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Monday, 28 August 2017

Fanzine Focus VIII: The Grognard Files – Annual 2017

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 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 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 is Swords & Wizardry. Not all fanzines can be considered to be part of the Old School Renaissance though...

The Grognard Files is a fanzine of a different stripe. First off, it is only available to patrons of The Grognard Files, a North of England podcast dedicated to the games of the late seventies and early eighties, in particular, RuneQuest. (Alternatively, it is also available to attendees of Grogmeet a one-day convention in Manchester, again in the North of England.) Second, just as with The Blasphemous Tome, it is literally is an annual thing, that is, available once a year. British gamers of a certain age will very much recognise the style and layout of White Dwarf from the mid-eighties in The Grognard Files – Annual 2017 and this behind a great cover by Russ Nicholson, whose art graced the pages of many a Fighting Fantasy title and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay supplement. So just from the look, we are all ready for a heavy dose or two of nostalgia.

The issue opens with ‘Do you remember the first time?’, a lengthy remembrance of gaming past and how the presenters of the Grogcast got their start in the hobby. It is very personal and at the same time, very parochial, so there is a lot here that both younger gamers and non-British gamers will find to be beyond them. So if you grew up with White Dwarf during its first hundred issues in the Great Britain of this period, then there is much here that will be familiar. Getting your first game and getting others to play it, exploring one game after another, and so on. Of course, the reader is unlikely to find the specifics all that familiar, unless he grew up in Bolton in the 1980s, but even if the reader is not British, not from Bolton, not from the North, there are memories here that will resonate—certainly memories of taking your first fumbling steps into the hobby with little in the way of guidance. Much of it of course, will be familiar to listeners of The Grognard Files.

Just like the White Dwarf issues of old, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, leaps into ‘Open Box’, its reviews department. Four reviews are presented, all of older games—Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games
—recently announced as going to receive a thirtieth anniversary reprint, Shadowrun from FASA, and both Boot Hill and Gangbusters from TSR, Inc. Although longer than the reviews that appeared in the original Open Box, they are as much reminisces as they are reviews, exploring each reviewer’s memories of playing the game as well as what they think of them now.

Written by Eddy Fielding, the next department, ‘Return to Grognardia’, also looks at an old classic, this time a campaign for Call of Cthulhu. The campaign was also my first for Call of CthulhuThe Fungi from Yoggoth, a pulpy world-spanning affair set on the eve of the Great Depression. Again, there is a fair degree of reminisce in this examination, but also advice on running it, which version to pick up, and so on. It is an enjoyable piece if a little slight.

What is so surprising about ‘Safe Word’, the scenario in The Grognard Files – Annual 2017 is that it is not for an old game, but a new one. Further, the set-up for the game is also very modern. That said, the subject of the scenario is very in keeping with the ethos of both the podcast and the annual. That subject is the stories of Jerry Cornelius, the poly-amorous anarchist super spy created by Michael Moorcock. The plot casts the player characters as super spies themselves in the style of seventies television shows, Department S and Jason King, suddenly assigned to track down rogue monetarist economists amidst riots in London. Written by Chris Hart, the scenario involves a very private club, a sex dungeon—or two—a game, and of course, a villain’s lair. Plus, a lot of tongue in cheek tone… The system for all of this is FATE Accelerated, the light version of Evil Hat Games’ FATE Core designed for narrative driven action. Which is a very twenty-first century game for the team behind the Grogcast to be running and writing about. Yet, it is a perfect fit for the scenario’s subject matter with its interactive mechanics and narrative, just as can be seen in Agents of S.W.I.N.G. The other modern aspect to the scenario is its set-up, not to the scenario, but to the game system. This has the players create characters not for a freewheeling seventies spy game, but a traditional swords and sorcery roleplaying game. Then discard them—and then create spy characters. There is no need to worry. The players do get to use both characters.

Now the character of Jerry Cornelius has been visited in gaming several times over the years, but never in a roleplaying game or supplement of his own. Rather he was the subject of discussion in fanzines and magazines, so bringing back here is another dose of nostalgia. The scenario is entertainingly bonkers, but might be beyond players of a certain age if only for its heavy seventies references and humour. The author also follows the scenario up with ‘Inn Space’, a playtest report of the scenario, which is a nice addition.

Justin Hill provides ‘To Run with Brother Dog’, a short piece of fiction set in Glorantha which should keep RuneQuest fans happy, whilst Chris Hart remembers his experiences with Play By Mail games which became popular in the mid-eighties. ‘Those who are about to die…’ focuses upon the one PBM, a game called Gladiator. The real interest here is how the game and its associated fanzine, Gladiator’s Gazette grew and changed. Again there are parallels to be had with the gaming experience of those of a similar age and how they got into PBM games as well roleplaying, and how once the craze spread, gamers would run their own. For example, Game Designers’ Workshop’s En Garde! was a popular choice back in the day because a lot of mechanics could be run during the game’s downtime. One pleasing corollary to the article is ‘Form the FLAMES of Hell!’ in which Chris Hart catches up with the creator of Gladiator’s Gazette and interviews him. Rounding out the issue is Alan Gairey’s ‘Small Ads’, a celebration of the small ads section in White Dwarf as well as its letters page. Anyone reading how we communicated in the days before the Internet and e-mail will wonder how we survived.

Physically, of course, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017 lacks the gloss of White Dwarf, but then it is not intended to be a glossy magazine, but a fanzine. So it has the mixed production values and the mixed content of a fanzine, intended as it is to celebrate the amateurism of the hobby. That said, there is denying that it captures the style of White Dwarf back in the day and even the adverts feel appropriate to the time and the issue. A tighter edit would not have gone amiss, but this is technically a ‘first’ issue, so there is always going to be room for improvement.

Ultimately, The Grognard Files – Annual 2017 is one of those publications that captures a little bit of history, essentially a memory of gaming in the 1980s. It is a light chatty affair, which simply serves up a big lardy dollop of nostalgia and if you are British and of a certain age, there is more than enough to reminisce about in its pages.
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Previously unavailable, the publishers of The Grognard Files – Annual 2017, Armchair Warriors, have kindly made the issue available as a ‘Pay What You Want’ PDF available to download. Even better, the proceeds of the sale of the fanzine will donated to continue the running of Yog-sothoth.com, the best site dedicated to Lovecraft and Lovecraftian investigative horror.