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Saturday, 19 June 2021

Magazine Madness 4: Parallel Worlds #21

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.

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Parallel Worlds feels a little old-fashioned. By which Reviews from R’lyeh means that it supports the gaming hobby with content for a variety of games. So an issue might include new monsters, spells, treasures, reviews of newly released titles, scenarios, discussions of how to play, painting guides, and the like… That is how it has been all the way back to the earliest days of The Dragon and White Dwarf magazines. By which Reviews from R’lyeh means that it can be purchased, if not from your local news agents, then from your local games store. Just like The Dragon and White Dwarf magazines could be back in the day. However, Parallel Worlds, published by Parallel Publishing can also be purchased in digital format, because it is very much not back in the day. By which Reviews from R’lyeh means that Parallel Worlds has reached the grand old age of twenty-one—and these days, that is no magazine achievement for a magazine, gaming or otherwise.

Parallel Worlds #21 promises ‘The Best in Escapism’. It offers a mix of scenarios and support for various roleplaying games as well as interviews with creators and reviews of various books and games. The issue opens with editor Chris Cunliffe’s editorial lamenting the challenging nature of differing opinions and expressing them online, but highlighting that actually, through differing opinions you can discover new things, and that to some extent, the magazine is a vehicle for that. The first content in the issue is ‘Farsight – An Interview with Dario Pesce and Francesco Lucenti’, the Venice-based designers of their new roleplaying game, Farsight, and their company, Lightfish Games. As entertaining as the interview is, it actually focuses very little upon Farsight, the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition evolved roleplaying game, recently published following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Whether talking about themselves and their influences, this is still intriguing enough to make the reader want to check out the roleplaying game itself.

The actual gaming content in the issue begins with a scenario for Black Void, the roleplaying game of esoteric fantasy set in and around Llyhn the Eternal City, a dystopian cosmopolis and trading hub at the epicentre between the Cosmos and the Void. Here, Living in filthy alleys and shanties among beggars, slaves and the casteless, humanity is very much at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Llyhn, a city inhabited and ruled by eerie beings from faraway worlds, bizarre sapient entities and otherworldly Daimons from beyond the Veil. However, there are factions in the city who want this to change, for humanity to rise beyond its meagre existence, of which the latest is ‘The Cause’, a movement to unite humanity and work to improve its conditions. In Joel Lonergan’s ‘Offers Too Good’, the Player Characters are present at a recruitment drive for ‘The Cause’ and even if they decline to join, they get an offer of a job—join and find out exactly what the leaders of ‘The Cause’ want. The scenario is short and will pose a moral dilemma for the Player Characters, but really feels like a set-up to something bigger.

Stephen Turner, the designer and publisher of Chivalry & Sorcery, Fifth Edition, adds to the world of the Dragon Reaches with ‘Languages of the Dragon Reaches’. Again short, it explores the linguistic development of the setting and provides two scripts—Tadarn Runes and Bethrin Script, both of which Game Master can use to add flavour to her Chivalry & Sorcery campaign. The world’s most popular roleplaying game in the world comes under the spotlight, or at least an aspect of it, in ‘The Three Pillars of D&D Part 3: Exploration’ by Ben Potts. Previous entries in the series examined social interaction and combat, and if they were as decently done as this third and final part, then both are worth tracking down and reading. This article identifies the key elements of exploration in Dungeons & Dragons—travel and puzzles (and traps), and suggests ways in which they can be made both challenging and interesting to play. It also examines how Short Rests and Long Rests work in the game and points own how clunky they are and how they impede one character Class and not another. However, solutions are suggested as are ways in which both Short Rests and Long Rests—Short Rests in particular, can be made to be exciting and interesting without the Player Characters necessarily losing the benefits of either. In examining the way in which Dungeons & Dragons is played, this article feels old fashioned in that similar articles of its ilk have been written again and again over the years, but of course, looking at the various previous editions of the roleplaying game, rather than the current one. This does not in any way make it a poor article and any Dungeon Master running a Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition game will find this an interesting and informative article, full of suggestions and advice that will either help her run a better and more fun game, or perhaps confirm that she is already implementing both and making her game better and more fun.

