Of all the ways to make money (or, more likely, lose it) in the gaming business, magazine publishing must be the toughest and most thankless. When you finish one issue, the next deadline is staring you in the face. Every issue is a puzzle, with dozens of articles, illustrations, ads and fillers to assemble. Production costs are as high as those for games – or higher – yet the press run and retail price are both lower.
Is it any wonder that gaming magazines are few and far between? And genuine independent magazines that cover the whole hobby (as opposed to unabashed house-organs like the one you're holding) are even rarer. As a matter of fact, just last week we got word that Gamesman, a great independent British effort, had gone out of business after about 10 issues. So it goes.
No, magazine publishing is expensive and risky. But people want to read about games . . . and they want to write about games. What fills the void? Privately-produced efforts . . . "fan" magazines . . . fanzines.
These magazines vary wildly in content, production values, quality. . . Some have been around for years and years, while others vanish just about the time you notice them. They're usually hard to find; retail stores almost never carry them, so you have to subscribe. And to subscribe, you have to know the zine exists in the first place! Catch-22. (If you're interested in subscribing, keep in mind that the longer a zine has been around, the longer it's likely to stay around. That's why the reviews below include issue numbers.)
Note that many fanzines don't offer subscriptions, as such. Instead, the creator sends out copies for "the usual." This is shorthand for "I'll trade you a copy of my zine for a copy of yours, or an illustration, or an article, or a letter that I can print."
All this means that fanzines are written and read by people who want to write and read. Professional reviewers and editors are doing this for a living. They have to worry what their bosses and the advertisers and the distributors and their buddies in GAMA will think. Zine editors don't care. Zines are often biased, sloppily produced, immature and just plain stupid.
They're also real. They're a great source of ideas and inspiration. The good ones deserve to be better known – and maybe, with a few more contributors, even the tired ones might wake up a bit. This article will look at a sampling of the roleplaying zines now being published.
How did I pick my sampling? Simple. Last year I mentioned in Roleplayer that I would be doing this article. Here are reviews of every single zine that I've received since then. As it happened, this wholly unscientific sampling nevertheless presented a good cross-section of the many species within the genus "fanzine." The only thing they have in common is that they're produced for love rather than profit; they don't pay their contributors and aren't making anybody rich.
This is an APA, or "Amateur Press Alliance" – a fanzine made up of the works of many regular contributors. Each contributor creates and sends in a few pages for each issue, usually as camera-ready copy, and pays an appropriate share of the publication costs. Thus, not just the content, but everything about style and layout, varies wildly throughout the issue. And APAs are usually completely un-edited – the editor is really a compiler and organizer – so if a member sends in something lame, it will be printed as-is.
Some APAs, including A&E, will accept contributions from anyone who pays the standard fee; others have a closed membership list. Either way, the zine is supported by assessments from everyone who sends in material.
Alarums & Excursions is an institution; it has been appearing monthly for years and years and years. It wins awards. It's certainly the best-known gaming fanzine, and for good reason. Issues run well over 100 pages and contain everything you can think of: reviews of games and conventions, campaign and adventure ideas, fiction (often campaign-based) or simple retellings of campaigns, philosophical discussion, and slander of unfavored game systems. A number of the regular contributors, including the editor, have had game material professionally published; many of the others clearly could write professionally if they cared to! (In fact, SJ Games has recruited three writers that I know of from the pages of A&E, just on the strength of the material they wrote there for fun.)
Each issue features an "ignorable theme," announced well in advance. Nobody has to write on this theme, but many of the contributors choose to.
Many of the writers also discuss their lives outside of gaming, giving each issue a "letter from friends" feeling. Indeed, following A&E for a while, you realize there's a strong sense of family among the regular contributors.
Reviewed: Dozens of issues, most recently #200.
Strong point: Big, incredibly diverse; some material is brilliantly original.
Weak point: Content is everything with A&E, form nothing. It's mimeographed – poorly – ugly at best, and sometimes actually hard to read.
