Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 19 April 2019

[Fanzine Focus XIV] MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom

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.

MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is a little different. First, it is systemless, and second, it is the first setting detailed under the A Thousand Thousand Islands imprint. Based in Malaysia and penned by Zedeck Siew and drawn by Munkao, this is a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project, one which aims to draw from regional folklore and history to create a fantasy world truly rooted in the region’s myths, rather than a set of rules simply reskinned with a fantasy culture. The result of the project to date is four fanzines, each slightly different, the first of which is marked with a ‘1’ and is MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom.

Up a lush river lies a lake accessible via a gateway consisting of the grand, gaping maws of two crocodiles. This is the entrance to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, or the Dismembered Land, which sits on the lake and was once the site of a great city said to have been drowned by a thousand monsters. Beyond lies the wooden port of Singga, its banks crowded with boats and its skyline crowded with vine and silence-wrapped temples. Here merchants come to trade in coin, grain, honey, and forest goods, such as ‘Spirit Mango’ fruit from trees pollinated in the spirit realm; ‘Corpse Honey’, health-giving honey harvested from hive-zombies; and ‘Snake Stone’, ruined stonework containing trace magics which can be reworked into minor amulets. Downlanders may trade in the Singga, but they require a permit to stay. Otherwise, they must retreat at night to Trader’s Island where tea shops and lodging houses are built across the cheeks, nose, and forehead of a giant, fallen statue.

Crocodiles rule MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom in a lazy, benign fashion. They police the river, their decrees outlaw the exploration of the ruins of MR-KR-GR, they are patrons, and more. AR-YM-SR the famed crocodile and archaeologist who has lost too many to the demon idols MR-KR-GR’s interior will hire adventurers to locate books and artefacts, but not to study them, but ensure that rot in the river; GR-RM-DR, a crocodile so obese she has to be carried on a litter owns many businesses and is owed much monies; and only the crocodiles can grant Downlanders citizenship, but this requires their being drowned—twice.

Another difference with MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is that its setting, its peoples and personalities, its places, and its strangeness are described with a very simple economy in terms of its words. Its absolute minimum of description is paired with utterly delightful artwork, which ranges from strange vistas and ports teeming with activity to demon idols that were fashioned as walking prisons for the old kingdom’s gods and a duellist whose father was actually a sword. Drawn by a single artist, Munkao, the profuse number of illustrations in this forty page fanzine would put many a gaming supplement to shame and do a superb job of bringing the author’s text to life. One issue perhaps is that some of the artwork is a little light and perhaps not quite as well produced on the pages here as it is in Drawings, Part One, another fanzine-style booklet published by the A Thousand Thousand Islands project.

Although MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is systemless, it does require a number of dice as there several tables to be found within its pages. These include encounter tables, demon idol tables, crocodile tables, and more, but using these tables and just by taking a cue from the simple descriptions given, a Game Master could easily create encounters and scenario ideas, even straight from the page during play. Besides being easily adapted to the rules system of the Game Master’s choice, the setting described in MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom is also easily adapted to the campaign of the Game Master’s choice. Of course it would fit into any campaign based on south-east Asia, but doing so might mean that distinctiveness of MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom might be lost amongst all of the other ‘exotic’ surrounds. One possible setting is that of Tékumel, perhaps on a far distant coast from the Five Empires and with the crocodiles having six legs instead four, but it would also work in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands; as a strange port of call in a planetary romance campaign; and even as somewhere in the far distant future or past for the Doctor to visit in a Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space campaign.

As has already been mentioned, there is a lovely simplicity to MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, both in terms of the words and the art. It would be amazing to see this developed into a game of its own, but perhaps that would spoil what the writer and artist have already done—evoke visions of a very different world and of a very different fantasy to which a Western audience is used. 

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