Editor Chris Cunliffe’s ‘From Tabletop to Desktop’, part of Parallel Worlds’ ongoing ‘Games Master Class’ series treads ground much touched upon by Wyrd Science – Session Zero, that of the shift of play around the table to play online precipitated by COVID-19. He explores his own problems in making that shift, as well as those of his fellow players, plus the changes in terms of preparation, socialising, and interaction within the game itself. In particular, more preparation is required, conversation and interaction are more focused, but does not flow as well as they would around the table, and play time is not just much slower, but also more tiring. This does not mean that gaming online is impossible, in fact, mechanically, it is much, much easier than it was a decade ago… However, for many gamers, it is the only roleplaying possible, but it is possible and it is very much easier than it once was. What one advantage it does omit is that online gaming brings people together, not just from the next town or nearby big city, but from around the world. (For example, I regularly game and chat with players who are not just ten miles away, but hundreds and even thousands of miles away.) Another development that the author ignores is that of virtual conventions. Still the article is informative and warns the potential online player and Game Master of the issues he and she will face when taking the next step into the virtual world, though perhaps it could have highlighted the benefits a bit more and perhaps included the experiences of others who have made the jump.

The remainder of Parallel Worlds #21 is devoted to reviews. They include reviews of Sentinel Comics – The Roleplaying Game, Land of the Rising Sun—the historically inspired adaptation of Chivalry & Sorcerery, Fifth Edition, and The Dark Peaks: Deep Maw. The problem with the first two reviews—the review of Land of the Rising Sun in particular is definitely underwritten—is that they focus just a little too much on the artwork than the text, so that they are drawn out, perhaps taking up space for another review or even a series of thumbnail reviews which might have broadened the appeal of the magazine and made it more useful. In comparison, the review of The Dark Peaks: Deep Maw is more focused and more engaging. Similarly, the reviews of A Hole in the Sky, an audio book by Peter Hamilton and the Young Adult space opera novel, Kitara, by Gideon Marcus, do not suffer from that problem.

Perhaps the least interesting articles in Parallel Worlds #21 are saved to last. ‘Moving to Dystopia: Why an Established Crime Writer is Turning to Dystopian Fiction’ is an interview with Leigh Russell about why she is making the aforementioned shift, whilst ‘Rules of Succession: Appreciating Crusader Kings III’ is about Chris Cunliffe’s experiences with the computer games Crusader Kings II and Crusader Kings III. The latter is interesting from the roleplaying experiences it offers, but again feels too long, whereas the former is short, with extra artwork making it both longer and more of an infomercial than an actual interview.

Physically, Parallel Worlds #21 is professionally presented and written. The layout is clean, strong, and easy to look at, and in general is easy to read. In places, especially in the reviews, the artwork does overpower the text, but overall, this is a good-looking affair.

The problem with Parallel Worlds #21 is that it simply needs more content which will attract gamers and readers to come back to it and content that a Game Master can bring to her table. This is not to say that the issue lacks good content—for example, ‘The Three Pillars of D&D Part 3: Exploration’ and ‘From Tabletop to Desktop’ are both informative and useful, and the scenario, ‘Offers Too Good’, is a good introduction to Black Void. However, too many articles are strung out and the issue lacks content that would attract a wider audience, perhaps the addition of a scenario or article aimed at larger fanbases for different games who might pick up the issue and then appreciate the rest of the content might have helped. This is in addition to generic content too. Of course, it is difficult to take in the swathes of roleplaying titles being released from one month to the next, but there could have been more reviews too, which again, could have appealed to a wider audience.

There can be no doubt that roleplaying magazines have a hard time surviving in contemporary times, but Parallel Worlds #21 does not make it easy for itself by having too much content which does not support the hobby and which is too light. There are a few good articles within the issue and it needs to build on those to bring readers back to it on a regular basis rather than their simply checking out an issue to see if there might be something good in its pages.

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An Unboxing in the Nook video is available here.

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