Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Print Fanzines in the Electronic Age

Printed gaming fanzines have somehow found their place again in this electronic Internet Age. When many gamers share their game creations on blogs some go one step further, creating or compiling content in print versions that still reach others through the post, sit on desks or gaming tables for reference, and tempt readers by their basic yet compelling physical presence. The vast range of material offered in gaming fanzines remains a testament to the imagination the adventure gaming hobby inspires and the dedication of those who engage in it.

Long, long ago – in the days before desktop publishing, near-ubiquitous internet access, and blogs – gamers got their information from a handful of sources: gaming friends, Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGS), and periodicals. For many who immersed themselves in Dungeons & Dragons the venerable Dragon Magazine remained the font of new source material, adventures, and hobby news (even if mostly gleaned from the advertisements). A handful of other periodicals came (and some went) catering to readers’ diverse interests within gaming.

I’ve lamented the near-extinction of gaming magazines before; few can survive in print in an age when a massive galaxy of content – both free and paid – exists in blogs, forums, websites, and PDFs on the internet. So I’m encouraged when I hear news of print materials returning to the collective gamer consciousness (as evidenced on that same print-killing internet...) through such endeavors as Gygax Magazine and numerous fanzines available through the post in printed format.

Now, in all fairness – and to head off contentious debate on pesky details – many “print” fanzines remain available in PDF format, a necessity in this electronic age where most people get their information on smart phones and tablet devices. The fact that their creators still make them available in print format and mail them to readers remains remarkable. I like having material in print for easy reference (for those Luddites like me who aren’t glued 24/7 to their electronic devices); I have a tendency to download PDF zines into a folder deep within my hard drive, then forget to give them more than that initial cursory glance. I’ve seen some dedicated gamers who print particularly useful PDF materials (including zines) and meticulously bind them for reference and archiving. A physical book or zine maintains a presence both in matter and mind. For some of us it’s easier to find, flip through, digest, and reference at the gaming table. Every gamer has their own preferences regarding print and electronic books, much like every fanzine has a potential to satisfy different gaming preferences in content and style.

Many fanzines that make their way to print cater to those of the “old school renaissance” (OSR) style of gaming, a movement that recently emerged to emulate (to varying degrees and tastes) the play experiences of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games. The zines fittingly cater to a nostalgia for the days of yore in both content and form. I’ve dabbled with OSR games before, being thoroughly susceptible to material evoking my earliest, halcyon days in the adventure gaming hobby, so I’m naturally drawn to the concept of a print gaming zine.

Having recently received a generous paycheck for a writing job, stingy old me decided to spend a precious few dollars to order a few zines I’d heard about that might offer some fantasy roleplaying material for inspiration and amusement. Some catered to specific OSR systems and others took a more system-neutral approach; readers can easily port materials to their favorite mechanics or just use them as inspiration. Like any periodical, even those with a very specific focus, each has its own style, flavor, and level of quality. Each of the three I ordered proved worthwhile for inspiring new ideas in my approach to gaming.

The Manor #6: Published by Tim Shorts, who hosts the Gothridge Manor blog, The Manor #6 offers 24 pages of OSR goodness, including a location piece and adventure written and mapped by Matt Jackson, a trio of puzzle rooms from Ken Harrison, and a guard class article and list of typical sentry greetings by Tim himself. This issue contains some mature content (a brothel location and a topless spider werespider drawing) which the “Warning Boobs Ahead” note inside the cover makes explicitly (and almost humorously) clear. Overall the material could easily fit into any fantasy setting as it caters to a broad slice of OSR interests without getting too specialized. While I’m not one for new character classes, I particularly liked the “Guard Greetings” article since several seemed perfect for provoking encounters, if not entire adventures.

6 Iron Spikes & A Small Hammer #2: Publisher John Yorio is already on my internet radar for his interest in solitaire gaming, so I was pleased to see him publish the second issue of his zine named for one of original D&D’s oddly iconic yet more interesting bits of equipment. It serves up an amusing buffet of juicy tidbits for use in any OSR-style game: two entries in a “Very Small Bestiary of Dungeon Helpers” series, a simple random trap generator, some tables for generating random yet inspirational dungeon chamber names (such as “Laboratory of the Demonic Dwarves”), a random dungeon generator, a feature on a village near a dungeon (great as a support location), a few magic items, and two brief, low-level adventures (one even using the name generator). While Yorio provides most of the content, Jeff Huddleson contributed a short and useful gamemaster tip piece. I’ve used one of Yorio’s very streamlined random dungeon generators before, so I found the inclusion of other random generators in the zine quite entertaining. The 24 pages offer something useful for any fantasy roleplaying game, particularly for those who enjoy random tables to help adventures along.

Secrets #1: Nathan Irving compiled the best of certain topical posts from his Secrets of the Shadowend blog in the first issue of his fanzine. The 24 pages contain a horde of innovative spells and devious magic items easily adapted to most any fantasy roleplaying game, as well as a handful of monsters and the shaman, a druid class variant. A while ago – during one of my occasional laments that gaming magazines seem headed down the road to extinction – I suggested that bloggers collect and revise material from their posts in “blog annuals,” so I’m happy to see someone actually doing that, and publishing it in print to boot.

This by no means serves as a comprehensive overview of gaming zines currently available, merely my impressions based on buying a few zines that looked interesting. Most zine websites include a table of contents for each issue, some simply with titles, others with a one-sentence teaser for each article. It’s enough to help decide whether to check out a print-only zine; many offer free or paid PDFs, and some offer both print and PDF purchase options. Reader tastes vary across a wide spectrum – whether for gaming magazines or other mundane periodicals – so buying one issue remains the best way to check out the content and see if the coverage is right for you.

For a good source articles about gaming zines, check out Gothridge Manor and Tim Short’s glimpse into the contents of his “zine box,” a surprisingly abundant trove of gaming goodness enough to send anyone curious about the OSR zine scene in the right direction. He also recommends Rendered Press’ “Old School Zines” page, which lists gaming fanzines across genre and system, print and PDF, paid and free.

Schweig’s Fanzine Postscript

I am guilty of having once produced a gaming fanzine. It was one of my first activities way back when I discovered the adventure gaming hobby during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games” of the early and mid 1980s (for me, anyway). Between running games for neighborhood kids, devising and mapping my own scenarios and settings, and creating other games for myself, I published a zine called The Sword, obviously trying to emulate TSR’s popular Dragon Magazine in my own humble, amateurish way. Like many of my earliest gaming endeavors compared to my later professional involvement in the hobby, the zine was truly awful. It ran anywhere from five to ten pages each issue, with a cover I colored by hand and a host of articles typed on my good old Smith Corona portable typewriter, photocopied, and sold to gaming friends for a pittance. Articles included reviews of miniatures and games I’d purchased, game rule variants we used, new treasures, monsters, and equipment, cartoons, word searches, and truly horrible filk parodies of the tasteless gaming song of the month. Every now and then I look through the box with my remaining issues and other editorial ephemera and cringe. As atrocious as it was, it’s a good (and sometimes embarrassing) reminder of where I started and how far I’ve come.


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