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Friday, 24 August 2018

Fanzine Focus XIII: Megadungeon #1

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.

Megadungeon is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published by Hack & Slash Publishing, it is designed for use with Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons as well as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This marks it out as being unlike many other fanzines, but further, Megadungeon is different because it is devoted to the design and philosophy of the huge, expansive dungeons integral to some Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons-like settings. In particular, it is devoted to the author’s own megadungeon, Numenhalla. Fundamental to the design is the expansive nature of the megadungeon—it is not finite like dungeons such as Dwimmermount, Rappan Athuk, or Stonehell—and so Numenhalla is found everywhere beneath the Soma of the Gis, the author’s campaign world. In addition to extending everywhere under the world, Numenhalla is notable for four other features. First, it is not a deep dungeon, consisting of no more than four levels, so it is wide and shallow rather than short and deep. Second, there are multiple entry points into Numenhalla and a great many of these are known; likewise there are great number of secret routes and doors, lifts and stairs, portals, and more which enable its limitless halls and corridors to be more readily navigated. Third, the doors in and out open and close for limited amounts of time, so going in a party either needs to find another exit or wait for the entry it used to be open again. Four, megadungeon of Numenhalla is the campaign rather than the Soma of the Gis and that all of the action takes within its confines.

This philosophy is stated in the opening pages of Megadungeon #1, published in December 2017, and continues with ‘Pillars of Megadungeon Play’, in which the play of a megadungeon is broken down into three activities—exploration, encounters, and extraction. Barring the middle of these three, the play is strategic rather than tactical with strong elements of resource management. It makes for slower play, with every decision intended to matter since making alliances, choosing which area to explore and raid, and what to take back with you, should all have consequences. This is supported by ‘Basic Megadungeon Play and Procedures’, which goes into more detail about movement, encounters, and obvious dungeons features like doors. It also presents the results of the Hazard Die—rolled instead of the old Encounter Die—such as an encounter, possible exhaustion, dungeon effects, monster signs, and so on, and explains each of these results.

The specifics, rather than the philosophy of Numenhalla and the world of the Soma of the Gis really begin with the ‘Races of the Gis’. For the most these consist of the Races standard to Dungeons & Dragons, but with two interesting additions. One is the Gortha—surely a nod to Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still fame, a race of thralls, empty of will and bereft of rights, used for labour and other services. They possess a high Charisma, but otherwise have average attributes. They cannot be selected as a Player Character Race though and act only upon instruction. The problem with this is, of course, whether or not the Dungeon Master and his players want to have what is essentially a slave race at their characters’ beck and call. Certainly it is not an aspect of the setting which anyone should necessarily be comfortable with, at least not without further explanation as to their existence.

The other is the Augatics or ‘Chemical Men’, a race of immortal Golems given form by the gods and maintained by the Bindi (or Elves), though their repair skills are in decline. They are a tough race, capable of withstanding some damage and needing neither to sleep or eat. Of course, they need parts to be repaired rather than be healed. Augatics can install enhancements though into their eyes, head, torso, limbs and hands, and joints slots, such as Enhanced Perception Module, Thick Armor Plating Module, and Oiled Gears. These enhancements are expensive and so for Augatic characters, they will drive their need to loot Numenhalla. Weirdly, the ‘Augatic Class’ article does not follow the ‘Races of Gis’ which logically it should.

For Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons, the fanzine provides a skills system with ‘Skills in Numenhalla’. Skills are rolled as single dice, a player rolling a six-sided die if his character is unskilled, a six-sided die if his character is skilled, and so on. The skills, which range from Agility/Athletics and Alchemy to Stealth and Stonelore, require the roll of a six to succeed at, so the more skilled a character is, the bigger a die a player get to roll. Secret doors, traps, doors, and so on use the same mechanics, which also replace the Thief Class mechanics. Intelligent characters get a skill (die) for each point of their intelligence bonus, whilst the Thief Class gets more and gets to train in them at every Level. Other characters have to pay to train and so the need to train will drive their need to loot Numenhalla.

The ‘Gods of Numenhalla’ lists the deities worshipped in and above the megadungeon, an odd mixture of the Greek and Norse pantheons. Equally odd is their means of interaction with the mortal races—‘The Altars and Logos’. The former can be found throughout Numenhalla and are activated by religious rites and sacrifices to trigger a sort of fugue state from those involved awaken with little memory of. This is of course, one way of Clerics regaining their spells, but it can also be a means to access a parallel plane known as Logos by the power of the mind alone. Little description is given to the Logos and what might be found there, so hopefully this will be expanded upon in future issues.

Just two sections of Numenhalla are detailed in Megadungeon #1 and they run to just three or four pages each. ‘Entrance Hall’ presents one way into Numenhalla and as an entry way into the megadungeon, it is actually not that interesting. This is no surprise given that previous parties of adventurers will have long stripped the area clean, but it makes for uninspiring adventuring, especially when no rooms or areas are detailed beyond the doors listed in ‘Entrance Hall’. Where it is interesting is in the presentation of the content, all but in bullet points, for a very digestible format. The same format is used for ‘Ettercop’, the second megadungeon location, the lair of a Spider Queen. It works much better because the location itself is interesting and comes with lots of lovely detail and flavour that the Dungeon Master can use to bring it to life for her players and their characters. That said, although the location is very much the better of the two, it is not very sophisticated and it is not very large. This does lend it though, to being easily pulled out of Numenhalla and dropped into the dungeon of the Dungeon Master’s own design. Both locations are mapped out on a single page with an almost three dimensional perspective. The maps themselves are really well done, but could have done without the rest of page being awash in grey which makes for a poor contrast and means that the actual dungeons are harder to read.

Lastly, there are notes on the differences between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition in the context of the megadungeon. The author’s thesis is that Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition is not designed for megadungeon play, but suggests how this should be addressed, adding back in gold for Experience, more detailed mechanics for encumbrance, and so on. Stats are given for the monsters in the ‘Ettercop’ location for both Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

Physically, Megadungeon #1 is cleanly and neatly presented. The writing is decent too, the content nicely balanced between the author’s ideas and actual details of the setting of his megadungeon. Despite its differences with a very great many of the fanzines, Megadungeon has something in common with another fanzine, Wormskin from Necrotic Gnome Productions and that it is a partwork. In other words, it is presenting its setting in discrete parts rather than in a logical flow. This would not be so bad were it not the fact that the same format is applied to the contents of this first issue. So that the description of the Augatics as a Player Character Race does not immediately follow the article on the ‘Races of Gis’ which logically it should. This pattern is repeated several times in the book so there is an odd randomness to content, which feels ultimately unnecessary.

With Megadungeon #1, the author sets down his stall, laying the groundwork for a much greater and expansive project. Barring the inclusion of the Gortha, there is a lot to like here, even if its seemingly random organisation undermines its coherency. Future issues definitely need to be better arranged and definitely contain more of the dungeon locations, hopefully better and more sophisticated, but Megadungeon #1 is a decent start.

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