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

Friday 29 March 2024

[Fanzine Focus XXXIV] Book of Misery Vol. 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 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. A more recent Old School Renaissance-style roleplaying game that fanzines are being based upon and inspired by is Mörk Borg, the Swedish pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance retroclone designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell and published by Free League Publishing.

Book of Misery Vol. 1 is a fanzine for Mörk Borg written and published by Gizmo in December 2022. It contains a mix of options for both players and the Game Master. This includes new Classes, weapons, monsters, and dungeons that can be easily brought into play and all done in the artpunk style that Mörk Borg is notorious for. It opens with the first of six new Classes, a mixture of rebels, dissidents, revisionists, and weirdos. ‘The Thinking Thinker’ is weak, but has an enormous Presence and head—whether from a spillage of alchemical liquids, an experiment that gave him an extra brain, or a vestigial twin that was devoured in the womb and absorbed into his brain—and might be equipped with The Calculated Method Book that allows a daily reroll or a letter opener, which is no good against anyone wearing armour. The ‘Nihilistic Conqueror’ is a warrior driven to spread wrath and destruction, perhaps because he believes that his gods will despise him for his cowardice if he does not fight, he wants to see everyone he dislikes pay a blood price for having the gall to exist, or simply has anger issues. He is tough and charismatic, and armed with something like a sharpened axe capable of piercing heavy armour or be accompanied by Huginn, a trusty raven friend capable of pecking enemies when not spying all around.

The ’Hag of a Bygone Age’ is a nun who worships a dead god or has been abandoned by her god, but she has abandoned it. Weak and clumsy, her faith gives her great charisma, and she knows a single prayer, written in a dead language. These can be very powerful, such as causing the undead or those without flesh to crumble into dust or as her eyes roll back in her head and she speaks in tongues, the strength of those around her to wither and even inflict damage. ‘Man’s Best Friend’, is exactly what it suggests, an agile dog with keen senses that can roughly sniff out the number of enemies nearby or locate an object or with ‘Cujo Syndrome’, which after having been bitten by a sewer rat, his foaming teeth are infectious! The ‘Sewer Baby’ was raised in a sewer and the toxic sludge cemented his physical age, whilst being raised by rats taught him to be cunning. His childhood memories are twisted and terrible, but accompanied by a faithful rat companion, he is also capable of spitting acidic sour milk or staring at people so hard that they run away. Lastly, the ‘Ashen Warrior’ is a unique character type for Mörk Borg—a hero! Wearing heavy armour and armed with a mighty claymore, the Ashen Warrior does not have a quirk, power, or trait, but simply has Bloodlust, which grants him extra damage after killing ten enemies in combat.

Overall, this is an entertaining and interesting mix of Classes. They include the usual range of the revolting and wretched, but balance that against an actual heroic Class and a Class that can be happy in the form of ‘Man’s Best Friend’. All six could find a home alongside those given in Mörk Borg and supplements for it.

There is not one ‘Crit Fail Table’, but two. One for attacking and one for defending. Both are decent and do exactly what they are intended to do. As does ‘More Weapons’, which gives seven more weapons like the Sharpened Throwing Finger, the Stabby Sticky, and the Claymore. These are followed by twelve monsters! These include the ‘Cosmic Phase Spider’, the ‘Piskie’, ‘Undead Lightning’—a combination of the machine and the dead which pulsates lightning, ‘Carapace Man Spider’, ‘The Red Spawn of Rot’, and more. There are other monsters detailed elsewhere in the fanzine.

‘Gran’s Tea Hut’ is an encounter in the woods with a quaint little hut, the home of an old lady who sells tea. Depending upon their behaviour towards her, she will serve them tea with either positive or negative effects. If things go really bad, her granddaughter, a mighty warrior woman will step in to protect her grandmother.

The first of the three scenarios in Book of Misery Vol. 1 is ‘Howling Caverns’. A fall into a pit of sludge and waste from which a single narrow tunnel leads to a number of caverns, mostly filled with the dead or dying. There is an encounter with a sacrifice attempt, which is not going the way that most of them do, and that really is it. There is very little in the way of plot beyond the Player Characters falling into the pit and having to find a way out, so the Game Master may want to create something. Otherwise, easy to add as an encounter as a sinkhole in the wilderness or a pit in another dungeon, but not very interesting. The second scenario, ‘A Dungeon Most Pointless’ lives up to its name. The dungeon consists of nine locations, unconnected except for the fact that they are on the same map. It is not even clear if any of the rooms are actually connected and even then, one of the locations is outside of the dungeon. With no overview, no reward, or even anything in the way of a hook or a plot, the most redeeming quality of ‘A Dungeon Most Pointless’ is that you can flick the pages over very fast to get past it. The third scenario, ‘The Putrid House’ is not as long as ‘A Dungeon Most Pointless’, but it is infinitely better and proves that the author can create a decent dungeon. It starts with the Player Characters waking up in the dungeon, unsure of how they got there. To get out, they must fight past troughs of mould and fungi, maniacs, and more. It has a dark, dingy, and desperate feel and is quick and easy to run.

The editorial does not come until the last page, the inside of the back cover. It acknowledges the inspirations for the issue come from a wide variety of sources and persons.

Physically, Book of Misery Vol. 1 adheres to the artpunk style of Mörk Borg. For the most part it works, but some of the founts selected do make the titles difficult to read.

Book of Misery Vol. 1 is a mixed bag. The scenarios are simply disappointing. The monsters are okay, but nothing really stands out. However, and fortunately, ‘Gran’s Tea Hut’ is enjoyably charming in its simplicity, plus the six new Classes are generally interesting and playable.

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