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

Monday, 29 August 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] Strange Citizens of the City

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 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. A more recent retroclone of choice to support has been Mörk Borg.

Published in November, 2020, Strange Citizens of the City is one of three similar fanzines released by Philip Reed Games as a result of the Strange Citizens of the City Kickstarter campaign, the others being Strange Inhabitants of the Forest and Strange Visitors to the City. It follows on from the publisher’s Delayed Blast Gamemaster fanzine, by presenting a set of tables upon which the Game Master can roll and bring in elements to her game. Whilst Delayed Blast Gamemaster detailed monsters, environments, and more, with a cover which reads, “Roll 2d6 and say hello to Evil”, Strange Citizens of the City is all about the encounter and all about encounters with evil.

Strange Citizens of the City follows the format of Strange Inhabitants of the Forest, consisting of four tables—or rather sets of entries—which populate and add detail to a large location, in this case, a nameless city. The issue opens with the eponymous ‘Strange Citizens of the City’ which presents a table of villains or villain-like NPCs to be encountered in the forest. Each is given their own two-page spread, with a large illustration, a full page of text providing background, and of course, notes and stats. The notes typically suggest how much money the Player Characters might make from their loot or handing in proof of their deaths, though not always. They include Günter Buckler, Back-Alley Merchant, a dealer in all manner of goods who never steps out of the shadows, but who has no premises and no inventory, but can always get what you want—in a few days. The strange, twisted man is a wanted, known criminal, but sometimes demand exceeds what he can deal with his own and then he employs others to obtain items for him, which of course, could be the Player Characters. As to the thing that rides his back, it is best not to ask… Dinko and Bruno, Disciples of Skullheart, are unholy twins swathed in heavy robes and wearing strange masks, dedicated to a dead god. These zealots have acquired a small following, but want to establish a temple to Skullheart and so revive him. What happens when they do, remains to be seen, but for the moment, the city authorities regard them as no more than charlatans. Roland Repnik, Priest and Inventor, is held in high regard, hypnotically preaching against the evil which he claims pervades the city, but which he himself promulgates and helps bring about the End of Days… In secret, he conducts ghastly secrets in body manipulation. One of the victims of these experiments is Iapio Eskola, Reconstructed Warrior, a shattered survivor of a great battle whose armless and legless torso Repnik bonded to an infernally-fired, multi-legged, body that gives him the centaur form. Although the priest wanted Iapio Eskola as his bodyguard, the warrior fled, driven by his anger and desire to be free, and now works in the city as guard and enforcer despite being shunned and reviled for his appearance. Repnik wants him back and has commanded his followers to leave alone, but fears that Iapio Eskola will have his vengeance one day…

‘Strange Citizens of the City’ takes up over half of Strange Citizens of the City. It presents a collection of monsters and the monstrous, many of them evil in nature, and if not that, evil looking. They are invariably challenging opponents should the Player Characters go after then for their bounty. One difference between Strange Citizens of the City and Strange Inhabitants of the Forest, is that all of the NPCs described in this table—and elsewhere in the fanzine—do all feel as if they would fit in the one city. A dark twisted city where arcanotech, a mixture of magic and technology is available.

‘Strange Citizens of the City’ is followed by a shorter table, ‘Hired Goons’. This is a small collection of hirelings, simply detailed and each with a special trait, such as ‘Cowardly’ or ‘Intimidating’. Some are beneficial, such as ‘Calculating Leader’ for Arnold Jespersen, whose ability to command and direct grants combatants a small bonus to damage in a fight. Most are negative. For example, Sis Ermengol suffers from ‘Overwhelming Greed’ and will even change sides in a fight if offered enough coin (his description suggesting a perception check be made, even in battle, to notice this, and potentially take advantage of it), whilst the very presence of the ‘Spell-Touched’ Samuel Paasio will erase any scroll he comes near. This is an entertaining selection of minor NPCs which should add extra detail and flavour to any party expedition or task.

Similarly, the entries on the ‘(Possibly) Harmless Wanderers’ will also add colour and detail to a game, but this time on the streets of the city. None come with stats as they are there for flavour rather than anything else. They include Niene Meirer, the old and wrinkled pie seller, whose wares contain whatever meat she is able to find that day—including rat! The resulting pie might be tasty, but not the resulting stomach upset. Others range from a skilled puppeteer who performs unsettling shows using puppets carved from sewage-soaked wood to a pickpocket who specialises in rolling drunks and who might have something interesting to sell the next day. The selection is accompanied by an extra table of rumours.

Lastly, ‘Places in the City’ describes various locations. These include ‘Harbold’s Raceway’, a crumbling arena where the city watch once trained, but is now a drinking and gambling den where races of all sorts are held, on all manner of beasts and mounts, including fan-favourite, Uudo Kuusk and his six-legged biomechanical undead creature built by Roland Repnik. At ‘Yesterday’s Lost Wares’, the wooden golems will push to make a deal over any and all of the goods on sale in this two-storey pawnshop, whilst ‘The Statue of the Defeated Dragon’, a piece of public art considered so wasteful that both the artist and the city official who commissioned were cornered and murdered, has become a meeting for thieves, though in certain light, the statue is so life-like that the unwary might believe it to be an actual red dragon!

Physically, Strange Citizens of the City is very nicely presented. Although it makes strong use of colour, it uses a softer palette than Mörk Borg, so is easier on the eye. The artwork throughout is excellent.

