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Monday 10 April 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXI] Polaris Issue 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 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 & 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. However, for fanzines of some roleplaying games, it is necessary to look to the past.

Polaris Issue 1 was published in the summer of 1987. As the cover states, it is “For Players Of The ‘Call Of Cthulhu’ FRPG’, it is a British fanzine—actually published less than two miles from where I write this review in Birmingham, which came out towards the end of the British fanzine boom of the period and at a time when the highly regarded Dagon fanzine from Carl Ford was going strong. The concerns of the thirty-six-page volume will be familiar to the Keepers of today, and certainly will be familiar to veteran players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu. Thus, it contains articles about how to create and maintain an atmosphere of fear around the table, examinations of particular Occupations and Mythos tomes, a description of an occult tradition and its parallels with the Cthulhu Mythos. It also contains two scenarios and so edited by Simon Prest, the issue contains quite a lot of content that is both playable and applicable today.

Written for use for Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition and named after H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Polaris Issue 1  opens with a very English concern. This is Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Games Workshop’s seminal sourcebook for the United Kingdom. First, in ‘The Lamp of Alhazred’, Andy Smith reviews the book to positive effect, although he does not think much of either Brian Lumley’s short story, ‘The Running Man’ or the scenario which precedes it, ‘Shadows over Darkbank’. Both are notable low points in the supplement, which otherwise still stands up as a very playable affair. ‘Down To Earth With A Bump’ by Peter F. Jeffery is a set of optional rules for handling aircraft damage, whether from another attacking aeroplane or a flying Mythos creature, such as a Byakhee. Originally submitted as an accompaniment to the aviation article in Green and Pleasant Land, the rules were ultimately rejected and printed in the pages of Polaris. They handle the effects of damage as a series of escalating saving throws, with the amount of damage determining the percentile target which if rolled under has the undesired effect. The base roll is to see if the aeroplane crashes, makes a crash landing, a forced landing, or suffers structural damage, the percentile target more or less doubling each time. Supported by several examples, this is both simple and complex at the same time, with lots of dice rolls which would slow down play at the table and it is clear to see why they might not have been accepted for inclusion in Green and Pleasant Land.

Andy Bennison’s ‘The Heat on the Streets’ is the first of the two scenarios in Polaris Issue 1 . It casts the Investigators as private detectives thrown into a classic Film Noir-like case involving a mysterious femme fatale, a missing man, gangsters, Prohibition, and a grumpy police detective. Not only does the police detective not like the Investigators, but he is also not far off retirement, and these are just the most obvious of the scenario’s clichés. Angelica Peach wants her brother, Jonathan, found as their mother is terribly sick. Given some names to contact, the investigation leads to the door The Dragon Club, a restaurant owned by local gangster, Valentino D’Al, and the first of many shootouts in the scenario. The author admits the scenario is linear and it is also heavily plotted. It leans more into the Pulp style of play and is suitable for a group who prefers a more action orientated type of mystery. The Keeper will also need to provide more a few sets of stats for the various NPCs and there are a few areas where she will also need to add names and personalities to various NPCs. It is also never explained who the femme fatale is, but her presence does lead to some nice moments of horror in the scenario.

Under the Keeper’s Lore department, Dave Hallett makes the point that ‘Fear Is The Key’. This looks at ways in which fear can be invoked in Call of Cthulhu and maintained. His advice is to ground the game in the mundane, the engage and keep the attention of the players, involve all of the senses, and so on, before moving on to undermine the Investigators’ sense of reality, and using tools such as false alarms and ambiguity. It is a well-worn path, seen in subsequent articles over and over, but good advice, nonetheless. ‘The Dark Brotherhood’ by Simon Prest is not a regular feature about cults as the title might allude to, but rather a look at Occupations, that, what the Investigator did before he began investigating the unknown and tries to do whilst suffering its travails. Here the Occupation is the Author, with suggestions as to what the author might be writing about, what publications he writes for, and so on. Overall, it provides some useful questions for the player to think about when creating his Investigator.

