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.

No comments:

Post a Comment