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

Monday, 31 May 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXV] Andjang

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.

Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain is a little different. Penned by Zedeck Siew—author of Lorn Song of the Bachelor—and drawn by Munkao, it is the fourth title published by the A Thousand Thousand Islands imprint, a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project, one which aims to draw from regional folklore and history to create a fantasy world truly rooted in the region’s myths, rather than a set of rules simply reskinned with a fantasy culture. The result of the project to date is eight fanzines, plus appendices, each slightly different, and each focusing on discrete settings which might be in the same world, but are just easily be separate places in separate worlds. What sets the series apart is the aesthetic sparseness of its combination of art and text. The latter describes the place, its peoples and personalities, its places, and its strangeness with a very simple economy of words. Which is paired with the utterly delightful artwork which captures the strangeness and exoticism of the particular setting and brings it alive. Barring a table of three (or more) for determining random aspects that the Player Characters might encounter each entry in the series is systemless, meaning that each can be using any manner of roleplaying games and systems, whether that is fantasy or Science Fiction, the Old School Renaissance or not.

The first, MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, described the Death-Rolled Kingdom, built on the remains of great drowned city, now ruled by crocodiles in lazy, benign fashion, they police the river, and their decrees outlaw the exploration of the ruins of MR-KR-GR, and they sometimes hire adventurers. The second, Kraching, explored the life of a quiet, sleepy village alongside a great forest, dominated by cats of all sizes and known for its beautiful carvings of the wood taken from the forest. The third, Upper Heleng: The Forest Beloved by Time, takes the reader into a forest where its husband Time moves differently and the gods dictate the seasons, Leeches stalk you and steal from you that which you hold dear, and squirrels appear to chatter and gossip—if you listen. the fourth takes you into the mountains.

What rumours do you hear from Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain? That it is taboo to put down old racing dogs, but bad luck to keep them, so they are sent to the dog heaven that is the Mountain. That you will never see a graveyard there. Instead the dead are dumped in their rice paddies, one corpse per field. Which why their rice crops are so rich. That witchery runs in the people’s blood and they like to buy minor curses from you. Andjang is a place of mystery, but its wan and thin inhabitants want to trade. They want metal goods, wine, fabrics, livestock especially, even slaves, and in return, their meaty black rice is known for its capacity to boost energy and the circulation of the blood, the region’s strangely red loam soil always guarantees that the next crop is a bumper one, and the rattan puppets that bud fruit from the top of their heads when a certain spell is cast. The puppet will obey anyone who eats the fruit, and the locals use them as ‘beasts of burden’ instead of the animals they strangely lack. Perhaps, the Player Characters can sign on as guards on Risala’s cattle train?

If the Player Characters visit Andjang, they will find the kingdom to be stranger than the rumours. None of the villages, each nestled in a valley below the mountains has any animals. Weapons, some murderous, some gossipy, others cranky, have settled into retirement in Andjang, but perhaps they might be traded or stolen out of retirement? The villagers live by three laws. The first is a blood tithe paid in a monthly parade. The second is the recognition of the kingdom’s boundary, marked by megaliths bearing the dog sigil, part of treaties signed with the gods which invading armies lose their way, carnivorous beasts losing their senses, wild spirits freezing… The third is obeisance to Andjang’s prices and princesses, their wishes are law, and they are the only ones who will arrange audiences with the Queen, their mother. And they appreciate gifts.

Yet untold numbers of the kingdom’s Royalty are dumped into the forest to die. There they learn to work together, then hunt to survive, and then they hunt each other. When they leave the forest, they are scarred, but worthy of a name. They are marked though—some have eyes that shine at night, loud joints that constantly pop, a servant trailing behind constantly touching the gold paint which covers them, a detachable head which can reattach to any decapitated corpse, and more.

The palace stand high atop a crag above the valleys with their single villages. Seemingly ruined, it is home to the languorous Queen who spends each day stretched out on a throne that is as much day bed as it is throne, accepting visitors and petitioners who have trailed their way up the mountain and waited weeks to see, her nights stretched out in her boudoir in the mountain cave behind the palace, her open air bath containing two pools. One is full of water, the other is of blood. Below, the caves stretch into the mountain, beginning with a grotto containing a lake of blood… Elsewhere in the palace, the kitchen appears connected to the palace gaol, the treasure house is full of weapons clamped to their stands and pardons from the lowlander cities, and every guest room has a tap out which flows blood. Time may seem to pass differently from room to the next, breathing and knocking seems to come from the walls, and children marked with a tattoo of open eye wander from room to room…

Besides a poster map of the palace, the Game Master is accorded table upon table to add detail and flavour to the encounters, personalities, and things found in the valleys and the palace. These add to the atmosphere of the kingdom, which is one of the oppressive Gothic, heavy on the suggestion that the Queen might be a vampire, but never openly stated. There is a creepy weird feeling throughout, of being watched, of blood being vital to the kingdom, of paranoia, and more. However, much like the earlier Upper Heleng: The Forest Beloved by Time, the issue with Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain is not immediately easy to use. Again because of the remote nature of the kingdom and because it is difficult to engage the Player Characters until they climb up to Andjang. That is its biggest weakness. It has the hooks—both ethnographic and cosmological—but it is a matter of getting the Player Characters there, but once there, the kingdom oozes a creepy charm of its own.

Physically, Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain is a slim booklet which possesses the lovely simplicity of the Thousand Thousand Isles, both in terms of the words and the art. The illustrations are exquisite and the writing delightfully succinct and easy to grasp.

In terms of story, Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain is easy to use once the Player Characters get there. There are hooks and plots which the Game Master could develop and engage the players and their characters with, and the setting is easy to adapt to the world of the Game Master’s choice, whether that is a domain on the Demiplane of Dread that is Ravenloft for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition or a remote kingdom in Hollow Earth Expedition or Leagues of Adventure. However it is used, if the Game Master can get her Player Characters to its borders, Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain is creepy and weird, a beautifully and simply presented vampire kingdom off the beaten track.


The great news is that is Upper Heleng: The Forest Beloved by Time, MR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled Kingdom, Kraching, Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain, and the others in the Thousand Thousand Isles setting are now available outside of Malaysia. Details can be found here.

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