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Sunday, 4 April 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIII] Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs

On the tail of 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 Dungeon Master 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.

Echoes From Fomalhaut is a fanzine of a different stripe. Published and edited by Gabor Lux, it is a Hungarian fanzine which focuses on ‘Advanced’ fantasy roleplaying games, such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Labyrinth. The inaugural issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #01: Beware the Beekeeper!, published in March, 2018, presented a solid mix of dungeons, adventures, and various articles designed to present ‘good vanilla’, that is, standard fantasy, but with a heart. Published in August, 2018, the second issue, Echoes From Fomalhaut #02: Gont, Nest of Spies continued this trend with content mostly drawn from the publisher’s own campaign, but as decent as its content was, really needed more of a hook to pull reader and potential Dungeon Master into the issue and the players and their characters into the content. Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism was published in September, 2018 and in reducing the number of articles it gave the fanzine more of a focus and allowed more of the feel of the publisher’s ‘City of Vultures’ campaign to shine through.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs continues this focus and again keeps the article count down to just four. Published in January, 2019, the issue opens with ‘The Technological Table’, a list of futuristic weapons and gadgets, ranging from laser pistol and laser spear to the God-box and The Dark Eye. Many of these items will be familiar from Science Fiction and other gaming articles, so it is refreshing to see some interesting entries alongside the usual electro-whip and laser sword. For example, Aquastel is a liquid so weighty, that when mixed with other liquids, it separates their constituent parts into layers according to their density, so could be used to neutralise poisons or extract valuable metals. The God-box is a communications link to an information bank located deep underground which can be consulted for information, though it is likely to be out of date or phrased on language that the Player Characters do not understand. This sort of article supports a setting where the campaign planet has links to a star faring civilisation or the various weapons and gadgets are remnants of a prior civilisation, fallen long ago. There are echoes of the lost civilisation set-up in the scenario, ‘Terror on Tridentfish Island’, published in Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism.

The scenario in Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is the eponymous ‘Revenge of the Frogs’. The has always been an element of batrachian horror in Dungeons & Dragons, going back to Dave Arneson’s scenario, ‘Temple of the Frog’ and creatures such as the Bullywug, as well as drawing on H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. Frogs can be alien and emotionless creatures, so make a weird, but worthy enemy in any Dungeons & Dragons scenario. Designed for Player Characters of Third to Fifth Levels, ‘Revenge of the Frogs’ maroons them in the mouldering port of Silvash. The winds have ceased and the local high-priest of Murtar, God of Murky Waters hires the Player Characters to locate the means to restore them in the nearby marshland and prevent the rising of a frog-cult and its dread god that in ages past was destroyed by the priesthood of Murtar. The scenario is designed as a sandbox which will see the Player Characters delving deeper and deeper into the marshland, encountering various dank dangers and independently-minded inhabitants, all of whom are nicely fleshed out and bring colour to the region. Originally written as a companion piece to ‘Cloister of the Frog God’, part of Frog God Games’ Rappan Athuk megadungeon, Revenge of the Frogs’ is a bit rough around the edges and underwritten in terms of set-up and its explanation, especially in the placement of one of its magical items needed to complete the scenario. Otherwise, the scenario has a Lovecraftian tinge combined with a pleasing sense of mouldering decay.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs comes with a map which depicts the outline of a city. This of ‘Arfel – City State of the Charnel God’, which is fully detailed in the issue of the fanzine. This is a city dominated by Ozolba the Zombie God from his labyrinth temple-complex and necropolis which overlooks the city. He and his priesthood—both undead and living—can claim what they want and who they want, and to object is a sin. The nobility of Arfel abide by the stifling Necrotic Traditions, rarely if ever leaving their mansions which are perpetually shrouded in mourning, giving parts of Arfel a sepulchral feel. In the absence of civil government, crime syndicates and gangs have stepped in to run the city, though only unofficially. Only the Outer City beyond its walls is free from Ozolba the Zombie God’s reach, though it a lawless, rough place, where protection much be bought. Meanwhile, throughout the city can be found cat after cat after cat, which hunt in packs against the cat-catchers of the Outer City and know its secret ways from one end to the other. Again, there is the sense of the Lovecraftian to Arfel, it having a Dreamlands-like feel, though heavily influenced by Clark Ashton Smith’s Mordiggian, the Charnel God.

