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Monday 28 August 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXII] The Beholder Issue 1

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 showcased how 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. As new fanzines have appeared, there has been an interest in the fanzines of the past, and as that interest has grown, they have become highly collectible, and consequently more difficult to obtain and write about. However, in writing about them, the reader should be aware that these fanzines were written and published between thirty and forty years ago, typically by roleplayers in their teens and twenties. What this means is that sometimes the language and terminology used reflects this and though the language and terminology is not socially acceptable today, that use should not be held against the authors and publishers unduly.

The Beholder was a British fanzine first published in April, 1979. Dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it ran to twenty-seven issues, the last being published in July, 1981. It was popular and would be awarded ‘Best Games Fanzine’ at the Games Day convention in 1980. After the final issue of The Beholder, the editors would go on to release a number of anthologies which collected content from the complete run of the fanzine such as Beholder Supplement Glossary of Magic, which collected many of the magical items which appeared in the fanzine and collated them into a series of tables for easy use by the Dungeon Master, and Fantasie Scenarios – The Fanzine Supplement No. 2, the first of several scenario anthologies.

Opening with its editorial, editors Guy Duke and Michael Stoner set out their stall. The Beholder was intended to be printed monthly, it was dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons, although content for other roleplaying games such as Chivalry & Sorcery and Traveller might creep in, and whilst it would accept contributions, they state that, “we will only print what we consider to be good quality stuff, take note: we are not an APA.” (Amateur Press Association). This a comment upon the poor quality of such periodicals in that they would accept any old thing. The editors also promised to include a ‘competition dungeon’ in each issue as that would be more useful than a mini-dungeon as they would not necessarily fit in the Dungeon Master’s world and severe changes would have to be made for them to do so. What they mean by a ‘competition dungeon’ is one designed to be played as part of a tournament at a convention with pre-generated Player Characters, for example, classics such as S1 Tomb of Horrors and Goodman Games’ own Dungeon Crawl Classics #13: Crypt of the Devil Lich—more recently updated for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics. However, this was not a policy that they would adhere to and later issues included standard adventures and dungeons.

Actual content for The Beholder Issue 1 begins with a new Class, ‘The Trickster’. This was designed to countering the Thief being too weak at high Levels when compared to spell-casting Classes. The Class combines certain Thief abilities with spellcasting and the Trick ability. The Thief abilities are limited to Pick Pockets, Hear Noise, Open Locks, and Climb Walls, and the Trickster’s spells are set per Level. Thus the Trickster knows Ventriloquism at First Level, Charm Person at Second Level, and so on. Only once a Trickster reaches Eleventh Level, does he get to choose his spells. That said, the spells are useful to his role, rather than offering the flexibility of choice of the Magic-User. Modified by Level, Charisma, shared Alignment, and Hit Dice of victim, the Trick ability is a percentile skill which when successfully rolled can Distract, Stall, Befriend, Confuse, or Convince that victim. The Class is a mish-mash, but modified to be highly vocal and interactive, rather than relying upon force or other means. It is an interesting design which would work well in social or urban situations, but might not be suitable for the dungeon. Nevertheless, it provides an archetype that fills a role not present in Dungeons & Dragons.

‘Spells: Use & Misuse’ is the first of three thoughtful and interesting articles in The Beholder Issue 1. This looks at how players find loopholes in the use of spells to create inventive, and typically more powerful, uses of a spell than the designers originally intended. For example, Reduce, the reverse of the spell, Enlarge, is incredibly powerful, enabling the Magic-User to temporarily destroy something and so gain an advantage. In addition, it can be used to reduce the size of a door in its door frame and so bypass a door barred with Wizard Lock, reduce the size of a hole to trap a monster, and so on. It highlights spells that last until triggered, such as Explosive Runes, are a pain for the Dungeon Master to deal with, and suggests the damage inflicted when Explosive Runes are triggered be reduced over time when the object the spell is cast on, for example, the Magic-User’s spell book, is carried about. ‘View Point’ begins with the line, “In D&D the unusual becomes the norm.” In other words, the Player Characters quickly adapt to a situation or monster and find ready means to handle them each time they encounter said monsters. For example, knowing that Ochre Jellies will divide if attacked by swords and that Rust Monsters are best faced wearing leather armour and wielding clubs. In other words, the mystery of play is not only lost for the players, but also for the Dungeon Master, who will rarely be surprised by the actions of their Player Characters. The solution is surprises. So new monsters, items, tricks, traps, and so on. That though, is the traditional response. The article also suggests having the player select his Magic-User’s spells in secret from the Dungeon Master in order to surprise her in play, which is a radical step. It is supported by an amusing example of play. The other suggestion is more obvious and that is to create unusual encounters. Some fun ones thrown out here include, “A djinni with hayfever, a cowardly dragon, a short giant, a lost minotaur.”

In between the second and third of the interesting articles in The Beholder Issue 1 is ‘Monster Summoning’. This is a collection of of some seven First Level monsters. It includes creatures like the Kobold-like ‘Deep’, whose claws have the same effect as the Slow spell, the ‘Dala’, a living dagger which can swim or fly and charges its victim to poison him on the first attack; the ‘Pigwidgeon’, being pigfaced humanoids like the then pigfaced Orcs, notable only for their use of the bolas; and ‘Malnutrite’, long-haired, pot-bellied, dirty humanoids who smell, seek out, and ask for food. If they are not given it, they will attack, and if killed, their slayer suffers a random curse. The only creature of any interest is the ‘Gop’, wasp-like insects that infest dungeons and are actually harmless except for the fact that they eat anything, but especially wolvesbane, garlic, and belladonna. These monsters fall under the category of monsters for monsters’ sake, designed to intrigue and surprise the players and their characters with something new. None of the monsters are interesting. In fact, they are boring. By modern standards, the depiction of Orcs and thus Pigwidgeon is controversial, even offensive, but then The Beholder Issue one was published over forty years ago. By the standards of The Beholder, as set out in the editorial, ‘Monster Summoning’ fails to meet its own standards.

