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Sunday 30 August 2020

[Fanzine Focus XXI] Monty Haul V1 #0

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.

Monty Haul is both a different fanzine and a misnomer. Published by MonkeyHaus Press, Monty Haul suggests a type of Dungeons & Dragons game or campaign in which the Dungeon Master is unreasonably generous in awarding treasure, experience, and other rewards. Monty Haul is not that—or at least Monty Haul v1 #0 is not that. Monty Haul is also that rare beast, an old style or Old School Renaissance not devoted to a retroclone, but to Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition

Describing itself as ‘A Fifth Edition 'Zine with an Old School Vibe’, Monty Haul V1 #0 was published in April, 2020 following a successful Kickstarter campaign as part of Zine Quest. It is written by Mark Finn—notable as the author of Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard—as an update of his World of Thea setting originally run and written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. With ‘Welcome to Monty Haul: Do You Kids Want Any Snacks?’ he sets open his store, introducing himself and explaining his gaming history, why he chose Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and what the aim of Monty Haul is—and in particular, what the purpose of Monty Haul V1 #0 is. Which is as a ‘Proof of Concept’ for the fanzine, the aim of which is rebuild his World of Thea afresh, with less inspiration taken from gaming settings and supplements past. It is a nicely personal piece which sets everything up.

Monty Haul V1 #0 gets started properly with ‘Critical Hits: An Old School Option’, designed to create special combat effects when a natural twenty or critical hit is rolled. Inspired by the viciousness of S1 Tomb of Horrors and Grimtooth’s Traps, with a roll of a six-sided die, the Dungeon Master can determine where the strike hits, for example, in the midsection and then another for the effect, such as a hit in the kidneys, which inflicts extra damage, forces a Constitution check to avoid being knocked prone, and then make all actions at Disadvantage for several hours. Critical head hits also have chance of causing confusion too. The mechanics are short and generally nasty, but not all of the effects are lethal, and once a Player Character has suffered one critical hit, he cannot suffer another (or at least until healed).

However, ‘Familiars: An Old School Inspired Alternative’ is rather disappointing because it does not deliver on its promise. The problem is that the author is himself disappointed at the options for familiars in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and does not quite counter that. The familiar is presented as companion and conduit for for the spellcaster, and even a storage for some cantrips, but the suggested list of familiars that a Player Character might summon is just ordinary. It really would have good to have explored the ‘weird-ass’ options he found lacking. Likewise, ‘Interlude: My Balkanised World’, the author’s introduction to his campaign world is also disappointing, but because of the lack of context. It is only a very light introduction, giving descriptions of the five city states of Highgate, Rocward, Dimnae, Riverton, and Farington, but not the world itself. The only nod to that is the fact that founders of the five cities were forced to flee south when the Old World was beset by a great evil, through a mountain pass, which was subsequently blocked by a massive wall and a city before it. The lack of context is not helped by the lack of a decent map.

Fortunately, Monty Haul V1 #0 gets back on track with a slew of new character options. These start with ‘New Cleric Domains for City Campaigns’, which add more civilised options to a city state type campaign and so also contrast with more ‘savage’ options for the wilderness of a Swords & Sorcery setting. The Domains are Justice—bringing the ‘Judge, Jury, and Executioner’ to a campaign, and Civilisation—or essentially the ‘city’ Domain. These are both really flavoursome, though Justice more than Civilisation, providing numerous benefits and skill Proficiencies as well as spells. For example, the Civilisation Domain grant the Friends, Message, and Mend Cantrips and Advantage on Charisma skill rolls to influence a single person, at First Level. At Second Level, Domain grants the Ease Emotions spell, Proficiency with Insight and Perception skills at Sixth Level—double within the city walls; bring the power of the people and increase the damage of weapon strikes at Eighth Level; and at Seventeenth Level be able to walk through any door and out another. Of the two, the Justice Domain is the more obviously playable, but both are good and it would be fantastic to see the Civilisation Domain be developed city by city, to make Clerics of each city different.

‘The Divine Archaeologist: A Rogue Archetype’ is a cross between a tomb raider and a church sanctioned thief. In the Five City-States the many temples feud for worshipers and possessing the right artefact rather than leaving it in the hands of a rival and/or heretical temple is way to attract worshipers. The Archetype combines knowledge of history and forgotten lore—noted down in the Divine Archaeologist’s notebook with spells and thievery skills, and even divine intervention, for a much more nuanced Rogue character type, almost in the mode of Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, and could be a lot of fun to play. (It would also work in a setting which has a tomb raiding profession, like: Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.)

‘New Backgrounds for your City-States’ adds exactly that. Six new Backgrounds, from high to low. They include the Exterminator of vermin—though no little yappy dog, the Pilgrim, and the Bureaucrat, followed by three types of Nobles. These are the Dilettante, the Disgraced Noble, and the Knight Errant. These open up the options for the Noble Background given in the Player’s Handbook, and are more nuanced. All six come with suggested skills and tool Proficiencies, equipment, languages, features, as well as suggested Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. These are all very nicely done and really expand the character options available and allow the players to create interesting characters beyond their Classes.

Rounding out Monty Haul V1 #0 is a ‘Noble House Random Generator’ which again expands upon content given in an official supplement—in this case Xanathar’s Guide to Everything—and provides more detail and nuance. With a few rolls of the twenty-sided die, the Dungeon Master can create a complete noble family, from history and current trade to family tree and noble house personality traits. In general, this would work in any setting which has noble houses or families—and of course it complements the three new Noble Backgrounds in ‘New Backgrounds for your City-States’—and not just the Five City-States. 

Physically, Monty Haul V1 #0 is neat and tidy, with some decent artwork—both rights free and new. The maps are disappointing, especially given that the author is trying to present his own campaign setting. Another issue is that the table of contents does not quite match the titles of the articles as they appear, but a nice touch is that the author provides a little commentary at the start of every article.

Monty Haul V1 #0 is a curate’s egg, some good articles, some bad. However, the bad are more disappointing and the good are excellent adding more flavour through their mechanics and descriptions than in the background material. Certainly, the new Backgrounds would suit many a setting other than the Five City-States. However, there is not much in the way of a Swords & Sorcery feel to Monty Haul V1 #0, more Italianate city-states than the Hyborian Age. That is no bad thing, but it may not necessarily be what the author is aiming for.

Overall, as a Proof of Concept, Monty Haul V1 #0 is decent support for a Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition campaign, especially in the character options. It proves you can have as good a fanzine for the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons as you can for the Retroclone of your choice.

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