Wormskin #1 (OSR)
The first installment of the Wormskin-zine that depicts the unique and wondrous Dolmenwood-setting clocks in at 42 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 36 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
I own the softcover print version and mainly based my review on this version, though I also consulted pdf v.1.5.
However, by now, the first Wormskin-booklet has actually been upgraded and includes an expanded iterations of the B/X-Essentials Demihumans of Dolmenwood-pdf. This bonus pdf clocks in at 21 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, making this expanded bonus pdf clock in at 16 pages, also, once more, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5). Why is this included herein? Well, a large part of Wormskin #1 would be two massive race-classes, which have been compiled in this bonus pdf for a kind of player-friendly handbook you can just hand to your players sans notes to skip pages xyz. I love that! Big kudos!
Now, I have already covered the details of the elf and woodgrue race classes, as well as the elf-rune rules in my review of the non-expanded version of Demi-humans of Dolmenwood. For convenience’s sake, here would be that subject matter once more. If you don’t want to read this once more, skip ahead in the review. I’ll provide a marker below. There are a few subtle changes, though.
We begin this installment with a brief foreword before introducing us to Dolmenwood’s elfs, the fairy elf, who has Charisma as a prime requisite. Contrary to standard rules, an elf may raise Cha by point swapping during character creation.
The race-class requires at least 9 in Charisma, Dexterity and Intelligence. The race-class caps at level 10, yields d6 HD, and uses the XP-progression and (TH)AC0-value of the regular elf class. A difference, though, would be that the save vs. rods/staves/spells progresses equal to the standard elf’s Death save, which makes the class more aesthetically pleasing to me – from a rules point of view. In contrast to the standard elf-class, Dolmenwood’s elf race-class gets a glamour at first level, with another one gained every level thereafter, excluding 4th and every 4 levels thereafter – we thus a total of up to 8 glamours over the race-class’s ten-level-progression. It should be noted that Dolmenwood’s elves gain these instead of regular spellcasting. Elves may use any weapons and armor, and do not die to old-age, are immune to non-magical diseases and may not die of starvation or thirst, but do become insane and bloodthirsty if deprived of sustenance, which is a unique angle. Elves studying a text for an hour get read magic, and may use arcane caster items, including scroll use.
Elves always count as having at least a Charisma score of 14 for the purpose of tests based on physical attractiveness. Personally, I think this attractiveness clause should only apply to mortals. Elves can notice passages to Fairy with a 3-in-6 chance and are immune to sleep spells and gain a +2 bonus to saves vs. charms and illusions. They are immune versus a ghoul’s paralysis. Now, what do these glamours do? Well, they allow an elf to charm a single mortal addressed, who must, on a failed save, believe the elf’s words – but only for a moment, and after that, the mortal will know what has happened. Another glamour allows for shapechanging – quick alterations work smoothly, while more dramatic ones require a turn of concentration, but the elf may not assume the precise look of another target. The elf may also disguise objects, see perfectly in the dark as in a moonlit night, alter the look of garments, communicate with any being – or vanish from sight for one round, but this one has a limit: A target may only be affected once per day by it. There also is a 2-in6-chance that an elf may short-range teleport (60’) by using shadow doors. This makes the elves feel like a fey class – why? Glamours have no daily cap. Once you know one of them, you can use it as often as you’d like! They are very potent, and the teleportation’s flavor and unreliability make the combat-relevant option always at least a bit risky, keeping it from becoming OP. Elves may learn up to class level runes by service to the lords and ladies of Fairy…but they pay for their power a hefty price: They take double damage from cold iron, and contact with silver imposes a -2 penalty to attack rolls and saves…and there are no gods in Elfland. Elfs have a 2-in-6 chance of not being affected by beneficial divine healing spells. OUCH! (Yep, hostile clerics can still kick their behinds!)