Strange Citizens of the City is a set in some strange city where twisted men and women and other things lurk in the side streets, where great evil hides behind populism, and arcanotech is put to dark uses. Although intended for use with Mörk Borg—and it shares the same doom-laden sensibility—the contents of the fanzine would work with any retroclone or be easily adapted to the roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice. However, they do all feel as if they live in the same city, a city waiting to be detailed. Perhaps a city that Philip Reed Games could detail in a future fanzine? In the meantime, Strange Citizens of the City is an entertaining and useful collection of NPCs for the Grimdark roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice.

Sunday, 28 August 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] One of Us #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 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.

One of Us #1 is a post-apocalyptic fanzine for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Published by Starry Wisdom Press in January, 2021, it casts the Player Characters as drifters, grifters, ne’er-do-wells, and desperate cast asunder following the Big Mistake, a war of some kind that was perhaps a decade or two ago. This places it roughly in the desperate, dirty decade of the thirties or even ‘Golden Era’ of the fifties. The Player Characters are specifically carnies, members of a travelling carnival, indentured to the mysterious being known as The Madame. In exchange for wondrous powers and “a more perfect self,” The Madame calls upon the carnies to procure for her, magnificent artifacts, as the carnival crisscrosses the dusty and dangerous remains of a once robust and proud land. Their efforts and their presence do not go unnoticed—cannibal hobos, shadowy cults, and uncouth hecklers will do everything in their power to prevent your caravan from carrying out its mission.

One of Us #1 is primarily about the Classes and Races of the setting—all of which come from the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. This includes the Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. The fanzine opens with ‘OCCUPTATIONS Now Hiring!’, a table of Occupations suitable for backgrounds and of course, Zero Level characters, all of them for a modern set period. All Classes can use two Signature Weapons from First Level. These are two weapons a Player Character or NPC can use without a penalty, whereas other weapons suffer a step down in die type as a penalty. The first of the Classes is the Strong-Person, which uses ‘Table G: Giants’ for critical hits, ‘Titan’s Might’ means a thirty-sided die is used for Strength checks, Strength of Will grants a Might Die used for all attacks and Strength checks, and Hidden Reserves allows Personality to be temporarily expended to gain an additional Might Die. The second Class, the Acrobat can ‘Roll with the Punches’ and has a better base Armour Class, Cat’s Grace which means the Acrobat can avoid damage too, and as a ‘Land Sailor’, is fast on land and in the air due to climbing, flipping, and leaping over obstacles. The Acrobat is also Ambidextrous and has a ‘Tumbling Die’ which is used for acrobatics and Mighty Deeds for ranged attacks. The Natural Wonder is the third Class and is one of ‘The Madame’s Perfect Children’ and so has Luck like a Halfling, has mutations due to ‘Atomic Singularities’, but due to ‘Mother’s Milk’, is fortified against radiation. An accompanying table provides the mutations.

The three Classes—Strong-Person, Acrobat, or Natural Wonder are all obvious in their inspiration, being archetypal Carnival types, and all well done in their design. Other Classes from both the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game can be imported with little changes, but the Wizard becomes the Mystic, the Cleric the Revivalist, and the Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling The Stranger From A Strange Land. Backed up with a short selection of equipment, these are thematically interesting Classes which should also be fun to play.

Quite what The Madame is never defined in One of Us #1. She could be a demon, the devil herself, a god, or she something in between. She does serve as a Patron for the Player Characters and so can be invoked and there is the danger of suffering Patron Taint. What she wants is trinkets and gewgaws which together will free her from the bondage which confines her to her magical caravan. And this really is the extent of the setting notes and background given in One of Us #1, and that really is the big issue with the fanzine. It is full of brilliant content that suggests possibilities of a type and style of game or campaign, but does not explore either or suggest scenario ideas. Or indeed, give a Character Funnel or scenario, either of which would have shown the Judge what the designers intended. Hopefully that will be provided in the pages of One of Us #2.

Rounding out One of Us #1 is a half dozen monsters particular to the Dust Bowl. These include the Rag Creep, a thing wrapped in rags soaked in grain alcohol, psychedelic desert flower, and camphor to sooth their radiation-burned skin; the Witherer, the spirit of an old woman who haunts water sources who begs others to help her find her lost children and then feeds on their goodwill and hope; and the Dust Preacher, a preacher in his former life not only failed to protect his flock, but made demands of them in return for his protection. Now it demands a tithe of its own Hit Points to gain one-shot actions such as second attack or a static lightning blast! All six monsters are nicely detailed and fit the setting.

Physically, One of Us #1 is well presented with excellent artwork. One of Us #1 is a superb little read, combining elements of horror and the fantastic against a backdrop of broken Americana. One of Us #1 is incomplete though, and more background and some scenarios and scenario hooks would be very, very welcome.

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] Planar Compass #2

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 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. A more recent retroclone of choice to support has been Old School Essentials.

The Planar Compass series takes Dungeons & Dragons and the Old School Renaissance on a journey that out where it rarely goes—onto the Astral Realm and out between the planes. Of course, the option for travel in this liminal space has always been there in Dungeons & Dragons, most notably from Manual of the Planes all the way up to Spelljammer: Adventures in Space and the Planescape Campaign Setting. Whilst those supplements were for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, the Planar Compass series is written for use with Old School Essentials, and it not only introduces the Astral Realm, but adds new Classes and rules for one very contentious aspect of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—psionics! Planar Compass #1 introduced both the setting of the Astral Realm, presented Dreamhaven, a first calling point for the Player Characters to visit and explore, and provided details of several new Races found across the Astral Realm as well as the rules for psionics. Which turned to be easy to use and did not break the game. Planar Compass #2 takes the Player Characters further out onto the Astral Realms, or rather prevents everything that the Referee will need to take her campaign further out into the Astral Realms.

