rough and ruined, the other sepulchral and sinister. Certainly, the latter section will challenge any Thief! One inclusion which does seem unnecessary is that of the full write-up of Saydir the Kassadian, since he is an Eighth Level Fighter and can thus outfight any of the characters supposed to be exploring his base. The maps for the manor and the cellar below are easier to read, primarily because there this is less detail to cram in.

Rounding out the issue are some maps for the Game Master to use—sadly better than those used elsewhere in the issue, such as in the scenarios—and an advert. This is notable for being for Helvéczia, a roleplaying game with a Swiss or middle European feel to it. Hopefully this will make it to English language hobby.

Physically, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! is neatly presented, though it does feel rather cramped as if it could have done with a few more pages. It is generally well written with a range of artwork which varies from the amateurish to the professional, plus the odd bit of publicly sourced pieces thrown in. Unfortunately, the amateurish pieces really do not do the content justice, though they do make the maps look decent in comparison. What does let the issue down are the maps, which are often cramped and scrappy, in places difficult to read. It should be noted that the issue also comes with separate, unkeyed city map. This is extra to the fanzine and is essentially a free map on heavy stock paper. It is up to the Game Master to put the map to a good purpose.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! provides a good mix of material—‘Philtres & Dusts’ is excellent—and the three adventures are all different in tone and content. In setting out to offer ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart, the issue has certainly achieved that. Problematically, this makes it difficult for this issue of the fanzine difficult to stand out from the crowd and anyone coming to this first issue wanting to read fantasy roleplaying content with a Hungarian flavour is likely to be disappointed. Despite this, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper! is an assured first issue whose teething problems will be easy to overcome for the second issue.

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