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Friday, 28 May 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXV] Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder

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. Another choice is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published by Straycouches PressCrawl! is one such fanzine dedicated to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Since Crawl! No. 1 was published in March, 2012 has not only provided ongoing support for the roleplaying game, but also been kept in print by Goodman Games. Now because of online printing sources like Lulu.com, it is no longer as difficult to keep fanzines from going out of print, so it is not that much of a surprise that issues of Crawl! remain in print. It is though, pleasing to see a publisher like Goodman Games support fan efforts like this fanzine by keeping them in print and selling them directly.

Where Crawl! No. 1 was something of a mixed bag, Crawl! #2 was a surprisingly focused, exploring the role of loot in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and describing various pieces of treasure and items of equipment that the Player Characters might find and use. Similarly, Crawl! #3 was just as focused, but the subject of its focus was magic rather than treasure. Unfortunately, the fact that a later printing of Crawl! No. 1 reprinted content from Crawl! #3 somewhat undermined the content and usefulness of Crawl! #3. Fortunately, Crawl! Issue Number Four was devoted to Yves Larochelle’s ‘The Tainted Forest Thorum’, a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game for characters of Fifth Level. Crawl! Issue V continued the run of themed issues, focusing on monsters, but ultimately to not always impressive effect, whilst Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection presented some interesting versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics, though not enough of them. Crawl! Issue No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps! was a bit of bit of a medley issue, addressing a number of different aspects of dungeoneering and fantasy roleplaying, Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! did a fine job of giving rules for guns and exploring how to use in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published in January, 2014, Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder continues the run of focused issues of the fanzine. In fact, the focus has got tighter and tighter with each subsequent issue such that Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder contains just the two articles—a scenario and an encounter, both of which are written by Daniel J. Bishop, who has written quite a lot for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. The scenario is ‘The Arwich Grinder’ of the title and it is designed as a ‘Character Funnel’. If there is a singular feature to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, it is the ‘Character Funnel’. This takes Zero Level Player Characters—usually four per player—and pushes them through a Zero Level dungeon. Devoid of the abilities and Hit Points that a Class would grant them, a Class is what each of these Player Characters aspires to and can acquire if they survive the challenge each of them will face in the dungeon or adventure. Thus prepared by their terrible experiences they can go onto greater adventures of ever higher and higher Levels. In the meantime, there is the ‘Character Funnel’ in which there is death and danger aplenty, as well as a challenge for the designer, because every has to present the right mix of death and danger if any of the characters are to survive. This is because the characters lack the abilities, spells, and combat acumen that First Level adventurers possess, instead they have to rely upon their luck and their wits.

The scenario begins in almost traditional fashion for the Player Character—they begin in The Hound, the village tavern. Suddenly, a Very Large Man stumbles into the tavern and collapses. Short, but of enormous girth with short arms and legs, he is naked, and also dead. From no discernible cause. However, in his hands he clutches a bonnet belonging to the beautiful Bessie Curwen, one of the Curwen family which has lived up in the pine woods surrounding Arwich Village for long as anyone remembers. The Curwen family keep themselves to themselves, a little odd perhaps and rarely venturing down to the village, but it has always been kind to the inhabitants of Arwich Village. During the very hard winter two years ago, they helped keep many alive with freshly caught food. So the village owes at least a debt of gratitude to the Curwens, and thus somebody must venture up to their family home to find out what has happened and if everyone is all right. That someone will be the Player Characters.

Mention the name Curwen and all good gamers—and especially those with a penchant for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—will be thinking of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ and they would be almost right to make that connection. ‘The Arwich Grinder’ is a Lovecraftian ‘Character Funnel’, but it has elements of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ too, and whilst the setting is the Curwen family home, it is in effect, a dungeon. The Player Characters will climb up into the woods and perhaps after an encounter, find the Curwen family home. It is damp and dilapidated, mould-ridden and malodorous, seemingly abandoned except for the senile and the unhinged. There are signs of slaughter almost everywhere—hooks and cleavers, preserved meats and curing meats, meat grinders, butcher’s knives and aprons, a coppery tang on the tongue, and more… There are pigs too, but seemingly all too few. The Curwen family must have done a great deal of hunting…