Planar Compass #2 was published in November 2021. Following on from Planar Compass #1, it promises strange sights, ever changing environmental dangers, and monsters the likes of which the Player Characters will never seen. Opening with a quick table listing all of the planes and explaining that the contents of issue are designed for mid-level play, Fourth Level and higher, and what titles are required to use it contents. It notes that the waters of the Astral Realms are the thoughts, hopes and dreams, and nightmares of all sentient beings of the multiverse, physical matter alien to it and are always either an intrusion or a traveller. Such waters are endless and there are many places that a good crew with a solid ship will be able to sail far and away to strange places—if both survive the dangers of the Astral Plane, many of which are intrusions and breakthroughs from other planes.

The dangers begin with the monsters—oddly placed before the sections on astral ships, astral sailing, and so on. These are all native to the Astral Realm and include Bubonic Barnacles which feeds on the wood ships and can grow into humanoid forms or algae blooms; the Astral Amphiptere, a semi-translucent dragon which dwells in island caves, and whose can cause planar tears which it can escape through or even others to use; Psychic Dugong, capable of telepathy, whose Psionic Milk restores psionic energy; and the Kear Imago. This last is a much-feared astral predator which scoops up ships and feeds on the psionic energy of their crews, leaving them husks ready for their larvae to occupy and grow in… A table of ‘Pirate Encounters’ is ready for the Referee to flesh out.

The rules for Astral Ships use the rules for water vehicles found in Old School Essentials, but adds five classes of Saving Throw similar to those for Player Characters and monsters. These are Storm, Collison, Fire, Water, and Plane Shift. These are rolled when a ship is subject to wind and gale forces, strikes an object or is struck by an object, is subject to flames or extreme heat, is subject to facing huge waves and torrential rains, and when transitioning between planes or suffering planar stress respectively. Two pieces of artillery are given to outfit ships on the Astral Plane—ballista and the Onauki fire thrower. Stats are given for ten types of astral ship, which include pirate ships and trading ships and warships, more or less what a Referee will need to run an Astral Sea campaign. They range from the Aldhelsi Drakkar and the Aldhelsi Knarr to the Tortuga and the Psionic Ship! Some of these, like the Human Catamaran, lie within the scope of a group of Player Characters purchasing the, rather than travelling on ships belonging to others. There are pirate ships and trading ships and warships

A handful of magical items are detailed too. The nastiest is the Sword of Astral Tether Cutting, a cruel, thin blade made from the remains of a meteor which can cut the tether between the physical and Astral bodies of the target, killing them instantly! The most interesting is the Sand from the Shores of Dreams, which can be sprinkled on someone so that the next time he sleeps, everyone nearby experiences his dreams. This presents interesting story possibilities, potentially another realm to explore and more.

The rules for astral sailing uses what it calls a ‘hex-flower’ or rosette to determine prevailing conditions around an astral ship, the direction of nearby encounters, and the direction of movement. Effectively, it sits under the astral ship as it sails from one hex to the next. Each turn of movement is handled through the same sequence of play in which the players roll for navigation, weather, and nearby planes, which the Referee uses to determine hazards and create encounters, and rolls to see if a Kear Imago has detected the vessel. The Referee and her players work together to describe the region the ship is sailing through.

Notably, the direction of movement is randomly determined, though the Onauk and Astral Sailors—both detailed in Planar Compass #1—have the ability to nudge the roll so that it is in the right direction. If the Kear Imago detects the ship, then the leviathan-sized creature will come hunting for it. Options for the encounters, weather, and planes near and far, are detailed separately along with a lovely set of hexes illustrated with icons that the Referee is going to want to be able to pull out and slip under the appropriate hex on the hex-flower. Large and small icons are used to represent everything from sighted vessel or signs of land, instruction of a plane, and more, with the size indicating distance away. Large are of course hear, small are faraway.

What is not made clear until the Referee gets to the adventure, ‘The Hunter Beneath the Waves’ is that the crew of ship needs to mask its ‘psychic load’ lest it be detected by a Kear Imago. This can be done by Astral Sailors or by consuming Psychic Ambergris, one of the magic items given earlier. If detected though, the Kear Imago will hunt the ship until either the ship and her crew get away or the leviathan swallows it whole. This lands the ship in its gut and the crew—that is, the Player Characters—have to navigate their way out of the beast. This is simulated using the hex-flower again, but here the crew are navigating the corporeal body of a beast rather than the Astral Sea, hoping to find the brain and engineer an escape. As you would expect it is nasty environment, the various descriptions of rooms such as the stomach, intestines, and waste chamber accompanied by optional tables for traps, NPCs, and location details. The rules are more or less the same for navigating the Astral Sea using the hex-flower, but instead of being able to nudge the direction roll through abilities innate to certain Classes, the Player Characters acquire ‘Travelling Points’ for encountering denizens of this ‘Kear Dungeon’, discovering and disarming traps, gaining information from friendly NPCs, and so on. The adventure is intentionally odd, surprisingly non-linear given its origins, and it does include some tough encounters. Plus although the players are unlikely to replay the ‘Kear Dungeon’ again, there is the possibility of their encountering a Kear Imago again. The fanzine does leave the Referee wondering what to do in that instance. Of course, there are always to get the Player Characters needing to climb back into a Kear Imago again, such as having to find a Wizard who has not been seen for years or go after a criminal. Lastly, the issue includes a table for ‘Astral Fishing’ and a set of adventure hooks waiting to be developed by the Referee as well a decent little comic strip which follows on from Planar Compass #1.

Physically, Planar Compass #2 is hit and miss. It is well written and it is gorgeous-looking. In places, individual hexes are are too dark and too murky, whilst the layout feels a bit tight in places and odd in others. Plus the organisation is odd with the monster descriptions placed up front. Nevertheless, it is engagingly written, the artwork is excellent, and all together, it is a lovely little book.

