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Sunday, 26 August 2018

Fanzine Focus XIII: The Grognard Files – Annual 2018

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 & 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.

The Grognard Files is a fanzine born of a podcast,  The Grognard Files, a North of England podcast dedicated to the games of the late seventies and early eighties, in particular, RuneQuest. It is available only to patrons of the podcast—or alternatively to attendees of Grogmeet a one-day convention in Manchester, again in the North of England. It is also put out just once a year. Published by The Armchair Warriors, the The first issue, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, is available as a ‘Pay What You Want’ PDF available to download with the proceeds of the sale of the fanzine will donated to continue the running of Yog-sothoth.com, the best site dedicated to Lovecraft and Lovecraftian investigative horror. Hopefully, The Armchair Warriors will do the same with The Grognard Files – Annual 2018, because it is a cracker of an issue—and not just because I have a review in its pages—with some good articles and a really fun scenario or two.

As with The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, British gamers of a certain age will very much recognise the style and layout of White Dwarf from the mid-eighties which is used The Grognard Files – Annual 2018. It is applied to the adverts too, with those from Otherworld Miniatures, All Rolled Up, and The Shop on the Borderlands all echoing the adverts of the 1980s. All this is behind a great cover by Russ Nicholson, whose art graced the pages of many a Fighting Fantasy title and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay supplement. So just from the look—as with The Grognard Files – Annual 2017—we are all ready for a heavy dose or two of nostalgia with The Grognard Files – Annual 2018.

Like White Dwarf, the fanzine is divided into features and departments. The first of the departments is Open Box—named for the reviews department in White Dwarf—which presents four lengthy reviews, but opens them up from straight reviews to remembrances too. The four games are West End Games’ Paranoia, SkyRealms Publishing’s SkyRealms of Jorune (by guess who?), Yaquinto’s Man, Myth, & Magic, and The World of Darkness. So the reviewers recall their experiences playing these games as much as they review them. Of the four, that of The World of Darkness feels slightly too broad and slightly out of kilter with the nostalgia with the rest of the fanzine. Overall, these are some nice look backs to both well remembered and little remembered roleplaying games.

The nostalgia continues with the ‘Dissecting Worlds’ department. Here ‘Keharr’ presents ‘Pendragon: City of Legions’, which describes how he ran a Pendragon campaign not in its default setting of Salisbury and Logres, but in his home region—the Wirral. Little more than half a page long, this is a fascinating piece, shifting the game not just geographically away from the south of England, but also politically away from the support of Arthur. The result is a grimmer and more desperate campaign, played as a PBEM, and it would certainly be fascinating to read more about it. Perhaps some campaign notes will appear in a future issue of The Grognard Files.

Michael Cule laments why as an aging gamer he cannot get excited about gaming any more in his column, ‘Cule’s Corner’. He also gets to reminisce how it has happened to him before, and just as before, appears to be mostly our fault given that we are not producing enough exciting games. The awful truth though, is that we might just end up like Mister Cule, so we need to get producing those games fast. ‘Fanscence’ gives Rob Knott room to reminisce about the gaming scene of the 1980s and his own fanzine, The Lankhmar Star Daily. As yet, there is no history of the gaming fanzine, but this adds a little towards such a history as well as a personal story that many readers of The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 will find familiar.

The issue’s features begin with Justin Hill’s ‘At the Sign of the Dragon’s Tail’, a short story about aging adventurers coming to realise that discretion being the better part of valor. The issue’s biggest feature is undoubtedly ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’, a scenario written by Alan Gairey for the Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game published by Games Workshop in 1985. Set in the wake of the Apocalypse War, it sends the Judges—six pre-generated Judges are included—out on patrol before throwing them into a mystery involving illegal eating contests, the mob, chemistry, and more. As befits a scenario for Judge Dredd: The Role-Playing Game, it is thick with puns and jokes, plus of course, a good criminal mystery and lots of action. This is huge fun and hopefully the author will get to write more.

The other scenario in The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 is Roger Coe’s ‘Diversion’. This is written for use versions of Call of Cthulhu written prior to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and explores what might happen if the investigators have to use a Gate or Gatebox and something goes wrong. In this instance, they find themselves all but naked and trapped in a strange alien technological complex. It is a nicely detailed ‘get out of that’ scenario, something very different for Call of Cthulhu, which presents an interesting situation that offers a change from the usual investigative fare.

The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 takes on an international flavour with a contribution from Ken St. Andre, the designer of Tunnels & Trolls. In ‘On The Monster Races in RPGs’ he gives a history of the concept of playing monsters and the original roleplaying game to allow the playing of monsters, Monsters! Monsters! It is another slice of history, one that the author makes very clear predates the publication of Vampire: the Masquerade by some eleven years. It gets a bit silly with ‘The Grognard: a character class’ by Phil the Dice Mechanic. Designed for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, characters of this Class are permanently middle-aged, use Rules Mastery to give others the Advantage, get Rules Mastery back with a nice cup of tea and a hobnob, and with Drone of Protection help others withstand the effects of fear or charm. This is a daft satire which the readers of The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 will probably recognise of themselves in.

Lastly, The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 makes an odd switch from White Dwarf to Imagine, the magazine published by TSR, UK in the same period as the fanzine draws from, for a new and updated installment of Nic Novice. This cartoon strip ran in the pages of Imagine and from issue to issue it introduced the character of Nic to  roleplaying and various different roleplaying games. In ‘Whatever Happened to Nic Novice’, Paul Cockburn and Wayne Peters relates how Nic has got old and stopped gaming when his granddaughter discovers his roleplaying books under the bed. It is as much a commentary on the differences between old gamer and young gamers, but it does highlight how there are young players coming into the hobby and that they are a diverse lot.

Physically, The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 is well presented, well written, and comes with some excellent illustrations. Some of the other illustrations could have been better handled as they are somewhat fuzzy. Another issue is that a lot of the text is quite small and in places difficult to read. Especially that printed on darker backgrounds. This is probably an issue that affects a lot of the fanzine’s intended readership.

Lots of nostalgia, a bit of silliness here and there, and a couple of good scenarios make for an entertaining and memory-provoking read. Hopefully, The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 will be just good, but in the meantime, one can only hope that The Armchair Warriors make The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 available to purchase because it is worth it for ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ alone and everything else is icing on the cake.

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