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Monday, 30 August 2021

For Cultured Friends XIII: The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13

For devotees of TSR Inc.’s
 Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, the various issues of 
The Excellent Travelling Volume, James Maliszewski’s fanzine dedicated to Professor M.A.R. Barker’s baroque creation continue to provide dedicated support and further exploration. Published in June, 2021, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13—available in print via lulu.com—is the most recent issue. As with previous issues, his exploration of one of oldest of roleplaying settings is heavily influenced by the campaigns he has been running, the primary being his House of Worms campaign, originally based in, around, and under Sokátis, the City of Roofs before travelling across the southern ocean to ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula, as detailed in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 8. However, although he continues to be the primary contributor to the fanzine, this latest issue contains multiple submissions from other authors, which is not only encouraging, but hopefully, a sign of things to come.

As per usual, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13 opens an editorial from James Maliszewski. As you would expect, this does highlight the challenging nature of the last year, but its main focus is the difficulty of its production and in particular, the postal and printing troubles. Fortunately, these have been solved with the move to lulu.com. The editorial also welcomes the multiple submissions from other authors that feature in the issue. The first of the additions in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13 is drawn from the author’s House of Worms campaign, specifically from its current exploration of ‘Linyaró, Outpost of the Petal Throne’, a small city located on the Achgé Peninsula. ‘Naqsái Sorcery’ presents a new form of sorcery which differs from that known amongst the temples of the Five Empires. Naqsái sorcery involves the study of one hundred and eight ideograms. These appear to be two-dimensional, but closer and continued study reveals that they actually have three or more dimensions and can be used to access the same energies of the Planes Beyond as sorcerers of the Five Empires do. The article suggests a way in which a Player Character sorcerer might come to learn such ideograms—at a new Level switching to the new ideograms and their associated spells rather than the traditional spells he might learn from a temple. At subsequently newly acquired Levels, he might switch back. Several sample ideograms are listed, organised into Groups as per Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. These include Chúr, which completely copies (but does not translate) the contents of a non-magical scroll, book, or codex for the caster, and Ósuni, which fills the lungs of a designated target with saltwater, which can cause drowning if not immediately treated. The ten sample ideograms each come with their own actual ideograms and represent a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar in terms of spell design. For ease of use, it would have been better perhaps if the spells had been listed by Group rather than alphabetically, and potentially, the ideogram Hrún, which transmutes non-living objects into steel may have a game changing effect given how rare that metal is on Tékumel. Otherwise an interesting and different approach to magic that has room expansion and further mysteries.

The subject of magic continues with ‘The Magic-User’. This proposal suggests changes to the Magic-User Class from Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. This is to make the Class more flexible and less Change-oriented, offering a more balanced take so that a player could roleplay a Stability-worshipping sorcerer. It follows on from a similar treatment of the Warrior Class in The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 12 and gives a new list of initial professional skills, as well as an explanation of skills such as Aspects and Mythology and Inner Doctrines. Unfortunately, this is untested and it would need some playtesting, although the possibility of this seems unlikely in the short term.

‘Shiringgáyi: Queen of the Heavens and of Tékumel’ explores the religious history of  Tsolyánu’s eastern neighbour, Salarvyá, and its differences with the other faiths of the Five Empires derived from the priest Pavár’s theological revolution. Whilst scholars of the other Five Empires take an interest in that history, the Salarvyáni simply give Shiringgáyi pride of place among all the gods. Her influence and those of her priestesses is such that they sit on the country’s Council of Nobles which decides its next king, who is then ‘reborn’ as the ‘son of Shiringgáyi’ and rules until such times as he is deemed physically and mentally unfit to rule and as the goddess ‘withdraws her blessings’ from him, only accepting back into her bosom following his ritual impalement. This adds both background and detail to the world of Tékumel, and would not only be useful should the Player Characters visit Salarvyá, but also should a player want to roleplay a priestess of Shiringgáyi.

One of the best ongoing features in The Excellent Travelling Volume is the Patrons section. Each entry includes six ready-to-play NPCs, including stats, skills, and spells, as well as a thumbnail portrait, some background and a reason for their wanting to employ the Player Characters. Not only a reason, but also several different explanations as to what is actually going on. Thus, Di’iqén hiTurshína, a priest of Grugánu who believes that someone is trying to kill him. The explanations include the fact that he is mistaken, a rival attempting to discredit him by making him paranoid, his temple testing his suitability for advancement, and another rival competing for the affection of a pretty ritual priestess of Ksárul. Modelled after the entries in the supplement, 76 Patrons for the Science Fiction roleplaying game, Traveller—of which the author is an avowed fan—these patrons are excellent, each providing an individual NPC and an adventure that the Game Master can develop.

The second addition in the issue is ‘Poisons, Antidotes & Narcotics’, useful for campaigns which involve murder or assassination, or social situations, the latter given the fact that the societies of the Five Empires hold no stigma when it comes to the social use of ‘The Powders’ as they are known.

The first of the submissions to The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13 is ‘Puppetmaster Clans’ by Rob Smith. There are two of these in the Five Empires, the Society of the Hands Which Are Not Seen and the Clan of the Striding Incantation, and both are highly secretive about the arts they practice, the performance of sagas, plays, poems, and even gladiatorial duels using puppets of wood, metal, bone, and other materials, which then animated using spells. It adds the new skill, ‘Performer: Puppeteer’ and covers roles such as Puppet Artist, Set Designer/Craftsman, Musician, and more, as well as Puppetmaster Magic. This adds new spells such as Animate Puppets IAnimate Peerless Puppet, and even  Transfiguration, which turn the victim of the spell into a living puppet! The Puppetmaster clans perform regularly at the homes of the nobility and the roleplaying possibilities that they suggest are numerous, including single clan campaigns travelling the Five Empires getting involved in intrigues and seeing the world, murder mysteries, and more. Perhaps only lacking the lineage names for the respective clans, this is a fine addition to Tékumel campaign.

David A. Lemire provides more fiction in the form of ‘The Epic of Hrúgga. This brings to life one of the heroic figures from the past of the Five Empires, and in addition to being an enjoyable read, might serve as inspiration for a performance by the previously explored  ‘Puppetmaster Clans’.

