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

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Fanzine Focus X: The Undercroft No. 9

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 showcased how 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 April 2016 by the Melsonian Arts Council, after solely concentrating on the scenario, ‘Something Stinks in Stilton’, for its eighth issue, The Undercroft No. 9 returns to its usual format and mix of content, though with an emphasis on new Classes. The black-covered issue begins with ‘Skinned Moon Daughter – A new class for games in the Great North’ by Benjamin Baugh. It is not so much a ‘Race as Class’, a la Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but a particular individual of a particular gender as Class. This is a Skinned Moon Daughter, who born under the omen of a Skinned Moon, grows up immune to the cold and with a taste for meat of any condition. When she comes of age, her Moon song can summon beasts such as wolves, walruses, and bears, and when one comes, she persuades it to swallow her whole. Inside the warmth of the creature’s belly, the Skinned Moon Daughter controls the beast, its strengths and abilities, but it speaks with her voice and moves with her intelligence. Such beasts can only be occupied for a month before they vomit the Skinned Moon Daughter back up, but she will be able to summon another… This is an interesting Class with varying powers according to the beast ridden. There are also interesting roleplaying opportunities should a Skinned Moon Daughter come to marry. This Class would work well with Frostbitten and Mutilated, the recently released supplement from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Barry Blatt offers up ‘101 Uses of a Hanged Man’, drawing upon the seventeenth century belief in the medical efficacy of items such as Dead Man’s Hair, to create charms and potions. Researching the recipes to create these is no simple matter and the article suggests the difficulties involved. There is some good period detail here and although the article is limited in its scope, it can be used as the basis for further recipes of the Referee’s creation. The author’s blog expands upon this article. It is followed by a second new Class in the issue, ‘The Doctor’, designed by Patrick Stuart. Both a natural philosopher and a trained medic, the Class focuses on healing and saving lives, and notably, is forbidden from inflicting lethal damage. As the Doctor gains Levels, he becomes an Intolerant Rationalist, knowing that magic to be explicable and so able to withstand its effects, but unable to benefit from it; a Dangerous Atheist, for whom divine magic works just like arcane magic; a Master Surgeon, capable of conducting surgery on the brain and more despite society’s taboos attached to it; and more… This Class makes a different addition to campaign set in the early modern period—the default period for most Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay settings—and comes with some fun roleplaying hooks.

Where ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Skinned Moon Daughter – A new class for games in the Great North’ adds new Classes the game, ‘Everyone is an Adventurer’ by Daniel Sell does away with all Classes, replacing with the singular Adventurer. At each Level, a player selects either Fighting, Learning, or Cunning. This determines the player character’s capabilities as well as lowering their Saving Throws at each Level, so Fighting grants a +1 attack modifier and 1d8 Hit Points; Learning grants two Skill points and 1d6 Hit Points; and Cunning grants two three random spells and 1d6 Hit Points. Spellcasting is based the expenditure of Magic Points. Although this offers scope for customisation and flexibility as a character acquires Levels, the result is likely to feel somewhat flavourless in play.

The last of the new Class options in The Undercroft No. 9 is Edward Lockhart’s ‘Dead Inside – Replacement classes for a world of sadness and pain’. The four Classes given—the Fallen, the Pariah, the Detached, and the Partners in Crime—have all seen too much in their former adventuring lives and are designed to replace the Classes they once had. Such Classes—the Fighter, the Cleric, the Wizard, and so on, are now the province of the NPC. Instead, the four new ones given here sort of map back to the classic four Classes, being degenerate, almost wrung out versions of them. Thus, the Fallen is a Cleric of sorts whose voice can work like the Command spell, use both Wizard and Cleric spells and wands, and whilst they can cast some spells, they can only cast them the once—and once only. How playable these Classes are in the long term is questionable, whereas for a one-shot or two, or even a relatively short campaign they might work. Similarly, they might work as NPC Classes, something that the player characters do not want to aspire to.

Luke Gearing’s ‘The Sickness’ presents the first of the issue’s monsters. A combination of cancerous slime and undulating sexual pox given physical, it invokes severe lust in those it infects. Sadly, such victims become hosts for a similar creature and so the disgusting cycle begins again. The third is contained in ‘Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth – Cosmic disasters and antinatal cults among the island people’ by Ezra Claverie. This is set in the same world as his Crypts of Indormancy, describing how the Sea People, islanders who were once part of a great Elven empire, suffer under an infrequent astronomical conjunction which causes the Generative Authority, a wave of monstrous births to ripple through the Sea People clans. As these both escalate and cascade, the ultimate effect is to unleash kaiju-sized chimeric creatures upon the island. How large and how many is up to the Referee to determine as it is possible to have too many and have them rampage across the islands. Combine this with the mystery of their cause, a cult with hatred of birth, and a race against time to stop the kaiju rampage, and you have a weird ‘atomic-horror, pacific island, giant monster’ style scenario. It will need some development upon the part of the Referee, but is as odd a set-up as you would imagine.

Between these two, there is ‘Cockdicktastrophe – A sexy beast’ which it is not and of which the less said, the better. Written by Chris Lawson, it describes a monster and encounter every ‘inch’ as bad as the title suggests. It is not badly written, but it is awful in it its utter lack of point or use. As a piece of body horror, it is onanism, nothing more, nothing less. Six wasted pages which would have been put to better had they been left blank.

Physically, The Undercroft No. 9 is well presented, cleanly laid out, and the few pieces of art all serve their purpose. It needs a slight edit in places, but that is by-the-by. In terms of content, the issue brims with interesting articles, especially if you like working new Classes into your game. For the most part, these Classes are things you would add to separate games as none of them necessarily work together, and barring the Doctor Class, none of them can be added to an existing campaign without changing aspects of that campaign. With some of them, campaigns can be perhaps built around them instead of their being added to a campaign. Of the monsters, perhaps ‘Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth – Cosmic disasters and antinatal cults among the island people’ is the most involving piece in the fanzine and easily the standout from the three monster-related entries. Overall—and bar the one dreadful article—The Undercroft No. 9 presents plenty of content for the Referee to work with rather than add immediately to his campaign.