ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 1

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool.The rest of the series can be found here.

I grew up in the interregnum between two eras of fanzine creation: On the one hand, I am a bit too young to remember when mimeographed amateur zines were the only way that fans had to communicate aside from face-to-face meetings. On the other hand, I had drifted away from the hobby when online payment infrastructures and improved access to on-demand and off-set printing began to make zines a popular means of getting your stuff out there while also by-passing professional publishing.

Having returned to the hobby to find a flourishing (some might even say over-heating) market for zines, I am now playing catch-up and this series will give me an excuse to actually do some thinking about both the format and the kind of stuff that is being put out there.

My memories of RPG zines are dominated by two very different sets of titles. The first was a Nephilim fanzine I got based on an advert in the back of a magazine and that included a load of weird stuff about the author’s local cathedral and an absolute head-fuck of a campaign in which the PCs wound up inhabiting the bodies of the players. Despite not being able to remember the name of said fanzine, I remember being blown away by the complexity of the ideas and the fact that the whole thing felt intimately personal to one person’s vision of the game. My second set of memories is of The Unspeakable Oath. While that particular Call of Cthulhu fanzine was resurrected in the early 2010s, I can remember buying a few copies of the original Pagan Publishing run in which John Tynes laid out a vision that I now realise has since become not only the default understanding of Call of Cthulhu but of all Lovecraft-inspired games of investigative horror.

Billed as “a magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games”, Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif first appeared in 2018 and has since seen four separate issues.  I got my copies in the form of a PDF from DriveThruRPG but you can also use DTRPG’s print-on demand service to get it in the form of a hard-copy.

Issue one of Bayt al Azif is 82-pages long and contains a lot of art. Some of the art comes in the form of photographs, some of the art comes in the form of full-page colour drawings, and some of the art comes in the form of plans and sundry handouts for the issue’s three separate full-length adventures. The quality of the art does rather vary but I think the bigger issue is that the different pieces embody quite different styles meaning that there’s a somewhat unfortunate lack of aesthetic coherence. This isn’t to say that the artwork is ugly, it’s just that I suspect a unified aesthetic would have taken this issue’s visuals from the pretty good to the legitimately brilliant and it’s no surprise that a lot of contemporary zines and small-run games lean hard into the idea of presenting a unified aesthetic. Think of how often you see Morkborg-style visuals in contemporary RPGs and you’ll see what I’m talking about. If your artwork is unified then it presents a unified message. When it comes to setting the tone and establishing a vibe, visuals speak just as loudly as words. Setting minor aesthetic quibbles aside, I am really impressed by both the number of articles contained in the magazine and the sheer variety of approaches taken by the authors to Call of Cthulhu and games of Lovecraftian horror in general.

The magazine opens with an editorial by Jared Smith in which he discusses the meaning of the magazine’s title as well as its links to Lovecraft and the broader Cthulhu mythos. The whole piece is built around the story of an eccentric rich author who repeatedly tried to build himself a medieval abbey only for the edifice to keep falling down; prompting another round of hasty re-designs and re-builds. This article absolutely grabbed my attention as it’s a lovely slice of historical weirdness that moves beyond the world of RPG fandom and roots the enterprise in a more literary conception of the weird. This stuff is like catnip to me and I wish there had been a lot more of it. Equally excellent in this regard is the piece detailing a set of ruins in the mountains of Syria as well as the legends surrounding them. The piece does an excellent job of describing the place and suggesting how it might be used in an investigative horror game. More of this please!

In a beautiful nod to traditional fanzine culture, the magazine contains a letters page (LOCs! Letters of Comment! Old school zine shit) and then another brief piece by Smith intending to give people advice on how to run the game and which products to seek out. To my mind, the piece was a bit short but it’s well-written and to the point. This particular thread is picked up later in the magazine when Catherine Ramen writes about how to run a Cthulhu campaign that makes space for non-male and non-white voices. I must admit that this piece struck me as very mid-2010s as it does that slightly weird thing that a lot of fan-fiction does in that it makes a lot of noise about confronting the racism of the source material and then immediately pivots to talking about toning down the player-facing racism and gender-swapping NPCs for the sake of positive representation.

