Sunday, April 30, 2023

Zine Review: Black Pudding Heavy Helping vol. 1

cover to Black Pudding Heavy Helping 
©️J.V. West
: James V. West w/ various contributors
Publisher: Self-published
System: Labyrinth Lord / Doomslakers (OSR compatible)
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG 

 Black Pudding Heavy Helping vol. 1 is a collection of the first four issues of the Black Pudding zine edited and mostly written by James V. West.

Black Pudding is a series of cartoonishly illustrated light-hearted material for B/X Dungeons & Dragons clones, such as Labyrinth Lord, Old School Essentials. It includes lavishly illustrated character sheets for a broad range of OSR games, character classes, monsters, magic spells and spell books, magic items, and dungeon adventures. It even includes West's house rules sets which altogether make an entire OSR clone, Doomslakers.

Collecting the first four volumes of Black Pudding gives you substantial book, it weighs in at 127 pages of nothing but content.

Black Pudding doesn't take Dungeons & Dragons too seriously. Most of the content is lighthearted, silly, or exaggeratedly over the top in Saturday morning cartoons meets heavy metal kind of way. And well the compiled additions give you an entire osr role-playing game, the content is perfectly compatible with Labyrinth Lord and similar B/X clones. It is material that is ideal when you want to play a game no you don't want hard feelings as your characters are crushed by the meat grinder. And where you want a laugh at over the top crazy scenarios.

What I Loved

Character Sheets

One of many awesome Character Sheets
From Black Pudding ©️ J.V. West
I have been using James West's character sheet designs for years now. Ever since I first discovered them by Googling "OSR character sheet." I love the wild cartoony borders, weird layouts, and frenetic energy that they inspire. Whenever my son is playing a game with me, I made sure he has one of those sheets, because they capture the imagination. They are exactly what I wish I could have done with my character sheets when I was a teenager.

The sheets include specific ones for single saving throw games like Swords & Wizardry and the OSR clone in Black Pudding. It also has level zero sheets for Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, and character sheets both with and without spaces for race for use with either AD&D or B/X clones.

Pulpy Classes

I don't like every class in Black Pudding, but the good ones easily outnumber the bad. My favorites of the classes are the ones that really tap into the pulp fiction inspirational materials for Dungeons & Dragons. I would be very happy to run a campaign full of black knights, chainmail chicks, shield maidens, wardens, blind guardians, and sinewy barbarians. They each feel fun and well-designed. They're just a mechanically a little tougher than the base B/X D&D classes to enhance the puply feel, but are far from superheroic.

I also appreciated the classes that pastiche some of my favorite '90s subcultures. There's a witch that is most clearly borrowed from the culture around Wicca in the 90s, and the Raven Heart, and almost perfectly typed black magic wielding goth girl. It is like seeing my high school clique expressed as D&D characters.

Medusa Mechranic 

My favorite class of all of the classes presented in Black Pudding is a Medusa monstrous character class. While it is certainly toned down from the actual monster, around 7th level you have all of the same abilities. What I really loved about it, however, was a single mechanic built in. Namely, if the Medusa uses its petrification or poison bite powers to harm intelligent foes excessively she must make a saving throw or revert to the cruel monstrous personality she has been suppressing, at which point they become evil NPCs under the GM's control.

It's very simple mechanic allows you to let player characters try a number of monstrous races, with the idea that they have found their one shot at redemption, but because monsters are innately evil and destructive, the character must constantly fight against their own dark urges,

For the people who like nuance in their D&D games for some reason this has a lot of potential. It allows space for both the idea of redeemed monsters and inherent evil in the same character. And it creates an interesting tension to have a character who must make constant ethical choices or fall and revert to their monstrous kind..

I'm sure someone somewhere will find this class and then and mechanic contemptible wrongfun. These people are not the kinds I would want at my table, however.

True Gonzo

With star wizards, flesh eating trilobites, chainmail bikinis that actually have special benefits to the women who wear them, cultists who really do want to be eaten by otherworldly abominations, Wizards who mutate when their magic goes wrong, strange Petty gods imprisoned in magical tombs, and characters devoted to hunting down werewolves with magic spells specifically built for the purpose, Black Pudding Heavy Helping is a treasure trove of genuinely gonzo, off the wall, and light-hearted role-playing game ideas. Any of this material would feel right at home at a table that focuses on Dungeon Crawl Classics, and would be easily adapted to it.

The Vault of the Whisperer

Black Pudding Heavy Helping has several dungeon adventures. And while there was one I found  disappointing, there were a couple that were better than average, and one that really stood out: the The Vault of the Whisperer.

The Vault of the Whisperer is perhaps on the most Gonzo adventures I have seen outside of the finest of DCC modules. It is a crypt filled with cultists who have fallen under the control of an otherworldly entity that whispers constantly to them, driving them and anyone else in the dungeon mad. They serve the monster in hopes of eventually being eaten by it. These strange cultists wear either bells or cages over their head to anonymize them, and their time under the creatures corrupting influences leaves them corpulent and slimy.

Parasitical trilobites crawl out of the bizarre elder god. Weapons designed to slay its kind have been hidden in secret compartments under heavy guard by the cultists who have taken them from previous enemies of their master, or fashioned from the flesh of the master itself.

Many of the encounters in this dungeon have means of getting clues on how to defeat the master. There are also desperately hard encounters, requiring players to use their wits to overcome their enemies. This is a "thinking man's dungeon."

Or possibly it might better be said that it's a "thinking teenage boy's dungeon," as it also has its fair share of snot, slime, and grue. A theme common to most of the dungeons in Black Pudding that delights my inner thirteen year-old.


