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Sunday 31 March 2024

[Fanzine Focus XXXIV] The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder

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. 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 2: Marge Harder is a sequel to The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1, and likes its predecessor, 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 2 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 2: Marge Harder restricts itself to just six entries—three fewer than in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 !
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. What is also noticeable about the second issue is the change in tone from the first issue. It should be noted that the various entries in both issues 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. Where the tone in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 avoided being unnecessarily prurient, instead being a little smutty or saucy a la the Carry On films, the tone of The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder is just that bit more racier, a bit more dirty. It is though, only a slight shift, the more noticeable shift being how weird some of the entries are. What The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder does suggest is several uses for its various entries, building upon those given in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1. These include being summoned, accidentally or on purpose, as part of a demonic pact, such creatures slipping into out world when the walls between worlds are thin, or their appearance being the response of the natural world to an abundance of order.

The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder opens with ‘The Mysterious Caped Baboon’. This is a small, grey caped and eye-mask-wearing baboon whose posterior changes colour between red, blue, and white depending on his mood. He also wields a polearm with amazing skill, is incredibly pious, and is an assassin for hire—but only for assignments which he thinks the church will approve. ‘The Mysterious Caped Baboon’ can obviously be hired by the Player Characters, or he might have been hired to assassinate one or more of them! ‘The Black Lion of Saint Buffoonitus’ is a black lion—actually a demon—who prowls the countryside consuming churchmen and appreciating the local flora and fauna. It got its name from Saint Buffoonitus, a former magus and infamous idiot, who summoned it as joke, and after doing so, refused to banish it before running off on endless pilgrimages to escape the very annoyed Lion and its soul-scarring pleas to be freed. As fearsome as the Lion is, he can be spoken and is willing to speak, especially if the Player Characters are in a position to banish it or take revenge on Saint Buffoonitus!

Then it gets really weird with the ‘The Urns of Homuncules’. These are a pair of clay pots, plain apart from the letter ‘H’ scratched into their bottoms along with a fingerprint. Each also contains a mall, two foot tall, mishappen homunculus. Both are excellent thieves. Consequently, they are prized possessions for anyone who wants things stolen or planted, but does not want to go to the thieves’ guild. Indeed, any thieves’ guild would be very happy to own the urns. Not just to deploy the homunculi to its own ends, but also to deny that skill to anyone else. So far, so not weird. What is weird is the method of their creation. The process involves the owner of ‘The Urns of Homuncules’ defecating into one of the urns and urinating into the other, but at the same time (the accompanying illustration has to be seen to be believed!). The resulting creations are revolting as is their scatological and urological means of attack. There is an accompanying table to determine whether the creation goes right, since after all, it is a very messy business. ‘The Urns of Homuncules’ is fantastically weird and unpleasant, but also very silly.

The ’Froth-Tailed Stalking Monkey’ is also weird, but fortunately lacks the creation process. Take a cockatrice’s body, replace its head with that of grinning monkey’s, and make the tail very, very fluffy. It has an amazing ability to mimic voices and its means of attack is not a death stare, but a glossolalia stare. It makes its victims babble constantly, forcing them to spill secrets in the process, but in a language only it understands. So, it is sometimes sought out for the secrets it knows. The other reason why anyone would go looking for it is that each one of its tail fronds is guaranteed cure for any poison! That said, the ’Froth-Tailed Stalking Monkey’ is an evil creature and will often work with Rabbandits (see The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1), gleefully using its mimicry skill and secrets learned to undermine the social order and sow paranoia in a village, eating the victims of any resulting murderous chaos, and then letting the Rabbandits loot everything!

‘The Melancholy Ploox’ is weirder, but not as fun. It consists of a head with a pair of bat’s wings and a pair of cat’s legs that jut out of its mouth. It is also deeply boring. So boring that its melancholia actually infects both people and the land, and its poetry is so bad that it actually hurts anyone listening to it. The last creature in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder is ‘The Satyrica’. This is a Satyr-like beast, but with a goat’s head and then a lion’s head in its midriff. They are satirists and wits, driven out of the forests by Satyrs for their barbed comments and jokes which are capable of reducing listeners to tears. Tyrants or the pompous could also be the target of its insult-based comedy, but the ‘The Satyrica’ can actually be a good friend if you have no object to its gentle, near constant mocking. In general, ‘The Satyrica’ avoids combat, but it can deliver a stand-up routine that is so devastating that a target is physically hurt and avoids the creature for weeks!

The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder comes to a close with two tables. One is ‘Signs & Spore of Marginalia Manifest’, which is random signs left behind, whilst the other is its very own ‘Interesting Things to Find on the Body of the Dead’.

Physically, The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder 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. The entries in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder are even odder and weirder. Very much weirder and odder, and if the contents of the first issue might be too much for some campaigns, then it is a case of being even more so with this second issue. There is still 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. Yet there is also the sense that the author has had to work harder to create the half dozen entries in The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder, that he is out-weirding himself in the process, and you have to wonder if he can do it again with a third issue. Thus, The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 2: Marge Harder takes the charmingly weird and wonderful of The Medieval Margin-agerie – Volume 1 and ratchets it up even further, adding in a dose of silliness in the process.

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