Episode 14 (Part 1) RPG Fanzines (with Ian Marsh)


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INTRO Welcome to the world of fanzines.

OPEN BOX (with Ian Marsh) The first part of an interview with Ian Marsh, who was the editor of DragonLords fanzine and went on to become the editor of White Dwarf.

DAILY DWARF For one episode only @dailydwarf becomes the Daily Dagon as he looks at Dagon and why he thinks is was such a special zine.

OPEN BOX Another one? This time it’s with Blythy as we look at our experience in the world of PBMs.

OUTRO: Thanks to Shop on the Borderlands for providing a copy of DragonLords issue 7 for discussion.

Let us know your favourite ‘zine and send us pictures for discussion in the next episode.

Why not show your love for the podcast, and join the activities of the GROGSQUAD by becoming a Patreon?


Author: Dirk

Host of The GROGNARD RPG Files podcast. Talking bobbins about Runequest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, T&T, AD&D and others from back in the day and today.

15 thoughts on “Episode 14 (Part 1) RPG Fanzines (with Ian Marsh)”

  1. An episode that touches on two aspects of the hobby close to my heart, fanzines and PBM.

    I was a contributor to TROLLCRUSHER, that early British zine that caused Ian Marsh to decide he could do better and looking back I am quite sure he was right. TROLLCRUSHER in its turn was trying to be a British version of ALARUMS & EXCURSIONS and their comparative merits can be judge by the fact that A&E has just celebrated its five hundredth monthly issue and I don’t think TROLLCRUSHER got above the mid twenties. (And let me recommend A&E because it has witty and wise words from me in it.)

    After those early days I wasn’t a big collector of fanzines with one exception which was Andrew Rilstone’s ASLAN, which back in the late 80s and early 90s was a great place for the literary end of RPGs running with descriptions of arcane and peculiar games, a strange new phenomenon that we eventually started calling freeforms and very sarcastic reviews of products like VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE. Oh, and one of the best letters sections I’ve ever read. It almost catapulted Andrew to immense wealth and fame as one of the luminaries of the hobby… but didn’t quite.

    As to PBM, I can equal if not surpass your folly. And the fact that I was older and not a bit wiser than you when I dipped my foot into that pond means that I can’t pull the ‘I was only an enthusiastic teenager’ excuse. I was in fact in my thirties (IIRC) when I tried running postal rpgs and I was arrogant enough to think that just maybe I might possibly even make money at it.

    For those of you who don’t want to read all of this: I was wrong.

    I’d enjoyed playing in PBMs myself and I think I can point out a bit of the hobby that managed to get it right and reconciled the needs of the format and of roleplaying. That was games where the role-playing took place in the commentary on the background of the game. It happened first in the SLOBBOVIA Diplomacy PBM. While the game part of the zine carried on with only slight variants on the core Diplomacy rules, the comments part became a mad collaborative soap opera concerning the events of the slightly strange land of Slobbovia.

    And it happened again with postal EN GARDE. The players’ moves were a month in the life of a gentleman (or would be gentleman) at the court of King Louis but the major fun was in the insults, challenges for duels, write-ups of game events and general posturing in the comments section.

    Like Blythy I tried some of the ‘tribal’ and ‘party’ games and found them lacking. Even if you were ordering about half a dozen individuals or an entire tribe of wandering nomads all too often the result you got back meant in effect: “Nothing much happens. Send us more money.”

    The only one I found that didn’t disappoint was called WHERE LIES THE POWER. It was clearly inspired by DUNE, having noble houses that had whole planets as their fiefs, struggling to build their business interests, train up their military, infiltrate their spies, research the deep secrets of the setting (and there was no shortage of those) all while keeping the other players from achieving their ends. Every move brought some new information or some new problem to solve. It didn’t disappoint. I can’t recall if I ran out of money or the organisers ran out of interest. Either way a sad development.

    Ah, and talking of money. I was as you may recall, a less than successful professional actor in the 80s and 90s and I spent a great deal of my time out of work. My family kept saying to me: “You spend a lot of time on those games. Can’t you find a way to make some money out of them?”

