This installment of the Wormskin-‘zine that depicts the strange and wondrous forests of Dolenwood clocks in at a massive 72 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 67 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
Full Disclaimer: I converted the latest Dolmenwood module, “Winter’s Daughter” to 5e.
I have no stake in the Wormskin-zine, and have had it for a year, slowly portioning my reading of the zines to when I got frustrated or bored. And yes, I bought them all long before getting the chance to work on “Winter’s Daughter”. I have not contributed to this issue in any way, shape or form. Why are you seeing these reviews now? Because I frankly needed to review some stuff that I really, really loved, that lifts my spirits.
As always, the material herein has been penned with Labyrinth Lord or B/X in mind, but conversion to other OSR-systems is pretty easy. I own the print version of the ‘zine, which is a nice little booklet. Its spine doesn’t feature a name, which is a bit of a minor nitpick, considering that it is massive enough to have the space for it. …yeah, you can see, I’m having a tough time finding things to criticize here.
All right, so, as far as universally applicable material goes, this includes a brief one-page table of conditions, under which fickle fairy magic items cease to work…like being exposed to a bird’s song! The entries provided are nice, the concept simple, and yet, what may be drawn from this is pretty neat. Unpretentious, usable, solid.
The ‘zine also features a massive d30 double-spread table covering 6 pages that allows you to depict the “lesser” standing stones of Dolmenwood, or to customize weird monuments in your other games. The table sports 6 columns: One column to let you determine stone material, one that denotes the source of the material, one for the state of the stone, and one that establishes the setting. The table notes, for example, that, when a surface has been properly cleaned, it is worth considering by whom. The table also sports uncommon properties, like pleasant or unpleasant smells, attracting wildlife, drawing, elephant graveyard style, dying animals to the place, etc. Finally, detailed features of note may include fine, Drunic inscriptions to summon forth ghost crows, or being able to speak in a grinding voice, proclaiming itself to be the voice of the forest. Think that sounds lame? A table for stones? Okay, so here’s one of the results I got from this table:
A standing stone of salt crystal in the form of a toroid, veined with metal, crawling slowly atop a thousand insectoid legs, accompanied by strains of ballroom music that seem to drift from somewhere, sporting a warning in a coded form of Woldish, which warns the PCs of the dangers of spellcasting in the vicinity. …Come on, this is awesome! These two sections have been penned by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk.
Beyond these tables, the pdf contains a detailed and mapped wayside encounter/mini-module of sorts, which is suitable for low level characters – about level 2 – 4 should be viable. This would be Matthew Schmeer’s “The Atacorn’s Retreat”, which comes with a plethora of rather interesting adventure hooks that go above and beyond.
But in order to discuss this in more detail, I will have to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, atacorns are the offspring of the Nag-Lord’s trysts with witches: Cloven-footed, cow-tailed, with mule-like features, the atacorn herein, Farthigny, is a bit special in that he seems to have managed to annoy none other than Lord Malbleat…and bards. Known as the “Fiddler in the Dark”, his ostensibly potent magical fiddle is sought after by bards to be destroyed, and indeed, the atacorn does come with 8 different sample tunes – like “Never Ever Swim Through the Fever Marsh”(got the reference?), a pun-filled country jag poking fun at lost travelers. His little two-room bungalow is fully detailed and mapped – he does have a retinue of moss dwarves that seem to enjoy the abuse he subjects them to. His fiddle, btw., is a unicorn-like protrusion that grows from his lower jaw, and it can indeed generate truly astounding tunes. Getting to it, though? Impossible sans killing the atacorn, who, while rowdy, seems totally nice! He invites the PCs to his abode, and proceeds to offer a true feast while regaling them with songs. Said abode, btw.? Lavishly-mapped by Kelvin Green, the bungalow’s b/w-map is truly gorgeous in its impressive details, and is actually player-friendly, bereft of keys and labels! You can copy and cut up the map and hand it to players! Big kudos!
These impressive details do extend to more than the map, btw.: This is one of the densest adventure locations I’ve seen in quite a while – heck, even the fillings of pillows (!! Human hair and fairy wings, in most, but not all, cases…) may be interesting, let alone all the carefully hidden, odd and magical stuff to be found. Of course, there is a catch – Farthigny is not a nice guy. In fact, he drugs the PCs – with drugs to which he’s immune. He totally wants to check their livers – the Jale God once prophesied that he’d be slain a child of a parent whose liver bleeds blue. Did I mention the half-dead dryad in the furniture? There is true dark fantasy, hidden behind a veneer of gonzo whimsy that feels plausible.
He also has a cozy torture cellar for ritual sacrifices hidden below the bungalow! Yay! This horrid place is btw. lavishly illustrated in full-color, with a one-page hand-out-like artwork that you can hand to PCs. This place is just as detailed, and Farthigny’s living space contains quite a few odd magical items – like a dagger inhabited by a lesser murder demon, the Ring of Calibraxis (In case you didn’t notice – yep, this does contain quite a few cool eastereggs!), and similar oddities. One note: There is a save or die here, but it’s a justified one – if the PCs drag a magical, potentially cursed tapestry and put it atop a bloody ritual circle, the result may be fatal. It’s very obscure, and I’d be surprised if it comes up a lot during play, but it certainly has the feeling of “you’ve meddled with forces beyond your ken” – random actions beget random (and dangerous results). I can live with that.
