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Friday 22 December 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXIII] Carcass Crawler Issue #3

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. Then there is also Old School Essentials.

Carcass Crawler is ‘The Official Fanzine Old-School Essentials zine’. Published by Necrotic Gnome, Old School Essentials is the retroclone based upon the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1981, and Carcass Crawler provides content and options for it. It is pleasingly ‘old school’ in its sensibilities, being a medley of things in its content rather than just the one thing or the one roleplaying game as has been the trend in gaming fanzines, especially with ZineQuest. Carcass Crawler #1 focused on Classes and Races alongside its other support for Old School Essentials, whereas although Carcass Crawler Issue #2 does provide new Races and Classes, it instead focuses on general support for the Player Character and playing Old School Essentials. Carcass Crawler Issue #3 continues the fanzine’s thread of providing new Classes for Old School Essentials.

Carcass Crawler Issue #3 describes five new character Classes and four new Races. What this means is that it follows
standard Old School Essentials rules in that it allows for ‘Race as Class’ as well as supporting the separation of Race and Class as per Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy. ‘New Classes and Races’ by Gavin Norman opens with the first of its new Classes, the ‘Beast Master’. This Class gains a number of loyal animal companions equal to its Level, can identify tracks, and can come to understand the speech of animals and communicate with them. Essentially, this is a Class is going to see the Player Character controlling a pack of animals for various purposes depending upon the animal. Exactly what each animal can do is going for the player and the Game Master to decide. The ‘Dragonborn’ is the first of the four ‘Race as Class’ options in the issue and the first which harks back to an earlier edition of Dungeons & Dragons, in this case, Dungeons & Dragons 3.5. The Dragonborn has a breath weapon and partial immunity according to its draconic bloodline, and so on, and is generally similar to the Dragonborn of Dungeons & Dragons. The ‘Mutoid’ is the first of two radically different Classes. It consists of a demihuman with randomly determined mismatched body parts, such as Beast Ears for improved hearing and Spring Legs for a leap attack. The Class has several Thief skills, plus Mimicry, and can eventually set up a secret lair and start a Thieves’ Guild, but in general, are shunned by society. The second radically different Class is the Mycellian, a humanoid mushroom who can emit a spray of Fungal Spores—either pacifying or hallucinogenic, grow in stature increasing its unarmed combat damage and natural Armour Class, and relies on telepathy for communication. Once a Mycellian reaches Sixth Level it can found an underground stronghold and create a fungal zombie as a minion. The Mycellian is a pleasingly personal take upon the mushroom men-style monster of Dungeons & Dragons. The last of the new races is the second to be obviously drawn from a previous version of Dungeons & Dragons, this time from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. The Race is the Tielfling and it has Fiendish Heritage, Fiendish Appearance, and a Fiendish Gift, typically a spell or resistance. It also has the power to Beguile with its words and knows the Thief’s stealth skills.

These are all a nice selection of Classes, presenting the Game Master with plenty of choice in terms of deciding what Races she has in her campaign and she is given advice to that end. All five Classes though are presented in the standard two-page spread for Old School Essentials, making them highly accessible. Four of the ‘Race as Class’ Classes—Dragonborn, Mutoid, Mycellian, and Tielfling—are in turn presented as Races. This enables their use in combination with a Class as per Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy.

Also by Gavin Norman is ‘Expanded Equipment’. For Adventuring Gear, this adds thing such as the bucket, magnifying glass, sledgehammer, and more. Weapons & Armour lists padded armour, furs, studded leather, banded mail, and full plate, so encompassing the wider range of armour found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, whilst new weapons include bastard sword, blackjack, blowgun, bolas, and more. These also have weapon qualities, like Entangle for the whip and Versatile for the bastard sword, which can be used one-handed or two-handed. Overall, it expands the range of equipment and options available to a campaign and the players and their characters.

Donn Stroud pens ‘Woodland Monsters’. This is a bestiary of eight creatures. It includes the ‘Bracketfolk’, humanoid bracket fungi who live in families on a single tree; ‘Burlbug’ are gnarled nocturnal, and territorial simians who howl when disturbed or annoyed and like to collect gems; the ‘Corpse Vine’ is a carnivorous plant that hangs from trees and pulls up its victims to constrict and slowly digest them, tempting them with prior victims turned into twitching corpses; the ‘Ghoul-Stag’ is a horrible decaying corpse of a deer animated after the bite of a Ghoul; the Skull Spider Nettle is a mobile carnivorous plant which occupies skulls and scuttles around injecting its spores into its victims using its lashes; the ‘Spell Croaker’ is a giant tree frog infused with magic as a tadpole, which can randomly disgorge a spell, whilst the ‘Spell Croaker Tadpole’ is the immature form, which flies around disenchanting magical items and spell-casters; and lastly, ‘Stick-Children’ are insects which cover themselves in branches they saw from trees with their mandibles, giving them a humanoid appearance. There is a good mix here which the Game Master can pick and choose from to populate the woodlands in her campaign.

Lastly, Gavin Norman gives advice on monsters in ‘Creating Monsters’. It is a very straightforward piece, suggesting that the Game Master begin with tweaking or re-skinning an existing monster rather than starting from scratch. However, if that does not work in the given situation, it guides
 the Game Master through an eight-step process, looking at factors to consider at each step. This starts with the imagination and then goes through Hit Dice, Armour Class, Movement Rate, Attacks, and Special Abilities before calculating Derived Stats and taking into account any final details. To be honest the article is one the like of which has been written again and again about Dungeons & Dragons-style monsters and their creation. This does not mean that the advice or the article are poor. In fact, this is a useful article which lets the Game Master look at monsters from another angle.

Physically, Carcass Crawler Issue #3 is well written and well presented. The artwork is excellent.

Carcass Crawler Issue #3 feels as if it is capping off a trilogy that comprises a character Class compendium for Old School Essentials. Indeed, Necrotic Gnome could present all of the Classes and Races to appear in the pages of the fanzine and it would be a serviceable supplement providing further options for player and Game Master alike. Hopefully, future issues will contain fewer new Classes and open up the otherwise excellent support for Old School Essentials that Carcass Crawler provides to wider content. That said, Carcass Crawler #3 is a solid issue and its Classes and monsters are interesting and the fanzine continues to be an enjoyable old school-style publication.

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