I love James West's artwork. He has a cartoony style that reminds me of the golden age of French comics, such as the Smurfs, Johann and Peewit, Tintin, Asterix, and Astroboy. Combined with just enough roughness in the design to feel like punk rock zines from the '90s. And it is all over the place. There's almost no page that isn't graced by three or four small doodles or at least a couple of larger comic-book style images.

Szeznin illustration ©️J.V. West


If brevity is the soul of wit, James West is a fine Jester. He starts by assuming you already know how to play Labyrinth Lord or similar game, and doesn't waste words on information you can find there. For example, he doesn't bother with attack matrices or saving throw tables, he simply says this class attacks like a cleric and saves like a thief. He doesn't bother saying that a Sinewy Barbarian with strength and Constitution over 13 gain a 5% experience bonus, he simply notes that the prime attribute is strengthened constitution, and lets you figure out the rest.

This is exceptionally notable in Monster abilities, which are described with the bare minimum of language, and especially in his homebrew rule sets where he often assumes you know a base set of rules, and that he only needs to describe how these rules differ. 

Hireling Format 

Every issue of black pudding included a feature called Meat-Shields of the Bleeding Ox. This article offers a selection of interesting hirelings built using other material in Black Pudding.

These NPCs are given a short list of equipment, the stats, hit points, etc that you would expect them to have as hirings or potential henchmen, (and thus possible replacement player characters.)

Beyond this, every character is given a two sentence backstory that is usually just the right amount of info to be compelling, as well as a list of "turn ons" and "turn offs." When recruiting the hireling, offering them adventures that will allow them to experience their turn ons grants a bonus, offering them adventures that will include their turn-offs of penalty to the NPC reaction role to determine whether or not they will allow themselves to be hired.

Nell of the Dell, an NPC from Meat-Shields of the Bleeding ©️JV West

DIY Feel

Birthday handwritten pages, the fun (semi-) amateur cartoon art, the wild layouts and pink/metal aesthetic make this scene feel exactly like something I would have picked up at the local head shop in high school. You can tell that it is a passion project created by somebody who had a lot of energy and a lot of ideas to express, and who cared more about doing those ideas justice than slick packaging.

Tight Map Design

There is a huge variation in style between different dungeon maps in Black Pudding Heavy Helping volume 1. However, only one of the dungeons is really allowed to sprawl beyond four pages. They are presented extremely tightly. A few of the locations are one page dungeons that, thanks to a mix of very clever language and visual design still managed to host some very complex and unusual encounters.


Between the elegant language, the passionate DIY aesthetic, the tight map designs, and the awesome punk / metal / cartoony aesthetic Black Pudding is an energetic book. It is fun to read and is so packed with ideas it leaves your imagination buzzing.

Growth Points

Doppleganger's Lair Doesn't Quite Fit

One adventure in Black Pudding Heavy Helping vol. 1 doesn't quite seem to fit with the others: Into the Nest of the Doppelgangers uses a far more traditional layout, squared map on graph paper, and typed out descriptions that are, by the stands of the book, quite wordy. The encounters are relatively straightforward as well.

I won't say it's a bad adventure. It's decent. It has a couple of very memorable NPCs, as well. But, it's layout, presentation, and relative simplicity make it feel jarring in context of the other adventures. It simply isn't bringing the same energy to the book.

Reorg of the Monster and NPC Sections

There are a lot of monsters and interesting NPCs presented in the bestiary section and the Meat-Shields of the Bleeding Ox features. However, there is also an incredible profusion of monsters, magic items, and interesting NPCs in each individual adventure.

As Heavy Helping is not just an omnibus, but a reorganization and representation of black pudding, it might have been helpful to put pointers, page references, or some other kind of index where we could find the monsters, characters, and other miscellaneous magical doodads that are included in the adventures or subsets of other articles. For example, even just a page reference where we could find giant trilobites and a pointer to their existence somewhere in the bestiary section would have been quite welcome.

A Couple of Classes Felt Underdeveloped

The big danger with minimalistic language is that sometimes it means leaving out some useful information. Attempting to cram a complex idea into facing pages doesn't always work.

The Star Wizard class is a great example of this. It is a cool Gonzo concept that mixes the trippy Wizard art you might see on the side of a van the idea of linking magic and stars, and some darker lovecraftian undertow. The idea is that a star wizard learns to communicate with stars through rituals, and can make pacts with some of them for intercession. The means of giving stars motivation,  stats, and spheres of power are all there, but how that actually all comes together when the wizard invokes his pact is quite hazy.

The Shield Maiden likewise needed just a little more fleshing put to feel complete. "Shield Stunts" is just too vague an 8dea to go without elaboration. 

Intro Could Use Some Energy

Heavy Helping has a two page intro that doesn't really reflect the incredible energy and passion that went into the project: I would have loved to hear about West's philosophy of gaming, about his inspirations, or where it is going. Heavy Helping is a wild, crazy, Gonzo design, it deserves an intro that gives you a sense of it.

Typed Sections are Jarring

Most of the book is done in handwritten format that helps hold the reader's interest and communicates a lot about the way the class and its context are imagined. When I first ran into typed up Sections they didn't feel right for the book; they changed the way I read and processed the information.  I much preferred the hand-written layouts.


Reading Black Pudding Heavy Helping vol. 1 was enjoyable and inspiring.  It got Mme thinking up scenarios with a weirder, more offbeat feel. It made me want something pulpy and Silly.

It also was a hell of a lot more than I expected: a complete retroclone, dozens of NPCs, eight adventures, and more cool ideas than I could possibly steal.

It is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. If you like a dark, serious game,  then this is not going to scratch your itch. And if you prefer an orderly, polished presentation where the layout is designed to maximize readability, this book might drive you mad. It is a study in wild expensive Chaos.

If you like Punk A.F. and D.I.Y., rife with pastiche and pop culture references,  this is a real treat.

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