Lastly, ‘Hanging on the Ropes’ by Mikael Tuominen is a lengthy encounter in the wilderness at  long, rope bridge crossing a ravine, river, or swamp. On its other side waits a lavishly but tastelessly dressed warrior with a gem-encrusted sword ready to strike at the ropes of the bridge. This is Kúrkuru hiSáchi, a soldier of fortune with a grudge to settle against the Temple of Hrü’ü for the death of his sister. The question is, does his vendetta have any basis in fact, is he acting nobly or ignobly? This is a really nicely developed encounter, relatively easy to drop into a campaign, which also forces the Player Characters to question their preconceptions. It also pleasingly addresses the issue for the point of view of both Stability and Change worshippers, and so feels nicely rounded. There should be more like this in the pages of the fanzine.

Physically, The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13 is nicely produced, a sturdy little booklet in a thick card cover, pleasingly illustrated and tidily presented throughout. 

The Excellent Travelling Volume Issue No. 13 continues the author’s excellent support for Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel. It is a solid issue, packed with content and background, made all the better for the submissions,  that the Referee can readily bring to her campaign.

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Black Pudding #6

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 showcased how 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 be 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.

Black Pudding is a fanzine that is nominally written for use with Labyrinth Lord and so is compatible with other Retroclones, but it is not a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style  fanzine. For starters, it is all but drawn rather than written, with artwork that reflects a look that is cartoonish, a tone that is slightly tongue in cheek, and a gonzo feel. Its genre is avowedly Swords & Sorcery, as much Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as Conan the Barbarian. Drawn from the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules and published by Random Order via Square HexBlack Pudding’s fantasy roleplaying content that is anything other than the straight-laced fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, but something a bit lighter, but still full of adventure and heroism. Issues onetwo, and three have showcased the author’s ‘Doomslakers!’ house rules with a mix of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. Black Pudding #4 included a similar mix of new Classes, NPCs, and an adventure, but also included the author’s ‘OSR Play book’, his reference for running an Old School Renaissance game, essentially showing how he runs his own campaign. Black Pudding #5 was more of a return to form, a mix of new character Classes, spells, magic items, monsters, NPCs, and adventures. It did, however, begin to suggest a campaign setting.

Black Pudding No. 6 continues where Black Pudding No. 5 left off. Previous issues of the fanzine have always been entertaining, but primarily felt like collections of new Classes, character sheets, monsters, and NPCs from the author’s ‘Doomslayers’ campaign, but without really presenting what that ‘Doomslayers’ campaign actually is. Now Black Pudding No. 5 did contain its own collection of new Classes, character sheets, monsters, and NPCs from the author’s ‘Doomslayers’ campaign, but it also included something more. This included the mini-sandbox, ‘Standing Stones of Marigold Hills’, but was really seen in ‘Adventures in the North’. This was a small region taken from Yria, part of the ‘Doomslakers’ campaign, beset by arctic temperatures, Ice Witch matriarchs, Ice Wights, and more! Parts of Black Pudding No. 6 carry on directly from ‘Adventures in the North’, but there is new setting material too. Further, Black Pudding No. 6 marks another shift, this time in terms of rules, so that it covers Old School Essentials as well as Labyrinth Lord.

Black Pudding No. 6 is not without its new character Classes. These begin with ‘The Fat Lady’, as in, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” This Charisma-based Class should ideally be clad in armour with literal breast plates and winged helmets, and is all about singing, first to increase her Strength, to heal, to inflict damage, and influence people. Combine this with the Barbaribunny Class from Black Pudding #1 and the Referee will quickly find herself running What’s Opera, Doc?! ‘The Demodyn’ is a wee demon person who constantly radiates heat, can cast Burning Hands daily and any fire spell from a scroll, and ultimately, open a portal to the Infernal Plane daily. The third Class is the Beastfriend, who possesses a supernatural affinity with wild creatures and can calm, befriend, and ultimately call them to come to the aid of the Beastfriend. 

One of the best on-going features in Black Pudding is ‘Meatshields of the Bleeding Ox’, a collection of NPCs ready for hire by the Player Characters (or in a pinch, replacement Player Characters). As before, there is a decent range of NPCs given here, such as Malloid the Mage, a Fifth Level Magic-User who knows many things, but if not, can ask the Kosmik Halo that constantly whirls about his head; Totterdun of Udderpeak, a Second Level Dwarf from a poorly regarded family of Dwarves, who likes to work, to get the job done as agreed—and no more, and then getting paid; and the Weird Boatmen, several Zero Level creatures who have access to the Boat of Safe Passage, who speak little, but for a price will safely take you across any body of water in complete safety. Where in previous issues there have just too many entries in this ongoing series, here they are kept to just eight and that feels just the right number.

The monsters in the issue a Monstrous Toad with a mucoid skin—the mucus can be collected and boiled to make a frog and toad repellent, and an unpleasant personality who enjoys giving out insults; Iggy the Husker, a pig-man-thing which can be summoned to hunt and dine on man; and the Nightstalker, a dog-like creature which nightly waits in the shadows to hunt those that be Powers That Be committed a bad act and should be punished. Only the victim can see it and he or she cannot ignore it lest their rolls be made at a disadvantage, the Nightstalker making a single claw and gaze attack nightly, the former inflicting deep scratches, the latter the random loss of Attribute points! The monsters here are more singular than is usual and perhaps all the more memorable for it.

‘Adventures in the North’ is continued from the previous issue and as well as adding soft, lumpy, and magical Snowmen who might come to the aid of of unwary travellers in the region, perhaps with healing magic, perhaps with messages written in the snow, it provides a table of things to be found upon the Frozen Victims of the Ice Witches. Found along the road to the north is Trence the Troll’s Roadhouse, owned by a hard man said to have troll’s blood in his veins and be capable of walking naked in the snow for miles, and claim that the weather was no more than, “a bit chilly”. For a good enough tip, he might impart some important piece of information that will help the Player Characters whilst they are in the north, but otherwise he will remain as cold and as tightlipped as his welcome—and he certainly will not explain why he has his mother in the cellar! Beyond lies the Domain of the Snow Witches, which Dembellina Rue, the Matron Prime rules with a cruelly icy grip and breeds goblins from filth and refuse. The two parts—in this issue and the previous one, provide a nicely done and particularly wintery north (barring the Ice Camels which feel silly), that can easily be dropped into a Referee’s campaign.

