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

Saturday, 29 May 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXV] The Undercroft No. 13

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.

Published since July 2014 by the Melsonian Arts Council, the frequency of issues of the fanzine, The Undercroft is no longer as regular as it once was. After a four-year gap between the publication of The Undercroft No. 10 and The Undercroft No. 11 in August, 2020, it was something of a surprise to see the publication of The Undercroft No. 12 the following October. In addition, although previous issues provided support for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, the more recent issues have moved away from providing direct support to providing not only support for the Old School Renaissance in general, and thus any fantasy retroclone. The Undercroft No. 11 even went as far to provide support for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition! There is no support for that roleplaying game in The Undercroft No. 13, although there is advice for using one of the articles with it. Otherwise, the issue does feel as if it is moving away from its Old School Renaissance origins.

The Undercroft No. 13 contains but three articles. The first of these is Sándor Gebei’s ‘Familiars for Witches’. This is a list of six dark and disturbing alternatives to the familiars that you might find in other roleplaying games with witches. For example, a witch has three crows, out of whose eyes she can see and cast hexes. Each time she casts a hex via one of her crows, it is set free from the witch’s bidding. When the witch subsequently strangles someone with her own hands, the victim returns to the witch as one of her crows. The other five familiars are of a similar or worse nature.

The main article in The Undercroft No. 13 is ‘So, it’s the End of the World’ by Dennis Manning. This is an exploration of the post-apocalypse genre. It is a solid overview, beginning with asking the cause of the disaster, such as a new Ice Age or extreme flooding from Climate Change or a virus, a plague, or zombie outbreak unleashed as the result of ritual magics or super science, before emphasising that adventures in this genre are about survival and rebuilding rather than delving and plundering. It suggests the use of Resilience value to represent what is essentially a Player Character’s mental Hit Points. If through loss, tragedy, or danger, enough points of Resilience is lost to reduce it to zero, the player rerolls a new total on the next lower die type, potentially gains a Condition, such as ‘Sleeping less than usual’ or ‘Temper tantrums’, and continues playing. If the die type for a Player Character’s Resilience drops below a four-sided die, it is time for him to retire. A table of Conditions is provided as is one for Injury Conditions, although the rules for handling injuries in the same fashion as Resilience are barely discussed.

Other rules for the genre include item quality, barter economics, personal inventory and storage, and detailing and running the homebase. The Player Characters are expected to protect the inhabitants of their base, build and manage resources—represented by die types, and face the consequences of their actions if the inhabitants are upset at all, such as killing or exiling a resident or exposing them to danger. There is a table for this, as there is for individualising the home base, essentially the reason it was selected in the first place. The rules creating and running a homebase and the dangers to the well-being of the Player Characters and the residents are all serviceable. Serviceable and no more, because they are not really anything which has not been seen before, whether in fanzines or other roleplaying games. Of course, if the genre and the set-up is new to the reader, then fine, but if not, the rules feel somewhat out of place in the fanzine, too modern a subject or genre in comparison to the usual Old School Renaissance fantasy that is usual fare for The Undercroft. So it is debatable just much use a reader of the fanzine will get out of them. The lack of examples do not help with this either, and overall, ‘So, it’s the End of the World’ feels as if it is actually the prototype for ‘The Apocalypse Hack’ a la The Black Hack and perhaps might have been suited to a dedicated ‘post-apocalypse’ issue or even roleplaying game of its own rather than sandwiched between two fantasy articles.

Rounding out The Undercroft No. 13 is Alex Clements’ ‘You Have Been Cursed’, a list of mostly minor curses that can be inflicted in the Player Characters for fun and roleplaying potential. It suggests a change to the rules for curses and removing them in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. In particular, needing a Remove Curse spell of a particular Level to remove a curse, either that or fulfilling the removal terms of the curse. A typical curse states that the Player Character has been cursed by Sainted Bartholomew and consequently badgers hate the Player Character. They will crawl from their cets in the dead of to seek him out, perhaps even take him whilst he is awake, though probably not as badgers are strong, but not foolish. They are patient and they are good tunnelers… As can be seen, not every curse has conditions which can be fulfilled in order to lift it, but all thirty-six are inventive and engaging and are really going to make a player curse his Dungeon Master.

The Undercroft No. 13 needs a slight edit in place, but is otherwise neat and tidy, and enjoyably illustrated. The cover, wraparound in full colour, is weird and creepy

The Undercroft No. 12 felt slight because of the long articles, and so does The Undercroft No. 13—for exactly the same reason. Further, as reasonable as they are, not all of the articles in The Undercroft No. 13 fit the fanzine and whilst the individual articles are in no way bad, together the end result is underwhelming rather than engaging.

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