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Monday, 25 December 2017

Fanzine Focus IX: Vacant Ritual Assembly #4

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 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 in the Autumn of 2015 by Red Moon Medicine, Vacant Ritual Assembly #4 follows on from the solidly done issue #1, issue #2, and issue #3. Devoted to both Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay and the campaign of the editor, Clint Krause, the issue can be divided roughly in two. The first half presents a narcotic themed mini-adventure and a narcotic themed mini-setting, whilst the second half describes a pair of mini-setting elements which can be used to create interesting backgrounds for both player characters and NPCs. All accompanied by the author’s personal updates and recommendations and a little bit more.

The issues opens with ‘The Abstract’, a description of an establishment of the same name and some of its regulars. The Abstract is a den of intellectual iniquitous discussion, home to a number of drug fiends, wastrels, and wayward scholars and occultists. Both pursuits—narcotic consumption and the discussion of nefarious topics such as the occult and the esoteric—are common occurrences here, making The Abstract a useful source of weird knowledge as well as narcotics. The article includes a number of NPCs, one of whom is clearly is clearly inspired by Aleister Crowley, some ‘intellectual’ topics of conversation, all enough to add the establishment to a city in a Referee’s campaign.

The Abstract is a potential source of information for the scenario which follows its description. ‘The Lotus Eater’, inspired by contributions to Rafael Chandler’s Narcosa, it is a short one-night affair in which the player characters are hired to rescue the black sheep of a rich family from a narcotic-induced coma. This involves actually entering into a world of the young man’s creation somewhere in the spirit realms. The characters will need to find a source of the same drug as the young man took—perhaps to be found at The Abstract?—and explore his freaky fantasy if they are to discover a way to bring both themselves and him back. This is short and dirty and good for the one night.

Contributor Anxious P offers up the first of the two setting and character articles.  ‘The Oolai Cloth-Skins and Dragon Blackhide Bastards’ describes an island culture where the Oolai People adhere to a pair of ritual practices known as Cloth-Skinning and Black-Hiding. Children born under a crescent moon are submitted for the rite of Cloth-Skinning in which Oolai weavers will wrap and sew the child in one of six mystic cloths. These have various effects, for example, Copper Bombazine, woven from twilled silk and worsted cotton and dyed copper, gains the wearer the ability to heal after laying hands on a stone and renders them partially immune to copper weaponry. Once cloth-skinned, the wearer remains encased for life. Only one child born of a crescent moon can undergo this ritual, so the fathers of all those born under the crescent moon must fight to the death to determine whose child is selected. The other orphaned children have another destiny—as congregants of the alligator-priests, the Bastard Dragons of Temple Blackhide. These orphans are permanently enshrouded in black, scaly hide which will grow with them. It becomes their armour, gives them immunity to infection and poison, and they train to grapple and roll just like an alligator. An unwavering hatred is instilled in the Black-Hide of their Cloth-Skinned Other,often driving them to murder. For outsiders, there are said to be shameless Oolai weavers who will perform the ritual for a certain fee…

‘Furious Gods’ describes the lands of three tribes in the ‘barbarian territories’—the Glacierhorde, the Silverhorn, and the Gnashmaws. Each is led by and worships a primal godbeast and each wages constant war against its rival tribes. The three godbeasts—Frostbite, the Ghost Ape of the Glacierhorde, Impalor, the Armoured Death of the Silverhorn, and Gnashmaw, the Hungry of the Gnashmaws—are huge fearsome beasts who grant favours to the faithful who undergo great trials.

What ‘Furious Gods’ and ‘The Oolai Cloth-Skins and Dragon Blackhide Bastards’ share is the capacity to provide backgrounds and Race-like abilities for both player characters and NPCs. Certainly in ‘Furious Gods’, the region of the ‘barbarian territories’ would be a ready source of barbarian-type Fighters and guidelines are given to that end. Use the content of these articles and the Referee can add Barbarians, Cloth-Skinned, and Black-Hides as both player characters and NPCs. Both articles contain material that can be easily be dropped into a campaign and add an element of the exotic. 

Rounding out Vacant Ritual Assembly #4 is ‘David McGrogan’s Opium Dream’, an interview with the author of Yoon-Suin - The Purple Land. It is a bit scrappy, having been conducted via e-mail, but it is a short and enjoyable read. It is also to the point, which cannot be said of McGrogan’s other interview, in Random Encounter #1. Physically, Vacant Ritual Assembly #4 is clean and simple in appearance, the writing clear and content easy to grasp, and the artwork perhaps, a little rough around the edges.

Vacant Ritual Assembly #4 contains a good mix of content, all of which can be added to a campaign with relative ease. The narcotic-themed content may not be to everyone’s taste, but then it does show their use in a negative light. Overall, a good selection of material for the Referee to pick and choose from.