    I did give it a try. I gave a try twice, hoping to get some sort of support out of the government which (theoretically at least) wanted all us unemployed people to become entrepreneurs and get off the dole that way. I wanted to do hand moderated RPGs. The players would send in up to a page of orders and I would send back an A4 page of description of what happened. I used the ‘you are people from our world plucked into another’ schtick for setup (it’s much easier than giving them a pile of background) and planned all sorts of things: regular ‘newspapers’ from the game world so that even if people never met each other’s characters they would hear about what they were up to.

    I did it twice, such was my optimism, once with GURPS and once with OVER THE EDGE. And all that is left now is a few moves, a few copies of the newsletters and one of the flyers for the version I called BEYOND THE GATES OF DREAM. I never got beyond the playtest stage so I didn’t charge people for it but it soon became clear that I just could not sit down at a word processor (this was after the electric typewriter stage but before Personal Computers and well before the Internet) and produce an A4 of stuff in anything like a realistic, money making length of time.

    Every so often I get the urge to scratch that itch again, probably by running a play-by-post game. I sit on the urge very firmly whenever it emerges again.



  2. Good to see you are still about Michael. I remember you from the very first public Doctor Who RPG playtest for GW, although I don’t recall knowing you were really a Vogon guard at that time. 🙂 Ian

  3. Great episode, gentlemen! I really enjoyed listening to your reminiscences about fanzines. I can’t imagine starting a play-by-post. I have tried an online PBP and I found it too slow for my memory capabilities. I kept having to re-read everything up to the point of my next move.

    I’m glad to hear about GrogSquad merch! I want some dice, and a coffee mug, and a t-shirt, and a Grognard Files dicebag, and…and…

    What’s going to be my safeword?

  4. A great episode. ‘A small niche within a niche’, nothing sums up the Grogpod at its best, getting first hand information from those people who were the big fish in our small pond back then.
    More of the same in future please, reviews on game systems are always entertaining and enlightening, but it’s this shining a light on the forgotten or neglected corners of the UK scene in the early 80s where this podcast feels unique.
    You would never get the minutiae of this stuff in a better way than talking to those involved. Fingers crossed for future interviews with Paul Vernon, The Beast Entz people, Daniel Collerton, Marcus L Rowland, Bob McWilliams or Andy Slack, or an in depth look at the classifieds and some of the esoteric messages that used to appear; the list is of course endless.
    As for fanzines i remember back then money being too tight to spend on a fanzine when you could buy another figure or it was needed for White Dwarf, a real shame as they sound like they were founts of creativity.
    My only brush with them was doing a drawing for a bloke in the sixth form in 87/88 for a zine that was tied in to a space based PBM he was playing. It was to do with running planets, he wanted an advert drawing for his pleasure planet, which i think was run by some fascist junta. No idea what the game was called.
    Keep up the good work!

  5. Talking to Marc, he recalls that the inspiration for starting DragonLords was a fanzine called The Wanderer. Mike gave it as Trollcrusher, which is what I said in the interview. I foolishly thought that checking with just one of the two founders would provide a definitive answer. 🙂 Turns out all our memories are a bit hazy after 30 years.

  6. Just fantastic as ever.
    Have been looking back at my old fanzines. The thing that stands out isn’t really the RPG stuff (because that is even more available now via the interweb) – it’s the 80s, and the teenage voice (apologies to those geriatric fanzine editors who were in their twenties).
    Excited, passionate, self righteous, a bit naive, right on…
    Those were great days.

  7. Fantastic episode, thanks, chaps. I can totally relate to the dangerous idea of setting up and running a PBM – Fenris started as just that, with me spending all evenings and weekends writing not one but four narrative RPGs, with an eye to making a living out of it. Financially, that didn’t end well…

  8. The crossover between RPGs and the more standard PBMs (principally Dip, but En Garde, Railway thingy and others) is a bit forgotten now. There was so muc crossover because all of the fanzines were based around correspondence within a fairly tight circle of people I guess. So things like The Acolyte and Lokasenna were well known to the Dragonlords people and seemingly everyone played Dip through Denver Glont. I can remember Pete of the Acolyte listening to a long exposition from me of how magic shiuld operate in rpgs and simply replying, ‘yeah, but that won’t work. Do you want a pint?’ Westminster Arms, some Games Day or Dragonmeet (maybe it was the latter at Westminster Hall)

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