The feature article in Black Pudding No. 6 is ‘Underground Down Below: An Old School mapcrawl adventure for PC levels 3-6 or so’. This is a wilderness style adventure, but located underground, an underground into which the Player Characters have been cast, perhaps randomly, perhaps not. Down below, the Player Characters will find animated cave mouths capable of chomping them to bits, a shrine to the war goddess Hilda built from dung; mounds—some home to grumpy ants, some ambulatory and home to Granny Naga, other of soft stone upon which to fall asleep and fall prey to their hungry denizens; the remains of a once great, but long dead empire; a mighty palace crumbling under the care of decrepit, aging staff who await the return of their long lost leader; and walking villages home to tiny people who will also try to eat the Player Characters, though their attacks are like insect bites. If attacked the villages flip over and hide under thick shells.

There are almost forty locations in the ‘Underground Down Below’, all of them odd, even creepy. This feel is aided by the map and the intentionally scrappy presentation which pulls apart the map and provides a closer view of each location to accompany the description. This is necessary in part because the main map is cramped on the page, but this is not the real issue with the locale. Although there is plenty of ideas and imagination here, unless the Player Characters are cast down into it at random and thus need to find a way out, it does lack a hook or two for them to want to visit. This may necessitate the Referee combing through the various locations to derive such a motivation from them, which given the format is not as immediately easy as it should be. Overall, there is a lot of imagination to work with here, excepting motivations, and so ‘Underground Down Below’ is not as good as it could be.

‘A Trolling We Will Go’ provides a ready-to-play location, a play upon the idea of rolls being found under bridges. The Troll itself, an Urnt Troll, is a combination of the classic goat-hating Troll and the Dungeons & Dragons Troll, complete with powers of regeneration. The location is built and illustrated around a set of random tables which provide random finds, the Urnt Troll’s treasure, Trollish reactions, and more. Again, this is nicely detailed and easy to drop into a campaign.

Elsewhere in the issue, ‘A Curious NPC Approaches the Party’ provides a ready source of NPCs and their goals, whilst ‘Unfinished Puddin’’ adds numerous untested and undeveloped rules, such as Saving Throws being based directly on a character’s Attributes, better Armour Class for a barbarians if they actually wear less armour, and a more narrative-based Initiative order. All of these are workable to some degree, but adding these will change the retroclone of the Referee’s choice. Lastly, ‘Armour Class Hack: AC is Negative Only When Protection is Magical’ provides another alternative to Armour Class, this one limiting non-magical Armour Class to zero (or twenty, if ascending). Beyond magical armour is required and magical armour should be special, much like weapons can be special. This is a nice touch and has the potential to make armour much more interesting than it typically is in a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game.

Physically, Black Pudding No. 6 adheres to the same standards set by the previous issues. So plenty of good, if cartoonish artwork to give it a singular, consistent look, accompanied by similar cartography. As with previous issues of the fanzine, the potential and obvious problem with Black Pudding No. 6 is that its tone may not be compatible with the style of Dungeons & Dragons that a Labyrinth Lord or Game Master is running. The tone of Black Pudding is lighter, weirder, and in places just sillier than the baseline Dungeons & Dragons game, so the Referee should take this into account when using the content of the fanzine.

The highlight of Black Pudding No. 5 was that it contained content from the author’s ‘Doomslakers’ campaign and the hope of Black Pudding No. 5 was that this would continue in future issues. It has, but only to the extent that the ‘Adventures in the North’ article started in Black Pudding No. 5 is completed in this issue. It would have been great to see yet more, but this is not to say that the content in Black Pudding No. 6 is poor. The issue benefits from having fewer Classes and NPCs, in their stead there being a good encounter at a bridge, some interesting rules ideas to test out, and a potentially fun underground wilderness. It is this underground wilderness, ‘Underground Down Below’, which ultimately disappoints, only needing a little extra development and support to be more immediately useful. Black Pudding No. 6 is not quite as entertaining as previous issues, but its content is not without promise.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Stray Virassa

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 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 & 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 be 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.

Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell is a little different. Penned by Zedeck Siew—author of Lorn Song of the Bachelor—and drawn by Munkao, it is the fifth 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. Andjang: The Queen on Dog Mountain, the fourth, explores a vampire kingdom desperate for trade.

Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell is another island, lost at the tail of an archipelago. Ironically it is known as Lodestone, for it cannot be found or reached by conventional means of navigation—a ship has to set sail in a random direction and get lost. Which does not always work… Yet many have reasons to go there, primarily to gain access to the skills and abilities of the magicians of the isle, which is said to be very great indeed. Such petitioners typically have a great need, for the price charged by the magicians is also great. The strangeness of Stray Virassa is primary presented through NPCs, first those who are travelling to the island, second through the magicians themselves, and lastly, through the citizens of the island’s port city, Ka-Lak-Kak—and this is done in two ways. First in random tables to generate NPCs and second sample ready to portray NPCs.

So a traveller to Stray Virassa could be going there because they have been cursed by a business rival that whenever they speak, they cough up maggots. They do not seek a cure, but a reciprocal curse. Besides their strangely fouled mouth, they are known for the crooked wig which constantly slips from their sweat-slicked head, and whilst travelling light, their neck is heavy with brass amulets to ward off bad spirits. The magicians include Diffa Fu, an overly worldly twelve-year-old and fertility specialist who can put a baby in any women—or man, who also collects skulls and whose word is final for any descendant of such skulls she owns!

Ka-Lak-Kak itself is a ghost city and city of ghosts, solid during rainstorms, transparent under direct sunlight, which might lead to the disappearance of a floor several storeys high! It is the Fourteenth Hell, the Hell reserved for those lost at sea. None of these have feet, but simply fade away below the knee, so in life, one might have been a soldier who died fighting pirates and is armed with a crossbow with a string made of ectoplasm which fires bolts of flame, and as a ghost, has a hand whose fingers end in crab claws that they constantly click. Now, they herd the floating lanterns that replace ghosts too lazy to manifest and are philosophical about their new existence, except for a hatred of their husband, who constantly cheats on them. The irony of the soldier’s situation is that Ka-Lak-Kak and Stray Virassa is a pirate port. Not to traditional pirates, but ghost pirates whose raids are never planned and always unguided. When ghost pirates weigh anchor, their boat capsizes. Only to right itself somewhere on the water, be it a river canal or a mountain lake, to raid and reave before capsizing their vessel again and return home! If the wreck of a lost ship can be found—pirate or not, the nails which hold its thick planks together can be harvested and if used to construct another ship, will ensure that the new vessel never sinks—for no ship ever sinks twice. 