The subject of ‘Illuminating Manuscripts’ is another perennial favourite of Call of Cthulhu—Mythos tomes, showing even back in 1987, the roleplaying game did not provide much in the way of information about for the Keeper. The particular tome covered by Adrian Jones here is The G’harne Manuscripts, taken from Brain Lumley’s The Burrowers Beneath. The article examines its history and its content, referencing the various works by Lumley where the book has appeared. It is a decent examination of the book with plenty of detail that the Keeper can include should her Investigators want to find and study a copy. Even in 2023, it shows how the Mythos tome is an important part of the game, but there is no definite treatment of them for the roleplaying game. They very much deserve their own supplement. The article adds the spell, Call Shudde-M’ell, and provides guidelines for handling the Chthonian susceptibility to water.

‘The Secret Doctrine’ by Michael S. Carter is an article about Kabbalism, the Jewish esoteric mysticism which for Call of Cthulhu, played a significant role in the scenario The City Without a Name from Curse of the Chthonians. Explored in more detail elsewhere for Call of Cthulhu, the article does not delve too deeply into its subject before making an odd swerve into discussing the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its dissolution and then back again to link Kabbalism to the Mythos by drawing parallels between the former’s Tree of Life and its circles and Yog-Sothoth of the latter. This includes the travel required by separating spirit from body and journeying onwards to make contact with god. The article avoids the subject of numerology and is thus short, direct, and to the point.

It is also the inspiration for the second scenario in Polaris Issue 1 . ‘The Acolyte Of The Ultimate Gate’ by Simon Prest is set in London, but feels a little like ‘The Vanishing Conjurer’ from The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer and ‘The Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight’ from Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: A Global Campaign to Save Mankind with a secret cult operating in the city about the enact a terrible ritual. The scenario opens with the Investigators staying at a friend’s house for Christmas, when one of the guests collapses to the floor, and before he dies, thrusts a letter into an investigator’s hand and utters a warning. What dread occurrence is he warning about and what was it that was keeping him working even as the other guests enjoyed the celebrations? The Investigators must overcome doctor-patient privilege to get to the nub of the situation and identify the threat, before finding a way to deal with it. Of the two scenarios in the fanzine, this needs less effort upon the part of the Keeper, the Investigators have greater freedom to explore the situation, and the tone is far more restrained and mannerly. It is thus the better of the two and much easier to add to a  United Kingdom campaign set during the eighteen nineties, nineteen twenties, or nineteen thirties.

Elsewhere in the fanzine, there is a decent piece of poetry from J. Pentalow, The Beast of Yaem’, and as with all fanzines, the adverts capture the feel of hobby at the time of their publication. As the first issue, there is very little in the way of adverts or classified adverts in Polaris Issue 1 , but there is a little dig by author Paul Mason at Games Fair for his own convention, Koancon, which points to the attitudes of the hobby at the time.

Physically, Polaris Issue 1  feels slightly rough and is slightly difficult to read in its choice of typewriter typeface, but this is really only at the beginning of readily available desktop publishing software. Yet, much of the artwork is quite reasonable and the layout is tidy.

It is disappointing that it only ran to the one issue because Polaris Issue 1 is a surprisingly good first issue. There is much that will be familiar to veterans of the Call of Cthulhu, and the various articles would have definitely useful at the time of its publication, if not today. That said, both scenarios could be run today if the Keeper wanted, and likewise, the Keeper could definitely draw inspiration from one or two of the other articles. Overall, Polaris Issue 1 is impressively solid and any Keeper would have been glad to have had this in 1987.


An unboxing of Polaris issue 1 can be found here.


  1. Matthew - nice article. The YT video link didn’t work for me. It says private video and won’t load.
    I’m looking forward to figuring out how to read some other posts about vintage fanzines.

  2. Thanks for reading the review.
    Sorry the video is not yet available. It will go live at the end of the month.