As with Smith’s piece on how to run the game, Ramen’s piece left me wanting more as a bit more space might have allowed her to sharpen the contradictions in what it was seemed to be advocating. The problem is that I think there are two sets of desires at work in this approach to the material. On the one hand, there is a desire to be anti-racist and to confront the racism of the source material. The problem with this approach is that in order to confront racism, you need instances of bigotry and every gender-flipped NPCs effectively diminishes the amount of prejudice that is present in the game-world. On the other hand, there is a desire to run Call of Cthulhu and not have to deal with either Lovecraft’s abhorrent beliefs or the unthinking prejudice of RPG writers back in the 1980s. As someone whose edition of Masks contained an extended racist rant from an NPC, I am absolutely in agreement that Call of Cthulhu should be for everyone and you should be able to just remove any prejudicial remarks you encounter. The problem is that these two approaches to the game are somewhat in opposition… you can’t claim to be confronting racism whilst air-brushing instances of racism out of the source material and you can’t claim to be making to game accessible to marginalised people while continuously confronting them to the racism of both the period and the source material. A longer piece might have identified these two opposing goals and helped the readers to strike their own compromise but the piece as written is first and foremost about removing instances of racism from the game, which is a legitimate approach but it does have its ethical drawbacks as the 1920s were a time of both endemic and systemic bigotry and I’m not sure it helps the cause of anti-racism to do for 1920s racism what Steampunk did for Victorian colonialism and simply pretend it did not happen. Both sides have their ethical drawbacks and everyone has to strike a balance that suits them but the article seems to deny these tensions as well as the complexities of balancing them in a thoughtful manner. This being said, I really love the fact that Bayt al Azif was willing to engage with these ideas and ask these kinds of questions.

The spine of the magazine comes from the three full-length scenarios each with a different and non-traditional setting. The adventure comes with mechanical support for both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu and are easily of a professional standard both in terms of the quality of the writing and the sheer depth of the support. There’s also a neat little solo adventure for fans of the form and some interesting additional rules for the chase-mechanics that feature in 7th edition.

Another lovely thing about Bayt al Azif is the sense of connection to the game’s past as well as its present and future. So while the Ramen piece looks to what Call of Cthulhu must become and Smith’s lengthy piece on all of the Lovecraft-related RPG products to appear in 2018 speaks to what the game was in the present, there are also a load of articles about the game’s history including a funny little piece on the time when TSR decided to include Lovecraftian entities in their Monster Manuals and some nice critical pieces about older Call of Cthulhu books like Arkhan Unveiled and Escape from Innsmouth.  This sense of temporal even-handedness is also evident in the choice of interviewees as Bayt al Azif contains an interview with both Chris Spivey the author of Harlem Unchained and a lovely old lad who has spent twenty years criss-crossing America and running Call of Cthulhu at different RPG conventions.

Issue one of Bayt al Azif is a really impressive piece of work. The articles, adventures, and interviews are all of a really high standard and there’s a genuine sense of passion and excitement about the way in which Smith interrogates both the game and its history from a number of different directions. The idea of treating old Call of Cthulhu supplements almost as historical documents written in specific contexts that need unpacking is an absolutely brilliant idea and I wish that it had occurred to me when I first started doing reviews on this blog. I’m a bit less excited about the published scenarios but that’s just because the way I play tends not to leave much space for pre-written scenarios with incredibly specific settings but while I admit the scenarios are not my cup of tea, I recognise that they are well written. Besides, even if I don’t get much use out of the scenarios, there is more than enough interesting and provocative material to justify my decision to buy another issue. For a first issue, this is amazingly impressive stuff.

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