Ka-Lak-Kak and thus Stray Virassa is also home to the largest settlement of Mu-folk, outside of ancient, lost Mu, including its last potentate, the indolent Xeng Xin, whose days are spent running spirit dens and taking his share of the island’s pirate raids when not in a haze of opium. He also occasionally still claims that Mu is rightfully his, though he has no word from the old country in some time. Perhaps a loyal lieutenant might employ someone to bring news and even an individual from the former kingdom? As with previous issues, accompanying Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell is an insert, a foldout poster of extra tables. These include tables for determining the details of ghosts who have wandered the sea-floor for decades, and a drop table of ‘Memories of Mu’ to flesh out questions that the Player Characters might ask whilst on Stray Virassa.

Physically, Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell 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.

As with entries in the Thousand Thousand Isles series, Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell 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 nautical setting such as Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport: The City of Adventure or even a lost isle in H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, whether for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition or another roleplaying game. However it is used, if the Game Master can get her Player Characters to its borders—and its randomly accessed nature makes that relatively easy—Stray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell is creepy and magical and weird, simply, but evocatively and beautifully presented and written pirate and ghost haven intentionally lost.

—oOo—

The great news is that is Upper Heleng: The Forest Beloved by TimeMR-KR-GR The Death-Rolled KingdomKrachingAndjang: The Queen on Dog MountainStray Virassa: The Lost and Fourteenth Hell
and the others in the Thousand Thousand Isles setting are now available outside of Malaysia. Details can be found here.

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs

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. Lastly, Echoes From Fomalhaut #05: The Enchantment of Vashundara focused primarily on smuggling town of Tirwas and the caves underneath it through which the contraband is taken.

Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs continues the stronger focus of the previous issue. The issue opens with ‘The Wandering Glade’, a wilderness module for Player Characters of Fourth to Sixth Levels. It details a nomadic labyrinth of an ancient forest; its ancient trees moss laden and its caves and clearings home to long forgotten secrets known to the high druids of the past. There are few ways in—the route walked by the Pilgrims of the Lunar Oath is one, others are known to certain groups, and then the glade itself may wander into the path of travellers and swallow them up. It has an almost spiral layout, one that will pull the Player Characters further in, and perhaps under, as they seek a way out, encountering creatures and beings out of myth and folklore—the old ways, as some might call it—as well as the fae and other creatures of the forest, not to forget the bandits who reave its paths (and between them) in search of victims for their sacrificial ceremonies to the thorns and the oak to ensure harmony between man and nature. This is a bucolic and baroque forest dungeon, full of detail and flavour, and perhaps mysteries, which will appeal to any Druid or Ranger in the party—the former in particular.

The main article in the issue presents at the oft mentioned campaign location, ‘The City of Vultures’. Much in the mode of Imrryr of Moorcock’s Melniboné or Professor M.A.R. Barker’s Jakálla: The City Half As Old As Time—especially the latter as the author acknowledges, the City of Vultures is an ancient crumbling metropolis, rot bound and hidebound, its high-born and low-born ill-cast and ill-disposed, yet given to the worship of evil demigods and given to cruel and unyielding customs, once a great power, now friendless and warred upon from all sides. Although various locations are described, in the main, this is a city described faction by faction. These include its cruel leader, Mirvander Khan and  the many gods and demi-gods, like The Worshippers of the Columns, ascetics who whirl about the colossal columns seen about the city, often battering themselves senseless when not screaming out prophecies that drive mobs to do terrible things and Kwárü Khan, a former ruler who degenerated into a black, worm-like horror who stalks the streets at night in search of victims which it whispers horrid secrets, often incomprehensible or allegorical, into their ears. The city’s societies include Deston, a secret society dedicated to weird harmonies using oddly shaped tuning forks that are harmful and organised into cells which each only know limited number of harmonies; The Followers of Dókh, a parish caste whose duty it is to collect the dead—and the legally dead—and chain them atop the city’s roofless towers to be picked clean by the many vultures which circle the city; and the Warriors of the Tiger, a military brotherhood loyal to Mirvander Khan whose members paint their scars or wear iron masks which scare the peoples of the city and regularly walk the city with their trained tigers, free to kill whomever they want. In turn, customs and places are given similar treatment and level of detail, adding flavour and feel to the setting of the City of Vultures. The article details some of the dungeons and levels below the city, but in the main, they are left for future expansion and presentation in Echoes From Fomalhaut #06. It also goes beyond the walls of the City of Vultures to provide an overview of the northern coast of Thasan and the Sea of Kroitos upon which the city stands.

Included with Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs is a quite lovely, double-sided mini-poster map, on which side is a players’ map of the City of Vultures whilst on the other is a hex-map of Thasan. However, as rich in detail and flavour as ‘The City of Vultures’ is, it is missing two things. The author describes it as being built on three pillars—a system of city encounters for street-level adventures, descriptions of the conspiracies rampant within the city, and write-ups of the city’s Underworlds and adventure locations. The third and last of these pillars is begun to be addressed in the very issue itself and will continue to be addressed in further issues, as will the second pillar. However, the first pillar requires another supplement, The Nocturnal Table. Of course, this is annoying, but there is nothing to stop the Dungeon Master using table she already has or indeed, creating her. However, they might not have the flavour of The Nocturnal Table.

The second adventure in Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs is the eponymous ‘The Gallery of Rising Tombs’. Again designed Player Characters of Fourth to Sixth Levels, this is part of the Underworld below the City of Vultures, said to be the resting place of five nobles from when the city was founded who are said to be held aloft twist heaven and earth, so of great interest to historians. However, ‘The Gallery of Rising Tombs’ is only partly about those tombs, but getting to them. They are concealed beneath the Temple of Sürü Miklári, the god of rats whose priests know and will sometimes sell some of the city’s lesser and greater secrets that its packs have overheard. However, there is only one known entrance to the Temple of Sürü Miklári, and that is quite literally barred. Fortunately, it is rumoured that there are side entrances which bypass the barred entrance and provide access to the temple, both of which, are of course, detailed. One is in the home of a seedy caravanserai, the other in a filthy underground theatre, either of which the Player Characters will have to either fight, bribe, or sneak their way through in order to find the entrance. There are another five levels below the entrances, consisting of temple and tomb complexes, plus the court belonging to a god.

