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Friday, 19 April 2019

[Fanzine Focus XIV] Megadungeon #2

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 settings 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. Megadungeon #1 introduced the setting, its races, and its gods—essentially a combination of the Greek and Norse pantheons—as well as giving several playable nodes within Numenhalla. Megadungeon #2 continues in the same vein, developing further the philosophy behind the megadungeon’s design, adding nodes for the player characters to explore, new monsters, things to do away from the dungeon, and more.

The issue opens with ‘How Do You Use A Megadungeon?’, which explains the publisher’s approach to running and playing a megadungeon. Fundamentally, they are not adventure paths or sandboxs, but expeditions in the truest sense wherein the limits of encumbrance, time and light, movement and vision, all matter. They are expeditions into the unknown to gain knowledge, to probe the megadungeon’s empty spaces in search of areas occupied by threats, rivals, and other dangers. As interlopers the player characters should be in danger from the inhabitants of the megadungeon as much as the inhabitants are from the player characters—if not more so. In other words, the megadungeon should be a place of fear and it should able to bite back.

This is followed with ‘Tethys’, an addition to Numenhalla’s pantheon of gods. Mother-daughter to Hera, she is the goddess of the sea, mother of rivers and clouds, who angered her father for her betrayal with her mother and who consequently hid her sword deep in the oceans. This sets up the first node in Megadungeon #2, ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’, a maze-like complex built to trap the player characters and confound most attempts at logical exploration. The connection between the two articles is not immediately obvious, but at the heart of the complex lies a shrine to Tethys and it is rumoured that she walks the halls herself, seeking her lost sword. The complex is quite compact, but with almost fifty locations, there is a great deal of gaming to be got out of exploring its tight and twisting halls and rooms. Its write-up includes a handful of rumours and quests to use as hooks to get the player characters to enter its confines and once the player characters have figured how to get out and back in again, for them to return once again to fulfil other quests.

Like all of the nodes detailed in the Megadungeon fanzine, the actual descriptions of individual locations are written in a very terse style, which may well be off putting for some readers. Of course, this allows for easy adaptation to other retroclones and easy elaboration by the Dungeon Master. The compact and concise design of ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ also makes it easy to pull from the pages of the fanzine and add it to a megadungeon of the Dungeon Master’s own design.

Where ‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ is a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy location, the second node in Megadungeon #2 has a Science Fiction flavour a la Metamorphosis Alpha or S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, full of strange machinery and technology. Despite its anachronistic trappings, ‘Fatal Dark Iron Horror’ is a much more straightforward node to play through, one whose atmosphere echoes that of Alien, but the shift in genre and technology makes the location not as straightforward to adapt or run elsewhere.

‘Town Activities’ explores what characters might do away from the dungeon. This takes place in Arclight above and presents a number of downtime actions that can take months at a time. This includes weapons training, proficiency training (for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition), training and re-rolling Hit Points, and even their core attributes. They can purchase spell scrolls, retainers,hirelings, and Gorth—the semi-slave race native to this world. Player characters can also groom a protégé, essentially setting up a replacement character in the event of their death, and they can spend out on carousing. This will grant them Experience Points, but such events can go wrong and land them in serious trouble. They can study and conduct research too, but perhaps the most interesting activating is undertaking any one of the quests available at the Guild Hall. These are strictly controlled, so only one can be undertaken at a time and it can only be conducted in the dungeon. When a party returns to the surface, it is deemed to be no longer on the quest, but is free to choose the quest again or another at the Guild Hall. Another party might even select that quest in the meantime. This adds some interesting storytelling and adventuring possibilities, structuring quests episodically, having rivals go on quests that the party has not completed, and so on.

The four ‘Treasure Maps’ enable the Dungeon Master to add links to the nodes given in the issue, whilst the ‘Non-Player Characters’, Professor Snorly, a Third Level Frogling, and Roxby the Lancer, field researcher and Fifth Level Lancer, can be encountered or hired in or outside of Numenhalla. Roxby the Lancer is certainly a spellcaster, one specialising in ray-type spells, but what Professor Snorly is, is unclear. Unfortunately what either is, is not explained and quite what are they is left for the Dungeon Master to develop. ‘Non-Player Character Parties’ details a complete party of NPCs, one of high Level and written somewhat tongue in cheek, so not possibly of immediate use to a Dungeon Master. ‘Dragons’ details two of these creatures. Quexgor Salmagar the Infamous is as much NPC as he is a monster, shapeshifting into a potentially a useful hireling, but not necessarily to be trusted.  Madamagor is more of a traditional creature.

The dragons are not the only creatures described in Megadungeon #2. These include ‘Grey Ranadin’, toad-like abominations considered by some to be gods; ‘Androphagi’, barbaric and nomadic cannibalistic savages whose heads are where their chests should be; the ‘Brutal Beast of Mogyosth’, part-lion, part-bull, part-man, all hunter; and all more. ‘Hengormoth’ are sort of amorphous creatures wanting to change their forms, cruel and militant slavers who welcome mutations to their bodies. Numerous variations are given, but they despite this, their description feels underwritten and lacking in context.

Two authors other than the publisher contribute to Megadungeon #2. John Bell suggests a new design of the venerable wandering monster table in the eponymous ‘Wandering Monster Tables and their (Re)Uses’. Starting from the limitation of the single axis monster table, he suggests adding a second, horizontal axis to turn the table into a grid. This second axis would allow column headings for ‘Lair’, ‘Monster’, ‘Noises’, ‘Tracks’, ‘Spoor’, and ‘Traces’ to be added and the resulting entries enabling the player characters to encounter evidence—indirect and direct—of the monsters in the dungeon or region long before they might run into the creatures themselves. This adds depth to the dungeon or region, but the author also suggests other ways to use it, including building quests, creating a dungeon with minimal effort, or restocking a cleared out area. Overall, a clever idea that warrants further development.

The other contributor to Megadungeon #2 is the player, Chris H. His ‘Tales from the Underground’ rounds out the issue, recounting one of his experiences playing online in what is an odd ending for the fanzine since it means that it steps away from its focus and its remit, that is, the megadungeon and Numenhalla in particular. Here he describes a raid into the castle of the Heart Queen as detailed in A Red & Pleasant Land, the beyond-the-mirror setting which is part Dracula’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Alice’s holiday letters from Transylvania. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable read and interesting to see other groups play and run a setting.

Physically, Megadungeon #2 is cleanly and neatly presented. It needs an edit in places and the issue is illustrated with a lot of publically available artwork. The issue’s writing is problematic though, the publisher's terse style working for the megadungeon node write-ups, but not for the monster or NPC descriptions, many of which leave the reader wanting just a little more context and background.

As much as Megadungeon is dedicated to Numenhalla, the publisher’s megadungeon, not all of Megadungeon #2 is devoted to it. Yet those articles which are devoted to it are undeniably the best of the entries in Megadungeon #2—‘The Hunting Halls of Tethys’ and ‘Town Activities’ in particular—and equally the easiest to pull from the issue and use elsewhere. The other articles in Megadungeon #2 are not as interesting or as useful, several being underwritten and lacking easy application. Overall, Megadungeon #2 is something to dip into and take from rather than use as a whole.

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