Fortunately, ‘Thoughts on Treasure’ rights this first issue of The Beholder on its course and completes its trilogy of genuinely interesting and thoughtful articles. The article is based on the importance in early Dungeons & Dragons of treasure and loot as a source of Experience Points and asks why limbless creatures such as a giant snake would have treasure, let alone keep it in a chest, and why Chaotic Evil monsters possess Lawful Good treasures? Suggestions include it being on the body of victims, of lesser monsters serving bigger monsters and having mundane abilities such as tool use! More intriguing is the possibility of trade, so that monsters might be holding a magical item that they cannot use in order to trade for something better. Trade means that the Player Characters should be able to interact with them other than fighting and lesser monsters serving bigger monsters means that dungeon design and the dungeon population process can be less random, more thoughtful, and even establish an ecology of sorts. Also discussed is the inflationary effect of treasure and loot as a source of Experience Points, as it means dungeons have to be stocked with increasing amount of coin and the Player Characters no longer needing mules to carry everything back to civilisation, but mule trains and then wagon trains! The solution given is reduce the amount of coin found and increase its Experience Point value by the same amount. Overall, an interesting look at a style of play and its inherent problems that would have been highly relevant back then.

The competition dungeon in The Beholder Issue 1 is ‘Pyrus Complex’. This
 is for five Player Characters of Fourth and Fifth Levels, and comes with eight pre-generated Player Characters. Written for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, it describes a small, twenty-five location dungeon, a set of natural caverns that have been extended and expanded by a pair of adventurers, now long gone. Unfortunately, as a ‘competition’ dungeon, it does not make a lot of sense. It is populated in semi-random fashion—there is a Hobgoblin guard post, but no Hobgoblins anywhere else in the dungeon, caves filled with acidic water next to cave filled with non-acidic water, a tropical woodland whose only purpose is to charm the Player Characters, have them charge through thorns and underbrush for minimal damage—and that is it, a labyrinth for making mapping difficult, and so on. When it comes to the points awarded for completing certain tasks, they do not always make sense, such as gambling with an elephant in the Mites’ treasury. There are Carnivorous Apes locked up there, but no elephant. The dungeon comes across as a cross between B1 In Search of the Unknown and S1 Tomb of Horrors. There is no reason to play or use this dungeon, except to see how many points can be scored at the end and the scenario advocates doing this. Playing it with one group after another to compare their points’ totals. Which is potentially fun for the Dungeon Master, but how many times would she want to run this? It should be noted that as a ‘competition dungeon’, the set time limit for ‘Pyrus Complex’ is sixty Turns or ten hours. So roughly two to three sessions with penalties for the competition points if the allotted time is exceeded. Lastly, it lacks the short account of a ‘guinea pig’ party’s exploits—or ‘Competition Chronicles’—which was a potential inclusion for this and future ‘Competition Dungeons’ in The Beholder, which might have alleviated the tedious nature of the dungeon’s design.

There is no hook or reason to enter, especially if it was placed in a campaign world. Random and pointless, the good news is that future dungeons and adventures in the pages of The Beholder would be vastly superior to this unmitigated morass of ill-thought-out and dully executed ideas.

Rounding out The Beholder Issue 1 is ‘Magic Jar’. This is a collection of nineteen magical items. There are some nice items here, such as the Monk Gloves, leather gloves with a strip of metal, typically mithril or adamantine, that the unarmed monk can wear to gain extra damage and be able to strike magical creatures which require magical weapons to be attacked, and do so with the ‘Open hand’ attack. The Eyes of Viewing enable the wearer to view invisible and out-of-phase creatures, but cannot see anything in the material world when worn, the Cursed Warhammer acts like a normal Warhammer, but when thrown loops back and hits its wielder for damage—more if he is a Dwarf, Tenser’s Disc is a permanent version of the spell Tenser’s Floating Disk, and the Anti-Spell Shield can be used to absorb missile-style spells, like Magic Missile, but will do so until its capacity is exceeded and the shield breaks. The article is a good mix of magical items, some now familiar, but new then, and some even new today.

Physically, The Beholder, Issue 1 is a bit scruffy in places, but readable. The layout is tight and that does make it difficult to read in places. The illustrations and the cartography is not actually that bad. Of course, the first issue of the fanzine 
was published when personal publishing was still analogue and the possibilities of the personal computer and personal desktop publishing were yet to come. In the case of The Beholder that would never be taken advantage of.

The Beholder has a high reputation for content that is of good quality and playable. 
The Beholder, Issue 1 does not match that reputation, let alone alone meet its own high standards in this first issue. The monsters are boring and the given scenario playable, but without any real purpose except to see if one playing group is better than another and rhyme or reason to the design. Yet there are flashes of better things to come. The Trickster Class looks interesting and would be playable in the right campaign, whilst the articles are interesting and thoughtful. The Beholder Issue 1 is a promising, but not great start for what would go on to become a highly regarded and highly sort after fanzine. It is fascinating to see where it began, nevertheless.

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