Writer: William Cord
Art: Appears to be public domain sources; uncredited
Design: Ariana van Scherrenberg
Publisher: Stronghold Press Games
Length: Approx. 24pp
SKU: SPG0013, SPG0013V, SPG0013M
First edition (Kickstarter author-printed pocketmod)
A review with three goals. First, to review a charming game supplement from ZineQuest 2020. Second, to draw attention to the fact that you can make a lovely little zine on a small budget without extremely complicated fulfillment. Third, to stand in sharp contrast to my lengthy review of Wolf Packs & Winter Snow while I get my review feet back under me.
Firstly, Vallakia itself. This was a pocketmod-format West Marches mini-setting Kickstarter back in Zinequest of 2020, and funded very quickly with an extremely modest goal of just $50. It ended up scooping two stretch goals, one for an additional pocketmod pamphlet of Manors and one for third pocketmod pamphlet of Villages. Within these three booklets we are introduced to Vallakia, a grim and forested land which has been cut off from the world at large by a magical fog – which also seems to have introduced monsters which have begun ransacking more and more of the place as time goes on. Vallakia has spent about a decade in this fog, but it was a forgotten backwater even before it came along. Even apart from the West Marches structure (a think I adore), I am a fan of this book’s conceit; if it’s not to be a full campaign in its entirety, it’s easy to slot in as a location somewhere in your own game world or it makes for a nice introductory locale for a party that gives you room to build the world beyond the fog later on as you go.
The primary pamphlet details the basics of the province of Vallakia, hidden by fog, including a de facto capital and two other settlements of importance to Vallakia. These descriptions offer a few NPCs by name and trade, their motivations, and several hooks that could catch player attentions and most of which are interconnected to others. In addition to this, there is a page titled Investments, indicating things the PCs can spend their treasure on and efforts they can assist with (each of which may spin off into further quests) in order to help rebuild Vallakia and its settlements, restore its citizenry to health and prosperity, and beat back the monsters of chaos emerging from the fog. This is a lovely thing I wish every setting made explicit mention of. Lastly, this pamphlet has a dungeon which ties into many of the threads of NPCs and their efforts and provides resolution to a mystery.
The second pamphlet, Manors, was the first stretch goal of this campaign. It describes the Vallakian system of noble manors, most of which take the form of castle keeps and small townships attached, and then gives two complete examples. Manors are facets of life in Vallakia and each have their own attendant economy, history, and manner of dealing with the fog and its chaotic monsters. Each noble manor thus described is replete with a twist, a hook for the referee to hang an adventure on. Following this are two pages comprised of several tables each, which randomly generate noble manors and the noble in power there. Lastly comes a page on, again, Investments – this time, addressing the eventuality that the player characters take a manor for their own one way or another.
The final pocketmod booklet of the bunch is Villages, and it is no surprise that it similarly does what it says on the tin. After a brief overview restating that Vallakia is made up of tiny backwards villages, it gives us two towns. The first is a very boring farming village included to remind the referee that many locations have no snappy hook or point of interest. This is a waste of space, in brutal honesty. The second is a cute little town with a fascinating leader and a cult-like faith that could be an interesting side trip or might have something more important lurking below the surface. Following these locations, a series of tables spread between two pages again allows for random generation. This time, we can conjure a village, its industry and threats and local amenities; and also we are able to generate individual granular citizens of these towns. Lastly, once again, Investments.
The good: Vallakia is a solid little setting skeleton, with plenty of bits and bobs that give it a unique flavor even as a lot of influence is drawn from Ravenloft and possibly WHFRP. The booklets tease that the fog and its malignant forces and effects are a byproduct of Chaos, or perhaps a frontier in the grand battle of Order and Chaos, which is a pleasantly old-school device. The tables are clever and deliver good, if simple, results. The Investments facet is really good and should always be in the back of the budding adventure sandbox referee/designer’s mind, whether in this or in other games. The sparse word count does a great job of delivering the necessary details for NPCs and the like. There are mysteries enough that the referee will be interested to find out more and discover answers, and that’s infectious – the players will likely also feel a desire to uncover the nature of the fog, to beat back Chaos and relieve Vallakia of its grim fate.
The bad: The editing is imperfect. There are spots where words are missing, and there are spots where awkward structures and repeated uses of turns of phrase should have been caught and corrected. In the Villages pamphlet, the first example village is, as mentioned, unnecessary and detracts from a useful work.
Dirty Zines, Done Dirt Cheap
Stronghold Press had the incredibly tiny goal of just $50 to fund, and $500 netted two stretch goals. All three pocketmod booklets could be had for the ridiculously tiny pledge of just $2USD, mailed to your door. It’s abundantly clear that Stronghold Press Games was not setting out to profit on this Zine Quest; $50 would basically have paid for the black ink cartridge used by the average inkjet printer let alone a couple dozen stamps and envelopes on top. But what they achieved was threefold: one, they ran a successful Kickstarter and funded a game, which they then fulfilled, thereby earning some weight to leverage later if they so choose; two, they produced a real and physical object, a complete actual game product in someone’s hand; and three, they ended up with a completed PDF they can list and sell forever. Perfect or imperfect, in the end, they made a couple of files on their computer into a real object used by other gamers and they have a file with a long tail that can net them a tiny trickle of money. It’s not going to be “pay the rent” kind of money – on its own. But with enough successful little projects like this, maybe it winds up being more. Regardless: I, in a very different city in a very different state, now own a physical object they wrote and made and mailed to me for money, and that’s really neat, right?
Use the resources available to you. If your work or college gives you access to printers? That’s good. Pocketmods are cool. Pamphlets are cool. Folded 8.5×11″ paper, saddle-stitched, is cool. I will pay you for it if the thing you make is up my alley just the same as I and countless other nerds paid each other for these things (with far fewer tools and less knowledge at our disposal!) back in the day. Sometime between middle school and high school I paid weird art kids for rather nice photocopied, coil-bound zines full of their comic strips and Ranma, Sailor Moon, and Escaflowne fan art. In high school I paid weird punks for much simpler stapled zines made of photocopies of photocopies, full of anti-war art and music stuff. After high school I paid a weird hippie at the beach for a zine that was equal parts pro-marijuana advocacy (in a place where it was already fine) and Star Trek fan material – reviews of novels, some fanfiction, an editorial or something like that. And in 2020 I paid someone for a trio of pocketmod setting documents. I want to do it again.
This tiny thing gets seven photocopied undead fog-possums out of ten on my completely made-up and nonsensical rating scale! I deduct marks for the unnecessary “boring” example town in the Villages booklet that steals useful page space from a more interesting example, and for the editing mistakes that steal momentum and potency from the otherwise very efficient writing – but I want to stress that the setting is sound and very interesting, the tiny wordcount outruns its coverage constantly and leaves tiny seeds for adventures in your mind with ease, and the tables really are rather decent. If you’d like to give it a look yourself, you can get the bundle on sale for pocket change over at DriveThruRPG and if you can find a printer and three pages of paper you can make your own with no loss of fidelity from the backer copies!
And that’s it, I think! I’m going to go ahead and close this off with the usual: if you have some thoughts on this little zine, or on the honest and honorable tradition of photocopied zines in general and the potential to fill the world with even more of them, let me know! You can do so in the comments or by chittering at me like a squirrel on Twitter or Instagram.