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Sunday 5 September 2021

Magazine Madness 8: Tabletops and Tentacles #2

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.


Published in June, 2020, Tabletops and Tentacles #1 – The Kickstarter Edition proved to be both a disappointment and enjoyable. It promised to be, “The monthly magazine of RPGs, Tabletop Games, Comic Conventions, Art Reviews, Adventures & More! In this prodigious premiere issue, you will find adventure hooks for roleplaying games, RPG dice tables, reviews, artist and game designer interviews, original art, tips, tricks, NPCs, treasure and maps.” It was an ambitious claim, and it very much made it sound like a gaming magazine. It was not, and that was the disappointing bit. The problem is was that its focus initially and in the main was on the ‘More’ of that subtitle—books, films, computer games, and so on rather than games. This is not to say that there was no roleplaying content to be found in its pages. There was, and it was decent too. Kristopher McClanahan’s systemless, Lovecraftian ode to Pulp Sci-Fi roleplaying games, ‘Realm of the Moon Ghouls Part 1: The Starship Poe’ was fun, and ‘H’AKKENSLASH! An original RPG system’ by Benjamin C. Bailey showed promised. Thus once you accepted that Tabletops and Tentacles #1 was not a gaming magazine, but a general fandom magazine with the gaming content saved for the issue’s back half, it proved to be an enjoyable read.

Tabletops and Tentacles #2 – The Quarantine Issue follows the same format, but it is a much queerer beast, for this is the issue written during and in response to the year in lockdown that was 2020. Published in January, 2021 by Deeply Dapper Games, the issue offers up the usual mix of columns, features, and interviews, covering films—lots of films, reviews, and more, all coloured by the fact that its contributors had to stay at home and not go anywhere. That starts with Kris McClanahan’s editorial ‘Notes from the Depths’, in which he laments the change in circumstances forced upon him and his partner by the pandemic. That is no criticism, for we have all had to do it and adapt as best we can, but he is more used to travelling and presenting at one convention after another. There can be no doubt that Covid-19 has changed many lives and the way we live, and its spread is the closest that we have come to an apocalypse—yet. How we survived and what we did is reflected in the issue, which focuses on plagues, apocalypses, pandemics, and the like across our media. This is very much reflected in the issue’s first half, which does feel as if can be summed up as ‘What I watched in quarantine’. The issue’s reviews—the previews having been dropped due to the difficulty of their being relevant—cover a mix of the old and the new, including a lot of crime such as S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and Michael Connelly’s Fair Warning. The fantastic includes Peace Talks, the latest Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and the graphic novel, The Adventure Zone Vol. 1: Here There Be Gerblins by The McElroys & Carey Pietsch. The ‘Spotlight’ on The Andromeda Strain is sadly all too short in comparison to the reviews of Netflix series like Warrior Nun and Amazon Prime films such as Blow the Man Down. Video game reviews include the excellent The Outer Worlds, Griftlands and Earth Defense Force 5, plus tabletop reviews which cover Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos and the first part of the adventure quartet, Yig Snake Granddaddy: Act 1: A Land Out Of Time. In general, it is a good mix of reviews, the familiar with the unfamiliar.

In ‘Thoom! Theater’ Thom Chiaramonte presents his fantasy cast for The Fantastic Four. This is an interesting take upon the classic Marvel superhero group, more interesting than the previous filmic takes, including detailed casting suggestions and a complete story outline. With an origin shifted forward to the nineteen seventies rather than the nineteen sixties, this is all very speculative, but given the recent release of the series, What If! for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it does not read as being, well, too fantastic.

Less useful and less interesting—at least for a non-American readership—is Kris McClanahan’s ‘Islands in the Stream:  The Tabletops & Tentacles Guide To Streaming Channels’, which does what it says on the tin. An eleven-page guide and opinion to every television and film streaming service imaginable. Many of these are available outside of the USA, but then just how many such services do you need, or indeed, have time to watch? The counterpoint to this guide is his ‘In Praise of Physical Media’, which highlights the advantages of checking your library of DVDs you have been avoiding with all of that ready access to instant video on demand. Better quality, limited choice (really!), and of course, the extras. It would have been interesting to find out a little bit as to what he pulled off the shelf, but otherwise definitely a better read than the streaming guide.

