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

Sunday 9 April 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXI] Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001

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 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 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. Not every fanzine is written with the Old School Renaissance in mind, although that has been one of the driving forces behind their resurgence in recent years. Nor does every fanzine have to be for or about specific roleplaying games. Never Mind the Dice Rolls, published by NMtDRzine, falls into both of those categories—and more. It is not driven by nostalgia and its content is diverse, with articles about games as much for games, but the latter is systemless, written more for the specific type of game than a specific roleplaying game. It also has very high production values for a fanzine. In addition, it is very British.

Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 was published in September, 2021. It contains a couple of reviews, two scenarios, lots of plot hooks, and other articles about gaming. Its start though, is a little odd. ‘What is a Role Playing Game?’ by co-editor Nicholas Whitney reiterates and expands the section of text found at the beginning of every roleplaying game, which explains what it is and how it is played, classically basing the description on the type of ‘Cops & Robbers’ and ‘Cowboys & Indians’ games we played as children. However, Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 is not a roleplaying game and the likelihood is that it will never appear anywhere near where someone might pick up a roleplaying game at random and wonder what it is. The article feels like it is preaching to the converted in its redundancy. Thankfully, the next article—‘Do you remember your first time?’ by Adam Buxton is something that every reader can appreciate, recounting as it does the author’s first experiences with play. As much as the first articles in the issue deal with beginnings, this second is a much more engaging piece that also benefits from being shorter.

Fellow co-editor, Kat Simmons-Smith, provides two adventure hooks with ‘Sci-Fi Scenarios’. Both are roleplaying classics of their genre and neither is a scenario as such. In ‘Riches or Mercy’, the crew of a starship discover a heavily damaged cargo ship, seemingly abandoned, whilst in ‘Watch out for the Vents’, something is stalking and killing the crew of a survey ship on a twenty-year mission. Switch out the survey ship for a cargo ship and ‘Watch out for the Vents’ could be a precursor or explanation—in part—for ‘Riches or Mercy’. Neither scenario is accompanied by an explanation as to what is going on. So, the Game Master will need to provide that. Thus, both are really extended, if well written, plot hooks. In fact, more blurbs for the scenarios than plot hooks which could easily be added to the scenarios as handouts in play. ‘Fantasy Scenarios’ by Alex Hussey follows the same format, but to much better effect. With ‘The Boy Who Wished To be King’, on which the Player Characters are sent north to track down fabric for the princess’ wedding dress amidst a revolution, he provides a set-up, an explanation of the situation and its cause as well as a solution, whilst in ‘The Clockwork Dragon’, the Player Characters must find out why a clock tower has been heavily damaged and the Game Master is provided with both a clear explanation of the cause and some Difficulty Challenges to overcome when dealing with both the problem and the cause. In the case of ‘The Clockwork Dragon’, the scenario—or set-up—is clearly written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but either way, both entries in ‘Fantasy Scenarios’ are easier to use than those in ‘Sci-Fi Scenarios’ because they are more developed.

However, ‘Sci-Fi Scenarios’ and ‘Fantasy Scenarios’ are not the only playable content in Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001. The issue includes four ‘Plot Hooks’, two by Kat Simmons-Smith and two by Nicholas Whitney. These vary in length, but there are some nice ideas here across varying genres, such as ‘What’s in a Name?’, wherein the town of Gravesend suffers from a case of nominative determinism, which the Game Master can develop in full adventures. Then the issue contains not just one full scenario, but two full scenarios, both systems agnostic, but both set within clear genres which makes it easy for the Game Master to select an appropriate game system and develop the stats herself. ‘The Doomsday Stone’ by Al Livingstone is a fantasy scenario in the Swords & Sorcery’ genre, in which a long buried and forgotten weapon is causing earthquakes in the mountains, a glacier to shatter, and nearby sleepers to suffer nightmares about a buried gemstone. The Player Characters must find the cause, surviving the agitated monsters in the area and the strange effects of the weapon. Nicholas Whitney’s ‘Thank You For Watching’ is described as “A nostalgic 80s suburban adventure”, so its genre is again fairly obvious and there are plenty of roleplaying games which do ‘eighties kids in peril’. A strange television signal is turning viewers into a zombie-like state, and it is up to the kids to put a stop to it—with the help of the Audio Visual Club, even as Men in Black turn up to deal with the situation in their own way. Both scenarios require some development in terms of stats, but they are otherwise all but ready to run.

Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 contains two reviews. Nicholas Whitney’s is of the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, whilst Stephen Craig Robinson contributes a review of Nibiru, the Science Fiction roleplaying game of lost memories. Both are solid, informative pieces. There is also the one roleplaying game of its own in the fanzine. Kat Simmons-Smith’s ‘Dungeon Roomba’ is a solo minigame in which the player controls the activities of the classic dungeon clean-up monster, the Gelatinous Cube—equating it with the autonomous cleaning robot, as it goes about its allotted task. It is a delightfully silly procedural rethink of a monster that is typically regarded as a pest or hurdle to be overcome rather than necessarily faced and worth rolling through to see what its day is like.

Three lengthier articles in the fanzine explore the notions and discomforts of stepping away from gaming in your home group and into the wider hobby, although in a variety of different means. Dave Paterson, the host of the Frankenstein RPG podcast, asks ‘Why on Earth did I start a Podcast?’, the answer being to reach out and enjoy the wider hobby, despite the work necessary! Similarly, Sean F. Smith’s ‘How to Host a Convention Game: Flesh and Fibre Optic’ provides an introduction to running roleplaying sessions, typically one-shots, for both in-person and virtual events. In comparison to the other two articles, it is shorter and perhaps could have benefited from more information, but what is there is good. Lastly, Kat Simmons-Smith ends the issue on a more difficult note with ‘The Unicorn Myth’, which examines her experiences roleplaying as a woman, both in her home group’s games and in public games, such as at conventions. Her issue is with gatekeeping and the acceptance of women at the gaming table, not wanting to see her presence—or that of any other female gamer, at the table as anything other than normal rather than special. It is a pity that even in 2021 that this issue has to be raised and the author makes clear and valid points. One particular point is that commenting on never seeing female gamers is both unhelpful and can make the player in question uncomfortable when this is said to her. The obvious response to that is for the reader to look at this and see it from the point of view of the author and other female players, but at the same time, the author could have examined why that was said and what was done to make her and other games welcome. If nothing, then the other players are obviously not thinking beyond her presence as an exception, but if something, this could have been highlighted and further explored to help the wider gaming hobby be more accepting.

Physically, Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 is a bright, clean affair, done in full colour. Consequently, it feels far more professional than most fanzines.

Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 is really packed full of playable content, rounded out with some interesting and thoughtful articles. Some of the scenario hooks could have been better developed to make them easier to use, but all can readily worked up into something that the Game Master can bring to her campaign. Never Mind the Dice Rolls Issue 001 is an excellent first issue, setting a high standard for the issues to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment