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Friday, 4 May 2018

Fanzine Focus XI: The Undercroft No. 10

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 & DragonsRuneQuest, 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 August 2016, The Undercroft No. 10 comes with just four articles. It opens with ‘Babel Square’ by Sándor Gebei, which describes a city location, part-exotic bazaar, part-bohemian quarter where strange encounters and strange goods are to be had. For example, a marching band of mice might pass through, playing the best of military mouse tunes or a hot air balloon might land in the middle of the street with a young girl dressed in blue, her pet dire wolf, and middle-aged man in green aboard. Found here is the Gallery of the Moonstone Swan, where artist Quil-Xon crafts beautiful body parts in obsidian, life-size bronzes of people, and so on, whilst the Corner of the Emerald Empress is a lavish restaurant  which serves specialities such as auroch haggis and cockatrice balut. Although there is not much depth to the description of Babel Square, there are lots and lots details with which a Referee can bring out its flavour and exoticism. It is perhaps though, not really suited to the grim and grimy feel which is the default for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. Instead its fantasy is more high than low and there is a dissipated, decadent quality to the piece.

Corruption comes to the fore in the ‘void’ described by Luke Gearing, the author of Fever Swamp. Its inky blackness is warm and embracing, granting knowledge and power, but ultimately twisting and corroding from within to turn individuals into Occulted Husks and perverting the design of spells. Its effects are shown in the fall of the Occulted Kingdom and its Occulted Queen, as well as the artefacts created in response to its insidious influence, such as the Court-Black clothing won by courtiers to hide their corruption. Three example tainted spells are also listed, enough at least to suggest how a Referee might twist others, plus rules for corrupting the player characters and its effects upon them. This is a pernicious thing, but again, apocalyptic and much like an article in the previous issue, campaign ending.

Greg Gorgonmilk offers up some things in ‘A Miscellany’. For example, ‘Dead Fairy in a Lamp’ is a rosy glass tube containing tiny bones and wings, which when rattled and a certain word is spoken, casts an intense, warm light which reveals invisible objects and a clear view through stone, whilst ‘The Cloak of Beards’ is a magical patchwork vestment of some length, woven from the beards of twenty ancient kings and lined with mouse velvet, which grant the wearer regal charisma, bearing, and influence. There are just four things described here, each quite detailed and not a little decadent in their design. Certainly these are very far from the often brutalist design of magic items in Dungeons & Dragons.

Rounding out the issue is ‘The Officers’ Rest’. Written by Ezra Claverie, the designer of Crypts of Indormancy and set in the same world as that scenario, ‘The Officers’ Rest’ details part of the Her Majesty’s Western Shipyard and Submarine Pens of the Elven navy, abandoned long ago after the fall of the Elven Empire. It is also the lair of one their leftover warmachines… More specifically, this is set in the same location as ‘Decoherence Wight’ from The Undercroft No. 7, but is not quite as apocalyptic. It does have a pleasing post-industrial feel of abandonment, but unfortunately, ‘The Officers’ Rest’ suffers from the same issue as ‘Decoherence Wight’ in that it does not provide a reason for the player characters to go there. This is compounded by the lack context, in that the several pieces have appeared in the pages of the fanzine describing bits of the author’s setting, as well as Crypts of Indormancy, but they are all excerpts and we have yet to see an overview or really an introduction. This is clearly the author’s campaign world and it seems a shame to just show snapshots.

Physically, The Undercroft No. 1o is well presented. The artwork is decent and the writing clear. The editorial for the issue opens with the lines, “on this our tenth issue it is important to remember that this will not last forever there was a time when this publication did not exists and there will again be a time when it ceases…” Take this into consideration this then, for The Undercroft No. 10, if not the last issue, is at least the last issue since August, 2016. That may well be a good thing, for The Undercroft No. 10 feels a little tired, too drawn out perhaps for the articles it contains. None of them are actually bad articles, but as much as they are well presented, they do not feel easy to use or to bring into a campaign. Perhaps The Undercroft will return after it has had a well-deserved rest, perhaps not. Either way, The Undercroft No. 10 is not an unreasonable point at which to

—oOo—

The Undercroft
fanzine and other titles from the Melsonian Arts Council will be available from Squarehex 
at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 1st and June 3rd, 2018 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.