ZQ2019 Review: The Demon Collective, Vol. 1

Writer: Camilla Greer, Mabel Harper, Comrade Pollux, Dai Shugars
Art: Lauren Bryce, maps by Shay and Odysseus Jones
Design: Dai Shugars
Editor: Fiona Maeve Geist
Publisher: GMDK
Length: Approx. 56pp
First Edition, First Printing 2019
ISBN: 978-0-578-55698-7

Another wildly overdue review is finally ready for the site! The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 was one of the projects I was over the moon for during ZQ2019 last year – I was unbelievably excited for the joining of this particular all-star cast of creators. Honestly, with this crew, there’s almost no chance they could produce a bad book. There are four adventures by four writers, with all the art, layout, and editing by the same team besides; therefore as I review this zine I will reference each in turn.

1. Art Lauren Bryce is responsible for the illustrations, including the internal splash images, throughout The Demon Collective, Vol. 1, and she did such an amazing job of it that I can’t help but heap the praise on. She shows a tremendous eye for the importance of negative space and light. It’s like how you can tell the old black and white filmmakers truly understood and demonstrated mastery of lighting and composing a scene, and why film classes will convert modern films to greyscale to show how we don’t? She just really rocks at sharp contrast and great use of both the black and the white in all of her illustrations here. Nothing was unclear, nothing needed color or greyscale to be read. All of her art just leaps off the page and feels crisp and vibrant without losing that sort of old-school energy I love. I can’t say enough nice things about her work here. If you need an artist for your project, hire Lauren. That’s the best accolade I can give.

The layout is clean. It’s clear that there was a lot of attention given to ensuring readability and truthfully it seems like there was a foundational appreciation for the limitations and strengths of black and white internals (no colorful boxes for text, no text in highlight colors, not even greyscale!) that I really like to see – thoughtful, simple layout. It’s nothing that will shake foundations or make anyone rethink layout design, but it’s extremely clean and has a comfortable visual language throughout the book that makes it feel like a cogent anthology. Overall, Dai did good work here and the attention paid especially to the splash images and making good use of Lauren’s art is really nice to see.

As far as cartography goes, I was left wanting a little more, both in style/detail and in amount. The book is already really pushing the limit of “zine” and probably had Mixam breathing heavily as they lined up the staples, so I can imagine that excess cartography would be a difficult addition to juggle. However, I did feel like a little more map stuff would have been nice, and I almost feel like the styles present would be amazing in a lot of zines but don’t match up with the horror themes here. It’s not easy to explain why – I think I can just picture these maps in any OSR zine but I can’t see the scary factor in any of them, stylistically. I know that what matters most is that they’re clear and illustrative (they are) but sometimes the style counts too, y’know? I’d have to say my favorite map is in She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep for the treasure vault illustrations!

2. Content The first adventure is Night School by Camilla Greer. It is a spooky journey through a moldering village dying on the vine, its commerce and populace largely stripped away by neighboring towns, where a once-prestigious academy once again seeks students. Children sent here for an opportunity at education are instead subjected to horror and danger in the grips of a cult of the brainwashed and devoted who seek to acquire more and more knowledge as their founder once did. This is a really cool, creepy premise with lots of room for classic horror hooks. Camilla does a great job of setting it up and it has some really amazing touches; the Scarecrows and the Bookmites are terrific and having the latter appear in groups of three called trilogies was just great wordplay. The adventure starts with lots of bold and gripping hooks and there’s ample opportunities for the horror movie notes to land throughout. Strongest features are big hooks at the start and the infernal force driving it all.

The second is Mabel Harper’s She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep. This is classic dark fantasy, and, like many classic high-lethality dungeons, it will probably kill you badly and the real test is how far you make it moreso than can you complete it or not. Only the best equipped and most skilled will survive this tomb of horror. Mabel sets the scene for a classic Bram Stoker sort of Transylvanian flavor of eerie, giving players a small town near a cursed forest which plays home to the storied, treasure-filled grave of a vampire goddess. The dungeon is filled with thematic undead and the various accompanying creatures that you’d expect in the final resting place of an ancient evil vampire empire – Beelzebub the mosquito mount is especially adorable. There is a really intricate and cool history of the vampire queen’s court told in little fits and starts and environmental clues that I found fascinating but which may not translate at the table clearly enough for the players to get intrigued and uncover all the secrets – unless the DM leans into it hard and makes sure the subtle tidbits are really laid out there for them; this is one of those things that’s especially fun for inquisitive DMs reading through the adventure but requires some work to make sure players get the full benefit (and a party lucky enough to survive and cavalier enough to risk danger for clues and details for the sake of pure interest). Speaking of risk, She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep would be perfectly at home in any horror campaign, but would also fit the needs of most very deadly old-school tournament-style convention games! The quality of the imagination here is terrific and the ambience created by Mabel is on-point every single page. Best of all, a unique mechanic borrowed from Dread makes for an incredibly tense experience.

