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Saturday, 1 May 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIV] Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara

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, whilst Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs drew from multiple to somewhat lesser effect.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara contains just four entries, and is all the better for it. Published in April, 2019, the issue opens with the titular, ‘The Enchantment of Vashundara’, by Zsolt Varga. This is an otherworldly scenario designed for Player Characters of Third and Fourth Levels. It begins with a giant peacock landing in front of the Player Characters and lowering her wings as if to suggest that they might climb onto her back. If they do, they are flown up into the clouds and over an ocean to a land far, far away where the bird alights at the entrance to a villa. It is an interesting start because the peacock never speaks, although the Player Characters may find animals in the villa who will, many of them quite eccentric. They will also discover that the villa is clearly built for a giant, and that giant—complete with six arms and six heads—is chained up and deeply asleep in the stables. What exactly is going on in this villa? The scenario is a mix of investigation and combat and plays upon the idea of the adventurers as midgets in a land of giants, much like Castle Gargantua, making what would be small things for a giant of a size that the adventurers can use. They are free to poke about as is their wont in the gardens—hanging or otherwise, fabulously clean bathing facilities, and lake (which is actually upstairs) of the villa. There is no one way to approach this scenario or investigating its situation, so the suggested set-up is exactly that, and whilst there is an ideal outcome given, the scenario is open enough that events could play in plenty of other directions… The second-place winner in a scenario writing competition the editor was judging, it is easy to see why ‘The Enchantment of Vashundara’ came second (and to wonder what happened to the first), because it is simple and flexible, but with plenty of scope for the players and their characters to interpret the how they will. Its set-up also makes it easy to drop into a campaign with relatively little preparation.

The bulk of Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara is dedicated to the town of Tirwas, but in two parts. The first part is ‘The Divided Town of Tirwas’ which describes the harbour town with its unfinished walls, its inhabitants, various locations, and the various tensions which make it fraught place to visit, let alone live. Located towards the eastern end of the Isle of Erillion—detailed in previous issues—this was once a sleepy village at best, known for its communal customs and penchant for smuggling, but little else. Now it has grown into a town in which smuggling is a way of life; strangers have a habit of going missing or become the victims of attacks or other crimes unless they have paid (or been extorted) for membership into one of the town’s many factions; and factions headed by the town’s Landlords. As with the town writeups in previous issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut, ‘The Divided Town of Tirwas’ goes into some detail about the town and its inhabitants. This includes all eight Landlors and their aims and rivalries, customs such as what might happen to the Player Characters if they are not willing to wear one of the Landlords’ emblems, and numerous NPCs and locations accompanied by rumours and potential hooks. 

The second part is ‘Plunder of the Stone Sacks’, a scenario for Player Characters of Third to Fifth Level. This details a series of caves which in the past were worked and expanded into a series of communal shelters below Tirwas, each family in the town having and furnishing their own cave, but which have since been partially abandoned with some areas closed off, some used as storerooms, others as a means to smuggle goods into the town, and lastly, one area as a gaol and holding area for a certain nasty trade… The Stone Sacks is a cross between a classic dungeon and a working area, the Player Characters needing to use stealth to get around sections of it to avoid being noticed in the areas under guard. Beyond mere curiosity, several hooks are suggested to push the Player Characters to investigative activities in the town and in the Stone Stacks, including disappearances in the town, stopping the smuggling activities, or even looking for an ancient, long-forgotten shrine. Together, ‘The Divided Town of Tirwas’ and ‘Plunder of the Stone Sacks’ form a solid pairing, which could easily be added to a Game Master’s campaign, but really it provides her and her players and their characters with motivations not just with reasons to visit and investigate the town of Tirwas, but also the Isle of Erillion. This is excellent support for the setting and hopefully future issues will see support in a similar fashion.

Rounding out Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara is ‘All is Well in Sleepy Haven’ This describes another coastal settlement on the Isle of Erillion. Where ‘The Divided Town of Tirwas’ and ‘Plunder of the Stone Sacks’ take up half of the fanzine, ‘All is Well in Sleepy Haven’ is a mere tenth of the issue’s length. It is described as unexciting, even dull, and the problem is that it is. There are some missing persons and suggestions that treasure hunters are operating in the area, but it is debatable as whether this would be enough for the Player Characters to be motivated enough to visit the village. To be fair, the descriptions are well done, just as they are elsewhere in the issue, but the write-up of Sleepy Haven is exactly that.

Previous issues of the fanzine came with a map which depicts the outline of a city or town, intended as a handouts for the players. Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara goes one step further with two maps on a double-sided sheet, one of Tirwas and one of Sleepy Hollow. These are done on sturdy paper and as before, nicely done. Physically, the issue is decently presented, the choice of public artwork and new illustrations, all feel fitting. It needs an edit in places, but is otherwise, well written.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #04: Revenge of the Frogs had four articles and felt the better for it, and Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara has four articles and feels all the better for it. In fact, it is better for having the two articles describing a town and the dungeon below it together with reasons to explore both, as well as an intriguing and likeable scenario in the form of the titular ‘The Enchantment of Vashundara’. Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara is a solidly entertaining issue.

—oOo—

An unboxing of Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara can be found here.

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