‘The Gallery of Rising Tombs’ is rich in detail and flavour, presenting level after level of baroque, sweaty and forgotten complexes of rooms and warrens. If it is missing anything, it is perhaps a hook or two to pull the Player Characters into wanting to delve deep into the Underworld under the City of Vultures, and whilst the Dungeon Master is free to develop these herself, the process is not eased by the lack of NPCs in the earlier ‘The City of Vultures’ who might be interested and also, whilst the tombs of the nobles and their inhabitants are detailed, what is not, is the sort of information which would motivate a scholar to want to delve that deep into the Underworld. As written, ‘The Gallery of Rising Tombs’ just is, leaving the Dungeon Master to do all of the set-up.

Rounding out the issue is ‘The Armoury’. This is quite possibly the richest two pages of magical items committed to paper, presenting almost thirty items, one paragraph after another. Again, there is a lot of flavour, mostly mechanical to these entries, but it gives them a pleasing individuality. For example, The Sword of the Basilisks is a longsword +1 which petrifies victims on a natural roll of nineteen or twenty, but where a victim gets a save, the wielder never does against petrification of any kind. Or The Sword of Vilet Kanebe, which is a damned blade, a longsword -2, which actually transfers the curse to the victim of a first successful hit in combat and thereafter becomes a longsword +1, only to revert at the end of the battle. In both cases, as well as many others in the article, a little mechanical complexity adds some flavour.

Physically, Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs is decently presented. It is perhaps a bit cramped in places, whilst the maps are often rough, they work and they are not without their charm. The artwork selected is also good.

It is great to finally see an introduction to the City of Vultures in the pages of Echoes From Fomalhaut, and ‘The City of Vultures’ in Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs certainly serves as an excellent primer to the mouldering city. Hopefully future issues will explore the city further and perhaps also provide the Dungeon Master with some hooks and some NPCs which can help her run the type of city adventures that the publisher professes to be fond of. The two scenarios in the issue are also good, the forest adventure actually easier to use than the dungeon adventure, which for all of its detail is disappointing. Nevertheless, the continued focus on fewer, longer articles in Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs continue provide interesting gaming content.

—oOo—

An unboxing of Echoes From Fomalhaut #06: The Gallery of Rising Tombs can be found here

Saturday, 28 August 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Grogzilla #1

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 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 & 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 be 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.

Once per year, The Grognard Files, a North of England podcast dedicated to the games of the late seventies and early eighties, in particular, RuneQuest, hosts Grogmeet a one-day convention in Manchester, again in the North of England. As The Armchair Adventurers, the podcast also publishes its fanzine, just once a year, and typically timed for release at Grogmeet. The first issue, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, is available as a ‘Pay What You Want’ PDF available to download with the proceeds of the sale of the fanzine will donated to continue the running of Yog-sothoth.com, the best site dedicated to Lovecraft and Lovecraftian investigative horror. More recent issues, The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 and The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 have sadly not followed suit, but for members of the ‘Grog Squad’ and attendees of Grogmeet, both issues continue to serve up thick, syrupy wodges of nostalgia and gaming inspired by their youths in the nineteen eighties. Of course, worldwide circumstances means that there has been no Grogmeet since 2019 and thus no issue of The Grognard Files, but The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 was not the only fanzine to be released at Grogmeet in 2019. Further, that fanzine has gone on to be expanded following a Kickstarter campaign and unlike The Grognard Files – Annual 2019, is still available.

Grogzilla #1 is published by D101 Games, best known for the OpenQuest roleplaying game and the Glorantha fanzine, Hearts in Glorantha. It is undeniably a showcase for what the publisher does and is full of ideas and bits and pieces, some of which are silly, some useful, and some interesting. The issue starts with the silly—‘A Question of Ducks’, which is a poll of Twitter and the Grog Squad—as fans of The Grognard Files podcast are known—and their feelings about Ducks in gaming. The questions are mostly related to Glorantha, the answers varying from series to silly, depending upon how the respondent feels about Ducks. ‘Four Faces of Grogzilla’ is almost as silly, presenting four versions of the not-kaiju for D101 Games’ different roleplaying games—OpenQuest, Crypts and Things, Monkey the RPG, and River of Heaven: Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the 28th Century. Thus, Grogzilla for OpenQuest is a half-dragon, half demonic reptile thing which slumbers deep under the earth, but which cult priests can summon him to rampage across the land once again, whilst hysterical mobs sacrifice to him in order to avoid such a fate! Then for River of Heaven, Robozilla is a giant robot originally intended to be used to help terraform the world of Terrosa, but since stolen by terrorists! More fun perhaps is Monkeyzilla, for Monkey the RPG, the ten-storey high, fire breathing lizard which the Monkey King transformed into to fight the Pagoda Throwing General, which nobody talks about because of all the destruction wrought in the ensuing battle!

The scenario in Grogzilla #1 is ‘Wigan Pigs’. Written for use with Swords & Wizardry, but therefore adaptable to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice, the scenario is a sequel to The Road to Hell, which is also set during Elizabethan times. It is a mixture of Tudor fantasy and horror, the Player Characters sent by Doctor John Dee to England’s northwest to locate a consignment of missing pigs which should have been delivered to the Irish butcher and purveyor of fine sausages, Mrs Figgins. Such a mundane task hides a nasty secret and a moral quandary for the Player Characters and for Game Master a moment to reflect wonder if the scenario should not have been called ‘The Road to Wigan Pig’ instead. The scenario is also easy to adapt to other systems, but perhaps the most obvious in the two years since the fanzine’s publication is The Dee Sanction.

There are multiple Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games, but Grogzilla #1 offers one more with ‘Outsiders’. This is a game design document, suggesting how the author might design his own Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying game were he to do so. First to avoid what Call of Cthulhu does and use those elements of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction which are in the public domain and then… The result is a scaled down concept, using a simple mechanic with just two six-sided dice, skills which can damage and are therefore harder to use. The Player Characters are actual outsiders, punks and rockers, radical scientists, drifters, hackers, and more, with talents such as Athletics, Science, Gobsite(!), and the like. The opposition consists of Horrors, similarly scaled down, Deep Ones, cultists, and the like, whilst deities—or alien intelligences—are ineffable, unknowable, working their way through their proxies. It would be fascinating to see this developed further by the author, but with access to the fanzine, there is nothing to stop the reader from developing it further.

