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Friday 28 August 2020

[Fanzine Focus XXI] Crawl! Issue V: Monsters

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. Another choice is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published by Straycouches Press, Crawl! is one such fanzine dedicated to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Since Crawl! No. 1 was published in March, 2012 has not only provided ongoing support for the roleplaying game, but also been kept in print by Goodman Games. Now because of online printing sources like Lulu.com, it is no longer as difficult to keep fanzines from going out of print, so it is not that much of a surprise that issues of Crawl! remain in print. It is though, pleasing to see a publisher like Goodman Games support fan efforts like this fanzine by keeping them in print and selling them directly.

Where Crawl! No. 1 was something of a mixed bag, Crawl! #2 was a surprisingly focused, exploring the role of loot in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and describing various pieces of treasure and items of equipment that the Player Characters might find and use. Similarly, Crawl! #3 was just as focused, but the subject of its focus was magic rather than treasure. Unfortunately, the fact that a later printing of Crawl! No. 1 reprinted content from Crawl! #3 somewhat undermined the content and usefulness of Crawl! #3. Fortunately, Crawl! Issue Number Four was devoted to Yves Larochelle’s ‘The Tainted Forest Thorum’, a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game for characters of Fifth Level. Crawl! Issue V continues the run of themed issues.

As the title suggests, Crawl! Issue V: Monsters is all about monsters in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. To that end, its seven articles do several things, such as adding Class-like features to monsters, adding a monstrous Player Class in the form of the ORC, providing a cheat sheet for creating monsters quickly—and more. Published in February 2013, Crawl! Issue V: Monsters is no mere menagerie of new creatures to kill and loot—though it does include a few new creatures—but in general a collection of ideas to help the Judge handle her monsters, from creation to making them interesting.

Crawl! Issue V: Monsters opens with Reverend Dak’s ‘Monsters with Class’. This provides a means giving monsters one of the four core classes in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game—the Cleric, the Thief, the Warrior, and the Wizard. It does this by applying a simple template. So to make a Goblin Thief, the Judge would decrease its Hit Dice by one, increase its Reflex and Fortitude Saves by one, and give it the Sneak Attack, Trickster, and Trapper abilities equal to a member of the Thief Class four Levels higher than the Goblin’s Hit Dice. It is a quick and dirty method, but it adds quick abilities to the monsters, and it does one more thing—it hints at the possibility of playing monsters as Player Characters! Now it does not follow through on that, but the possibility is there. However, Shane Clements’ ‘Orc: A monstrous class’ does follow through in detailing the Orc as a playable character type, adhering to the ‘Race as Class’ model of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. There is definitely an Old School Renaissance feel to the design in making the Orc nasty, brutal, and (probably) short. Orcs are Chaotically-aligned fighters, preferring to use two-handed weapons and the power necessary to wield them. The Orc can also enter into Rages to gain bonuses to his attack bonus and damage, as well as movement, Hit Points, Fortitude Saving Throws, and more. For the most part, this looks very much like the Barbarian of the traditional Dungeons & Dragons, but again, point to the possibility of monsters as a Player Characters. (As an aside, it would be fun to do that with Goblins for something like In The Shadow of Mount Rotten.)

‘Quick Monster Stats’ by Jeremy Deram provides a ‘cheat sheet’ for creating and adjusting monsters very quickly. It is similar to the earlier ‘Monsters with Class’ in allowing similar options, but broadens the types of monsters it covers by type, from Aberration, Animal, and Beast to Shapechanger, Undead, and Vermin. It is not immediately obvious quite how it works, so it could have done with an example or two, but once adapted to, it should help the Judge fairly easily. Sean Ellis’ ‘Consider the Greenskins’ attempts to tackle the hoary old issue of how to make your monsters unique—or least less generic. It gives three different takes up three types of ‘Greenskin’, the Goblin, the Hobgoblin, and the Ork. So for the Goblin suggests that they are patron-bound to demons and often to come to work as go-betweens between demons and the mortals who truck with each other; the Hobgoblin is not as warlike as portrayed elsewhere and prefers to serve others, but his thieving tendencies often get him into trouble; and the Ork serves as warriors. Unfortunately, for all of the efforts upon the part of the author to make these creatures (more) unique, there is very little here that does this—especially for the Ork. There is potential here, but ‘Consider the Greenskins’ is underwritten and underdeveloped and just not that easy to bring to a game.

Jeff Rients—author of Broodmother Skyfortress—provides ‘Quickie Wandering Monster Tables’, something that the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game actually lacks. These run from Level 1 to Level 5 and enable the Judge to use some of the roleplaying game’s weirder shaped dice. In general, the Judge will need to generate some Primeval Slimes and Type I Demons if using these tables. Rounding out Crawl! Issue V: Monsters is an actual quartet of monsters. These include Brad Littman’s ‘Fung-Eye’ and ‘Stonecrawler’. The ‘Fung-Eye’ is a carnivorous fungus which has stalks ending in eyes that blink in a disturbing fashion and can daze those who walk into areas they carpet—dazed victims become food, whilst the ‘Stonecrawler’ is a Primordial creature resembling a massive, if flat boulder, which it turns out, is incredibly difficult to nudge into action. It might be worth it though, for the Stonecrawler’s Black Adamantine heart can be ground up for amazing benefits if consumed, such as a permanent +5 bonus to Armour Class and Fortitude saving throws. Lastly, Colin Chapman’s ‘Hounds from Hell: A Pair of Monstrous Canines’ offers two nasty types of dog. The Blood Hound is a vampiric dog capable of gliding short distances on the membranes between its front and rear legs, and from its high perch ambush and feed upon its victims with its tubular, bloodsucking tongue. The Gloom Hound is a silent, hairless, white dog which lives and hunts in packs deep underground, often able to spot the invisible through its sense of small and its echolocation ability. The Blood Hound has never been domesticated, but supposedly, the Gloom Hound can be. Nicely, both of these alternate dogs come with a scenario seed for the Judge to develop for her game.

Physically, Crawl! Issue V: Monsters is neat and tidy. The few pieces of artwork are decent, and the writing only needs a slight edit here or there. As an issue though, Crawl! Issue V: Monsters feels more utilitarian rather than inspirational. That in part is down to the inclusion of not one, but two means of tweaking monsters which cover some of the same ground, and the fact that the one article which discusses new interpretations of standard humanoid races, ‘Consider the Greenskins’, is underwhelming. However, both ‘Monsters with Class’ and ‘Quick Monster Stats’ are useful. ‘Orc: A monstrous class’ is perhaps a bit more interesting, and it would have been nice to have seen the inclusion of other Orcish or Goblinoid Classes to really push the monstrous theme in a different direction. Overall, Crawl! Issue V: Monsters is not a great issue of the fanzine, but neither is it a bad one either. Rather it is just lacking a certain something.

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