Our third adventure is Bad Faith by comradepollux, an encounter with a cult who has moved into a miserable little town to complete their plan to extinguish the sun to bring about the release of an evil god and an age of slaughter and horror. The cult is motivated by an immensely valuable ruby which, like the green alien orb in the Heavy Metal movie, goads humans towards heresy and violence. It’s a classic premise and it usually lands well with players who know what to expect. Except, it rapidly descends into the gory and grotesque, and DMs well-equipped with a thesaurus and gleeful, gross descriptions of horrific scenes will unnerve their players easily. This is not the subtle kind of horror; this is the inescapable dread of madness and murder and blood every-damn-where. Once that lands it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse with a slasher flick bad guy, and you’re only about halfway through. Parties who survive countless encounters with devoted, maniacal cultists and their specialized murder contraptions contend at last with a finale against the root of all this evil and even in victory face great danger. Hits of fantasy land between all of the horror movie nastiness, making it suitable for your D&D table, but they’re going to know they’ve fallen into a really bad place when they take up the cause of venturing into the cult’s inner sanctum. Strongest feature here is Zedekaiah and his Eviscerator and cat-and-mouse slasher movie mechanics.

Hush is the final adventure found in The Demon Collective, Vol. 1, and it is by the organizer of the whole project, Dai Shugars. The adventure follows the party entering a long-lost dwarven library to deal with a basilisk and return to the kin of some dead dwarven hunting party members with news of their fate. Hush takes on the mantle of the monster movie, in many ways, and presents a classic fantasy bent on the genre where a terrifying, alien monster lurks in the pitch black shadows and picks off the weak and slow. The adventure relies on two big components to build horror and tension. First, the basilisk stalks and doesn’t even necessarily need to enter into protracted combat to peel the party to ribbons bit by bit. The danger mounts constantly as limbs are petrified and supplies are drained and the shadows themselves hinder the party as they try to find or escape the basilisk. Second, the party can’t speak. Straight up. The library takes silence very seriously, like that ghost from Ghostbusters. It isn’t here for talks and chatter. An enchantment forces parties to communicate their fears, plans, and basilisk sightings in gestures and hand signals, and guess what gets more difficult when your hands start getting petrified? The romp sounds like a classic fantasy dungeon but quickly turns into a horror movie.

Editing across the whole of this zine is even-handed. A few typographic errors sneak in here and there but none which impact the understanding or enjoyment of the book. Given the insane workload Fiona Maeve Geist has spent the past year or two under, while also gaming and being a thought-provoking discourse disaster on Twitter, it’s probably understandable. If there’s ever a Vol. 2, I imagine the crew will look a little closer, but the Mixam print quality kinda tricks you into expecting hardcover amounts of work out of a zine you paid zine prices for. Overall I would of course appreciate perfection but none of us can claim it so here we are – you’ll find a half dozen typos in here, and you’ll get past it. Or maybe you won’t even notice them.

3. Overall This is one of the most wonderful zines I’ve ever owned. In truth, I think it really toes the line between zine and book, and I think that this collection could have been a hardcover any day of the week if it hadn’t been launched during ZineQuest 2019. It’s really, really good. Dai did an amazing job on organizing it and laying it out and retaining an incredible look and feel throughout. The management of tone (horror is very hard to be even with) is great and each piece is different style of horror without being wildly higher or lower on the scary factor yardstick. The contributing authors all did terrific work here and it speaks to their credit that when I finished going through and rereading each piece for this article, I wished there were more works I could read and interact with. Lauren Bryce’s art is bar none some of the most polished, sharpest, compelling stuff I’ve seen in recent memory and if she were in many, many more books I read I would not complain in the slightest. She’s just skilled as heck.

All of this long-ass review of a “short” book just to say:

I give The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 an easy eight terrified, hollow-brained Scarecrow possums screaming all night out of ten possible terrified, hollow-brained Scarecrow possums screaming all night. If you’re asking what the difference is between a normal possum and a terrified, hollow-brained Scarecrow possum screaming all night, you’ll be happy to learn that there really isn’t one, but the latter is tied to a tree and having a great time of it. This zine rocks. It could be a hardcover. I hope, one day, that it is a hardcover, or part of a hardcover, so I can buy it again.

Did you back this zine? Did you not back it, but buy it later? Do you want to chat excitedly with me about it and tag the authors into the conversation so they can blush because of our praise? Hit me up on Twitter and we can be pals: I am over there as @DungeonsPossums!

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