‘The Six Traveller’s Culture – Magical Questing Gypsies for Mythras’ presents a Culture and its faith for use with The Design Mechanism’s Mythras. A preview of a forthcoming supplement from D101 Games, there is a danger here in presenting gaming content based on other cultures, but this very much appears to have been sensitively done. It provides for their skills—standard, combat styles, and professional, cultural passions, and more. The Six Travellers constantly journey in wagons following routes long established by their heroes and gods, many in the footsteps of the Six, searching for the magical Way Stones, long lost, but capable of fostering trade and safe passage. In their way are the agents of a malevolence known as the Ignorance. Accompanied by notes on the social castes amongst the Six Travellers this culture would make an interesting addition to a fantasy campaign.

Further previews follow. ‘Lost Fools of Atlantis’ is a preview of a roleplaying game about conspiracies and the ridiculousness of conspiracy theories, more a black comedy than a serious game. Again, the game is yet to appear, but the fiction is sufficiently intriguing to wonder what it might be like and actually be about. Lastly ‘The Barbarian at the Gate’ is a preview of Swords Against the Shroud, a rewrite of the Barbarian Class from Crypts and Things for use with The Black Hack, Second Edition. With a high Constitution, a certain fearlessness, initial ferocity in a fight, outdoor survival skills, it is exactly what you would expect in a classic fantasy treatment of the Barbarian. It is well done, with plenty of mechanical flavour and would certainly be fun to play. Between the two, is ‘Pitbull’, a sample NPC, a street ronin, for the Cyberpunk roleplaying game, Reboot. It seems decent enough, but not having seen the roleplaying game, it is difficult to comment further.

Physically, Grogzilla #1 is a ‘rough cut’ affair (note, the version available on Drivethrurpg.com will be different), not quite the ‘deckle edge’ feel, but definitely something with a ‘put together by hand’ feel. Black and white throughout, the cover has pleasing linen finish and the roughness continues throughout the fanzine. Not necessarily to its detriment, but it gives it the amateurish feel of fanzines of old.

Grogzilla #1 is a medley of ideas and previews, not necessarily useful, but nevertheless interesting. The scenario though, ‘Wigan Pigs’, is the exception and easily adaptable.

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Lands of Legends - Mundane

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 & 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. However, not every fanzine—for the Old School Renaissance or otherwise—needs to be for a specific set of rules.

Lands of Legends – Mundane is part of series of fanzines released as part of ZineQuest3 on Kickstarter. Published by Axian Spice, there are five entries in the series—Lands of Legends – Grim, Lands of Legends – Fairy, Lands of Legends – Holy, Lands of Legends – Primeval, and of course, Lands of Legends – Mundane—each of which provides two hundred different entries spread across twenty tables, all sorted by terrain type, including city, desert, forest, island, mountain, swamp, and more. The aim of the series is to provide a toolkit for the Game Master wanting inspiration in terms of worldbuilding and encounters for her setting and campaign.

The entries in the Lands of Legends series are colour-coded and Lands of Legends – Mundane is white and provides thumbnail descriptions of places and situations intended for low fantasy and low magic settings and campaigns, focusing on the natural environment and ordinary events, rather than high fantasy, dark secrets and grim magic, the realms of the fae, the divine and the holy, and so on. It adheres to the format for the series in two ways. First, provides a table of ten Area entries in turn for Civilisations, Deserts, Forests, Jungles, Mountains & Hills, Plains & Valleys, Rivers & Lakes, Seas & Islands, Swamps & Marshes, and Wastelands, and then it does exactly the same for Encounters. Second, it splits the Area entries and the Encounter entries and places them back-to-back so that to use either, the Game Master has to flip the book over and turn it upside down.

So, open up the ‘Mundane Areas’ half of the fanzine and a roll on the ‘Mundane Civilisations’ table would generate the result of ‘The City of Towers’, which details how the merchants of a city that once stood on the banks of a river grew rich enough to construct tall towers as their homes, but refused to move when the valley and thus the ground floor and cellar of every building was permanently flooded, including their towers. In the years since, the entrances to the flooded lower levels have been barricaded off and terraces and arched bridges built between the towers, but what secrets, treasures, and dangers lurk in the waters below? Flip over the book to the Encounters half and a roll on the ‘Mundane Deserts’ table provides an encounter with natives engaging in the practice of ‘sand diving’. Much like pearl divers, these natives dive for natural treasures, but not pearls and not in the sea, but into pools of quicksand to be pulled back up by rope, hopefully with a beautiful desert rose crystal in their grasp!

With a hundred entries for both the Areas and the Encounters, some no longer than two or three sentences, some a little more detailed, there is no doubting the wealth of inspiration to be found in the pages of Lands of Legends – Mundane. For the most part, the entries are systems neutral, so the Game Master can use them for the roleplaying game of her choice, whether generic, like Savage Worlds or something more specific, like Dungeons & Dragons. The latter—and thus almost any retroclone of the Game Master’s choice—is slightly better supported because Lands of Legends – Mundane does use some Dungeons & Dragons terminology, such as ‘Save versus Poison’ or ‘Hit Dice’. This of course eases the adaptation of the content for the Game Master.

Lands of Legends – Mundane is cleanly and neatly laid out. The difference between the two sections—the Areas and the Encounters halves—of the book are nicely delineated, with one being in traditional black on white, the other white on black. Simple line art or silhouettes further highlight the difference.   

Lands of Legends – Mundane is plain and simple in appearance, but its content is anything but. For the Game Master wanting ideas or inspiration, there can be no denying that Lands of Legends – Mundane is rich in both. Plus the fact that it can do both inspire world building and encounters gives Lands of Legends – Mundane a pleasing versatility to both the inspiration and the ideas.
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Friday, 27 August 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] The Grognard Files – Annual 2019

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 & 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.

The Grognard Files is a fanzine born of The Grognard Files, a North of England-based podcast dedicated to the games of the late seventies and early eighties, in particular, RuneQuest. It is available only to patrons of the podcast—or alternatively to attendees of Grogmeet a one-day convention in Manchester, again in the North of England. It is also put out just once a year. Published by The Armchair Adventurers, the first issue, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, is available as a ‘Pay What You Want’ PDF available to download with the proceeds of the sale of the fanzine being donated to continue the running of Yog-sothoth.com, the best site dedicated to Lovecraft and Lovecraftian investigative horror. More recent issues, The Grognard Files – Annual 2018 and The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 have sadly not followed suit, but for members of the ‘Grog Squad’ and attendees of Grogmeet, both issues continue to serve up thick, syrupy wodges of nostalgia and gaming inspired by their youths in the nineteen eighties.

