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

Monday 18 December 2023

[Fanzine Focus XXXIII] The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 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 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 1970sDungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Travellerbut 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. However, not all fanzines written with the Old School Renaissance in mind need to be written for a specific retroclone.

As beautiful as pieces of artwork that medieval illuminated manuscripts are, we have a fascination not with their actual words and their artistry of the copied work, as great as they, but with what lies alongside that artistry. For alongside the texts, medieval monks, in the laborious process of copying one manuscript after another, medieval monks would essentially add doodles in the margin, but doodles of a wholly illuminated and weird world full of strange creatures doing equally as strange things. Knights riding snails. Banditry rabbits. Headless duellists. Menacing snails. Magical beasts. Essentially, medieval scribes liked to fill the margins of their illuminated manuscripts with pictures of strange creatures doing strange things. Yet what if this monkish marginalia was not just the work of the imagination, but drawn from real life and such creatures as the monks drew to alleviate their boredom, were all too real. And if all of it was real, what could you do with it? This is a question answered by The Medieval Margin-agerie.

The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 takes our fascination with the marginalia of medieval monks and turns it into something gameable. Published by Just Crunch Games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it describes itself as “a zine of the grotesque, the weird and the bizarre for OSR games”. Although designed for use with the Old School Renaissance, it is not retroclone specific, but will work with most. In particular, the contents of The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 will work very well with those of A Folklore Bestiary, published by The Merry Mushmen, and in tone, if not necessarily straight mechanics, with Mörk Borg, the Swedish pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance retroclone designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell and published by Free League Publishing.

The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 restricts itself to just nine entries. Each is categorised under ‘What’, ‘Where’, ‘Why’, and ‘How’. Thus, ‘What’ is the creature, ‘Where’ is the creature found, ‘Why’ does the creature act the way it does, and ‘How’ might it be encountered and faced. This is followed by the stats. It should be noted that the various entries all represent the Medieval imagination, which is as prurient as our own, so there is content in the fanzine that is suggestive of the sexual and the scatological. The tone though, is not unnecessarily prurient, but rather a little smutty or saucy a la the Carry On films. To some extent this is no surprise, because the assumed setting for the contents of the fanzine is Medieval Europe and more specifically, Medieval England. The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 suggests several uses for its various entries, such as the Game Master setting her campaign within the pages of a medieval tome or the Player Characters being transported into one; the entries escaping from a medieval tome into the real world; and even the Player Characters being engaged by the scribes to track these creatures down and make drawings of them so that the scribes do not have to.

The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 opens with a medieval knightly order rather than a beast. This is the ‘Order of the Shell’. These knights pledge themselves to the Law of the Great Gastropod, the ‘ooze of enlightenment’, some simply taking a snail as a noble, if slow steed, others going down the ‘Ordeal of the Trail’. Members of the order possess a mental link with all slugs, snails, and other gastropods, have an increased Armour Class, and are slower than other knights. The Order of the Shell is primarily a rural order, and those members who undergo the ‘Ordeal of the Trail’ grow physically closer to the Great Gastropod gaining features such as Upper Tentacles, extendable eyes that enable them to look round corners or above water if immersed, or a Single Foot, their feet fusing, slowing them, but increasing their stability.

The ’Rabbandits’ are armed and roaming bands of vicious rabbits and hares, committing acts of banditry. No crime is too unpalatable, no murder too brutal for a Rabbandit, merciless especially if it means getting closer to a Farmer before he can carry out the Culling that the species greatly fears and constantly prophesising. Also wandering the land are the ‘Brothers Decapitatory’, brother duellists who have cut the other’s head from his shoulders and keep hold of it to ensure that other takes care of his body. They challenge anyone whom they regard as not being pious enough and technically, cannot die unless they have their own head on their own body. There is also the chance of the target of their murderously religious ire dropping dead before any duel has begun since they always list their titles in the lead up, but that is a very long list of titles… (The Game Master will need to create these though…)

Other entries fully embrace the smutty tone of the source material. For example, the ‘Flying Green Penis Monster’ is seen in spring and harvest over fields ensuring their bounteous growth of the crops, and is in turn said to have been excised from the Green Man or the Green Knight, to be used as the High Witch to fly across the land in style, and if ever reunited with its true owner, will be the cause of a famine! The blowing of ‘Posterior Trumpets’, of which there are seven, each connected to the deadly sin, sound the coming of the Adversary. Possession grants power over those who have succumbed to the relevant sin, and blowing one summons a demon—though only if one breaks wind into it! Woe betide anyone who blows one of these trumpets with his lips. The remaining entries in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 include the ‘Bipedal Squorsh & the Human-faced Bipedal Squorsh’, the ‘Hunting Centi-badger’, and more.

Physically, The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 is superbly presented, as if an illuminated manuscript itself done on parchment. The artwork is, of course, taken from the source material and so perfectly in keeping with that source material.

The entries in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 are undoubtedly odd and weird, perhaps too much so for some campaigns. But there is a lovely sense of verisimilitude to these creatures in being drawn from the vivid imaginations of monks and scribes, who thought up and created a weird world of monsters and beasts outside of the walls where they had been cloistered. The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 is charmingly weird and wonderful, presenting a handful of creatures and encounters that will enliven a campaign.

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