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Friday 24 December 2021

1981: Fantasie Scenarios

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


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. As new fanzines have appeared, there has been an interest in the fanzines of the past, and as that interest has grown, they have become highly collectible, and consequently more difficult to obtain and write about. However, in writing about them, the reader should be aware that these fanzines were written and published between thirty and forty years ago, typically by roleplayers in their teens and twenties. What this means is that sometimes the language and terminology used reflects this and though the language and terminology is not socially acceptable today, that use should not be held against the authors and publishers.

The Beholder was a British fanzine first published in April, 1979. Dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it ran to twenty-seven issues, the last being published in July, 1981. It was popular and would be awarded ‘Best Games Fanzine’ at the Games Day convention in 1980. After the final issue of The Beholder, the editors would go on to release a number of anthologies which collected content from the complete run of the fanzine. A total of five were planned and at least two were published. The first was Beholder Supplement Glossary of Magic, which collected many of the magical items which appeared in the fanzine and collated them into a series of tables for easy use by the Dungeon Master. The second, third, and fourth volumes would have collected the scenarios which appeared in the fanzine, whilst the fifth would have been a bestiary of monsters.

Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2 is the first anthology of scenarios taken from the pages of The Beholder. It contains “4 highly detailed, exciting and original scenarios” all written for use with Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The collection  opens with ‘The Ring of Fire’, originally published in The Beholder Issue #11 and subsequently voted by its readership as the best scenario to appear in the fanzine. Designed for four to seven Player Characters of ‘moderate adventuring experience’, ‘The Ring of Fire’ is set entirely within the crater of an extinct volcano, rumoured to be the home of a dragon below the crater’s mists and fumes. Several miles distant from the nearest settlement, once the Player Characters have ascended to the lip the crater, the adventure proper begins and they begin the descent. This is along a path which spirals around the steep sides of the crater and it is along this path that most of the scenario will play out. As they follow the path down, the Player Characters encounter obstacles and lairs and fortresses, and more. These special encounter areas start off with almost a nod to Shelbob’s lair with the lair of the Giant Spider, Castra, followed by a wooden plank bridge past the lair of Minor the Harpy, through a vanquished outpost of Hobgoblins, through a maze, and yes, even into the lair of the Red Dragon, Faughon.

All of these encounters really are special. Essentially excerpts pulled from the main map of the volcano, they are beautifully drawn in detail and supported with engaging descriptions. Any one of these encounters could be pulled from the scenario and it would stand up if added to another location, perhaps an enormous dungeon cavern. The scenario is obviously linear as the Player Characters make their descent, but opens out into a swampy area on the crater floor. This is less interesting perhaps than the earlier encounters, but there is a sense of decay here that feels all the more constrictive in the fog-shrouded crater. There are no plot hooks as such to ‘The Ring of Fire’ as such, but it would be easy for the Dungeon Master to add them. Perhaps the Player Characters want something from the Red Dragon or the ancient, evil sorcerer whose remains are buried here, or simply be after the treasure which is said to have been left there by the ancient inhabitants. Essentially, the bottom of the crater is a blank canvas upon which the Dungeon Master can write elements from her campaign and so add ‘The Ring of Fire’ to her campaign. Whatever the Player Characters might find in the base of the crater, getting there is very much the play and the fun of the scenario.

The second scenario is ‘The Gorge of the Afterlife’. Designed for three to six Player Characters of ‘low to moderate adventuring experience’, it appeared in The Beholder Issue #14 and was a close runner up to ‘The Ring of Fire’ in the poll. The Player Characters should at least possess one magical weapon between them—if not more, and there should be a Cleric amongst their number. Again the scenario has a great sense of environment and geography, being set in a long narrow gorge once the burial ground to the local dignitaries. Water drains into the gorge and flows out via a series of waterfalls, which the Player Characters will need to ascend as they venture into the gorge. The outer section of the gorge is swampy and home to a band of brigands, whilst the inner section consists of a lake surrounded by individual tombs, mausolea, and barrows. Here the authors repeat the format of ‘The Ring of Fire’ with individually mapped areas for greater detail, offering a range of different challenges to any Player Characters wanting to raid them. Some are still intact, some have been broken into, others are occupied. 

The third part of ‘The Gorge of the Afterlife’ consists of a dungeon proper, a tomb complex, which oddly, is laid out in the shape of a gargoyle, though statues of gargoyles appear at the entrance to the gorge where their prevents entry of any devils or demons. The tomb complex contains just six tombs, each of them a great leader in their time, in their way representatives of Dungeons & Dragons’ Classes. Some were good, others bad, but are now the target of a band of evil Elves (not Drow) amidst the roving undead which infests the complex. Much like ‘The Ring of Fire’, ‘The Gorge of the Afterlife’ is a not a scenario with any sense of a plot, the gorge and its tombs being there to plunder by the Player Characters and nothing more. Again though, they are open to interpretation and development upon the part of the Dungeon Master, perhaps more so because the adventure is designed to be inserted into a campaign. Again, perhaps the Player Characters are searching for something which can only be found in the tombs or perhaps they have been employed to deal with the brigands, but discover that they have a secret paymaster, that is, the evil Elves in the tomb complex? This is much more of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure, but again, nicely detailed and potentially more flexible than ‘The Ring of Fire’.

