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Saturday, 26 August 2017

Fanzine Focus VIII: The Undercroft, No. 6

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a non-professional and unofficial 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 has Swords & Wizardry.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council in July, 2015, The Undercroft, No. 6 follows on from engaging initial issue with its intriguing and useful material; the less than satisfying mix of content that constituted the second issue; the decent medley that made up issue three; the solidly done issue four; the campaign disrupting magical medley of of the fifth issue; and the entertaining scenario, ‘Something Stinks in Stilton’, that made up issue eight. Where the previous issues, The Undercroft, No. 5 definitely came with a theme, that of magical artefacts, The Undercroft, No. 6 does not, but it does continue the same medley of dangerous artefacts.

The issue opens with ‘Ludolf’s Folly’ by Forrest Aguire. This gives a potted history of the noted Flemish tapestry cartoonist (sic), Jonas Ludolf, and the various pieces of art that he created in his diverse and disparate career before his disappearance. It concentrates on the one item, a plain looking spellbook, written haphazardly in Dutch in such a way that whilst anyone—not just Wizards—can cast the five spells it contains, they can never be sure of the exact wording of each spell. What this means is that sometimes the spell works as expected, but most of the time the effects are some kind of failure. So for example, on a mild failure, the Divination spell works, but the information provided is incorrect, though the spellcaster believes it to be correct; on a moderate failure, the spell works, but the spellcaster has to announce the information again and again; on a major failure, the spell works, but the spellcaster has to announce facts about any building he enters; and on a catastrophic failure, the spellcaster gains instant enlightenment, dies, and gains sainthood. All five spells—the others being Detect Invisible, Wizard Eye, Vanish, and Remote Surveillance—work in a similar fashion. This is an enticing object and potentially a lot of fun as the player characters work out just how bad this book really is, despite the abilities it gives everyone not a wizard.

Edward Lockhart’s ‘The Pyramid of Flesh and the Unknown Disk’ details not one artefact, but two. The Unknown Disk has a triangular hole in its middle and is capable of ripping a hole into an alternate reality, whilst the Pyramid of Flesh is a fist-sized piece of russet flesh with one sticky side and closed eyes or mouths on the others. The mouths will bite if bothered, whilst the sticky side will readily and permanently adhere to flesh. When it does, it grants the ‘user’ limited regeneration, no need to eat or sleep, but it replaces their internal organs and sometimes it requires raw meat. If attached to the user’s head it also spews forth secrets, lots of secrets, that only the user can hear (a table is provided). Attach the disk to the pyramid—the hole is a perfect fit!—and well… Again this is one of those weird and wonderful things that mankind—or rather, the adventurers—should know better than to fiddle or experiment with, but idle curiosity always gets the better of them.

Daniel Sell’s contribution is ‘Wolfmother’. She is a primal wolf creature, a potential wolf bride to every unmarried man in Kairnlaw and any unmarried man who enters Kairnlaw—which of course, includes almost every adventurer! Those refusing her proposal may of course find a wife and marry in haste, but those that accept her gift, whether a bundle of nettles tied with a yellow ribbon or a staff to which a flock of seagulls is bound, are destined to become her mate and never be seen again. This is the shortest piece in The Undercroft, No. 6 and probably the simplest to implement as a piece of folklore in the region of the Referee’s choice. It at least adds to the culture of the setting, but it might just become something more, all depending upon the actions of the player characters.

‘Furnace Arthropoid’ is a strange, insectoid suit of armour that provides life support to a race of explorers from a distant planet which interacts with the inhabitants of worlds in odd ways. Via the suit, the operator compels them to undertake strange tasks—find it offerings, hug it, introduce it to certain persons, and so on—all in the name of exploration. Neither the suit nor the operator are evil as such, nor does it bear anyone it encounters ill will, but the effects of encountering such a suit are potentially dangerous as the suit is incredibly hot. Written by the designer of Crypts of Indormancy, Ezra Claverie, this is a strange encounter, one that is unlikely to bear explanation and indeed, nor does it provide one.

Rounding out the issue is Anxious P.’s ‘The Manifold-Crust Whippets, a Noble Giant Family’, which describes the author’s contact and interaction with a family of giants, who are noble of character and live quiet lives in a rural idyll. His first, wholly positive recollections of his encounter with these creatures is radically overturned upon the revelation of the rituals that the Manifold-Crust Whippets partake in to maintain their equilibrium and happiness. This revelation is in truth unpleasant and for that reason, a Referee may not want to add this giant family to his campaign, but if he does there are specific options for him to do so. If he does not, then other options are given terms of other noble giant types and their relationships with the local inhabitants, some worshipful, some guarded, some fearful. Included alongside these further options is a discussion of possible ritual practices for the giants. It is a pity that it is just a discussion. A few more options would have been welcome, certainly as alternatives to the unpleasant practices accorded to the Manifold-Crust Whippets. This is not a pleasant addition to any campaign, so the GM should consider its impact before adding it to his game.

Physically, The Undercroft, No. 6 is a neat and tidy affair. The issue is very light in terms of artwork and to be truthful, much better artwork has appeared in previous issues.

The Undercroft, No. 6 does not have a theme, but its contents can be divided into two camps. One presents objects or things that will have a profound effect upon a campaign—‘Furnace Arthropoid’ and ‘The Pyramid of Flesh and the Unknown Disk’—and those that will not, such as ‘Ludolf’s Folly’ and ‘Wolfmother’. In general, it is the latter articles which are not only the easiest to add to a campaign, but actually the more interesting to read. A decent mix of contents, The Undercroft, No. 6 is a reasonable issue of the fanzine.