The second race-class within would be the woodgrue, who also has Charisma as the prime requisite (and may do the same switcheroo as the elf for Charisma during character creation); requirements for the woodgrue (aka demi-fey) would be a minimum of 9 in Charisma and Wisdom. They may use leather armor, but no shields, and may use all weapons. They see normally in darkness and has a 3-in-6 chance of going unnoticed when hiding in shadows or woods. If they have a minute, they can hide an item in a location so it may only be found as a secret door. Woodgrues can communicate via woodwind instruments, allowing them to contact all woodgrues and their indentured servants within 1 mile per class level. The race-class caps at level 10, grants d6 HD, and its (TH)AC0 starts at 19, and improves to 17 at 5th level, 14 at 9th level. The class has its own save-progression, with Death saves improving from 13 to 8, Wand save from 12 to 7, Paralysis from 14 to 9, Breath from 16 to 11, and rod/staves/spells from 14 to 9. XP-progression is closest to the dwarf race-class, but slightly quicker – at 2000 XP, you’ll have level 2, and 400,000 XP will suffice to reach 10th level.
The signature ability of the woodgrue would be the mad revelry: 1/day per level, the woodgrue may play a wood wind instrument: Anyone hearing the tune may make a save vs. spells (fairies and demi-fey get +2) or be affected by one of 8 effects, which include stripping, piggybacking or confessing a sin or the like. Seriously cool roleplaying potential there! Woodgrues are bound to the laws of hospitality and may not use mad revelry when properly invited. They take double damage from cold iron, and a woodgrue invited to a party or celebration MUST partake. A save may allow them to refrain, but they will be drained by the experience. They have the same vulnerability to silver as the elf. One of the more subtle changes herein: It should also be noted, that the woodgrue now joining a party uninvited will cause a random target to be affected by mad revelry. Love it!
Now, I mentioned favors of the elf lords and ladies: These require usually taking a quest, and upon completion, a reaction roll is made: 2d6 + the character’s Charisma modifier, with modifications based on magnitude of service rendered, experience level and race of the target. Mortals are more penalized than demi-fey, for example. A brief table determines the type of runes, if any, you can get. Each such rune is a boon that may only be used a number of times. Elfs may have up to class level elf runes; other classes and races can only ever have one of these at a given time. Rune activation takes but a thought and may not be interrupted. Runes are available in three strengths: Lesser, greater and mighty.
Each of them can only be used a limited number of times, though the number of uses hinges on the level of the character that has gained the rune. This does leave me with a question, though – do you track when the rune is gained, or the current level? When, e.g., an elf has received a mighty rune at level 9, he can use it once, and then it’s gone. However, the table does not that, at 10th level and beyond, the mighty rune may be used once per year. So, if a 9th level character waits a level, does the mighty rune now work once per year or is it still gone upon being used? This is more relevant for the elf class, who could have multiple ones. As another example: An 4th level elf who used a greater rune, usable usually once per experience level, gets a level. This bumps the elf to 5th level – can the elf now use the rune at the new frequency of 1/week? If a 9th level elf has used a greater rune already this week, how does that change at 10th level, when it becomes available once per day? This needs clarification. Beyond spell-like effects, we can find summoning the wild hunt, getting a flower that cans end targets into a deep sleep, etc. – cool examples!
MARKER! Here starts the discussion of the new material!
The pdf does contain the 10-level race-class for the grimalkin. Ever wanted to play an ageless fairy catfolk? There you go! Grimalkin cap at level 10, have a prime requisite of Dexterity, and must have at least Dexterity 9. They gain d6 HD and have a pretty slow XP-progression, though not as slow as magic-users: level 2 is gained at 3,125 XP and 10th level requires 400,000 XP. (Th)AC0-progression starts as 19 and improves in the same way as the woodgrue, i.e. 17 at 5th, 14 at 9th level. The grimalkin uses the cleric’s save-progression and sports the weakness of the other fairy-based races, i.e. double damage from cold iron, and -2 to atk and saves when touching silver due to silver sickness. Grimalkin have a 2-in6 chance of noticing invisible creatures and passages to Fairy.
