Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Fanzine Focus IX: The Undercroft No. 7

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 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 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. Leading the way in their support for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have been the fanzines The Undercroft and Vacant Ritual Assembly.

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council in November, 2015, The Undercroft, No. 7 follows on from the sixth issue with its medley of dangerous artefacts with a medley of dangerous creatures and monsters. They include a mythical beast obsessed with freedom, a worm beneath the world, endlessly creating spaces between, a war that created monsters which walk the land, a horrid and emotionally febrile thing that no mother wishes to give birth to, and a mad witch who lives in the swamp and who is part tree.

It opens with Edward Lockhart’s ‘The Omnicorn aka The Freedom Beast’, a well-proportioned steed of majestic stature and attitude. Found unchained and free in any wilderness, it is rumoured that there is just the one of these beasts, existing in a great many different places all at once. It is spikey, horned, and bristled in body and attitude, embodied freedom above all, unable to abide hierarchy and organisation. Legend says that the blood of this creature will free the imbiber of any compulsion, magical or mundane. If so, then it must be bargained for with the Omnicorn, who will test anyone who asks for it as to how highly they value freedom and turn violent any who do not value it sufficiently. This is a magical beast suitable for a quest or two rather than a simple random encounter, though no doubt that would be memorable too.

Luke Gearing—the author of the recently released Fever Swamp—follows this with the ‘Mezzo-Worm’, an abyssal creature whose maw chews through the rocks far below the surface, leaving behind a labyrinth of tunnels that are each a ‘wound-in-the-wall’. The tunnels are easy to get lost in and every good adventurer fears getting lost in them lest they encounter and are swallowed by a ‘Mezzo-Worm’ and consumed forever… That said, there are things to be found in the tunnels left by the creature, treasures, oddities, and artefacts—if you dare go looking. The  ‘Mezzo-Worm’ is something to add to an underworld campaign, especially if the Referee is wanting that something to be Cthonian-like.

With material already from the author of one of the Melsonian Arts Council’s scenarios, the issue follows it up with an entry from Ezra Calverie, the author of the other, Crypts of Indormancy. ‘Decoherence Wight’ is probably set in the same setting as that scenario with its suggested Elven Empire long lost and mourned by the Elves of today. One installation belonging to this empire was Her Majesty’s Western Shipyard and Submarine Pens, whose last commander detonated a great weapon when it was threatened by rebel forces. The shipyard fell, but was ruined and has been a forbidden zone for the last fourteen centuries. Yet the Pygmy folk of the surrounding jungle talk of dark, lurching figures seen in its grounds at dusk, each blackley putrefied and swarming with flies. These are the Decoherence Wights, marked with faintly glowing polyp that seems to have an entropic effect when touched by weapons and which can inflict both necrosis and Decoherence Fever. There is nothing wrong with the Decoherence Wight as a creature on its own, but really it lacks context. It does have an origin, but there is no reason for the adventurers to visit the buildings and hulks of the ancient shipyard, at least none given and that seems such a missed opportunity if the Referee is to have his player characters encounter these horrid creatures.

In ‘Orcoidism & Subhumanity’, Daniel Sell explores one possibility for the existence of the Orciod or Half-Orc. This is as some kind of throwback rather than as the traditional fantasy, an expectant mother giving birth to one of these grey and wiry, sharp-toothed and screeching runts rather than the hoped for pink, plump, and wailing baby. Of course, there is no known causes, but plenty of conjecture and the unwanted child is ill-mannered and quickly prone to violent rages that escalate and escalate as it ages to the point where it is a murderous threat to the community. Most communities urge the family of an Orcoid whelp to abandon it early lest it become a threat to all. There it may die, but some survive to breed tribes of Orcs that come to threaten the family, the community, and more. Other communities have been kinder though, having been known to raise and keep the child, as ugly as it is, keeping it calm and happy despite its inherent need for clannish brutality and the breaking of societal order.

Lastly in James Holloway’s ‘Old Sigvor’, the old witch in the woods has literally become the old witch in the woods. Now she wanders her woods, mad with pain and ready to inflict a similar pain and a paralysis upon those who enter her realm. This is very much a static kind of encounter, best suited perhaps for adding as a location-based encounter in a sandbox. Much like the earlier ‘Decoherence Wight’, it feels very much as if the location needs fleshing out to give reason to give the adventurers a reason to visit the witch’s woods.

Physically, The Undercroft, No. 7 is decently put together and the artwork is reasonable, yet as a product it feels underwhelming. In the editorial, Daniel Sell states that, “everything is fine” over and over, but it really is not quite. Too many of the monsters and creatures in this issue leave the reader wondering quite what to do with them and wanting context that is concrete. That lack of context also means that the issue suffers from a lack of variety—not in terms of actual monsters—but in terms of material. Of course, The Undercroft, No. 8, with its scenario does not offer that variety, but perhaps future issues will?