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Monday, 2 January 2017

Fanzine Focus V: The Undercroft, No. 5

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, such as The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council in May, 2015, The Undercroft, No. 5 follows on from engaging initial issue with its intriguing and useful material; the less than satisfying mix of content that constituted second issue; the decent medly that made up issue three; the solidly done issue four; and the entertaining scenario, ‘Something Stinks in Stilton’, that made up issue eight. Unlike these previous issues, The Undercroft, No. 5 comes with a definite theme—magical artefacts.

Now this being written for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, what this means is that these are not the magical artefacts of traditional sense of Dungeons & Dragons. None of the five items in the thirty-one pages of The Undercroft, No. 5 are safe. They do not simply provide some great magical bonus, but instead both great power or advantages as well as great disadvantages. There is a downside to each and every one of these five items. Further, their being written for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay means that they are truly great and powerful artefacts, ones that will not have an effect on the Referee’s campaign, but also upon the world that is his campaign. This effect may be weird, horrific, or both… Rest assured that these items are going to mess with your players and their characters.

The issue begins with Chris Lawson’s ‘Smiling Goat Horn’. Formed from the mummified skull and horn of goat, when blown it drives all farm animals to acts of larceny for the horn-blower and acts of constant and incessant praise of the horn-blower, all the whilst being stalked by timber wolves. This is an absurd, not to say insane object, best added to only the weirdest of campaigns. This is followed by ‘The Washer Woman’ by Oliver Palmer. This appears to be a simple piece of statuary depicting a woman washing laundry, but where the Smiling Goat Horn will instantly irritating, this ornament will at first appear innocuous, but then odd and eventually irritating. Wherever the owner put it last, it will always turn up about his person or nearby; it will even replace an item he has about his person. The owner will soon regret taking it as the statue will do its very best to prevent it being left somewhere or being passed to someone else, some of them quite disturbing… That said, there is neither any advantage nor any disadvantage to owning the statute, just as long as the owner definitely decides to keep it upon his person.

The second entry from Chris Lawson is actually useful. ‘The Opticaphobicascope’ is a monocle that enables the wearer to discern another’s true intent, reveal details about the wearer’s surroundings, and even glance at the notes of the wearer’s Referee! The downside is that it screws itself into the wearer’s eye socket and cannot be removed as it essentially replaces the wearer’s eye. That is of course, if he can follow the instructions and install it correctly. Then again, this is not the only downside, but that should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay—there is no such thing as a free lunch! In being able to see more than he usually can, the wear of ‘The Opticaphobicascope’ comes to feel that there is still things that he cannot see and even things that are being hidden from him. This feeling will grow and grow, the rules for the device providing for this escalation.

The centrepiece to The Undercroft, No. 5—and at eleven pages out of the issue’s thirty-two, also the longest—is Frank Mitchell’s ‘The God of Seven Parts’. This details the seven parts of a deity known as the ‘Sundered God’ that perhaps may have been Baphomet, which is said to have been worshipped by the Knights Templar. The seven parts are the head, the left and right arm, the left and right leg, the phallus, and the torso. As well as providing advice on how to succeed in all of his endeavours, the Head of the Sundered God will urge its owner to seek out the other parts of its body, all missing and scattered across the world. Looking for each of these parts can be an adventure in itself and even be something that a campaign can be built around. Each of the parts is individually described and detailed, each having its own powers and abilities. For example, ‘The Left Arm of the Sundered God’ can be wielded as a club and inflicts both damage and a save versus Poison to the target, but wielder has to save versus Poison in order to wield the Left Arm and again if the target is successful in making the save. Further, each of the parts can be grafted onto the body of anyone missing said body part. For example, when grafted onto the stump of a severed arm, ‘The Left Arm of the Sundered God’ grants the wearer all of its abilities, all of the time. So the wearer has to wear a glove to stop involuntarily using its Poison effect…

Each of the seven parts is an artefact in its own right which can be wielded on its own, grafted on to replace a body part of any humanoid, or it can be combined with other parts to reform as the Sundered God. Much like a ‘Gattai Robot’ of Japanese Anime, when the seven parts of ‘Baphomet’—if that truly is his name—come together, he has greater control of each of the parts powers. He also turns into a nigh unstoppable world conqueror. Stopping him would be a campaign in itself, but should the player characters actually assemble the Sundered God, then the consequences are entirely their fault… 

‘The God of Seven Parts’ is a grand artefact in the mode of Eye of Vecna and Hand of Vecna, though not quite the Head of Vecna. It will have a profound impact upon any campaign that it is added to.

Lastly, Daniel Sell’s ‘The Precocious Abundance of Holy Mountain’ is a twist upon  Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The sacred mountain is actually an ancient war fortress of the Ven and is the source of ‘Aqua Gravis’, the heavy water that fuelled the Ven war machines as well as the fortress itself. Other technological devices described include the Ven worker Custodians, the gates through which the Ven may return from the end of time, things constructed by those that came immediately after the Ven, and even the ‘Slaughtergrid’, the Ven warmachines buried and concealed where they might need them again. ‘The Precocious Abundance of Holy Mountain’ is not just a selection of artefacts, but also a framing device for a campaign, suggesting both an ancient history and a future history. That said, of all the artefacts in The Undercroft, No. 5, these have the least sting in the tail.

Physically, The Undercroft, No. 5 is a neat and tidy affair. The few illustrations are excellent, though perhaps the issue could have benefited with a few more.

The Undercroft, No. 5 is the most coherent issue of the fanzine reviewed to date. Of course, that is because it has a singular subject matter and the artefacts in question all possess a sting in the tail particular to such devices in Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. The downside to this is that not all of the five items in the issue are necessarily going to see play because of the potential havoc they have to wreak on a campaign. Of course, the Referee is free to pick and choose, and of course, take the consequences of the stings in these tails.