Also a better read is the editor’s second entry in the regular column, ‘50 Films You DON’T Need To See’. In Tabletops and Tentacles #1, it was Toy Story. In Tabletops and Tentacles #2, it is Night of the Living Dead, and as before, this is an examination of the film, warts and all. It is better for it, because despite it being a cliché in places (but then it was the original and set those clichés!), some odd shots, limited budget, and the then inexperience of George A. Romero, it is still very much a classic zombie and classic horror film. This is an enjoyable re-examination of the film, and it is very much s pity that The Andromeda Strain did not receive a similar—though not exact—treatment earlier, as given its age and subject matter, it would have been very appropriate for the issue.

Both the ‘What I watched in quarantine’ and the plague themes continue with ‘The Binge’ in which the editor takes advantage of one streaming service after another to dive down a rabbit hole of one bad apocalyptic film followed by probably worse bad apocalyptic film… If the article is not worth reading for the films—and the likelihood is that the reader really has to like bad films for it to be seen as a guide to bad film—then there is recompense in the author’s self-flagellation in making himself endure the four films he watches here. The theme is carried on in ‘The Top ten Pop Culture Pandemics!’ which draws roleplaying games, television, film, comic books, novels, and video games, and as lists go, the plenty to agree and disagree with. That said, Wild Card virus from the series of the same name edited by George R.R. Martin should definitely have been on the list.

Devon Marcel offers his own suggestions within the issue’s themes with ‘That’s Quarantainment! – Quarantine themed media for life during lockdown’, and what he viewed and read and played. Just three titles are examined, but space enough is given to each to make them sound interesting and worth tracking down. The three are the Val Lewton directed, Boris Karloff starring Isle of the Dead, of which Marcel is highly positive; Frozen Hell, an earlier iteration of 1938 short story ‘Who Goes There?’ by John W. Campbell, Jr., which would form the basis for both versions The Thing From Another World, of which the author find interesting as a curiosity, but little more; and The Bunker, a Full Motion Video adventure game from Splendy Games, a horror game set entirely in an underground bunker which he thoroughly enjoyed. Again, the article is the all the better for the space it is given, and each of the three items covered is more interesting for it also.

‘Quest Accepted: My Epic Adventure Into VR’ by Shawn Lance takes us on the author’s introduction to playing on the Occulus Quest. It is a serviceable read, but could have been improved with illustrations of the games he played, otherwise, it feels divorced from his experience.

The issue makes a very noticeable switch to fiction to ‘The Book Club’. In a similar fashion to the earlier ‘50 Films You DON’T Need To See’, this examines H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Festival’, one of his minor short stories and breaks down its plot, history, what he liked and disliked, along with his final thoughts, trivia, and more, and again is an enjoyable appreciation. Two actual pieces of fiction follow. The first is the second part of ‘Sowing Dragon Teeth’, a fantasy story with pulpy tones by James Alderdice, which continues to be as enjoyable as the first part in Tabletops and Tentacles #1, whilst the second is Neal Kristopher’s ‘No More Masks’, a post-apocalyptic tale that is very much a commentary on the decision whether or not to wear a mask in the least or so, and going forward.

The actual gaming content in Tabletops and Tentacles #2—some eighty pages in—begins with a pair of interviews. The first is with Cullen Bunn, author of the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Deepest Catacombs. Based on the old-school adverts from TSR, Inc. for the game from the seventies and eighties, this does a nice job selling the concept, especially with the samples from Bunn’s current project and the inspiration for it. The other interview is ‘Gaming from the Hearth’ which is with the husband-and-wife team behind Fireside Games, the publisher of Castle Panic. Conducted just prior to the beginning the lockdown, the couple talk about how they work and the challenges of bringing any game, let alone a deluxe version of Castle Panic to the market, and it is concluded with postscript four months on, looking at the state of the company and the industry deep into the effects of the pandemic. In a way, it bookends Kris McClanahan’s editorial ‘Notes from the Depths’, in which he laments the change in circumstances forced upon him, his partner, and their business by the pandemic. It is a change which many businesses have suffered sadly, and the difficulties of operating under the pandemic cannot be underestimated.

