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

Monday 31 August 2020

[Fanzine Focus XXI] The Undercroft No. 11

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.

It has been four years since The Undercroft No. 10 was published in August, 2016, so it was something of a surprise to see the Melsonian Arts Council publish The Undercroft No. 11 in August, 2020. Previously leading way along with the Vacant Ritual Assembly fanzine in its support for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, the new issue marks a notable change in support away from that retroclone. It comes with content suitable for any Old School Renaissance fantasy roleplaying game, it actually includes content for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. How the fanzine’s readership will react to that shift remains to be seen, but perhaps it marks the publisher’s acceptance of the influence and impact of the current version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Skipping past the editorial—since it is a secret and you are not meant to read it, The Undercroft No. 11 begins with a description of ‘The Aulk’, a strange grossly-fat slug thing which inhabits the Astral Sea and preys upon the memories of others. No one can quite agree on what the thing looks like, since it is often forgotten about or the memory of the encounter is quickly forgotten about—or actually eaten by the Auk. Written by the Chuffed Chuffer, this sounds like a rather banal beast, but if the Player Characters can actually find it and kill it, then they can harvest two things from it. First, Aulk Slim, its mucus trail said to enhance memory and illusion spells, and second, Aulk Crystals, small glass orbs—actually Aulk poo!—each of which contains a memory which can be experienced by holding it to your forehead. Such memories might be skills, spells, experiences, and more. There is plenty of gaming potential here if the Player Characters have to go on a ‘Hunting of the Aulk’ for a lost memory or clue.

Luke Le Moignan’s ‘Edicts of la Cattedral della Musica Universale’ presents seven heretical clerics. They include the Tithenites, who devote themselves to humble good  deeds, animal care, and beer-making, but revile Oozes instead of Undead and manufacture St. Tithenai’s Salt, a pinkish salt which works as Holy Water against such creatures; the Indulgencers, who believe that the spirits of the dead face a jury in the afterlife and so summon ghostly sinners to the mortal realms to work off part of their sentence; and the similar Venerators, who compel the Undead to participate in tea ceremonies and discuss their grievances, hopefully coming to terms that will redress their issues and so allow them to become restful dead! There are some interesting NPCs to be created out of these options, though for Player Characters, they present some equally as interesting roleplaying possibilities, but the descriptions do seem underdeveloped for that purpose.

For Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the fanzine details three Dwarven archetypes. Written by Daniel Sell and Daniel Martin, these are the Circle of the Mole Rat, the Oath of the Hammerer, and the Dungeon Master. The Circle of the Mole Rat is a Dwarfen Druid Archetype which grants Blind Sight, tunnelling abilities, and even secrets answered via message drops by Mother Mole Rat. The Oath of the Hammerer is a Dwarfen Paladin Archetype which embodies Dwarven cultural justice, using hammers as a holy symbol to dispense justice, becoming intimidating and fearless, and ultimately being able to cast Branding Smite upon those that deserve justice. The Dungeon Master is a Dwarfen Ranger Archetype which hunts for monsters and creatures which the Dwarves keep as their exotic guardian beasts. Of the three, the latter again feels underwritten and perhaps the least interesting, but the other two lend themselves to inclusion in a Dwarven focused campaign.

S. Keilty’s ‘The Corpse Seller’ is weird monster NPC, a long-armed creature found only down dark alleys at night where it sells members of the undead tailored to willing buyers, reaching into its abyssal mouth to pull them forth. However, the bargain will be steep—an arm, betrayal, or worse. If a bargain is not reached, then the buyer will become one of the corpses! This is a nasty thing which might be difficult to add to campaign, but would be memorable if so added.

Lastly, ‘The Root’ by Luke Gearing—author of Fever Swamp—presents a force born of Chaos, almost primal, which constantly shifts and probes with tendrils for cracks which allow it to enter into our worlds. When it does, each tendril can take one of several different forms, from a fungal colony whose spores drive the infected to defend and become one with the colony whilst granting the secret to destroy it—if they can or are even willing, to Mind of a Willing Host which spread the Root as spoken language, written word, and meme. Could the glossolalia of a mystic be the vector for the Root’s influence? All six options are interesting and any one of them could form the basis of a campaign backdrop with some effort upon the part of the Game Master, perhaps an even larger one as the adventurers travel from plane to plane, world to world, dealing with different forms of the Root.

Physically, The Undercroft No. 11 is well presented with an excellent colour cover and an array of dark illustrations inside. It does need a closer edit in places though.

The return of The Undercroft No. 11 is certainly welcome, and despite the shift to support for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition for some of its content, it still presents oddities and weirdness just as the previous issues did. Thus Dungeon Masters can use the oddities and weirdness just as much as Referees can for the Retroclone of their choice. 

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