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Friday, 28 April 2017

Fanzine Focus VII: From the Shroud Issue 1

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 have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

From the Shroud is not written for any one of these three retroclones, but for another, Crypts & Things. Published by D101 Games, Crypts & Things is a Swords & Sorcery RPG inspired by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories—amongst others—and From the Shroud #1 is written to provide support for this roleplaying game, though as with other Old School Renaissance content, it can easily be used with Retroclones. For example, the content in From the Shroud #1 is compatible—in tone as well as in terms of the mechanics—with the content from both Black Pudding #1 and Black Pudding #2. Indeed, From the Shroud #1 includes notes so that it can be adapted to other Retroclones.

From the Shroud #1 began life with the scenario ‘The Secret of Skull Hill’, which was intended to as Halloween support for the then recently published Crypts & Things Remastered. This is a short adventure designed for low to medium Level characters who are lured out to a strange hill—known as Skull Hill—which stands on the very edge of civilised lands, with promises of great treasure. Skull Hill is only the beginning of their adventures, for the player characters will quickly find themselves cast beyond the Shroud that surrounds the Continent of Terror that is their home world and into the last refuge of an alien cult dedicated to returning their God to life—and it is very, very close to succeeding!

‘The Secret of Skull Hill’ is actually quite a short adventure, offering up a session’s worth of play, perhaps two at most. It does feel as if there is an awful lot of set-up and background to get to the point where the players can get involved, so as a consequence there is not a great deal to the adventure, though it is strong on the Weird, especially the technology of the cult.

Beyond ‘The Secret of Skull Hill’, From the Shroud #1 offers a number of interesting articles. The first of these is ‘Achievements’, which offers up an alternative to the array of magical items and gewgaws that grant the player characters abilities and bonuses to be found in Dungeons & Dragons and a great many Retroclones, but not Crypts & Things. Instead it suggests that the Crypt Keeper reward the adventurers with small story awards based upon their achievements in an adventure. For example, in a scenario where the adventurers must make their way over snowy mountain pass and are hounded by wolves all the way up and all the way down, the adventurer who kills the most wolves might be awarded with the ‘Wolf Killer’ achievement, which grants him +1 to hit wolves in combat. As the player characters rise in Level, the benefits from these Achievements become broader rather specific and of course gain in power. This is a rather good way of rewarding the players and their characters and recognises both their successes and their story.

‘By Their Master’s Dark Command: The Role of the Apprentice in Crypts and Things’ is a means to flesh out the motivations, skills, and personalities of sorcerer’s apprentices and so add colour to these NPCs. This is whether they are encountered in the service of a sorcerer or a cult, or hired by an adventuring party, further tables providing options for expected form of payment, means of revenge if betrayed, how they are armed, and their fate should they become too powerful. So for example, Ned was sold into slavery to the Sorcerer as a child and is an idiot savant who remembers and can pull from his memory any spell or ritual he is taught. Unfortunately, he has an unhealthy obsession with dark magic. If he hired, he expects to be paid in gold, if not treasure and should he be betrayed, he will hire a gang of thugs to ambush the player characters. He has managed to fashion a sharp stick to defend himself with, but should he grow too powerful, his master plans to feed Ned special poisonous potions to turn him insane and then into a Thrall.

Ned, Sorcerer’s Apprentice
AC 9 [10], HD 1, HP 4
Sharp stick (1d4)

Should Ned live a long and unhealthy life, perhaps even becoming a sorcerer, there is the possibility that in death he may be mummified and buried in a tomb. The bodies of such mummified sorcerers are often reduced to a dust said to prolong life when ingested. This may be true, but ‘Sorcerer’s Dust’ as this substance is known, has any number of unspoken effects, the least of which is turning the imbiber’s hair green. ‘Sorcerer’s Dust’ is the first of several magical items and monsters related to sorcerers and their apprentices. The others include a ‘Magic Mirror’ into which an apprentice is bound as his master’s eyes in the Shroud; ‘Useful Ghosts’, the spirits of murdered apprentices bound into their master’s service even after death, and ‘Thralls’, muscular guards who were once apprentices, but have been transformed by the sorcerer through black magical rites. This all nicely adds detail to the sorry lives of such apprentices and serve to flesh out a sorcerer’s entourage.

The only contribution to From the Shroud #1 to come from someone other than its publisher, Newt Newport, is ‘’Exotic Liquid Relief’. Written by Neil ‘Captain Machine’ Shaw, it expands upon one of the means of healing in Crypts & Things—the imbibing of good alcohol! Seven such drinks are given, including ‘Red Raptor Vodka’, brewed by the Sorcerer Japlin Pred and favoured by the great warriors of the local tribes. It grants both healing and the benefit that the drinker inflicts extra damage with the first blow in the next fight he is involved in! The great many sacrifices made around the City of Earth means that the fruit used to brew ‘Blood Apple Cider’ is infused with a bloody red hue and grant it extra healing potency. Again, this adds to the verisimilitude of the world of Zarth and its hard-fighting, hard-drinking inhabitants.

Crypts & Things includes a table of Life Events which helps create a background for each player character. From the Shroud #1 offers a further set of similar tables that can be used in any Retroclone. They include tables of ‘Generic Life Events’, ‘Useful Items of the Kindly Ones’ (the Kindly Ones being former inhabitants of Zarth, now long gone), and ‘Things to Find in Great Pots’ (giant clay pots are found all over and under Zarth). The first obviously fleshes out a player character’s background, whilst the latter two add interesting items in their ways respectively. For example, the Cudgel of Giving always ensures that someone will give you their money when you threaten them, whilst pot might contain sour wine, gold pieces, a corpse, and worse. Stories of course can be built such items.

Lastly, ‘The Tea Party of Doom’ provides a Weird encounter deep in the woods where an insane Tea Master literally uses the Hold Person spell to hold tea parties at which the guests are forced to drink the concoctions he brews. In particular, he brews tea from the rainbow coloured secretions which ooze from the hindquarters of psychedelic toads! Once held in place, there is a ‘Toad Effects Table’ for the Crypt Keeper to roll to determine what happens to the player characters. This is a bit of dark whimsy that would just as easily work in the Dolmenwood setting as detailed in the Wormskin fanzine.

Physically, From the Shroud #1 is reasonably well laid out. The artwork is decent if used several times and the cartography, being by Glynn Seal of MonkeyBlood Design is of course excellent. It should go without saying that being a D101 Games product, that it does need another edit.

In general, From the Shroud #1 shines when exploring the little details that bring out the flavour of the Swords & Sorcery setting. Many of these little things will also work in the Retroclone of your choice. Otherwise, From the Shroud #1 is a serviceable entry in the wide array of fanzines available to the Old School Renaissance.