The lion’s share of this installment, though, is devoted to the subterranean level of the eponymous ruins of St. Clewd’s abbey, penned once more by Gavin Norman And Yves Geens. This part of the module can be rather challenging, depending on how much your PCs explore, and whether they think they can slay everything in sight. I can see this be a tough challenge for mid-level PCs, or potentially “solvable” for even low level PCs. Suffice to say, this is old-school – and “taking your tail between your legs and run” is certainly the better part of valor – for example, when a massive hydra shows up: Said entity has different attacks for each of its heads, which range from bloated boars to inverted cow’s heads, with different personalities to boot. Trying to best this one? TPK machine for low level groups. That being said, the hydra also is not immediately hostile, which makes this behave as a “reap what you sow” moment. Anyhow, the level of detail is once more impressive: The random encounter table is only half devoted to different creatures, with the other half consisting of chaotic phenomena, courtesy of the dimensional cataract that pulses within this complex, rendering reality somewhat unstable.
It should also be noted that this complex comes with a lavish isometric b/w-map drawn by Claytonian (of “The Wizardarium of Calabraxis”-fame); said map comes with a scale, but no grid, and is pretty damn impressive. It should be noted, though, that, in spite of numbers for keyed locations having been added in blue bubbles, no unlabeled version has been included. We do get a proper jpg.-version, though.
But I digress – you see, this module is STRANGE. There, for example, would be the dangerous, oracular and slightly telepathic catfish that actually manages to make sense, and that makes for a great way for the referee to seed further adventures…if it doesn’t eat all PCs, that is. I used “strange” in opposition to “weird” consciously, as this does not adhere to e.g. LotFP or DCC’s type of weird fiction, instead opting for an oddly plausible scenario of high magic strangeness grounded in a fairy-tale-esque backdrop. In short, it perfectly encapsulates how you can portray Dolmenwood’s unique flavor in a dungeon setting.
The dungeon itself, while certainly deadly, has plenty of loot (including a massive one-page treasure table), for sure – but what sets it apart from many modules would be that it actually, at least half of it, is a social dungeon.
But to explain that aspect of the module, I will have to go into pretty significant, deep lore SPOILERS. If you’re a player, please, at least stop reading now.
All right, only referees around? Well, when St. Clewd vanished while fighting the black unicorn men dubbed Sallowbryg, it wasn’t the end. Indeed, a cataclysm has befallen the monastery even before the goat-men razed it to the ground: You see, a particularly greedy and incompetent abbot sought to call forth St. Clewd once more – not cognizant of the fact that the saint had fused body and mind with the foul beast. Suffice to say, the results were not pretty, and now, the deranged and horribly mutated saint (lavishly illustrated by Andrew Walter. in their signature style) has been helf here, watched over by the order of wardens, so that his shame may never be known. This order of fanatic monks whittled away the centuries below the monastery, held alive, ironically, by the effects of the botched ritual, which created the chance to revive the fallen. Okay, it may go horribly wrong. Sure, many come back as zombie-like vegetables…but there’s the sacred duty!
Said monks (random monk generator included), have, in recent years, experienced a schism of sorts – the traditionalists (or Fidelii) and the semi-heretical splinter-sect of the Cardinites. The Fidelii want to keep the deranged saint-thing contained, and keep their vigil, while the Cardinites believe that freeing St. Clewd will help him recover and usher in…something good? Their leaders and holy ceremonies are btw. covered in detail, allowing you to create a subterranean and utterly strange “Name of the Rose”-ish intrigue, should you choose to. Of course, kill ‘em all might be an option, but one with consequences…And yes, the PCs can try to test their mettle against the saint-thing, but it’s not something I’d recommend, unless you’re fond of rolling 3d6, 6 times in a row.
The best way to use these folks, though, would be to have them be what they’re supposed to be: An isolated society of weirdo fanatics, whose whole world-view and fragile power-dynamics may well collapse/ignite when the PCs are added as the proverbial fuse. It should also be noted that the struggle of factions, obviously, does allow for the use of this as a repeat-visit scenario…and, one more note: Even if you don’t like Dolmenwood (WHY??? O_O), this module could be easily used as a kind of religious fanatic bunker in a post-apocalyptic, weird world. Just a thought…
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to the ‘zine’s one-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports a surprising amount of awesome full-color artwork by Anxious P. and Sean Poppe. The b/w-cartography by Kelvin Green and Claytonian deserves special praise – both styles are amazing, detailed and evocative, though I do wish we’d get an unlabeled version for the dungeon as well. The pdf version is fully bookmarked for your convenience, and the softcover is a neat version – personally, I’d advise in favor of getting this and #3 in print, as it’s definitely a high-quality little booklet worth the price-point.
The fourth installment of Wormskin, while more module-centric than the ones before, is AMAZING. From the sidetrek that kicks this off to the dressing table to the massive and lavishly-crafted dungeon-level, this installment continues the streak of unadulterated awesomeness of the series, and, some might argue, one ups it with easily one of the most unique and rewarding dungeon-levels I’ve seen in quite a while. This oozes passion, has a distinct style, and when rereading this for the purpose of this review, I found myself just as stoked as when the booklet first fell into my claws. This is excellent and a great example of what a ‘zine can achieve. 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can get this evocative and truly inspiring ‘zine/module here on OBS!
You can preorder Winter’s Daughter limited edition print version here on the Necrotic Gnome storefront, for both B/X – and for 5e!