Thursday, February 13, 2014

AFS Magazine: Review

AFS Magazine is a print only zine put together by +Scott Moberly. So far there are four issues. They are attractive and distinctive looking, roughly A4, with a sturdy color cover, and functional spiral binding. Each issue costs $8.95, shipping included, although sometimes Moberly offers deals on purchases of multiple back issues. They can be purchased here. The vibe is sword and sorcery, and the assumed setting is (generally) Hyperborea. This provides a nice aesthetic consistency to the majority of contributions. Each issue contains one or two small dungeons, complete with maps, and one very short piece of classic sword and sorcery fiction. Interspersed throughout is the expected smattering of new classes, house rules, monsters, and random tables. All are enjoyable, but the magazine is clearly getting better with each issue. By issue 3 it's great. Issue 4 is insane.

The highlight of AFS #3 is a stunning adventure, "Kusu's Cove", by Benoist Poire. Poire is a talented map maker who drew the map for the Marmoreal Tomb of Garn Pat'uul in Gygax Magazine 3, and is currently working on the Hobbyshop Dungeon, both with Ernie Gygax. The full color map by Poire is wonderful. Here is an (intentionally imperfect) photo.

The map is complicated and visually stimulating. Just staring at it gave me all kinds of ideas. There are interesting changes of levels, submerged portions, an open layout, and helpful visual representations of the things found in various sites. The adventure that goes with it is fantastic in parts, although it suffers from pedantic presentation and lacks monster stats. The complex of ocean caves is a laboratory built long ago by the Hyperboreans to experiment with still more ancient Lemurian and Atlantean technologies. It has, of course, gone to seed, and is now failing dangerously, in the process corrupting its current primitive inhabitants. At its center are three elemental "cores" that connect to "the primordial depths between the worlds". They are as strange and frightening as Lemurian science should be. While this is the best thing in AFS #3, there is some other good material, including a great cult presented by Tim "Turgenev" Harding ("The Cult of Silence"), and a second complete adventure by Moberly, "Into the Black Kingdoms".

AFS #4 really takes it to the next level. Jeff Talanian, author of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, contributed "the purloiner", a new subclass of divine thieves that combine clerical spellcasting with standard thief skills, as well as an introductory adventure, "The Lamia's Heart", written ostensibly for a group of 0 level purloiners, although it could clearly be repurposed for any beginning group. In exchange for membership in an upstart Thieve's Guild, the PCs have been hired to steal a topaz called the Lamia's Heart from a fat merchant. Needless to say, everything is not what it seems. Both the adventure and the class have a wonderful sword and sorcery flavor, reminiscent of Leiber and Howard. The issue is chock full of other excellent entries. There's a great monster by Tim "Turgenev" Harding, the Gurondu, intelligent undead-commanding apes with a connection to the negative energy plane. Allan Grohe, Jr. (grodog) has an evocative reimagining of the Ring of Gaxx that first appeared all the way back in Eldritch Wizardry, as well as an unkeyed color dungeon map. There's a second adventure by Moberly, "Theme for a Jackal". The map here is much improved over the ones that appears with his adventures in earlier issues, a sturdy blue and white old-school number. The adventure is very flavorful, full of little quirky magic items, tricks and traps, and jackal men. Generally speaking, Moberly's adventures have a Judge's Guild feel to them that is likely to either attract or repel. Personally, it attracts, and I would use all of them, modulo my own inevitable tinkering. To round it all off is Chris Kutalik's blog entry on pointcrawling (a classic).

So my advice would be to buy the current issue, AFS #4. If you like it, and have the requisite funds, grab issue #3 and then work your way backwards from there. Earlier issues are good too, even if they don't rise quite to this level. But if you're like me, this review will leave you with one outstanding question: What the devil does "AFS" stand for? The website and magazine say nothing about this. So I asked Scott and here's what he said:

As far as your question - the answer may seem a bit odd. Originally I came up with the idea for a new gaming magazine that offered something completely different. No gloss, no crappy new art of elves and dragons, etc. Sort of an anti-establishment bend. AFS stands for 'Anti-Fascist Society" The magazine's original concept was for it to be an eclectic mix of old school gaming articles with some historical articles relating mostly to WW1 and WW2 mixed in. A spotlight on Tito and the Partisans, a spotlight on the hanging of Mussolini, the execution of Reinhard Heydrich etc etc. Nothing to do with current day politics. At the last moment the concept was scrapped for old school gaming and pulp literature but the name remained. Originally the appearance was to be more like an old black & white  punk rock flyer. Not sure if that's anything you want to relate to people - but that's the answer. 

Henceforth, AFS Magazine will always be known to me as the Anti-Fascist Society. Consider me a member.

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