Planar Compass #2 is a solid set of rules taking Old School Essentials and almost any Old School Renaissance retroclone in an expected direction, out into the beyond of the Astral Sea. It does feel like a transition, going from the Dreamhaven of Planar Compass #1 to the somewhere else, but not telling you where necessarily. Ideally that will be revealed in Planar Compass #3. In the meantime, Planar Compass #2 has all the rules to enjoy boat trip or sail away to location of the Referee’s own devising across the Astral Sea and back again, effectively, ‘Astral-jammer’ for Old School Essentials.

Saturday, 27 August 2022

1982: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

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.

—oOo—

Today is ‘International Gamebook Day’, a celebration of interactive fiction. Which also means that in 2022, it is also Zagor’s birthday. Zagor of course, is the ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ whose labyrinth will be explored by the reader of the eponymous game book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone and published by Puffin, it was the first of some fifty-nine entries in the Fighting Fantasy series which would encompass numerous genres—horror, Science Fiction, superheroes, and more—but would always, always come back to fantasy. The series would sell millions of copies, have its own magazines, and get its own history with YouAre The Hero: A History of Fighting Fantasy™ Gamebooks, and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain would receive sequels, be adapted into board games and computer games and a roleplaying scenario for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and even an audio adventure.

There were of course, ‘choose your adventure path’ style books available before the Fighting Fantasy series began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. There was the Tracker series published in seventies, plus the ‘Choose Your Adventure Path’ books and various solo scenarios for Tunnels & Trolls, the roleplaying game from Flying Buffalo, Inc. There were computer games, such as The Hobbit for the ZX Spectrum, also published in 1982. None of these had the advantages or the impact of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. The ‘Choose Your Adventure Path’ books presented simple choices with nothing else for the reader to do to influence what happened from one paragraph to the next. The Tracker series—such as Mission to Planet Lhad the advantage of using illustrations to present the reader with choices, but the stories were quite short. The solo adventures for Tunnels & Trolls required the reader to own and understand how to play Tunnels & Trolls before even attempting to play through them. Computer games such as The Hobbit required a player to own the computer and have ready access to a television, as well the knowledge to install the game. Then for both the Tunnels & Trolls solo scenarios and computer games like The Hobbit, they were not as readily available.

In comparison, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain required nothing more than the ability to read, understand some simple rules, a pair of six-sided dice—easily found in any board game, let alone a toy shop, and pencil and paper. Even if the reader lacked dice, numbers were printed on the book’s pages that he could flip through to generate the required numbers. With or without dice, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was easily portable. Plus it was a book, which meant that the player was reading—usually a good thing as a far as most parents were concerned. It was also a book which could be found on the shelves of your local bookshop, meaning that its market presence and penetration had the potential to be huge. So it proved. This only increased as sales rose, again and again, so that Fighting Fantasy titles became bestsellers. Obviously advertised in the pages of White Dwarf magazine, because Livingstone was the editor, its sales reached out beyond those of the hobby, with many readers being introduced to interactive fiction, roleplaying, and fantasy through their reading and playing of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and other Fighting Fantasy series titles.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain began by asking the reader if he was brave to take on the monsters and magic of Firetop Mountain? The treasures within lay ripe for the taking, but in order to do that the powerful warlock Zagor must be slain! To face him, the mighty hero must navigate the tunnels and caverns that form the maze of his mountain stronghold, often facing the warlock’s horrid minions and monsters who would kill you as much as look at you. Even if the hero can find his way through every twist and turn of Zagor’s maze, defeat every monster and minion encountered, and even Zagor himself, he still must have both keys to unlock the chest containing the warlock’s mightiest treasures! Only then will he have survived the perils of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain!

There is little fanfare to the instruction of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It very quickly into the explanation of what it is and what the reader will need before getting to roll up his character, who has Skill, Stamina, and Luck. Skill is primarily used in combat—added in opposed rolls against the monsters, Stamina is the character’s life force and health, and Luck covers everything else. Actually, Luck mostly covers running away, although other instances of its use are explained in individual paragraphs. Combat works by the player rolling for his character and adding his Skill and then doing the same for the monsters. The highest result each round wins and inflicts damage on the other. Anyone reduced to zero Stamina is dead. In comparison to most monsters, the character does start play with a lot. In addition, the reader’s character has a sword and leather armour and a potion, which will restore one of his three stats.

Then onto page one and the labyrinthine cavern complex inside Firetop Mountain. It is a brutal journey. Very quickly the reader encounters Goblins, some asleep, some in a murderous mood, then Orcs, traps, a box with a snake which will try and bite him, a ferryman to bargain to take him across the river into the second part of the adventure. Besides sneaking past Goblins and killing Orcs, the reader might find himself gambling with Dwarves, getting lost in a maze—the non-linear nature of the book manages to make a maze even more annoying, distracting Ogres, and much more. To be fair, there is very little story to 
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and arguably the character who the reader is controlling is morally suspect given his attitude towards torture in one scene and the fact that he wants to take Zagor’s treasure when the warlock is merely minding his own business and not oppressing the nearby populace. That said, the story is one that the reader is creating in reading and playing through The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. As much as it is ‘dungeon bash’, the authors are really setting a template for the other Fighting Fantasy titles to come which would be more sophisticated and mature in their storytelling.