As with Echoes From Fomalhaut #03: Blood, Death, and Tourism, the remaining half of Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is dedicated to one article. In the previous issue, this was ‘Erillion, East’, in this issue it is ‘Erillion, West’. This is the second half of a gazetteer detailing the island of Erillion, previously described in Echoes From Fomalhaut #02 and for the most part completed here—there are still plenty of locations mentioned here to be fully detailed in future issues. It continues to detail numerous locations and aspects of this end of the island, some forty or more of them. There is a strand of religiosity which runs through the location descriptions, notably the ‘Lunar Path’, a pilgrimage which leads from black lunar stones to black lunar stones and which will grant those successful with access to the world of dreams, but test them mightily in the process, and the ‘Isle of Trials’, an island west of Erillion, but connected by a pirate infested bridge, which is home to numerous persecuted cults and religious movements. Here the thumbnail descriptions never get as far as living up to their promise, since the reader is left wondering more about the cult or the religious movement and what their religious beliefs are. Hopefully, these might be detailed in a future issue. Otherwise, the thumbnail descriptions are decently done, such as the band of Ogre bandits which capture children and fatten them up for the pot, the court of Lord Virguard the Besieger who keeps five chairs empty in memory of his lost adventuring companions and who will reward tales of brave adventuring, and a marble chess high in the mountains, where two legendary wizards, one transformed into a mountain, the other a cloud, play out an endless game with living figures for the Staff of Power. There are also lots of bandits and thieves and berserkers to encounter too. This western half of Erillion is even more lawless than the Eastern half, and like the earlier ‘Erillion, East’, this half consists of many locations that might be passed through or discovered rather than necessarily visited with any purpose and the Dungeon Master will want to create that purpose or use the scenarios published in the earlier issues which are set on the island.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs definitely feels all the better for having just four articles, their content being allowed to breath and not feel crammed in. It is lightly illustrated, but much of the artwork is really quite good, whether it is public domain or commissioned for the issue, it all fits the oppressive ‘Mitteleuropa’ feel of the author’s ‘City of Vultures’ campaign and is well chosen. It needs an edit here and there, but is generally well written. Of the content, ‘The Technological Table’ is the outlier. It is a good article, but it feels out of place with the rest of the content, whilst the enjoyable ‘Revenge of the Frogs’, creepy ‘Arfel – City State of the Charnel God’, and completing overview that is ‘Erillion, West’, all feel as if they are in the same world. And that perhaps is a problem too, because so far Echoes From Fomalhaut is only giving us snapshots of the ‘City of Vultures’ campaign, not quite a partwork, but getting there. Overall, Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs is sol'd issue of the fanzine, but it is beginning to feel as if something is wanted to begin pulling the ‘City of Vultures’ campaign together.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you indeed for a good critical review - much appreciated! It is interesting that you considered the different articles to belong to the same setting: they were actually drawn from very disparate campaigns; Erillion and "Frogs" from a deliberately vanilla fantasy milieu, while the "City of Vultures" materials are from Fomalhaut proper, with its bizarre demigods and Mediterranean landscapes. It could be a case of a common authorial voice and interests - certainly, everything I write shall have a focus on human fallibility, strange local colour, and hidden worlds. But I would never put a fallen starship on Erillion, or orcs on Fomalhaut. In my mind, these places are clearly and very rigidly separated.

    The remark about the rambling organisation of fanzines is warranted; nevertheless, it is exactly their grab-bag nature which sustains their more-or-less regular publication. Variety is the spice of life, and also a great cure against burnout!