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Sunday 31 March 2024

[Fanzine Focus XXXIV] The Beholder Issue 2

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 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 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.

The Beholder Issue 2 was published in May 1979—the same month as Margaret Thatcher was first elected Prime Minister. Its contents follow the same pattern as set by The Beholder Issue 1—a new Class, some new monsters, spells, and magical items, along with a competition dungeon. There are other articles and not all of them for Dungeons & Dragons. The new Class is ‘The Loner’, which mixes the abilities of the Thief, the Ranger, and the Monk, so inspired by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The aim is to create a Player Character who has a broad range of skills and abilities and is thus capable without being a specialist, suited for play with small groups or solo play. Members of the Class will not join groups numbering more than five and cannot be Lawful in Alignment. He does not wear armour or use a shield, but his natural Armour Class improves as he gains Levels. For the most part, the Class’ abilities make sense, such as combining the Hide in Shadows and Move Silently skills of the Thief Class into Stalk, Track from the Ranger, Resist Cold, and so on, but there are aspects which make less sense. For example, Infravision, Wilful Healing, and eventually, Fly. Overall, the Class does not feel particularly coherent.

The only article not about Dungeons & Dragons is ‘Traveller’, for the roleplaying game of the same name. The article opens with a compliant that the Science Fiction roleplaying game is not as complete as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. However, it does offer an interesting use for the Computer skill, which it points is not useful until the Player Characters obtain a spaceship. This the ‘Programmable SMG’. When attached to its tripod, a program on a cassette can be inserted to provide one of four firing modes—continuous, fire at any movement, fire at any humanoid, or fire at anyone in a police uniform! The last cassette is highly illegal. It highlights the state of technology, what was thought technology could be in 1979, and the state of technology in Traveller was then, it is very clunky. Other additions include different types of grenade, such as High Explosive, Smoke, and Vapourisation, the latter being the equivalent of the disintegration. Lastly, the article notes that lasers are either very powerful or very weak, depending on the armour worn by the target. Reflec armour makes it impossible for the target to be hot, but anything else almost guarantees it. Instead, the author points out that lasers do not work in the rain, so either change the weather or if indoors, turn on the sprinkler system!

‘Monster Summoning’ describes six monsters. They include the ‘Catilae’, like a centaur, but replace the horse body with that of a centaur; the ‘Albatross’, which if killed inflicts a nasty, nasty curse; the ‘Vampirebat’, which is exactly what you think it is; and the ‘Ohm’, a terahedron—or three-sided pyramid—shaped creature with an eye and a tentacle in each face. Given the name, it should be no surprise that electricity runs through the Ohm, making it glow, and of course, hitting it with a metal weapon inflicts damage on the attacker. It feels reminiscent of the Modrons, in shape at least, which would later appear in the Planescape setting. Other monsters include the ‘Juvah’, a river or swamp dwelling creature like an Umber Hulk, but covered in a liquid that deludes its victims into thinking that they have not taken any damage; the ‘Snapdragon’ is the plant, but with dragons; head; and the ‘Mofe’, a humanoid of foam whose attacks deplete the victim’s Intelligence. None of the monsters are very interesting or sophisticated, but they are typical of the sort that might be found in a fanzine, being more  designed to test and surprise the players and their characters than anything else.

‘Thoughts on Combat’ offers suggestions to make combat in Dungeons & Dragons more interesting and sophisticated. These include bringing in player skill by getting each player to write down what their characters are going to do and sticking to it, adding critical hits and fumbles, and altering the bonus to Armour Class from Dexterity for heavier armour types. It does not go into details, merely giving suggestions. The ‘New Spells’ has four spells. These are Fuse, Block Transformation, Water Walking, and Locator, which are all self-explanatory bar Fuse, which enables a delay effect to be added to an object.

The Competition Scenario in The Beholder Issue 2 is ‘Petrarch’s Tower and the Vaults of Experimentation.’ At ten pages long, it is the longest piece in the issue. This is written for Third Level Player Characters of which eight pre-generated ones are provided, including one named ‘Westphalia’! The setting for the scenario is the Tower of Petrarch and the caves below it. The tower stands on a ledge over the Pass of Petrarch, inaccessible except by flight or through the tunnels below. The Wizard Petrarch discovered the entry into the ‘Three Thousand Steps of the Abyss’ that now lead into the Vaults of Experimentation five centuries ago, but it has been several centuries since he was last seen and the nearby authorities fear what might be found in them. Consequently, they have hired mercenaries—the Player Characters—to clear the tower and confirm that Petrarch is actually dead. The adventure is divided between the tower and the caves/tunnels below, there being more of the latter than the former. The dungeon contains some interesting rooms, like the room that Ogres have turned in a bowling alley using paralysed victims as the bowling pins, but this is very much a funhouse style dungeon with little in the way of a connected theme. The scenario ends with notes on adapting it to a Dungeon Master’s campaign and a competition points table which lists all of the points for achieving various objectives. Unfortunately, the adventure overall is too random and lacking in theme to be really interesting.

Lastly, The Beholder Issue 2 ends with ‘Magic Jar’. This describes some seventeen magical items. Much like those in the first issue of the fanzine, there are some fun entries here. For example, a Dispel Scroll has a specific spell written backwards on it. When read out it negates the nearest incident of that spell, whether that is a Player Character or an NPC elsewhere! The Automatic Sword functions like a permanent Dancing Sword, and will serve anyone who places five gems in the slots in the hilt. However, replace the gems with ones of a greater value and it will change master, so it is very mercenary! Spell Potions bottle spells and when the seal is broken, the spell infused into the potion is unleashed.

Physically, The Beholder, Issue 2 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, every 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 2 does not yet match that reputation, let alone alone meet its own high standards in this second issue. The monsters still fail to excite and again, the given scenario is playable, but without any real purpose except to see if one playing group is better than another. That said, the design of it is better than the Competition Scenario in The Beholder, Issue 1 and this sort of dungeon dates from a time in player lives when play was enough rather than necessarily requiring a good reason. Overall, The Beholder, Issue 2 still feels like a typical fanzine of the period, not quite yet developing into the highly regarded fanzine to come.

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