Of course, throughout The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the reader and his character is in constant peril and danger of dying. Combat is not the only way that the reader can die in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. This increased sense of peril and the possibility of death is arguably the solo game book’s innovation, making survival and its play uncertain. Whatever way in which he does die, the reader has to start again, this time with new stats rolled up for a new character. Where the new character will have an advantage is in having access to a map showing the progress of the previous character or characters. This is because the reader is encouraged to draw a map as he reads through and explores the tunnels and caverns of Firetop Mountain. In this way he maps out the routes explored and looks for untried ones, again and again each time his character dies and he begins anew. Here then, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is working like a Rogue-style computer game in which death is permanent and the player has to start again. Of course, the new character has the advantage of the map and hopefully learning from previous wrong choices. It is notable that in many cases that map would be replicated again and again as new players read through the solo game book for the first time.

Physically, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain looks and feels like a novel. It is not of course, but the standard of presentation is excellent, with the artwork of Russ Nicholson—sadly lacking in later printings of the book—really standing out and giving the book its signature look.

—oOo—

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was reviewed in White Dwarf No. 36 (December 1982) in Open Box by Nicholas J R Dougan. He opened with, “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, is, in gaming terms, a fairly simple programmed dungeon. Its uniqueness, however, as a may be guessed for the publisher’s name and the its paperpack format, is that it is designed to sit on the children’s shelves of a bookshop as much as in a gaming shop.” Before awarding it ten out of ten, he concluded that, “The book would make an ideal present for anyone who has expressed an interest in role-playing games, or indeed any young brother (or sister!). I imagine that the minimum age would be about ten, but I would recommend it to novice and veteran players alike for quite a few hours of entertainment. I imagine that the minimum age would be about ten, but I would recommend it to novice and veteran players alike for a few hours of entertainment. The authors, Steve Jackson (UK not USA) and Ian Livingstone (there’s only one), are to be congratulated on the successful development of an original idea that should benefit the hobby.”

More recently, author and publisher, Chris Pramas, chose The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as his entry in Hobby Games: The 100 Best, published by Green Ronin Publishing in 2007, also the year of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain’s twenty-fifth anniversary. He described The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as, “…[A] pioneering release that popularized the solo gamebook and successfully brought the roleplaying game experience to a wider audience. This book alone sold over two million copies and it was only the first of the Fighting Fantasy series. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain spawned 58 more Fighting Fantasy books in the original series, a support magazine, a board game, an ambitious spinoff series, several computer games, two traditional roleplaying games, and a series of fantasy novels. Then there was the legion of imitators, another sure sign of success. Not bad for a slim paperback less than 200 pages long.”

—oOo—

The influence and reach of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is undeniable. Millions of copies sold, reprinted again and again, and adapted to other formats, it started the Fighting Fantasy series and led to numerous other publishers their own lines of game books too. Yet it also introduced many readers to the concept of interactive fiction and many readers to the concepts behind roleplaying as well, and for gamers, it gave them something to play away from the game table and something that was very much game related that they could buy at their local bookshop. This combination of accessibility and availability helped increase the understanding of what roleplaying was and what its kind of play was like in a way that computer roleplaying games would later do, and in the process, it helped make both more acceptable.

For all of its influence and reach, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain remains still a nasty little dungeon, perhaps just a little grim and a little perilous with a dash or two of humour, where there is the real chance of the reader’s character dying at the hands of some monster or by some mishap. For the teenager starved of gaming it enabled gaming again and again until the cavern complex was fully explored and mapped out, and ultimately The Warlock of Firetop Mountain defeated and his treasure taken. Coming back to it as adult, it feels familiar, evoking memories of the first few times it was played and of the first few steps taken into all too many dungeon.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain did not invent the form of interactive fantasy fiction, but it made it popular and made it accessible. It is also made it fun.

Happy International Gamebook Day 2022 and happy fortieth birthday Zagor!

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] Meanderings #2

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 in October, 2017, Meanderings Issue #2 is a fanzine for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Its theme is ‘Options’, ideas and rules and additions that the Judge can add to her game. With this in mind, the issue opens with a lengthy review of the then new Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, Goodman Games’ spiritual successor to TSR, Inc.’s Gamma World, in ‘Review Corner’. The review is written with the idea that both Dungeon Crawl Classics and Mutant Crawl Classics should be combined, which is an ‘option’ that fanzine tends towards. However, the suggested advice on combing the two feels out of place in a review when an article dedicated to the subject would have been easier to read and more useful the Judge who wanted to do so. Consequently, it is not a particularly informative review.

The first of the action ‘Options’ in Meanderings #2 is ‘Off the Chart! Might Deeds Beyond the 7+ for Warriors & Dwarves’. This is a solution to problem of players always rolling high for their Dwarf and Warrior characters when it comes to their Mighty Deeds die, the results always topping out at seven and more, and so always feeling the same. What though if both Dwarf and Warrior could roll higher? The article increases the upper range the results from seven to fourteen plus and supports with expanded tables for blinding, disarming, pushback, and precision attacks, as well as rallying and defensive manoeuvres, and trips and throws. The result is to make both Classes more effective at higher Levels and more fun to play. A useful option and something which could easily appear in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Companion, were there such a thing.

‘Let the Dice do the Talking: A Narrative Skill System for the DCC RPG’ gives a way of introducing more narrative to the play of Dungeon Crawl Classics and its skills. Inspired by the author playing a game of Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire, it has a player roll three dice any time that his character attempts a skill and have all three dice rolls count. The individual results range from ‘Misadventure’ (a roll of one), ‘Misstep’ (below Difficulty Check), ‘Success’ (above Difficulty Check), and ‘Coup’ (maximum result), but because three dice are being rolled, any roll could involve one, two, or three of these results and then the Judge has to interpret them narratively. This is not a simple matter of the Judge interpreting the result as a yes or no outcome. Instead, it requires the Judge to interpret a more granular outcome which can mix a ‘Misadventure’, a ‘Success’, and a ‘Coup’ in one or roll or a ‘Misstep’ and two ‘Success’ results, for example. Mechanically, it is a simple and quick means of gradating results in a less linear fashion, but in terms of implementation it requires both Judge and her players to adapt to interpreting the results in a non-binary fashion. Whilst it is narratively it is clearly intended to add some fun complications and outcomes to the game, it also adds complexity and slows down actual play, until both Judge and her players are more skilled with making the narrative calls on the dice results. Making this adjustment—and it very much is an adjustment—may be too big a step for some groups.

