The second installment of the Wormskin-‘zine clocks in at 50 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 45 pages, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
Rules-wise, Wormskin favors B/X-rules, but adaption to other OSR-systems is pretty easy. This means e.g. HD, descending AC, etc. My review is primarily based on the print version, though I also consulted the pdf-iteration.
Now, as before, this is another look at the strange and wondrous area known as Dolmenwood, but it should be noted that this installment is somewhat different in focus, in that we do learn about actual areas in the region known as High Wold, Lankshorn and surroundings in particular.
But before we get there, we begin with a handy one-page table that depicts common tavern-fare: The first column notes the main part of the course, the second column the form, and the third the additional components: A quick roll would leave you, for example. With “Sparrow brain crumble with minty peas” – but fret not…while the table does offer a couple of the more weird components, standards like chicken wing, eel, etc. can also be found…I just liked this particular result. 😉
Anyhow, after this brief introduction table, we move on to the second component within, namely rules for psychedelic compounds – it is here that the issue hearkens back to the first installment, but imho surpasses it: We get a massive article on psychedelica: A massive d30-table that features slang names, substances, procedures of consumption, primary effect (including value per dose) and side effects is provided. This massive table once more spans 6 pages, 3 two-page spreads. The psychedelica also come with notes on consumption, on selling and purchasing them…and, in an amazing addition, notes regarding the creation of said substances. It really can’t be overstated how good this whole section is, how it manages to weave unobtrusive lore in footnotes and small sections: When we read about a petty trickster deity in 9-legged unicorn form, we smile. When the drug “grobbage” are harvested from blue hornet eggs, when certain lunatics may be “milked”, when bite-y verminous fairies need to be milked, then you just can’t help but smile. These drug-origins are diverse and utterly inspiring, with each of them capable of acting as a proper adventure-hook. I adore it.
After this, we take a look at the High World – in the guise of several hexes covered (for reference, please consult the FREE Dolmenwood Referee’s Map), which means we cover 7 different hexes, which also tie in with the new monsters: For example, the sacred stone where weddings of the local aristocracy are held, the Trothstone, is near the territory of witch-owls, which is one of 7 new monsters: These violet-eyed owls have a gaze that may steal your memories…and it’s a great point to discuss what the monster-write ups have: They not only provide precise stats, they also come with 6 traits, 4 sample encounter set-ups and even 4 lairs where applicable (which is true for all but one monster within); in the case of witch-owls, we can, for example, find cyclopic owls, feathers shimmering in moonlight, or a grotesque human mouth that allows the owl to speak. The result is simple: It becomes difficult to discern if the creature is just a nameless critter, or something unique. I love this.
But let us return to the hexes of Dolmenwood for now, and let me mention the village now swallowed by a bog, courtesy of a nasty relic brought there – and yep, the bog-zombies that roam this area (another new monster) are cool. There also is King Pusskin’s road – where you definitely should leave an offering of milk or mice at the shrine…unless you’re keen on a distinctly feline haunting that may manifest in a variety of ways. The ditchway street, on the other hand, is haunted by nightworms, eye-less and grotesque worms that haunt it at night…you better get to safety once these rear their ugly, eyeless heads. King’s mounds are the home of a new type of fairy from the Otherwold (Not a typo!) – the mischievous barrowbogey, brown-skinned and wrinkled, these fellows use jugs and similar containers as “heads” – and are illustrated in an appropriately psychedelic style by Anxious P. (Who contributed quite a few artworks to this book.)
Now, I have skipped past two of the most detailed hexes, as they tie in with Lankshorn, the largest settlement in Dolmenwood, which is the other main-focus of the pdf and which also provides for the remainder of the monsters in that section: Lankshorn comes with 7 different locations noted, which include the apothecary (tie in with aforementioned psychedelic compounds), the church of the One True God (as a bastion of, ostensibly, normality, that does NOT deliver on this promise of the familiar…thankfully!) and the local inn, to state a few. There is a d16 rumor table, a blacksmith that comes with prices for silvering weapons, custom engraving and foe binding and the like – a ton of immediately useful, strange components that add to Dolmenwoods actually really creepy, slow-burn sheer ODDNESS.
You see, it took lankshorn to make it clear to me how smart this mini-setting actually is; the playfulness and weirdness hinted at in issue #1 comes to the forefront here: Lankshorn, while inhabited by humans, is not under human rule. Lord Malbleat is the local lord, the aristocracy. He is a Longhorn…and a goatman. You see, goatmen come in two versions: Shorthorns are the lower-class, longhorns the aristocracy. Slaying goats is forbidden by law, and humans…are basically a slave-caste. Decadent and oh-so-civilized, the goatmen bring a clever sense of horror to the proceedings: You see, goatmen enjoy domesticating humans. In a twist on the lapdog etymology (guess where the “lap”-component originally came from) goatmen are liable to take human brides and produce degenerate, mad offspring with these sexual thralls. Hence, the Lankshorn-look, in a nod towards the Innsmouth-look, is provided as an additional dressing. But more than that, goatmen carry another, more subtle component that can be profoundly disturbing: Dolmenwood’s humans are not the centerpiece, the navel of the world. Instead, humans, and indeed, the “normal” is almost incidental to the novel and captivating world that this humble pdf shows us. They are pets, who, as Lord Malbleat would note, stumble through a primal, strange world inhabited by godlings, strange plants and fairy lords…but humans are also dangerous…and as such, should be kept in check. Thankfully, the goatmen have this handy draught named Addercorn that renders their favorite humans utterly docile, drugged and fully subservient to their hourglass pupilled masters. Don’t get me wrong – this is not played as a call for revolution, as a straight set-up to overthrow the goat masters. Instead, it depicts them as cultured, benevolent overlords…with a thoroughly nasty twist. Goatmen are frightening BECAUSE they are cultured, because they behave very much like humans behave towards other species. They reminded me of Catherynne M- Valente’s Gaselli and hooked me on Dolmenwood. I love them.
Did I miss something? Oh yeah, there’s also a new spell to see otherwise invisible fairy things. Nice one.
Editing and formatting re top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a concise 1-column b/w-standard and the book has both full-color artworks and b/w-artworks, which constitute a mixture of well-chosen b/w public domain artwork and original pieces, which include both b/w and full-color pieces. The softcover is nice, and the pdf comes fully bookmarked. A minor nitpick would be that Lankshorn does not get a dedicated settlement map.
Gavin Norman’s second installment of Wormskin is what sold me on the ‘zine, on Dolmenwood. The first installment was already impressive, particularly for a first glimpse at Dolmenwood, but this book makes the setting start taking shape. It clearly and distinctly differentiates Dolmenwood from comparable settings and regions. It finds and further develops its unique tone and themes, and does so with panache aplomb. There is not a single monster, table or hex covered herein that is not in some way, quirky, strange, frightening…or, more often than not, all of these. This is clearly a labor of love and it is a brilliant, inspiring booklet. Even if you’re not interested in the rules, if you play e.g. PFRPG or 5e, this is worth checking out for the phenomenal dressing, for the unique and compelling concepts. 5 stars + seal of approval, easily and triumphantly earned. Btw.: I strongly suggest getting the print version, as it makes the psychedelica double-page-spread just easier to use.
You can get this inspiring, amazing ‘zine here on OBS!