It would seem remiss to be reviewing The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 in the summer of 2021 rather than more recent issue, but in truth, circumstances mean that there was no Grog Meet in 2020 and no The Grognard Files – Annual 2020 either. So The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 it is then. Previous issues have taken their design cue from gaming magazines of the nineteen eighties, White Dwarf being the most obvious. With The Grognard Files – Annual 2019, the design cue is taken from DragonLords, the British role-playing game fanzine published between 1980 and 1983. It thus moves The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 to a digest format rather than the magazine size of White Dwarf or Imagine and it comes crammed full of the type of content that middle-aged men that will shut themselves away with a cup of tea and wallow in the gaming years of their yesteryear before being asked to put the bins out/do the washing up/take one of their offspring to football, music lessons, and the like.

Opening with an editorial which highlights the role of fanzines in providing a community for gamers—they were the Internet before the Internet—The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 gets down to gaming goodness. It opens Neil Benson’s ‘OSR this, OSR that, but what is it?’, which provides an explanation of what the Old School Renaissance is and what it sets out to do. It points to the source for the Old School Renaissance, that is, early Dungeons & Dragons, and explains the key points of creating and playing in the movement. So simple, quick Player Character generation; freedom of play in terms of hexcrawls and sandcrawls, and the like; emphasises player agency in solving problems rather than relying on skill rolls, and so on. There are eight of these points, but Benson does not simply list them, but sets them out as a quest undertaken by an adventuring party to learn what the OSR. This makes the piece much more entertaining than a simple explanation of what the Old School Renaissance would otherwise have been. It includes a short list of sample retroclones and is accompanied by a thumbnail review of Chris Gonnerman’s Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, written by Shannon Ferguson.

A similar convention is used to explain what one of the oldest roleplaying games is. ‘A Bluffer’s Guide to Tékumel’ is actually written by me (and in truth, I had forgotten I had written the piece) and is presented as an in-game monologue delivered by a minor bureaucrat to a barbarian who knows nothing of the setting for Professor M.A.R. Barker’s Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. It is all a bit knowing and po-faced, but provides a simple enough introduction.

The nostalgia in The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 begins in earnest with Cris Watkins’ ‘Games Master Immortality’. It is about bad, but funny memories of Player Character deaths brought about by the Game Master simply getting it wrong. Part-Game Master advice, part-hoary old war stories, such as over the course of a campaign driving the Player Characters so paranoid that when a new player turns up with a new character, their first reaction is to not trust the character and then turn on him when his player seems to confirm their suspicions. Yes, it is cruel, but at the same time funny, though ultimately best not necessarily implemented in a Game Master’s campaign as not every player may see the funny side.

The nostalgia continues with both Nick Edwards and Alan Gairey taking a look back at Judges Guild. First with Nick Edwards’ ‘The Guilded Age – Thoughts on Judges Guild’ which examines the delights of City State of the Invincible Overlord which forced him to create his own content, in the main a thief and crime-based campaign much like the Lankhmar setting of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novels. Although the author would make further purchases of Judges Guild titles, and praises those that he likes, he has since returned to the City State of the Invincible Overlord for other campaigns and City State of the Invincible Overlord would also influence his preference in gaming for cities rather than dungeons! Alan Gairey also focuses on the one title from Judges Guild with ‘An Ode to Inferno: Abandon hope all ye that enter…’, which is the 1980 module, Inferno. This presented the first four circles of Hell as a challenging dungeon and the author ran it several times, each time nearly ending in the death of the whole party. The article comes to rather droll end, but is accompanied by a list of some of the other better titles published by the prolific Judges Guild, all of which in their way, would be worthy of articles such as these two. 

The feature piece in The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 is ‘Steel Hearts & Straight Razors’. Written by Roger Coe, this is a scenario for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but not the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay of the nineteen eighties. Rather it is for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition published by Cubicle 7 Entertainment. Almost thirty pages in length and thus almost half of the fanzine, ‘Steel Hearts & Straight Razors’ is a convoluted murder mystery and conspiracy thriller, involving guild rivalries, hair stylists, cultists, and ecumenical matters, all specifically designed to be set in the city or large town of the Game Master’s choice. It opens with a dangerous encounter chanced upon by the Player Characters between a blue glowing demon-man-thing and a poorly victim. The scene ends with both demon and victim dead, which leaves the Player Characters with a problem or two. The demon was once a man, so who was he? Who was the victim and what was the meaning of his dying words? Investigation will reveal more and more, perhaps initially with the Player Characters attempting to avoid the City Watch—especially if they happen to be carrying either of the corpses with them, then finding employment from a surprising quarter, and more. There is a fair bit going on in this scenario and the Player Characters will really need to dig deep to discover some the city’s secrets, but in true Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay fashion, their investigation will take them from lows of society to the heights and back again, revealing perfidious goings on. Although it does feel a bit crammed in, ‘Steel Hearts & Straight Razors’ is a gem of a scenario, offering lots of opportunity for combat, investigation, and roleplaying, adeptly hitting all of the signature notes you would want in a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay scenario, but without being location specific.

Sean Hillman gets systems specific with ‘A Short History of the Long Dice – The story of percentage based games’. It is more of an overview than anything else, too brief to provide any real insight. A better article might have explored more of the nuances between the various roleplaying games to have used percentile dice. Newt Newport details the history of his own company with ’10 Years of D101 Games’, the article sadly missing some text in true fanzine fashion, but nevertheless an enjoyable and informative piece. Perhaps it could have done with a bibliography, though that would have made it less personal.

The nostalgia continues with the memories of Niall Hunt and others of their gaming youth with ‘Gaming in the Shire’ and the founding and running of Evesham Roleplaying Association. There is a certain pleasure to be had here in reading reminiscences similar to your own—and of course those of The Grognard Files podcast files hosts—and of course, having them in print. Back in The Grognard Files – Annual 2018, ‘Keharr’ presented ‘Pendragon: City of Legions’, a fascinating exploration of his Pendragon PBEM set in the northwest of England. For this issue he provides not so much an update, but a sort of guide to running such a thing with ‘How to Fry your Fish-Fingers – Lessons learnt from running a Cheshire Pendragon Play By Email’. The advice is both applicable to Pendragon PBEM games and non- Pendragon PBEM games, such as taking disagreements offline, be clear about the rules, listen to your players, and much more. There are still some personal touches and it is clear from the article that the author and his players continue to enjoy running and playing the PBEM.