The Curwen family seat is described across two storeys, an attic, a cellar, and caves below that. There are some forty or so locations, each full of details—large and small, which constantly nag at the Player Characters. There are of course horrors to be encountered, and like any good ‘adventure’ for Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, the best solution would be to run away, especially given the capabilities of Zero Level characters. That is, all but nothing. Eventually, whether through the nagging nature of the facts discovered at the Curwen home or direct confrontation, the Player Characters will realise what is going on. Amusingly, the best solution given to what is actually going on in the Curwen household is a cliché favoured by many a fan of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying.

However, ‘The Arwich Grinder’ does come unstuck slightly when it comes to the explanation of exactly what is going on in the Curwen household. The problem is that author never tells the Judge what is going on and it is entirely up to the Judge to read through the scenario and put two and two together. It is actually fairly easy, but effectively doubles the preparation time of what is actually a very easy scenario to prepare and run. In fact, the scenario could almost be run from the page with no preparation, it is that straightforward. There is a time limit in terms of when the Player Characters can explore the Curwen house and means to drive them to act if they decide not to, but it feels a bit forced and perhaps it would be easier to simply move the time frame so that the Player Characters get there when they need to. Another issue is that although ‘The Arwich Grinder’ is Lovecraftian themed, both it and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game lack a Sanity mechanic. Which is fine, since the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is a fantasy roleplaying game, but perhaps the Sanity mechanic could be adopted from Crawl-thulhu: A Two-Fisted ’Zine of Lovecraftian Horror Issue 1? Or indeed, ‘The Arwich Grinder’ run using the rules from that fanzine?

Overall, ‘The Arwich Grinder’ is a decent scenario, which although it does not actually explain what is going on, has it instead become apparent during play. All the whilst skirting around not one, but two short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. It is grimy and atmospheric, and like every ‘Character Funnel’ before it, deadly. The scenario does not necessarily set out to kill the Player Characters—except where it matters, and that gives both room and time for the players to build a rapport with and between their characters, and those of the other players. Which means that when they finally fed into the grinding climax, the deaths of Player Characters are going to count for just that little bit more.

The second entry in Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder is also by Daniel J. Bishop. ‘But He Sure Had Guts! A Short Encounter’ lives up to both its title and subtitle. It is short and it does involve guts, providing a nasty comeuppance for any Player Character who happened to have disemboweled an opponent in the last few days. The Player Character begins to dream about intestines, seemly alive, seemly wanting to crush? Are they real? Do they belong to someone, perhaps even the Player Character? This is really only suitable for a campaign involving body horror, and maybe even then, it might be better if it remained just a nightmare... ‘But He Sure Had Guts! A Short Encounter’ is weird and not a little creepy, but too short to really build up the atmosphere of ‘The Arwich Grinder’, so it feels very much like an afterthought.

Physically, Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder is decently presented. The writing and editing are good, and much of the artwork is certainly decent enough to be shown to the Player Characters. As to the content, ‘But He Sure Had Guts! A Short Encounter’ is very much an afterthought, whereas ‘The Arwich Grinder’ is intended as, and is, the main attraction. Sometimes it can feel as if there are too many ‘Character Funnel’ style adventures for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. This is no surprise as it is the signature feature of the roleplaying game and it almost a rite of passage for an designer to write one for it. ‘The Arwich Grinder’ stands out because of its Lovecraftian themes and atmosphere and potential adaptation, either for First Level Player Characters or to a modern iteration. Either way, the scenario is easy to prepare and should provide a session or two of grimy, creepy play. Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder provides an atmospheric ‘Character Funnel’ which players of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game who like horror will enjoy.


  1. This is my favourite Crawl! issue. It all hangs together very well, with good foreshadowing and imaginative encounters building on the horror theme. Of course, there are not many surprises when it comes to the secluded farm inhabited by backwoods rustics.

    1. I do like it as a scenario, but would have liked a clearer explanation of the plot.