If the previous article was inspired by the author playing Edge of the Empire, ‘Tides of Battle – Momentum in RPGs’ is inspired by his playing 13th Age and both his appreciation and dislike of the Escalation Die. In 13th Age this sits on the table and clicks up from one round to the next in a battle, granting bonuses to attack and triggering powers and abilities for all combatants—both the Player Characters and the monsters. It is the latter that the author dislikes. His solution is have one side have momentum in a battle, not both. Situations such as being surprised, outnumbered, or suffering a fumble will lose a side momentum, whilst holding the high ground, flanking, and killing or injuring a leader, will gain it. In a battle, the Judge will need to track momentum for each group fighting with points held cancelling each out until only the one side has any points of momentum. Which then become the die modifier for attacks, actions, spellcasting, and so on. So instead of the momentum of the Escalation Die going up and up (though sometimes it can be adjusted or lowered), momentum can swing back and forth between the opponents, depending on the Player Characters’ actions and their dice rolls. It can also add tactical complexity as the players have their characters undertake particular actions, such as targeting the leader, to gain momentum. Again, this is a case of adding complexity to play and slowing down play as momentum is tracked, but for a group which likes tactical complexity, this is an option.

‘No Man’s Land’ gives a useful table of options to prevent Player Characters from exploring undeveloped sections of dungeon, which the Judge can roll on or choose from, whilst ‘Occupations of Bastion – Zero Level occupations for the City of Bastion’ further develops the author’s own campaign, previously seen in Meanderings #1. This a big table matching that found in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and can be used to generate Zero Level Player Characters for Character Funnels or low Level, ordinary NPCs in the Bastion setting. Some explanation is required since several of the occupations have ‘Grafts’ for their weapons or equipment. These are biological parts taken from the Warped, those affected by the long war between Sorcerer Kings whose magics and warp beasts to ravage the land around the city of Bastion. In comparison to Zero Level Player Characters from Dungeon Crawl Classics, these grafts provide a relatively high bonus to attacks, damage, or skill checks. However, the full explanation of what grafts are and how they work is saved for Meanderings #3, the next issue which includes The Graft as a Class.

The actual Class presented in Meanderings #2 is ‘Classes of Bastion – The Bulwark against the Tides of the Waste’. The Entombed are former Zero Level characters who died in the defence of the city and then reborn in thick, cold iron shells and animated. The result is Golem-like, slow and strong, wielding heavy weapons, and so whilst it rolls higher dice for damage, it rolls lower dice for Initiative. It can also enter Rage to gain a bump up the dice chain, but similarly so do its opponents, because it is easier to hit. The rune armour of the Entombed is akin to plate and impedes magic cast on it. The Entombed requires a nutritious elixir daily, its organs and brains stored in phylacteries within its body. Notably, the Entombed uses the ‘Robots & Artificial Lifeforms’ table from Mutant Crawl Classics when rolling critical hits. Overall, The Entombed is a serviceable Class for when a player wants something big, slow, but heavy hitting.

Lastly, ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics Weapon Styles – Weapons Tables for Two-Weapon Styles’ is influenced by the author’s experiences with Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea and their weapon styles. Designed for use with single attacks rather than two-weapon attacks, these give options for styles such as sword and shield, Florentine, Twin Handaxe, and Twin Dagger. Inspired by Steel and Fury, the tables include Deed fumbles and criticals too. Much like the earlier ‘Off the Chart! Might Deeds Beyond the 7+ for Warriors & Dwarves’, this adds options with much in the way of complexity and given the various weapon styles, some flavour too, as well as making both Player Characters and NPCs stand out a bit more in their use of these styles.

Physically, Meanderings Issue #2 is decently done. It is clean and tidy and the artwork good. It does need a light edit in places. The issue has a pleasing sturdiness due to the ‘Zeroes to Heroes – Paper minis for Zero Levels’ which presents seventeen or so paper minis on light card. Designed for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, these are rather fun. They include The Entombed from the issue, but the best one of course, is the chicken.

Meanderings Issue #2 is a mixture of the author’s experiences gaming ideas and game setting, with definitely more of the former than the latter. The problem is that if a Judge and her players find the ‘Options’ in the issue to be a case of being too much too ‘Out of the Box’, let alone their added complexity, it does not leave much of interest in the issue. This is not to say that they are not interesting, but rather they are not for everyone. The continued coverage of Bastion is welcome, but it does leave the reader waiting for more background and support for the setting, let alone a scenario. Given the inclusion of Zero Level characters in the issue, a Character Funnel would have been a fitting addition. The result serviceable at best because Meanderings Issue #2 is outweighed by its options when a better balance could have included more that the Judge could use without radical change.

Friday, 26 August 2022

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] Night Soil #Zero

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. Another choice is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Night Soil #Zero takes the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as its direct inspiration. Specifically, it draws from the artwork of the fourth printing of the core rules to provide images that have in turn inspired the creation of monsters, magical items, spells, tables, and more that the Judge can bring to her game or campaign. It is a lovely idea, but the result is a bit of a mess, a hodgepodge of miscellaneous things and entries that unless you somehow know the artwork and its order in the fourth printing of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, may have you leafing through the pages of the admittedly short Night Soil #Zero in order to find something. Even at twenty-four pages, an index or list of contents and page numbers would not have gone amiss here.