Lastly, ‘All That Glitters…’ by Jerry Nuckolls, compares and contrasts the two versions of the classic superhero roleplaying game, Golden Heroes, by Simon Burley and Peter Haines. One is their self-published version from 1982, the other the Games Workshop version from 1984. The review as such, does lack illustrations, barring a suitably fanzine-ish cartoon that has a sly dig at Games Workshop, but is a fascinating read because it is often forgotten that there even was a self-published version. What the article highlights is that the differences between the two are relatively minor. Which only goes to show how good the self-published version was that the authors and Games Workshop did not have to do a great deal to bring the version we know to print.

Physically, The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 has a rough quality to it, by design as much as by accident. It needs an edit here and there and feels alternatively cramped and overly spacious in places. It is lightly illustrated, but they are generally well handled, and the cartography for the scenario, ‘Steel Hearts & Straight Razors’, is excellent. Similarly, the wraparound cover from Russ Nicholson is superb.

As with previous issues, The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 delivers a good mix of nostalgia, opinion, and a little bit of gaming content. Indeed, pride of place goes to that gaming content, the scenario, ‘Steel Hearts & Straight Razors’, which is worth the price of the fanzine alone. It is a formula which The Armchair Adventurers have followed before—and it works. It would be fantastic to see this issue made available to the wider gaming hobby, perhaps for a decent cause much like The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, but in the meantime, The Grognard Files – Annual 2019 and further issues are bonus for supporting The Grognard Files podcast.

[Fanzine Focus XXVI] Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options!

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, whilst 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 and Crawl! No. 9: The Arwich Grinder provided a complete classic Character Funnel in Lovecraftian mode.

Published in August, 2014, Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options returns to the theme of the earlier Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection, that of Class in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. One of the design cues for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is Basic Dungeons & Dragons in that it employs the ‘Race as Class’ option for its choice of character Classes, that the Dwarf, the Elf, and the Halfling are all Classes in their own right. This as opposed to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and later iterations of the world’s most popular roleplaying game which separated the two and allowed a player to combine the Race and Class of his choice. Such options are not present in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game though, and further, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is not a game which has presented such options. So there is no equivalent of the Player’s Handbook 2 or the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. The space left by such an omission—if omission it is—is exactly that into which fanzines and similar publications like Crawl! and in this case, Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options, can step.

In particular, Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options focuses on the Demi-Human Classes—the Dwarf, the Elf, and the Halfling. It provides new options to play each of these Races, but through a new Class. For the Dwarf, this is the Dwarven Priest by Jeffrey Tadlock. Primarily Lawful—though Chaotic and Neutral ones exist—this Class combines the abilities of the Dwarf, the Cleric, and the Warrior. The Class gains a deed die from Third Level and can perform a Mighty Deed of Arms, but also gains several spells known per Level. The other three new Classes are by Rev. Dak J. Ultimak. These start with the Elven Rogue which combines the magic of the Elf Class with the thiefing skills of the Thief, which are necessarily beholden to a Patron as the Elf normally is. Just like the Thief, the skill bonuses the Elven Rogue is determined by his Alignment—Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral. The Halfling Burglar is given a similar set of tables as it moves the traditional Halfling of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game away from his martial bent and towards what is seen as the traditional role for the Halfling—or at least its traditional role for its inspiration. So the Halfling Burglar is thus more like the supposed role of Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit. Guidance is included in the descriptions of the Elven Rogue and the Halfling Burglar with the ‘My Thief, My Way’ from Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection should a player want to modify which skills he wants his Rogue—Elf or Halfling—to have. The last Class in the fanzine is another Halfling Class which where the Halfling Burglar makes the Halfling be a Thief, makes the Halfling a Warrior! The Halfling Champion combines the Mighty Deed of Arms of the Warrior with Luck of the Halfling and adds to it the ability to wield the longsword, the Warhammer, and the heavy axe not in the one hand as per other Races because Halflings are tiny, but two-handed! This comes at a penalty to the Halfling Champion’s Initiative die, but nevertheless, the Halfling Champion is a doughty, fearless warrior ready to step forward* and protect his village.

* I would have written ‘ready to step up’, but that is Halflingist.

These four Classes are engaging and fun, offering new roleplaying opportunities. For example, playing a Halfling Champion would be wholly different to playing a Halfling. However, it would have been nice to have been given some information on who or what the Dwarven Priest typically worships, so the inclusion of a Patron or two would have been a nice inclusion. As well as offering new choices, the inclusion of the four Classes do something else, and that is push Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game further away from the baseline of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and more towards Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—though still a long way from getting there. Just as with any content in a fanzine, these four Classes are all optional, but their inclusion would be worth considering.

Just as there is no combining Race and Class in Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, there is no Multi-Classing either. ‘Half-Levels’ is Daniel J. Bishop’s solution to this, enabling a player to select a half-Level up to three times, each time choosing the equivalent of Zero Level in another Class. Then at subsequent Levels switch to the new Class. The mechanics feel just a little too complex to easily provide what the author is trying to do, but they include notes for all of the core Classes in the roleplaying game as well as those which appeared in the earlier Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection, so ultimately the article covers a lot of choices whilst providing the player with even more options.

Colin Chapman’s ‘Not Just a Pretty Face’ provides a means for a player to create the random physical appearance for his character. It starts with a baseline for each Race and adds a Baseline followed by hair and eye colour, and so on. Lastly, the player can roll for a physical feature, whether negative, neutral, or positive. All very neat and simple, enabling the player to add colour and detail to his character’s appearance, and the Judge to do the same for her NPCs. Lastly, Noah Stevens casts a spotlight on three different third-party Races in ‘Three Weird Races’. Each is accompanied by a link, whether a blog or DrivethruRPG.com. Potentially useful at the time of the issue’s publication, but ultimately more filler than useful.

Physically, Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options is decently done, a clean and tidy affair. The artwork—done by Mario T—is a lot of fun and really captures the feel of the four new Classes in particular. 

Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options is very serviceable issue. The high points of the issue are the four new Classes, which expand the play of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game with new options and new roleplaying potential. Whether or not the Judge or her players want to expand their game and thus move away from the core of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is their choice, but the options are there.