‘UGGISH and the GRIMBNAK’ is the third scenario in Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2 and originally published in The Beholder Issue #19, and appears to have been part of an ongoing feature in the fanzine. Where the previous two scenarios have been quite confined in their environment, this one opens up a bi t by being set in a forest and its surrounding wilderness. Designed for a party of four to six Player Characters of moderate Level, the scenario is set in the forest surrounding the Ravine of the Oozewater where legend has it that two ancient creatures fled in ages past when disturbed by the first settlers in the region. More recently, they have been revealed to be Uggish and the Grimbnak, now said to be in league with the Orcs of the Black Hand, scimitar-wielding humanoids with ebon skin and red eyes, who have been attacking settlers, foresters, and hunters throughout the forest, forcing them to flee. The scenario is thus a strike mission—investigate the activities of the Orcs and put a stop to them.

The scenario details the forest wilderness and the paths to the cliffside stockade which the Orcs have had time to build and make a home in. Thus there is advice and a table to make it a living place with events going on despite the presence of the Player Characters and perhaps that they can take advantage of in their raid. The stockade and its inhabitants, as well as the caves built into the cliffside are as decently detailed as the other scenarios in the anthology, however, the Orcs are described as being black-skinned and resolutely evil. To be fair, this would have been typical of the time and the depiction of Orcs has always been contentious, but the language used here, though unlikely to have been intentionally so at the time, would be socially unacceptable today and even potentially, cause for offence. Whilst there is some element of story here and it would be an easy scenario to add to a campaign because of the simplicity of its set-up, of the four scenarios in the anthology, ‘UGGISH and the GRIMBNAK’ would be the most difficult to run or adapt because of the language used when describing its antagonists and their outlook. 

The last scenario in the anthology is ‘The Dripping Chasm’. Taken from The Beholder Issue #18—voted the best issue by the fanzine’s readers—it is designed for six low Level Player Characters and has a simple set-up which makes it easy to add to a campaign or run as a one-shot. That set-up is one of bandits raiding the area, frequently enough to amass no little wealth, and so there is treasure to be found and a threat to civilisation to be thwarted. The bandits are thought to operating from somewhere up the River Underpine, and when the Player Characters follow it along its course, they discover its source, the Dripping Chasm, and a series of buildings along the chasm wall and a cave network beyond them. The caverns though, are not just home to the bandits, there being older occupants who just unhappy with their presence, they are prepared to do something about it. Which is when the Player Characters turn up. 

‘The Dripping Chasm’ is a small locale and a small adventure, but it packs in a lot, including factions, nuance, and the level of detail found in the anthology’s other scenarios. There are the three factions—the bandits, a grumpy bear, a really unhappy hermit driven to recruit some unpleasant allies, and the complex of caverns is described in some detail. The factions bring in the element of a living dungeon and this is enforced by the nuance. The caverns and the Dripping Chasm are not just bases of operation where the factions work from, but homes too. So the bear and the hermit make their homes in the caverns and tunnels, and resent being invaded by the bandits, but they have made their home in some of the caverns as well as along the river, and down so with their families. The bandits have their wives and children here too, so this is not a scenario necessarily set up so that the Player Characters go in and slaughter anyone and everyone as in ‘UGGISH and the GRIMBNAK’, but do have choices to make here. Potentially, these choices—which faction to side with, what to do about the families, and discovering why they are here and why they have turned to banditry—are all good story hooks and good roleplaying hooks, though the Dungeon Master will have to develop the details herself. 

If there is an oddity to ‘The Dripping Chasm’, it is in the organisation which details the locations furthest from the starting point of the scenario first and nearest, last. Given the advice that the Dungeon Master read through the scenario thoroughly, it only enforces the need to. Otherwise, ‘The Dripping Chasm’ is a decently done scenario easily adapted to the Dungeon Master’s campaign and a really engaging piece of writing. In terms of storytelling potential, ‘The Dripping Chasm’ has the most of the quartet in Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2.

Physically, Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2 is decently done. Like any fanzine title, it has its rough edges and the layout could be cleaner. The cartography though is quite lovely, clear and detailed, giving the anthology its singular look. There are few illustrations in the supplement, but some of them are really nice. It should be noted that except where a new monster is introduced, the actual stats for Dungeons & Dragons monsters and items in the four scenarios are kept to a minimum, meaning that the Dungeon Master will ned to refer to the ruleset of her choice.

Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2 is a piece of history. Its writing is representative of a creative drive four decades ago, and whilst some of that writing reflects that age, there is no denying that each of the scenarios is still playable today. Whether that is using Dungeons & Dragons or Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game or The Black Hack or Old School Essentials, all four scenario could be with relatively little adjustment—at least mechanically. Tonally perhaps and in some of the language warrants adjustment, the anthology and definitely the third scenario, ‘UGGISH and the GRIMBNAK’, would certainly benefit from such attention in the unlikely event that these scenarios were republished today. Overall, Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2 is a lovely snapshot of yesterday’s creativity, showcasing how it was done forty years ago just as it is today.

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