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Friday, 24 August 2018

Fanzine Focus XIII: Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies

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 Dungeon Master 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. The inaugural issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!, published in March, 2018, presented a solid mix of dungeons, adventures, and various articles designed to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. Published in August, 2018, the second issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies continues this trend with content mostly drawn from the publisher’s own campaign.

It opens with Lazlo Feher’s ‘The Four Wives of Xantun’, a scenario outline for Levels two to four, set in and around Hlanith, a city state on the Cerenarian Sea in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. The first of Xantun’s wives was famously lost to a shoggoth, whilst the other three are shades of her by way the murderous protoplasm. Although stats and descriptions are included, it is perhaps a bit generous to describe this as an outline. It is much more of a scenario set-up or seed which the Dungeon Master will need to develop further herself.

The bulk of the fanzine though, is devoted to the island of Erillion and Gont, a port town on the island’s east coast. ‘A Guide to Erillion’ presents the island in some detail, placing the island kingdom between the Empire of Kassadia and the Confederacy. At its heart lies the Valley of Brazak Bragoth, guarded by the knights of Yolanthus Kar lest the Wraith Queen Arxenia and her court rises from their deep catacombs. This gives rise to the islanders’ practice of burying their dead in the valley, storing them in houses of the dead until this is possible. The last druids on the island were wiped out by Queen Arxenia some three centuries ago, so any on the island are recent arrivals; low magic is easily learned, but higher spells require wizards and illusionists to undertake a trial at the hidden Mage Tower and clerics are expected to undertake a quest by their deity. The gods commonly worshipped across the island are also detailed, although their descriptions do feel as if they could have included more detail.

Although there are several other locations given in ‘A Guide to Erillion’, it is Gont that receives the most attention. The full description of the port is given in two parts—‘Gont, Nest of Spies’ and ‘Down the Smuggler’s Walk’. The first presents the town above ground, including some twenty or so locations and the town’s most notable inhabitants. These include Lord Gramatik, who rules in conjunction with the Captain’s Council, its members all loyal to him after his having sent their predecessors to the Chaining Stone on the harbour’s edge; the merchant Hadik Hurzol, intermediary to the Combination, the organisation which dominates  criminal activities on the island; and Arkander the Enchanter and Drunken Peggy, whose tavern, The Sink, has a barroom the floor of which can be rotated to dump everyone into the sea or a fighting pit.

The second explores what lies beneath Gont, a series of cellars, escape tunnels, and oubliettes. There are some forty locations to be found under the town, from empty reservoirs and abandoned cellars to fighting dens and the home of the leader of the Combination. Many of them have a relatively mundane use, which give the complex an interesting utilitarian feel. This sets up a nice contrast with the more fantastic and private of locations under the city. Together, ‘Gont, Nest of Spies’ and ‘Down the Smuggler’s Walk’ give a grimy, salt encrusted feel to the fishing port, everyone getting along with tensions just beneath the surface. Many of the locations described come with scenario hooks too, though some more would have been useful to get the player characters to the port and involved in its affairs. A lovely touch is the inclusion of a large double-sided map, one side of which has a hex-map of the island of Erillion and the other a blank map of Gont.

Rounding out Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont of Spies is ‘The Swine Lord’, a scenario of characters of Level Four to Level Six. The player characters are hired to do two things—one is to recover the debts of a veteran adventurer who has disappeared into the Highlands of Sibirk in the southern part of Erillion. The other is to find out what happened to the tracker who they already sent out and is yet to return. On one level the adventure is quite straightforward, a simple tale of debt collection, but there is a magical mystery here too. It is not an obvious mystery and the Dungeon Master may have to push and nudge her players to take an interest, but again, it serves as a nice contrast to the mundane nature of the party’s employment. It needs a sequel of sorts, especially if the mystery is solved. Overall, this is a solid adventure.

Physically, Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies is well presented with some very decent artwork in places. One or two of the lesser articles feel a bit cramped and out of place in comparison to the main pieces, which all are pretty good. The cartography in general is quirky and somewhat rough, but it is still legible and easy enough to use.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies is certainly lives up to the author’s aim of it being designed to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. It presents good material in the main, but it feels just slightly bland, as if there should be stronger hook or reason for a gamer to want to use that material. One such hook is that blandness itself, which allows the contents of the issue to shifted easily to a setting of the Dungeon Master’s own design. The other hooks are to be found deeper into the content of the issue, but they are local and the fanzine really needs to the hooks to visit both Erillion and Gont. Perhaps they can be included in the next issue of the fanzine, either as hooks or as a proper scenario.

Overall, Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies is decent enough, but it needs to find an identity for itself and its content to really grab people’s attention and for them to use said content.

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