Many Zine Reviews: Through Ultan's Door #2, Phantasmagoria #1, Terror of the Stratosfiend #1, Ghostlike Crime #1

To start I'd like to make a general rule about zines or maybe it ought to be a general rule about all rpg content. Most of the time more general = more useful. The more specific material is about setting or the kind of game wanted to run, the less useful it will be. When I say useful, I mean it will be less generally useful. Most GMs don't run material straight out of the box, instead, they make their own settings and games and look for extra sources that might be slotted into their world. They will look for classes to add to their games that make sense for them. We mine books and zines for material that we will find useful, which by default makes more general content more useful.

Does this mean more general material is always better? I'd say no. The zines I will look at today all have very distinct settings but I would say some are far better than others.

In addition to mining content from zines to fit our campaigns, GMs will often look at amassed content and consider running their own game using the material. I would say this is less common but I don't know if that is entirely true. Dolmenwood and the Midderlands both are ripe examples of content that is amassed in enough quantities to be very useful. You can run your whole campaign in these worlds and the material is there to really flesh out any campaign. This is attractive because while creating our own game worlds is fun, it is often a lot of work. Plus these worlds can encompass so much that our own creations easily fit into them. You can run your own version of a setting and that can be just as satisfying.

The issue then, with zines particularly, is to amass enough content that is interesting enough that it really draws in the prospective GM looking to use the material. If the world is very specific, then it has to give the reader a desire to continue looking for other issues. For the first issue of a zine with a very niche setting, it is vitally important to put forward enough quality content that makes the judge feel there is really something to these zines and will return for more.

If your zine cannot do this, it should instead focus its attention on being general. Rather than a specific world, it ought to aim for a genre. If there is not a single genre that really fits, then it should try to fit in as well as it can with generally accepted tropes of D&D. This way, the zine's material will be of maximum value even if its ideas don't stand out much. Much can be forgiven if a GM looks and sees something of immediate usefulness to their campaign.

With that in mind, I want to get to an example of a fairly specific setting represented very well by zines

Through Ultan's Door #2

Front cover by Russ Nicholson

This is a zine written by my friend Ben Laurence. Full disclosure: my name is inside. I playtested the Catacombs of the Fleischguild. I am quite biased in favor of Ben's work, but I also would say I have a certain insight into aspects of this book that might be lost on another reviewer. For one, I can say without a doubt that playing through the included dungeon was incredible fun. Not only have I been having the time of my life playing this game, but I have already learned so much from the ingenious traps and encounters presented in this zine. Ben truly does understand OSR design on a deep level and it shows.

Not only that but his imagination astounds me in every issue. The very first thing in the issue is a little mini-essay about Zyan's (the setting) afterlife and how undead work. It is an enchanting vision that immediately sent my mind to the gates of Wishery. He has crafted a world with careful and deep thought and it bleeds through the page. He accomplishes interesting the reader further almost immediately with a grand vision of a detailed world. The very next thing is a way in which GMs can take Zyan and make it their own. Ben understands intimately the desires of a GM and the drawbacks of a very specific setting, so he does everything he can to mitigate these drawbacks for the purposes of making it useful for the GM which is fantastic. His vision for the world loses nothing in this expansion, only deepening in intrigue by the possibilities presented. What follows is a dungeon intricately crafted and connected to the world he is building with loving detail.

Usability: Ben has made a fleshed-out (If you will forgive the pun) dungeon in every sense of the word. As in the last issue, whenever a monster is listed, its stats are right there. The map once again comes separately on the inside of the cover which continues to be a marvelous invention. More so than even the last dungeon, however, reflavoring this dungeon would really cause it to lose a lot of its potency. Thus it does automatically lose some usefulness in that it cannot be slotted into just any old game world without losing its identity in an important way. I did see one part where an item is mentioned in the dungeon text but not in the items appendix. The item doesn't really need much description (It allows the user to cast two spells that are properly found in the Spells appendix). All the same, it would have been good to have it mentioned in the items appendix. I made a litle stink about the factions last book, but this time there is an entire spread dedicated to them which made me most happy. I didn't see any mistakes in editing so Fiona M Geist ought to be proud.

Ingenuity: There are some seriously awesome encounters and traps in here. Szadu, the Sanguinary Demon is sure to astound and confound your players as it did me. I have had few such memorable encounters as a player in all my time gaming. Every trap is telegraphed such that the players will never feel as though they were unfairly killed. Their own greed or overconfidence will be their undoing. That I guarantee.

