Friday, September 25, 2015

The Undercroft

To be honest, I've avoided the 'zines coming out of the DIY RPG scene. Most of them seem to be focused on kinds of fantasy I'm not that interested in, such as Gygaxian-flavored D&Disms, mighty-thewed sword & sorcery, and "generic weird OSR." Furthermore, the quick proliferation of 'zines made them really difficult to keep up with; when everybody seems to be putting out a gaming 'zine, it's hard to sort through them all to find the ones that will appeal to you. We are definitely living in a game 'zine renaissance.

It wasn't on purpose that The Undercroft fell into my hands. I ordered Into the Odd from Paolo Greco at Lost Pages, and he and Daniel Sell (the editor and mastermind behind Undercroft) generously offered to send me the first four issues of the 'zine for review. Being unfamiliar with the 'zine in question, I didn't really have any expectations for it; worse yet, I started to get a sinking feeling when I read the first lines of the introduction to the first issue: "In Heaven Everything is Fine. But not here. Here, everything is awful. If you aren't losing your limbs to obscure diseases you're having them lopped off by solicitors and disgruntled historical figures. Life is hard and short." You see, the miserycrawl style of RPG play really doesn't appeal to me. I have no desire to play or run games in which the characters are syphilitic beggars armed only with shit-covered sticks as they explore a crapsack world of filth where every NPC they encounter is, at best, a shitlord, or, at worst, a cannibal. 

But that's not what Undercroft is. Not really.

Yes, there is vileness here, there is Ligottian weirdness here, there are creatures and men who would love to gut you and dance in your entrails. But there is also humor here that reminds me of David Lynch at his most knowing, Poe in his sardonic moments, or the comical madness of Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter." Everything might be awful in the Undercroft, but tongues are lodged squirming in cheek and the humor is as black as you should take your tea.

Tone now described, what treasures await within the pages? Since Undercroft is a 'zine with many contributors, the content is a mixed bag--but there is a lot to love or at least give you pause for thought. For example, the alternate rules for disease presented in Alex Clements's article in the first issue are a fresh and interesting take that gives disease a number of "Disease Hit Points" that must be winnowed away by casting of the Cure Disease spell. Similarly, Barry Blatt's "The Treason of the Guitar" sets-up a clever and goofy adventure scenario that mixes historical Puritanism with groan-worthy modern allusions. There are plenty of new monster ideas to play with throughout the issues I sampled. 

The first two issues have a "Compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess" blurb on the cover, but let's be honest: you can figure out how to use this stuff in whatever game you're playing if you've a mind to. Early on, the art is mostly historical illustrations, but original art is added to the mix as the issues progress. Like the content, it is a mixed bag, but the good pieces are really good and there's nothing truly eye-searing given that this is a small-press publication.

Over the course of the four issues of Undercroft that I've read, I went from having no prior opinion on the 'zine, to being wary of introduction's tone, to enjoying the thing thoroughly, to buying issues five and six to round out my collection. I wasn't looking for a 'zine to support, but I found one anyway.

Or did it find me? I shudder at the prospect.

Print copies of the 'zine are available here, and the last time I checked they were ON SALE. PDFs can be had here.