And here is, to get that righ out of the way, the reason why I consider the grimalkin to be one of the best, perhaps the best catfolk-style playable race I have ever read, regardless of system: They have phases, modes if you will. The standard player form is the Estray. They may use small weapons and may use all types of tailor-made armor as well as shields. They get +2 to AC due to their small size in combat with larger-than-mansized targets and learn spells of up to 4th level. These are spontaneous and don’t need to be recorded. The Estray gets their own spell list. The get scaling pick locks, beginning at 15%, and improving to 60%. This is the shape you probably want to have. However, you can end up a Chester.
You see, when a grimalkin sees a rodent, they will need to make a save vs. spells to not attack. Transformative magic targeting the Estray has a 50% chance to turn them Chester (or back!), which makes them an unusually fat cat. Chester halves the Intelligence of the Estray and limits them to claw/claw/bite, 1 point of damage per attack. Dawn reverts them to Chester form. Thirdly, there is the wilder form: Think of it as a gleaming, deranged pair of predator’s eye, with an invisible feline behind – psycho Cheshire cat, basically. The attack sequence upgrades to 1d4/1d4/1d4, it increases HD by 2 and gains 2d6 upon transformation. Attempts to see the wilder form suffer a -2 if the target can’t see in darkness or invisible targets. When in wilder form, the grimalkin has no control, attacking indiscriminately. At the end of combat, wilder form is spirited away into fairy. Additionally, each round of exposure to sunlight requires a save vs. petrification to avoid turning into a lump of hardwood. Each of the states of the grimalkin notes the conditions to transform into the other forms.
…Okay, here’s the thing: In the original Wormskin-iteration, grimalkin were kinda cooler. Why? Because they had this addiction to eating rats, including the big ones. Consuming these would be like a drug that could turn them Chester, which would require weaning them. Similarly, wilders could drag prey into fairy. Grimalkin could also get hammered on fermented catnip for bonuses to atk and Dex-based rolls, but makes them insufferable drunks on a failed save. Don’t get me wrong. I get all changes made here. They make for the better, more player-friendly DESIGN. They are easier to play, can be handled by less experienced players.
But personally, I think they make for the less interesting ROLEPLAYING experience. The original version’s addictive personality and mechanics for it really set the grimalkin apart, made it special. I can’t help but feel that the new version lost what made them so special on a roleplaying level, as opposed to a design-level. Instead making the consumption of rodents less punitive or add a scaling tolerance by level to prevent going Chester would have been cooler. At least for me. That being said, we get the best of both worlds, as the original grimalkin is still in the Wormskin #1-book! So yeah, kudos for offering both visions. A definite plus, though, would be the streamlined and precise depiction of the grimalkin spells in the Demihumans book: Disappearance lets you fully embrace Cheshire style and disappear or reappear body parts. Furball makes the grimalkin retch before projectile vomiting fur, bone shards and acid at targets – the longer the grimalkin retched before discharge, the higher the damage. Mouse hex temporarily renders the target a mouse, while musk of the most ancient generates a fear-inducing smell that becomes harder and harder to withstand. The new layout for the spells makes them much easier to use – kudos!
The second class that was originally premiered in Wormskin #1 would be the moss dwarf, who uses Wisdom as prime requisite, needs to have a minimum Constitution of 9 and uses d6 HD. The class caps at level 8, they gain level 2 at 2,200 XP and cap at 140,000 XP, and moss dwarves may use any non-metal armor and shields. Moss dwarfs may only use small and normal-sized weapons, no longbows or two-handed weapons. (Th)AC0 starts at 19, and increases to 17 at 4th level, increasing to 14 at 7th level. The moss dwarves use the dwarven save progression. They are also one of the coolest subraces I have seen in a long while. (In Wormskin #1, they get an amazing full color-one-page artwork, just fyi). Moss dwarves are immune to poison and spores and they have fertile flesh – as they age and adventure, they gain symbiotic traits: Each level, including first level, nets a symbiotic plant or fungus, like miniature trees growing from the ear, toadstools growing from joints, edible toe cheese (EW!) and the like. Moss dwarves have a 2-in-6 chance of hearing noises and can speak to plants. Each plant/colony answers 1/day and does so in a single word.