Published by Inner Ham—previously known for Fantastic Exciting Imaginative: The Holmes Art ’ZineNight Soil #Zero, opens with its first monster, the Terrordactyl, a giant reptile bird with retchingly awful bad breath and capable of snapping a target’s neck on a roll of a natural twenty, so a nasty thing to confront the Player Characters with. Not that interesting though. Weirder though, and definitely more modern, are the Horned Lobsterclops, which fight luchadors and underprepared explorers and scientists. Beating one in initiative trades accuracy for speed—the attacker’s die decreases by one step, and if a Horned Lobsterclop licks an opponent, on a failed Will save, it can cause them to scream and writhe, attempt to persuade the nearest ally to run (causing both to lose their actions in the next round), pass out temporarily, or simply flay uselessly at the creature’s sturdy carapace. This has a much pulpier feel then the other monsters and though fun, does need a suitably pulpy style of game to use it. An easier to use creature is the Phlogiston Elemental, which can appear whenever magic goes awry and takes more damage from wooden weapons than metal ones, making it a more difficult thing to defeat.

Perhaps the most flexible monster in the inaugural issue of the fanzine, is the Dogmen. Their love of bones means they often serve necromancer, and they often make good Warriors and Clerics. They can use all four Human Classes, but only up to Third Level. Although small, they have a strong bite, possess a keen sense of smell, and even their very presence enhances the effects of bone magic! On the downside, they are easily distracted, having to make Personality checks to avoid an Action Die and being bumped down a die for Saving Throws. Amusingly, this is called ‘Squirrel!’ and is a suitably silly feature for the henchmen role they are designed to fulfil. The other henchmen-type monsters are Death Guards, who have been hired and erroneously led to believe that they have been imbued with magical ability and otherworldly prowess. As terrible as they are, what they actually have is incredible self-belief and working together can inspire themselves to improve their Armour Class, Hit Points, speed, and so on, though only once per combat for each of the four such tricks they know. This is a concept worth exploring, as it could also be applied to cultists or other devotees, and more, but here it is rough and undeveloped.

The magical items begin with Horseshoes of Returning, innocuous, but favourite weapons for Halflings as they return to the hand once thrown. The other Halfling item of magic is the Pipe of Contentment, which can be smoked to regain points of Luck and even restore damage done to Intelligence or Personality. These are nicely done, flavoursome items that will please any halfling Player Character. From small to large as ‘Dead Giant, Uses of a’ suggests exactly that, whether keeping Chaos magic at bay if properly preserved, allowing its blood to spill and render the land infertile, feasted upon to increase Personality, the skull stolen to use as a cauldron by witches, and so on. For the Wizard, there is the Horned Cap, which makes him look like a badass and so might get him a free drink or a warmer bed, just to ensure that he is happy, or even potentially gain bonuses if Luck is burned, when casting spells related to bones, animals, or fear, and the Dragon Staff, which grants the user proficiency in, but not the capability of flight and a unique, randomly determined dragon power. There is even an Enchanted Skull Bookrest against which wizards and other magic-users rest their tomes and digests of knowledge where they can easily be read and understood, only for their content to shift into gibberish the moment they are taken away from the skull. It might protect a spell or other work of magic from prying eyes, but what if an Enchanted Skull Bookrest was stolen and one of the books which rested upon it, contained something of vital importance? Who would pay to get back and why?

The Cauldron of Contact aids in the fashioning of alchemical substances from other realms when burned over wood from Elfland, Faerie Forests, or Dryad Groves, or even contacting beings from those realms if wood cauldron from Elfland, Faerie Forests, or Dryad Groves is heated in the cauldron. There are potential side effects, such as the King of Elfland finding a future opportunity to strike the user or rolling corruption or all footwear being wet inside, causing the user’s feet to rot. This could be an interesting item, but is rather undeveloped as there are no mechanics as to when the side effects occur. 

The three spells in the issue are The Eye of Chaos, Shadowblend, and Seeking Shrieking Shrike. The first is a Second Level spell for Clerics which creates a glowing eye-like symbol that grants a bonus to Chaos-aligned creatures or zaps Law-aligned creatures; the second a First Level Wizard spell that enables him and his companions to blend into the shadows to increase their Armour Class; and the third a Second Level Cleric spell that creates an animal-shaped bolt which seeks out its target and hits on the next round after being cast. Seeking Shrieking Shrike is a fun spell, the others less so, but interesting additions to find in spell books or being cast by NPCs.

Other items are found in certain locations, such as the Speaking Headstone, which might not know much about the person whose grave it marks, but has seen a lot of vistors to the cemetery over the years, so may have the answers that the Player Characters are looking for. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to complain about the lack of crematorial etiquette and actually, would like a change of scenery, or even a holiday… The Speaking Headstone is just such a ridiculous idea, but it sounds a lot of fun for the Judge to roleplay, and her players and their characters are sure to loath it. Other locations include the partially submerged skull of a titan, which can be entered and then the length of its bones explored, the deeper the Player Characters penetrate, the better their magic, and a Hanging Tree whose potential effects include wiping from existence anyone who is hung from its branches or transforming them into some form of restitution for their crimes, or even causing another corpse to animate as one of the various undead. The Judge is free to choose, two of the options suggesting story possibilities, which the last feels almost traditional.

Physically, Night Soil #Zero is scrappy—intentionally scrappy. The artwork is likewise intentionally rough. Together with the use of the typewriter style font, the look of the fanzine is designed to match that of the fanzines and books of the seventies and even then their lack of professionalism. It may or may not trigger your sense of nostalgia, but that does not necessarily detract from the readability of the contents of the fanzine.

