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

Sunday 12 April 2020

[Fanzine Focus XVIII] Terror of the Stratosfiend #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 & DragonsRuneQuest, 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. Another choice is Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 is a of a different stripe. Published by Orbital Intelligence LLC following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is not a collection of random articles, scenarios, monsters, treasures, and so on, but a slim booklet dedicated to just the one event—‘The Drop’, and its outcome—the ‘Terror of the Stratofiend’.

At some point in the past, portals and warp gates opened all over the Earth and began spilling forth giant aliens from beyond the stars at the same time as aliens revealed themselves on Earth itself. A mixture of tentacles, lasers, and chainsaws, they tower over humanity, wreaking havoc with mankind and themselves, followed by humans from the stars, who spoke the same language, but were ready to fight the aliens… Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 contains four new Classes, two new Patrons—the equivalent of gods in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, armour, equipment, weapons, and more.

The four Classes are Human Sat-Caster, Half-Stratosfiend Street Whisperer, Stratosfiend Delver, and Stratosfiend Magistrate Gladiatrix. The Human Sat-Caster serves as the eyes and ears of call Orbital Intelligences, able to connect to rogue space stations and weapons satellites to call down hellfire from the skies. Wearing armour of all kinds and armed with the best laser weaponry they can find, they are essentially spellcasters who forge an ‘uplink’ with their Patron who may or may not be in orbit and who really need to maintain line-of-sight with the skies. Created via genetic engineering or unthinkable congress, the Half-Stratosfiend Street Whisperer is half-Human, half-Stratofiend, a tentacled Human despised by both sides, a ‘godkiller’ bound to slay a Patron, who with his volatile genetics, constantly mutates and evolves. As they evolve, their tentacle attacks get stronger and although primarily a stealth-based Class, may also acquire spells through their mutations. The Stratosfiend Delver is one of the terrifying races from beyond the stars, towering bipedal humanoids with combat-capable tentacles protruding from their spines who foster cults around them and who have psionically capable brains which enable them to cast spell-like effects. Lastly, the Stratosfiend Magistrate Gladiatrix are combat monsters, towering even over other Stratosfiends, killing machines whose psionic allure draws their victims in to be slaughtered.  

‘Weapons’ lists traditional weapons like daggers and two-handed swords are joined by modern firearms, such as rifles and shotguns. The warping effect of ‘The Drop’ sometimes leaves its mark upon such weapons, with twenty such effects listed under ‘Upgrades’. So a found weapon might be ‘Homing’, enabling two attack rolls to be made for an attack and the best used or ‘Acidic’, reducing a target’s Armour Class with every hit. ‘Armour’ runs the gamut from the ‘Explorer Exo-Suit’ which is slow and heavy, but is sealed against airborne contaminants and provides a bonus to skill checks and spell casting, to the ‘Twitching Carapace’, which offers increased Armour Class bonus and worse check penalties with every hit to the wearer and if the wearer takes damage when it provides the most protection, can hatch and attack the wearer! The silliest is Beach Gear, which offers less than no protection, but ensures you always hot, oiled, and beach ready, baby…! New items of gear under ‘Equipment’ include parasites, hormonal cocktails, and scanning equipment. For example, the ‘Stealth Organism’ is a living parasite which binds with its owner and uses a combination of pheromones and adrenal boosts to enable the owner to blend with shadows. The organism dies if the owner takes damage. There are downsides to using some of the new equipment. So whilst the ‘Micro-Evolution Syringe’ adds a one-time major boost to the user’s next action, its use—and subsequent use—can corrupt the user.

Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 lists just the one spell. This is Polyphemean Rage, which fires a plasma beam from the user’s single giant eye. This can manifest as the caster’s blinking a million times, the eye glows as particles are sucked into it, the caster winks air around the target begins to boil, or the caster’s eye temporarily turns into a charred gemstone. Like all spells for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, it comes with a full table of its effects plus nasty results should the spell misfire or corrupt.

The first of two Patrons in the fanzine is ‘Sky-Lasher the Everlasting, Trident of the Sun’. Whether appearing as a sentient defence satellite or a a bat-winged flaming demon, it is always solar-panelled and supported by bombers, fighter craft, drones, and zealots, ready to bring its adherents the illumination and cleansing fire of the sun. The other is ‘Terror-Eater, the Earthmother’, who resides in the depths of the Earth and who may be the Earth or simply wearing its skin. She will help her worshippers as long as they feed her… Which mostly consists of her sending tentacles up through the Earth, even if that means destroying everything nearby. Both include tables for effects when the Patron is invoked, gifts or taints, and Patron spells. Lastly, the ‘Bestiary’ details Children of Earth tied to the Terror-Eater, the Earthmother and Children of Space tied to the Sky-Lasher the Everlasting, Trident of the Sun, all seven creatures being suitably weird.

Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 is very nicely presented. It is clean and tidy with some decent artwork, though the artwork is of an adult nature in places. It is also full of ideas and rich possibilities, but the problem with Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 is what to do with it. As written, it is designed for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, so what the Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 does. As written, it is designed for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and if Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 to a Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game campaign it really is going to upset the proverbial apple cart, changing the campaign’s direction and even its genre with the addition of technology as well as the weirdness of the Stratosfiends. So in some ways, Terror of the Stratosfiend is more applicable for a Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic campaign which already has many of the elements found in Terror of the Stratosfiend #1. Another issue is that Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 does not offer options for playing the Humans who came in the wake of ‘The Drop’. Hopefully Terror of the Stratosfiend #2 will cover these as well as developing more of the post-Drop world…

Terror of the Stratosfiend #1 is weird and wacky and fantastic! Its contents will radically change the nature of a campaign world, but how far will have to wait for future issues.

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