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Saturday 11 April 2020

[Fanzine Focus XVIII] Gamma Zine #1

On the tail of the 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 DM 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. As popular in the Old School Renaissance as the genre is, not all fanzines are devoted to fantasy.

Gamma Zine carries the subtitle, ‘A Fanzine supporting early post-apocalyptic, science-fantasy RPGs – specifically First Edition Gamma World by TSR.’ This then, is a fanzine dedicated to the very first post-apocalyptic roleplaying game, Gamma World, First Edition, published by TSR, Inc. in 1978. Gamma Zine #1 was published in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaign as part of Zine Quest 1 . Published by ThrowiGames!, it comes as a black and white booklet, packed with content, including adventures, equipment, monsters, and more.

The more begins with a short interview with James M. Ward, the designer of both Gamma World and its predecessor, Metamorphosis Alpha. Just a page long it gives a little history and background to the game, hopefully the author will return to ask the designer more questions. Then it is on to the gaming content, beginning with ‘New Horrors from the Wasteland’, four new creatures and species to add to your post-apocalyptic setting. They include the Spindling, a cross between a snake and a spider which scurries and bites; the Unipede, a slug-like thing with a tooth horn which is capable piercing the hard rock and metal it likes to consume—including the player characters’ equipment and armour, so akin to the Rust Monster then; and the Shuggnagarath is a bat-winged tentacled thing which flies the across the Wasteland in search of skulls to crack open and brain matter to feed upon. Lastly, the Moleman is a new intelligent species, which hoards and uses the ancient technologies it scavenges from burrowing into lost bunkers. So a perfect source of technological whatnots and gewgaws, as foes coming after the player characters’ best gear.

Gamma World is a game without character Classes. Gamma Zine #1 rectifies that with a ‘Class Option for First Edition Gamma World’. This is the Artificer, for which a character needs an Intelligence of 15, at least two beneficial mutations, such as Dual Brain and Molecular Understanding, which grants him a bonus to both find and understand technology. Although it states that members of the Class prefer to build their own technology, this is not explored in the write-up. Notably though, the Class does gain extra Experience Points for finding and identifying technology, but none for combat. This is followed by three new items in ‘Artifacts of the Ancients’, the Type-III E-Fist—powered brass knuckles, the Pulse Grenade, and the KnifE, a vibrodagger. All three are nicely detailed and come with decent illustrations.

‘Adventure #1 – MuTech Test Facility’ is the first of three adventures in Gamma Zine #1 which details a secret pre-war research base in the Appalachian hills. Designed for two to four characters, it is a chance for them to delve into some of the events leading up to the war. The facility is essentially a mini-dungeon, all robots and electrical traps, nicely detailed and ready to add to a campaign. 

‘Adventure #2 – The Hand’ is again dungeon-like, but makes use of the Molemen detailed earlier in the fanzine, so is stuffed with technology for the player characters to find. Designed for three to six player characters, it has a more organic feel than ‘Adventure #1 – MuTech Test Facility’. Not just because it is occupied by Molemen, but also because of its shape. All of its rooms and chambers are inside the concrete stone hand of a giant statue, which gives it a weirdly natural feel despite it being an artificial environment. The complex is also lived in and there are NPCs here which may attempt to interact with the player characters. This is an easier encounter to add to a game and much like a certain statue in Planet of the Apes serves to enforce the post-apocalyptic nature of the world the player characters are in. ‘Adventure #3 – Dark Knights’ is the scenario with the most background and so the easiest to tie into the background of the Gamma World post-apocalyptic future. Knights of Genetic Purity squads have been scouring the region in search of mutants to exterminate and one squad has reopened a coal mine near the village of Gallax. Designed for three to five characters, this is a small complex, but one occupied by an armed opponent. So this is much more of a combat adventure, but one supported by a stronger motive for the player characters to get involved in comparison to the previous two scenarios.

The other continues with ‘The Hunted, Chapter One’, a short piece of fiction which recounts a violent encounter between the protagonist and some motorcycle-riding bandits. There is a desperate tone to it as she scrabbles to defend herself with few resources to hand. It is nicely written and ends on a good cliffhanger, but the introduction could have been better handled. It is followed by a new set of ‘Artifact Use (Solution) Flowcharts’,  seven simplified flow charts to help speed up play when a player character has to items to work out what they are and what they do. This includes items of varying complexity and types of doors. These are quick and easy and work well with the earlier Artificer ‘Class Option for First Edition Gamma World’.

Physically, Gamma Zine #1 is neat and tidy. It is not only decently written, but illustrated with good art throughout and each of the scenarios is accompanied by excellent maps.

As support for Gamma World, First Edition, there is a lot to like about Gamma Zine #1 and fans of the old roleplaying will certainly appreciate the new content. For newer post-apocalyptic roleplaying games, the content in Gamma Zine #1 is perhaps drier in tone, certainly later editions of Gamma World or its thematic descendant, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic. This does not mean that it cannot be used with those roleplaying games—in fact, it would be very easy to add to them—but the Game Master should be aware that it is not quite as weird or as wacky. Overall, Gamma Zine #1 is both a good first issue and a good fanzine—hopefully, Gamma Zine #2 will be as good.

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