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Saturday 8 April 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXI] Love Letters From The Baker House Band

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Some fanzines though are not written for a specific roleplaying game or roleplaying games, but are instead about roleplaying and the hobby.

Love Letters from the Baker House Band is not a fanzine about one author’s campaign or his thoughts upon gaming, but instead a collaborative project put together by the various members of a long running gaming group hosted by the games designers, Vincent and Meguey Baker. Funded via Kickstarter as part of Zine Quest #2, its content includes art, reviews, and game design firmly placed in the Indie style or storytelling style of roleplaying, which should be no surprise given that Vincent Baker is the designer of Apocalypse World, the 2010 roleplaying game whose Powered by the Apocalypse mechanics have been adapted to numerous roleplaying games such as Matrons of Mystery and Cartel: Mexican Narcofiction Powered by the Apocalypse to drive strong storytelling. However, there is relatively little that is specifically for Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying games in the pages of the fanzine, and what there is, is easily adapted to the roleplaying game of the reader’s choice.

Love Letters from the Baker House Band opens with Roxanne Gariepy’s tribute to the group, ‘Love Makes a Family’, depicting a group of misfits—the characters if not necessarily, but probably as much, their players—who come together (to play) and are bound by love. Including a bird and a sentient ‘pile of laundry’ and nicely illustrated, this captures the feel of a gaming group sharing experiences and coming together as a family and hints what it is like being a member of the Baker House Band. The gaming group’s influence is also seen in Evan Janssen’s ‘How Gaming at the Bakers’ Helped Me Design Better Video Games’, which recounts how his experience playing and running roleplaying games influenced and changed how he designs video games. Of course, roleplaying and Dungeons & Dragons have been a strong influence upon video games and especially video roleplaying games, but here the author uses the languages and the tools used by a Game Master to improve how he designs video games. The parallels between the two are fascinating and highlight how the skills used in gaming can be useful beyond its confines.

The first gaming content in the fanzine is ‘Barbara’s Book Club & Motorcycle Gang’ by Alix Janssen. This is both a book club and hardcore motorcycle gang of tough women in crisp print dresses, headscarves, heels, and big motorcycles who read and ride. Armed with their rides, their books, their big handbags containing all manner of useful items, the ladies ride the apocalypse bringing manners and a helpful attitude wherever they go. Obviously written for use with Apocalypse World, but pointers and tags rather than stats, this gang would fit into most post-apocalyptic settings, but also a great many other settings if the Game Master wants a memorable set of eccentric old biddies. ‘Tales of Timberwind’ by Elliot Baker and Tovey Baker introduces an anthropomorphic cosy woodland setting in the style of Mouse Guard or Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game, which sounds intriguing, but leaves the reader wanting more. However, to learn more, the reader will need to sign up for the family’s Patreon.

Tovey Baker’s other contribution to Love Letters from the Baker House Band is ‘Hvanrost City’. This is a setting for Blades in the Dark, the roleplaying game crime and gang activity set in a Dickensian industrial city. Notably, this city is powered by pipes filled with electric eels or leeches, but it is also ghost haunted and surrounded by a toxic mist which rolls off the sea and changes creatures into giant mindless animals. There is plenty to work with here for the Game Master to use the city for his own campaign.

The highlight and the bulk of Love Letters from the Baker House Band consists of Meguey Baker’s ‘Baker House LARP’. Each year, as a teacher, she has hosted a LARP for her teenage students over a five-day period. This is full of advice on how to set up, run, adjudicate, and get the most out of such event, along with advice and commentary based on her experiences. There is a great deal to work through here and perhaps could have been better presented—likely as a separate guide for other educators—but it is fascinating to how this is done. For most readers, this will be an interesting article rather than a useful one, but for the teacher, or someone with a similar role, looking to host something along the same lines, this is to be recommended.

‘The Care and Keeping of Waifs, Strays, and Castaways – A Practical Guide’ by Adin Klotz is a set of pointers and warnings that works as a narrative too, whilst Micah’s ‘Legend of Mandoom’s Leg’ is a short, four-page comic which hilariously turns a Dirty Harry style confrontation aboard a school bus on its head with an ‘Unnatural Lust Transfixion’ Powered by the Apocalypse-style move. It is funny and weird, but captures that moment a desperate dice roll can send a situation in a completely different direction with an unexpected move. ‘PBTA reviews from the BHB’ by Josh Savoie reviews six Powered by the Apocalypse roleplaying games including Dungeon World and Masks: A New generation, and is a good overview of some of the best of the very many roleplaying games available using its mechanics.

Josh Savoie also provides the Powered by the Apocalypse move, ‘Last Breath’. It is made when a Player Character is reduced to zero Hit points and has the opportunity to utter his last words. It begins by asking the other players round the table a number of questions, the bonus to the roll being determined by their answers. The Player Character is going to die, but this gives him one last action, whether glorious or helpful. It is pleasingly dramatic. ‘Shadow Magic’ by Annika Sturmer is more straightforward and designed for long term play, providing a means of teleportation or travel via the shadows, though it is not without its perils. Failure gives the result, “You bring something with you or leave something behind that you did not intend.”, which is again a dramatically great result. This move would work in a number of genres, whether fantasy, superheroes, or urban fantasy. It would be good to see this developed into a suite of moves rather than just the one here.

Love Letters from the Baker House Band comes to a close just as it started with tribute. Again, this is to the family and the gaming group as a family. Sebastian’s ‘D&D Day’ captures the feel and joy of play in an all-day session which runs to midnight. It is a lovely memory, which perhaps wistfully, as adults we miss a great deal.

Physically, Love Letters from the Baker House Band is a lovely fanzine. It needs an edit here or there, but is decently presented.

Love Letters from the Baker House Band is a snapshot of a gaming group and the pleasure its members take in gaming together and being in each other’s company. There are useful things to be found in its pages, especially for educator wanting to host a LARP for his students, but those are not necessarily what this fanzine is about. As a fanzine, Love Letters from the Baker House Band achieves a rare sense of warmth and feeling that radiates from the title on the cover to the very last page—and that is what sets it apart.

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