Art: Fantastic. There is little more to say. Just about every page explodes with fascinating art that perfectly captures the marvelous feeling of the baroque setting. Russ Nicholson, Huargo, Jeremy Duncan, Orphicss, Gus L, and Matt Hildebrand ought to be proud.

Overall: Highly recommend. I own mine not just as a gamebook but as an artifact for its beauty. Don't pass this one up!

Phantasmagoria #1

Front Cover by Matthew Adams

Phantasmagoria is a zine written by Chance Philips for DCC. It tenuously struggles on the line between the specific and the general. In some ways, this is a very general book. There is an Automaton class. That could be useful in many different games and many different settings. There are rules for spaceships, which is by far the most exciting thing inside this zine. Spaceships are things that could be found across many gonzo DCC settings and it is good to have those tools. There are also some great gear tables which are always useful. However, then we get to the Captain, Gremlin and Jovian classes and the issues start popping up.

You see, this zine kind of tries to be a Swords and Planets genre zine, I was reminded most prominently of one of my favorite movies as a child: Treasure Planet. That is not necessarily a bad thing in the least, but Swords and Planets is not exactly the most commonly used genre in games, although it gets some use. It is a niche that this particular zine tries to fill but doesn't do so boldly. A lot of the setting seems to dither between classical fantasy, traditional scifi, and actual Swords and Planets stuff. It lacks some identity as though the author wasn't really all that committed to what the zine is ostensibly about. It falls back on trying to be more generally useful which it does to some extent. Even the content that is most exciting to me: the spaceships section is weirdly saddled by ships with ballistas and Greek Fire. This could be fairly easily reflavored but it is weird. Neither thing really fits into the genre of Swords and Planets. It looks like the angle was more Spell Jammer, not necessarily a bad thing, but also it is weirdly sandwiched into the already dense genre mix.

I would say, if you are going to make a Swords and Planets zine, make one boldly and really think of what kind of materials might be useful for such a thing. If you want to do Spell Jammer, then do Spell Jammer. If you want to do generic scifi, then do that boldly. There is nothing wrong with that and might be useful to many people! This zine sort of walked a line and I don't think it ended up being as graceful as it could be.

Usability: There is some good stuff to mine from here. The Automaton class is good. Spaceship rules are great and can be tailored to fit fairly easily. Gear tables are always nice. I guess I wish the spaceship section had rules for actions that could be taken by people inside the spaceship, during spaceship combat or rules for boarding other spaceships, If there was a picture of a bunch of pirates swinging from one star-deck to another then I would be most happy.

Ingenuity: The Spaceship rules are pretty nice. I feel like the zine is cobbled together. Its has lots of bits that don't really fit into a cohesive whole. As a consequence, there is little that really stands out as being really imaginative or new.

Art: Pretty good. I like the cover and there are several pieces of nice art. I'd call it above average, but not terribly exciting in and of itself. I would also say it lacks unifying factors. I kind of wish I could have gotten one with the Luka Rejec cover because it was exceptional, but I really do think the cover I got was good.

Overall: It's alright. It was quite cheap so there is little to be lost by picking it up but I don't feel like I would really think to recommend it to someone else.

Terror of the Stratosfiend #1

Cover by James Everett Jackson

Let's play the guessing game. Humor me. What do you think this game is about? Judging by the title, the cover art, and the DCC in the corner you might think this is a zine trying to import Alien-style scifi horror into DCC. That sounds like a pretty good idea! That is a concept for which there is a lot of demand right now with Mothership and the Alien rpg coming out. People seem to be hungry for this sort of thing. Of course, that's not what it is. That doesn't even really come close to what it is.

Describing this thing in genre terms is nigh-on impossible. It has a very specific setting that actually has very little to do with space. It seems to mostly take place on the ground of dear old Earth. I would say the genre is gonzo scifi fantasy with a dash of Cthulhu monsters. I wouldn't call it Lovecraftian because there is nothing really Weird about it, or at least nothing emphasized in the text.