Alan Bahr’s regular column, ‘Tiny Thoughts’ showcases just a handful of the post-apocalyptic roleplaying games available. It mentions—and they are tiny mentions—Punkapocalyptic, Apocalypse World, Pugmire, and more, but does suggest ways of roleplaying under the pandemic as so many have, using Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, and so on. This is the only mention of such methods in the issue and the truth of the matter is that Tabletops and Tentacles #2 – The Quarantine Issue misses this trick—and when it comes to lockdown and gaming, it is a very important trick. So many have adapted to roleplaying online rather than face-to-face, including at virtual versions of major conventions, and it is shame that barring this mention, the issue ignores it.

The first of the actual gaming content in Tabletops and Tentacles #2 comes some hundred or so pages into the issue. Kristopher McClanahan and Lindsay McClanahan continue the gaming dice tables for ‘In the Inn’ with twenty things to be found on a shelf in a cellar in the inn, whilst ‘Symptoms of the Sickness’ by Lindsay McClanahan provides random symptoms exactly as its title promises. The longer gaming content starts with ‘The Green Infection’, a systemless fantasy scenario in which the village of Ainsmoor has been beset by a deadly pandemic of its own. It is fairly straightforward, but nicely detailed, and easily adapted to the system—and even setting—of the Game Master’s choice. it is followed by ‘Realm of the Moon Ghouls File 02: Location Shuttle Station Sixteen’ which further details the Lovecraftian setting for Pulp Sci-Fi roleplaying games. This details a space station suitable for the crew of the Poe to refuel with Strontium. It is a fun little setting complete with half-alien, half-robot cook, space pirates, and a handful of story hooks. Unfortunately, it is let down by the news that future installments of ‘Realm of the Moon Ghouls’ is moving to Patreon. It is disappointing that the most enjoyable content in the issue will not be is easily available.

The expansion for ‘H’AKKENSLASH! An original RPG system’ by Benjamin C. Bailey presents Monsters and Mayhem’, a set of ten new monster abilities for the Game Master, such as Vampirism, Quick, and Combustible. These are decent additions.  Rounding out the issue is a further entry in  ‘Merchants of the Realm’. ‘Merchants of the Realm: Millhaven Curiosities’ by Kris McClanahan. This describes a mysterious alleyway shop, small and full of strange shadows, its proprietor simply watching... unless engaged in which case he will be a font of knowledge, rumour, and even adventure hooks! Here the adventurers might be able to buy a Webbing Scroll, a surly vampire bat in a cage, Mr. Pointy, a slightly off-kilter stake stained in ash and blood—and those are only some of the interesting items crammed into the premises. ‘Merchants of the Realm: Millhaven Curiosities’ is likeable and servicable, easy to add to any fantasy campaign, whether medieval or modern.

Physically, Tabletops and Tentacles #2 is generally well-presented, being bright and cheerful. It seems an improvement over the previous issue, there being less of an effort to pack quite so much in. Again, the editing could have been stronger, but hopefully that will get better with future issues.

After having read Tabletops and Tentacles #1, coming to Tabletops and Tentacles #2 – The Quarantine Issue is very much less of a disappointment because the reader knows what to expect, that it is not a gaming magazine so much as general fandom magazine. It suffers from that lack of gaming specificity in terms of actual gaming found in other magazines, and gaming wise, it could have leaned harder into the apocalyptic theme. There still is not enough gaming content to wholly recommend Tabletops and Tentacles #2 – The Quarantine Issue as a gaming magazine, but as a general fandom magazine with some gaming content, it is an enjoyable read.

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