Moss dwarfs get a knack at 1st level, gaining an additional ability determined by the knack every odd level thereafter. 6 sample knacks are provided: Bird friend lets you talk to birds, charm them and later relate messages or call forth swarms of birds to defend you. Lock singers can sing to locks, convincing them to open. Root friend makes you a friend to beets and the like, culminating in the ability to summon a root thing. Thread lore lets you command strings or lace and later even unravel garments or ropes. Wood Kenning and yeast master may also be found here – these knacks are really creative and emphasize B/X’s focus on creative problem solving. Moss dwarf armor is btw. included as well, including pinecone armor. Cool!
All right, so this would be the stuff that has been included in the expanded Demihumans pdf, including the two excellent, revised race-classes from Wormskin #1. Now, all collected in a handy player-booklet, sans spoiling your referee material. The gorgeous referee map of Dolmenwood is btw. represented in a 2-page version; it’s just as neat as in the stand-alone version.
As far as Moss dwarfs are concerned, referees also get a massive generator to make moss dwarf NPCs: 10 tables, with 10 entries each, allow you to determine trinkets, facial features, coins and vittles, odor, pets, dress, manner of speaking, weapons and beards – and yep, the latter does acknowledge the touchy subject of dwarven females and beards. One of the most useful things about this would be the massive article on the various fungi of Dolmenwood: We get concise rules on how to identify them, a table for the referee to determine what happens if cautious PCs sample strange shrooms, and tables to buy them: One for edible fungi (10), one for fun and psychedelic ones (8), one for bad hallucinogenic and/or poisonous ones (11) – and a reaction roll to check how NPCs respond to being offered shrooms for purchase. The main meat, though, would be the massive d30-table for them. In the print version, this table spans no less than 3 double-page spreads (that actually look good!), or 6 pages. Each fungus gets a name, notes on form, odor, flavor, and an effect if consumed. This table is frickin’ gold and sees a ton of use in my games, regardless of system.
Finally, there is a new monster – as hinted before: The root-thing, a 3 HD critter that nets 80 XP. These sentient humanoid root vegetables (!!!) can entangle targets and bury/unearth their victims! We get 6 sample encounter ideas, 6 sample root types and 6 sample general traits to customize them. Awesome!
Editing and formatting are top-notch for 99% of the time, with only very few minor hiccups, most notably the rune rules in the bonus pdf, but yeah – as a whole, this is precise as hell. Layout adheres generally to a one-column b/w-standard with some color highlights and a combination of cool original artwork and public domain images used in an aesthetically pleasing manner. The pdf for the Wormskin #1-book is fully bookmarked for your convenience, but the expanded Demihumans of Dolmenwood bonus booklet has no bookmarks…but it’s a bonus, so it gets a tentative pass. I do own the PoD version, and frankly, I’d recommend getting it.
Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk’s first Wormskin installment was an impulse buy for me. I was browsing OBS, looking for good indie supplements, stumbled over this and loved the cover. Suffice to say, after reading this bad boy, I started saving up and got all the other Wormskin installments. All of them. That should tell you something. This book contains two of the best races/race-classes I have read in any game; they are diverse, unique and ooze creativity. The dressing is gold as well, and I can hardly think of a supplement that would be a better kickoff for a new ‘zine.
Gavin Norman’s impressive rules-precision and creativity generate a fusion of ideas that is amazing, far beyond the confines of OSR-gaming. What do I mean by this? Well, are you bored by catfolk being bland in PFRPG or 5e? With just a bit of rules-fu and translation of concepts, you could make grimalkin work in those systems, particularly if you focus on the high-concept original version that still has the mouse-addiction. In short: This is a gem, and very much worth the more than fair asking price. I usually would slightly penalize this for the minor hiccups in the bonus pdf, but that’d be unfair – after all, I paid for the ‘zine and got a bonus file out of it – plus, I already bashed the stand-alone version of the Demihumans file down one star for those. My final verdict for Wormskin #1 will hence be 4.5 stars, rounded up – and this does get my seal of approval.
You can get this inspired ‘zine here on OBS!