Subscriptions: Free to contributors. Others can be negotiated with the editor: Lee Gold, 3965 Alla Road, Los Angeles, CA 90066. Costs vary depending on issue size and where the subscriber is located. Back issues are $1.50 plus postage.
All of the Above is another APA, specifically dedicated to GURPS. It's the only all-GURPS zine I've seen. Many of the contributors have written or illustrated for SJ Games; the quality of the material is generally very high. Several of the articles that have appeared in AotA would have been a credit to Roleplayer, and perhaps some of them will appear here someday for a wider audience.
Most of the contributors have access to laser-printing, and the editor will laser-print material supplied to him on a disk. He also works at a copy shop, so the physical appearance of the zine is excellent.
Membership is limited to 20 right now; to see if any slots are open, contact the editor.
Reviewed: Issues 1-7.
Strong point: Pure GURPS, mostly very well done.
Weak point: Limited distribution and high price for non-members.
Subscriptions: "Approximately" $5 per issue for non-members, or $5 for a copy of the current issue. For details, or to apply to join, contact the editor: Lee Graham, 9071 Dallas St. #D-8, La Mesa, CA 91942.
Our only example of the thriving British zine scene (for every gaming zine in the U.S., the U.K. has a dozen). And a perfect example of the "I lose money on every issue, but not much, and I'm having fun" philosophy of editing. Lots of material here on several different systems: a detailed Pendragon review, a Paranoia adventure that I like better than some I've seen from West End, variant rules for Shadowrun, and more, along with the editor's report on his own current doings.
Reviewed: Issue 4.
Strong point: Either the contributors are unusually literate as zine writers go, or the editor really edits. In other words, the writing is much better than average for a fanzine.
Weak point: Typed and reduced. Almost hard to read.
Subscriptions: A single copy is a 20p coin and an A5 SASE (which they call a "SSAE" in England) to the editor: Gareth Jones, 69 Atherley Rd., Shirley, Southampton SO1 5DT, England. Or, for those overseas from the U.K., send the usual – the editor specifies "a fanzine in any language."
The title stands for "Experimental Game Group." This zine is devoted to discussion and exploration of the editor's "matrix game" system, which combines elements of war-gaming, roleplaying and debate. I've been following EGG for several issues, and it looks very interesting. I wish I had the time to get involved; there are ideas here that I'd like to explore.
Reviewed: Issue #15. (I've seen several others; this one is fairly typical.)
Strong point: A detailed look at a truly original system and a number of different ways to use it, including one complete game setup.
Weak point: If you're not interested in the "matrix game" system, there's nothing here for you. If you are interested, you'll get eyestrain trying to read the small, smeary type.
Subscriptions: 1 year (6 issues) for $7. Editor: Chris Engle, 1601 Matlock Rd. #4, Bloomington, IN 47408.
This little zine (8 pages, letter-sized) seems to have been compiled from material downloaded from various gaming-related BBSs and reprinted from other zines. This issue had material for GURPS, Ysgarth and AD&D. A main reason for its existence seems to be to support the editor's interest in trading games; he includes an extensive list of game material and magazines that he's offering for trade.
Strong point: Possibly the best value for money of any zine reviewed here: it's free.
Weak point: Very fannish, low-budget effort. But doesn't pretend otherwise!
Subscriptions: The usual? Send a SASE to the editor: Nick Parenti, 2815 Lund Ave. #6, Rockford, IL 61109.
Published by the RolePlaying (sic) Games SIG of American Mensa Ltd, the high-IQ society. ReQuests is fairly large, and contains contributions from Mensa members all over the country. The issue I looked at, #24, had comments on a variety of games, though I quickly lost patience with earnest discussions of the proper interpretations of D&D alignment rules. In fairness, that didn't take up too many pages . . . And there were discussions and reviews of other games, and quite a bit of non-system-based material, both adventure seeds and general discussion.
Everything is typed rather than typeset or laser-printed – there's no attempt at graphics – but it's cleanly printed, easy to read, and intelligent. (But then, it had better be intelligent if it's from Mensa . . .). A couple of the reviews would not have been out of place in a professional magazine.