Honestly, I'm quite confused about this setting. As I've said, it's quite specific. As near as I can tell from what is written in the text, one of the orbital AI Patrons tore open some dimensional rifts that let through some horrors from deep space. Among these are the Stratosfiends, creatures of widely varying biology, that appear to be intent on conquering Earth and subjugating humanity. There also appear to be some horrors that are loyal to the human-made AI and it is unclear if they and the Stratosfiends are all on the same side or if they are different, and why these horrors should be loyal to the AI at all. It also mentions that there were other humans that came through these portals that even speak the same language as Earthling humans, but I can't find any further explanation.

The classes are also pretty mindboggling. What do you think a Stratosfiend Delver is? If you said a 10ft tall, tentacled spell caster that can shoot a laser out of its eye, you would be correct. What do you think a Stratosfiend Magistrate Gladiatrix is? If you said a 20ft tall, metal-spike-covered, death machine, that can shoot lasers out of its eye and can cast charm person, then you would be right.

Usability: Now, a zine can't really deliver a full setting in one issue, that much is clear, but there has to be enough of a concrete picture of the setting for someone to want more rather than just be confused. As it stands, though I don't really have a complete enough grasp of the setting to really do anything with this book. There is no adventure to fill in some gaps or to give a picture of what it means to even exist in this world. You really can't reflavor any of the classes and the classes themselves are so unique that I wouldn't really even allow them in my games at all. How do you run a game where a player can be a 20ft tall creature? Every dungeon is more or less based around the concept of roughly human-sized creatures. Unless you are playing an all Stratosfiend game, I see no reason to allow them.

There are some good gear tables that I think would be useful. The upgrades section is quite interesting and could be useful in a lot of different games. The spells are kind of interesting, but once again, very connected to the setting. The Earth Mother patron is interesting and could be ported to another game. I would have liked to see some kind of adventure in this book to flesh out the content, but there is none. A small level 0 funnel would do much to help visualize what can be done in the setting, but I am fairly lost as is. Apparently, thee is an Issue 1.5 with an adventure of some kind, in case you want to pursue this one.

Ingenuity: I feel like the same criticisms to Phantasmagoria apply pretty well here. Its sort of cobbled together. I am having trouble making out the vision for this world or picturing what kind of adventures could occur there. There are some unifying themes, but they don't unify into something that makes sense. Nothing stands out much. The classes are interesting but not really anything that really made me want to use it.

Art: I quite like the art, although I don't really feel like the art brings me into the setting. With Through Ultan's Door, the art really transports you to that place and aids the text in fleshing out the setting in the mind's eye. The art here actually made me have more questions and more layers of confusion. Overall, it is good quality, the vision is just very unclear.

Overall: I don't know what to make of this one. I feel like I will pull out the Upgrades table for making DCC loot some time. I think the main issue here is that I wasn't really drawn in by the setting, and then very little in the book struck me as immediately useful to my gaming needs. You might find that the setting is very attractive to you, and if so, this is one to keep watching. If not, well I don't see any reason to pick this one up. Besides the Upgrades table. If you made a zine just full of those, it'd be pretty sweet. I'd buy that.

Ghostlike Crime #1

Cover art by Carly Onofrio

Ghostlike Crime is a zine written by Kane Cathain. There is a lot of good stuff here. Once again, looking at the cover, what do you think this book is about? I would look at this and think itis bringing modern-day paranormal fantasy to DCC. It is kind of doing that, however, unlike Esoteric Enterprises which really leans into and supplies material for the main tropes of the genre, this zine gives a little more priority to the particulars of its own setting. On top of the usual genre tropes is a dystopian setting with political overtures (clearly leftist ones). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is another layer of specificity which narrows the scope of the zine and thus reduces its usefulness. I would like to see classes that would support more generic play but in this setting, you can't have an occultist only Scrappers because all magicians accept hobo magicians are dystopian overlords. You can't really be a monster or a half-monster because monsters are the result of corporate magical hubris and waste.

Usability: There is a lot of generally good material here, including the occupation tables which supplies modern backgrounds for level 0 characters. That is always a wonderful thing and would be very useful for any modern DCC game. Modern gear tables serve a similar purpose and are equally good. In addition, the Paratechnologist class is actually awesome, and I love it. I would port this class to any scifi DCC game and it fits in with the paranormal genre (Ghost Busters comes to mind). The adventures provide some good content and give good insight into what it means to live in the setting. I would say there is a lot of use here.