Night Soil #Zero is a mostly entertaining medley of the miscellaneous and the muddled, organised only by reference to another book. (Which is its major problem.) The inspired sits alongside the indifferent and reading the slim volume is very much a matter of whether you are going to get the former or latter, from one page to the next—or even on the same page! Night Soil #Zero is the equivalent of the blind box purchase for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game—there are definitely things in here that will inspire the Judge and there are definitely things which will leave him uninspired.

[Fanzine Focus XXIX] Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue

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: The Magic Issue 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: Monsters 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. 
Crawl! Number 10: New Class Options! provided exactly what it said on the tin and provided new options for the Demi-Human Classes, whilst Crawl! Number 11: The Seafaring Issue took the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published in August, 2016, Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue takes the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game on a deep delve into what is perhaps one of the most confusing parts of its rules—and that concerns Luck. In some situations a player has to roll under to make a Luck save in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, but in others a traditional Difficulty Check value needs to be rolled against, the roll modified by the Player Character’s Luck Bonus or Penalty, if any. Numerous authors provide as many options as they can for the Judge to pick and choose from depending upon what would suit her game. This starts with ‘High or Low? Tips for Dealing with Standard Luck Checks’, by the fanzine’s editor, the Rev. Dak J. Ultimak. He suggests using a standard Ability Check, lowering it for a heroic campaign, raising it for a gritty campaign; determining the Difficulty Check randomly each time; or simply just stick to rolling under Luck. There are guidelines too for group Luck Checks. He then counters these options with ‘Alternative Luck Checks – Different Luck Mechanics Instead of Luck Checks’. The options here rolling as per a Traveller skill check; rolling dice al a Craps; pushing a Player Character’s Luck a la the games Dice or Greed; and even what it calls ‘Story Mode’, essentially the Failure, ‘Yes, but’, and ‘Success’ mechanics of roleplaying games using Powered by the Apocalypse. Lastly, in ‘Luck as a Guiding Force – Luck as a Motivator’, Rev. Dak J. Ultimak picks up on using Luck as a motivating force as suggested in chapter seven of Dungeon Crawl Classics, using Luck as rewards for suitable actions in a campaign. So, protecting innocents for a heroic campaign, completing missions in a mercenary campaign, and so on. So numerous options to choose from, the Judge being almost spoilt for choice Except no…

Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue does leave the Judge spoilt for choice. The choices continue with ‘Lucky Strikes of Derring Do – A New Way to Burn Luck’ by R.S. Tilton. This enables Classes other than the Warrior to burn Luck and so gain access to a Deed Die—the more Luck burned, the higher the Deed Die—as well as ‘Dastardly Deeds of Deceit’ for the Thief and Halfling Classes with ‘Hamstring’ and ‘Hindering Strike, or Strap Cutter’ manoeuvres, which open up the range of actions they can do.  These are joined by options such as burning Luck to gain a die reroll, to gain a die bump, to turn an ordinary item into a lucky one, and more. ‘Luck Tables’ cover everything (well mostly) from ‘Recovering the Body’ to ‘Feeling Lucky?’ via ‘Bad Hair Days’, the latter most amusing table in the issue.

Rounding out the issue is ‘The Dungeon Balladeer – Bard Songs’ by Mark Bishop. This gives the lyrics for ‘The Ballad of Pervis Grumcobble’, a song regularly performed in the DCC Tavern about the luckiest Halfling to ever live in the kingdom. Thematically, it sort of fits the theme of Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue, Halflings, of course, being renowned for their luck, but it is such a change of tone and subject matter that the article is very much an outlier in what is very mechanically focused issue. Plus, as what was designed to be the first in a series, ‘The Dungeon Balladeer – Bard Songs’, tuned out to be the only entry as Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue was the last issue of the fanzine.

Physically, Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue is decently done, a clean and tidy affair. The artwork—done by Mario T—is decent enough, but hampered by the theme of the issue as there really is not all that much that can be done to illustrate Luck.

Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue is the most disappointing issue to date. This is not to say that it is a bad issue per se, or even useless. Dedicated to Luck and overflowing with options that a Judge can pick and choose from, the question is, how many options do you need? How many are you going to use? Of course once chosen, the Judge may never want to look at the other articles and options and this issue itself again. The options are all reasonable, yet it is just too much Luck, too many options for the one issue. Then again, once a Judge has read through Crawl! Number 12: The Luck Issue, she will never have to read another article about Luck again.

She should be so lucky.

Monday, 22 August 2022

Miskatonic Monday #126: A Fishy Business

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Joerg Sterner

Setting: Jazz Age Maine
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Fifteen page, 15.25 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Between the Mob and the Mythos in Maine.
Plot Hook: More to a delivery and a pickup than meets the eye on a road trip in New England
Plot Support: Staging advice, three handouts, six NPCs, three Mythos monsters to be, and one Mythos artefact. 
Production Values: Reasonable.

Pros
# One night one-shot
# Potential criminal campaign starter
# Low key, weird road trip
# Potential Lovecraft Country addition
# Underplayed introduction to the Mythos
# Lots of questions to be answered at scenario’s end
# Broad scope for non-traditional Investigators

Cons
# Needs a good edit
# Lots of questions to be answered at scenario’s end
# Light on Lovecraftian investigative horror
# Underplayed introduction to the Mythos for a one-shot?

Conclusion
# Short, but potentially interesting and entertaining introduction to the Mythos for a criminally-based campaign set in New England, which leaves a lot questions to be answered.
# Short, underplayed investigation and encounter with the Mythos for a one-shot, which leaves too many questions to be answered as a one-shot.