Strong point: Varied, easy to read.
Weak point: Production value doesn't live up to the content (a trivial flaw, since it's a non-professional product).
Subscriptions: $8 for four issues, or $2 for a sample copy. You do not have to be a Mensa member to subscribe or contribute, though contributions from members are given preference. Coordinator: Mary H. Kelly, 4030 Valley View Lane #233, Farmer's Branch, TX 75244-5031.
Here's an example of the species "club publication." This issue focuses on club news, but also includes articles on GURPS character design, Paranoia and combining GURPS with Megatraveller.
Though this is a very new publication, they're trying to be organized; they've already got a Writer's Guide and Submission Information Sheet.
Reviewed: Vol. 1, No. 2.
Strong point: Having little space, the editor has made articles tight and efficient. No overwriting here!
Weak point: 2 pages, tiny type.
Subscriptions: Free to club members. For membership information, contact SJSGS, 1234 Canary Lane, San Jose, CA 95117.
A very impressive little publication at first glance. The format is unusual – letter-sized paper, folded the long way – with a full-color cover on #8!
Contents include reviews, commentary (really quite a lot of commentary, some of it boringly self-referential and some not to any particular point), adventure seeds and campaign ideas. A table of contents would have been nice. The writing is uneven, with some very good pieces and some not so good. Some of the material doesn't relate to games.
It's hard to know how to be fair with a zine like this. A great deal of successful effort went into the physical presentation. It looks better than some professional jobs. But typos and general bad writing are more jarring when they come in such a pretty package. Sort of a Catch-22; I love to see good layout and design in a fanzine, but then I'm more critical of the contents.
Reviewed: #7 and 8.
Strong point: Cutting-edge production quality.
Weak point: Typesetting bad writing doesn't improve it.
Subscriptions: $15 for one year (6 issues). Editor: Shawn Tomlinson, Zirlinson Publications, 1447 Treat Bou-levard, Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Subtitled "The Journal of Victorian Era Roleplaying," this issue was exclusively devoted to Space: 1889 – though the editor's cover letter said that later issues would deal with other games set in the 19th century.
This was the most impressive zine to cross my desk in years. This issue contained a good variety of 1889 material: an adventure, writeups on characters, organizations and gadgets, a page from the Syrtis Star newspaper, and an article on combining Call of Cthulhu with Space: 1889! All this was fully professional-quality material, attractively typeset. Had there been art, the pages would have been indistinguishable from those of a professional magazine. There was no filler in this issue . . . if a reader is interested in the game, he'd be able to use every page.
Reviewed: Volume 1, Number 1.
Strong point: Better than many professional magazines!
Weak point: In terms of content, there are no weak points. The $4 cover price for 20 pages is a bit extreme.
Subscriptions: $12.00 for 4 issues, or $4 for a sample issue. Editor: Mark Clark, 598 Thompson Station Road, Newark, DE 19711-7520.
Published by the Williams Association of Role-Players at Williams College, this is in many ways a typical example of a good college zine. To quote a self-description, "WARPfactor is where WARP folks whine about their GMs, beg for players or just seem odd." That's fairly accurate.
Lots of random stuff here in 8 pages laser-set in small but readable type. Some is incomprehensible to anybody not at Williams College, of course.
Reviewed: Volume 3, No. 1.
Strong point: About a third of this zine is mildly to screamingly funny. About a third of it is GURPS related, which we assume is a strong point to the readers of Roleplayer. (Some is both GURPS and funny, as in the sample issue's "Stupid GURPS tricks" list of bogus new advantages and disadvantages.)
Weak point: If you're not a Williams College gamer, the rest of the zine might as well be printed in Swahili for all the good it'll do you.
Subscriptions: No clues here. Contact them at SU 3213 Williams College, Williamstown, MA 01267. The editor is Jonathan Young.
And then there are the fanzines that never see print . . . the electronic zines and net conferences. These are growing in importance every year, and may some day eclipse the print fanzine. We'll discuss them in a future issue.
Copyright © 1997-2023 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.