Ingenuity: The Paratechnologist is great. The Scrapper is really quite disappointing. They reskinned the Halfling class to a Kids on Bikes protagonist and swapped out a few mechanics which was quite well done and a great idea. They could have done the same with the Wizard for the Scrapper since the two are almost identical.

The first two adventures are alright. DCC really does work well with fairly linear adventure design, but the first two adventures were heavily scripted and overly reliant on checks rather than player ingenuity. There are some interesting concepts, but I wouldn't call either anything special. The third adventure, on the other hand, is fantastic. I really like how they managed to fit in a compelling mystery adventure into a single two-page spread. The monster is great. The whole concept of this kind of Monster of the Week, investigation adventure is good genre material, plus it's not something I have seen done for DCC or really any other game before and I think it was done quite well. Unlike the first two adventures, this one leans heavily into player choice and problem-solving along with giving enough information to help out the GM without restricting them with tons of pages of unnecessarily dense information (I'm looking at you Dragon Heist).

Art: The art is decent. The piece for the Frankenstein's Monster, Gerty, stood out as being the most interesting piece. It really gets across the feel of this monster, half-hidden in shadow, glaring with menace at the viewer. The art otherwise, didn't do much to pull me in.

Overall: I think this is a good zine! If you want to run modern paranormal adventures in DCC, this is probably one to pick up, although if you want certain things usually found in the genre, you will have to make it yourself. I don't think I will keep tracking this zine, though. Its own specific setting doesn't really interest me and I can only imagine it will get more specific as the zine goes on. If should happen upon the next one and suspect I might be wrong, I would pick it up.


Zine as setting gazette is a fine idea and has worked many times in the past, however, I think that more zines should try their hand at being more generically useful. If you suspect your setting may not draw people in, you might want to consider really bulking out your zine with content that you think will be of immediate use. Adventures are always good for this as are gear tables, spells, sometimes classes although I think a zine should not rely heavily on classes, especially when these classes are setting specific. Even if you think your setting is the bee's knees, you probably ought to do this, just in case. No matter what, more immediately useful content broadens the appeal of your product

Consider, also, what does your zine make people think it might be, based on popular trends and genre affiliation. If a zine looks like it is going to supply a certain experience and then doesn't, the buyers could be put off from looking for future issues. This isn't always going to be reasonable from the buyer but shopping for any product is largely an emotional rather than a strictly rational process. Remember that prospective GMs are likely looking for material for their ongoing games, and consider producing content that will help them out.

I hope these criticisms will not discourage anyone that has made any of these zines. In fact, if you are selling a fair amount of issues, feel free to keep on doing what you are doing. Selling issues means that people are finding you useful and that ought to be the goal. If anything I have said can make the zine scene more useful, then I have served my purpose.


  1. Having not read any of these and only being familiar with a couple of them, this was an interesting read. This may speak to my own sensibilities (or failings, as it were), but from your descriptions I actually found Phantasmagoria and Stratosfiend to be the most interesting sounding. I like settings that don't easily fall into a given genre and that challenge notions of what a setting or genre or even character is. How do I make a 20ft spiky flying machine alien god monster work as a PC indeed! Of course, having not read them, maybe they really just don't work, but I'm intrigued at the very least.

    That being said, I've tried to be better about writing more generalizable tools and resources on my own blog over the last year+ that I've been writing it. As much as I love my weird, "high-concept" (if I'm allowed to describe my own ideas that way), genre ill-fitting settings, the posts that I get the most traction or positive feedback on have always been the more general ones, with maybe one exception. As much as I love Phantasmos, I feel like the only people who ever resonated with that setting besides me were people who played in it (which may speak more to the quality of my writing or presentation than to the setting per se, but that's maybe another matter).

    1. It is an interesting subject. I guess I am intrigued by the possibilities of both settings. I would like to see those setting really fleshed out. My main issue is not the settings themselves but the amount of immediately useful content for it. If you kind of just throw out a super weird setting without a lot of material to back it up, especially in a format where people are paying for every issue, then it is hard to justify keeping on following the zine. Blogs can do this far more easily since they are free.

  2. Sorry for the weirdly small text on Ghostlike Crime. Blogger will not let me fix it nor even copy the text into another post. I have no idea what the issue is. Apologies. Thank you for reading!

    1. Sometimes if you use the 'clear formatting' option it'll return to normal.

    2. Thank you for the tip! That's worked!


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