Wormskin #6 (OSR)
The sixth installment of the Wormskin-zine clocks in at 78 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 74 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), so let’s take a look!
As always, my review is based primarily on the PoD version – which this time around is hefty enough to sport the name on the spine. I also consulted the pdf, obviously. Rules-wise, this, as always, is written for B/X (or Labyrinth Lord) rules in mind, but conversion to other OSR-games is simple enough. The Dolmenwood content is valuable for its themes, so, once again, this makes for a great idea-mine for other rules-systems as well.
So, the 6th installment of Wormskin features, among other things, a rather cool article on the calendar employed by Dolmenwood’s residents – and before you sigh, let me tell you, it’s smart: We get names for days, months, feast days (both astrological and devoted to saints), and it introduces the concept of Unseasons, which is genius – basically, these are semi-regular magical seasons where, for example, strange fungi bloom and walk around before collapsing, where mists and the dead rise, or when the secret fey moon stands high in the sky. This is supplemented by the FREE Dolmenwood Calendar pdf, btw. Really cool!
Speaking of Fairy: The book does contain a discussion of the Fairy Lords in fluff-only write-ups, and oh boy, did they make me smile: These guys and gals are twisted and haughty, truly and perfectly encapsulating the theme of Fairy Nobility (FWIW: Fans of Midgard could use these concepts to further flesh out the Courts of the Shadow Fey…) – we learn, for example, about Lord Gladhand, often wandering as an old wizard, testing adventurers in a sadistic manner. There would be The “Earl of Yellow” (lol), “The Prince Who Is Seven” or the “Queen-King Hathor” – this write up (the only article with contributions by Greg Gorgonmilk in the issue) is inspired.
The pdf also provides a brief article on spirits, with brief and concise rules on adventuring while drunk, and a d20-table that notes spirit names, appearances, taste and effects (alongside cost) – this table is pretty nice, but it doesn’t reach the level of detail or sheer strangeness of e.g. Wormskin #2’s excellent psychedelic substances table. Granted, it can’t, seeing how it only covers one page, but yeah – I’d have loved to see a magical spirits section.
So, this book, obviously, also features monsters – this time around, we get proper stats for Kelpies – in absolutely fantastic detail and with a great, genuinely creepy b/w-artwork. Traits for both human and equine form are provided to customize individual kelpies, and the encounter suggestion this time around are particularly neat. The book also presents rules for Dolmenwood dragons – wyrms, who are grouped by bodily humours. 4 are provided, with a 5th hinted at. These are closer to tatzlwyrms of myth – wing- and limbless, these dragons are pretty well fortified versus weaponry, even magical ones, as well as many energy types. They also regenerate, but do not state by how much – the ability is more of a story-telling device here. Speaking of which: One big plus for them would be the weakness table: These dragons could, for example, be hampered by the presence of a pure-hearted virgin, atheist philosophy or similar stuff. I love these esoteric weaknesses and how they reward doing your legwork. The wyrms also get encounter tables and 4 HD ratings. Each of the wyrms has a breath weapon (note that in B/X, dragons deal current hit points in damage with these…), some spell-like abilities as Dolmenwood Wyrms don’t have the usual draconic spellcasting, a signature ability, and we get trait, encounter and lair write-ups for the dragons. I really like the ideas here of the humour-association, but I do have two nitpicks: 1) These write-ups, in something uncommon for Dolmenwood, feature a couple of formatting glitches (missed italicizations for spell references). 2) I may be spoiled from more rules-intense games like Pathfinder or 5e, but even in some old-school games, the dragons gain new abilities at higher age categories, and since the tie-in to the humours is pretty flimsy right now, it’d have been nice to get increasing ability-loadouts for these fellows.
That being said, one of the 7 hexes depicted in this installment does feature a legendary and unique such wyrm – and a massive hoard. How massive? The write-up of the treasure takes up a whole page! As an aside – this wyrm has basically a second cockatrice-style cockerel head, grown from the stump left by legendary wannabe dragonslayer. The other hexes contain, once more, the slightly more whimsical, strange themes of Dolmenwood, taking a step back from the deadliness of #5’s hexes. Don’t get me wrong, these are not happy-go-lucky/safe by any means: Drowsiness-inducing waters haunted by phantoms, cursed signposts that lead you astray, a witchglade, Prigwort…and strange highwaywomen, one of whom wields a knife of severing…and who ask for…pastries??? Yep, this installment is once more much more leaning on the whimsical side f things, where humanity is incidental to a fairy tale reality…in short, to the themes and leitmotifs that make Dolmenwood stand out.
This installment is different as well, though, as we take a look at Prigwort (with additional content by Andrew Walter) – the largest settlement in Dolmenwood, it, like Lankshorn in installment #2, unfortunately is not mapped – but the settlement comes with a level of details that is pretty impressive: We learn, for example, about the elevated council of brewmasters, crucial movers and shakers (hence aforementioned spirits-table), and the place does have a resident, sufficiently eccentric wizard who may not be not of much use in battle, but who is a specialist in identifying and analyzing magic. The section also sports no less than 4 pubs/inns/bath houses, etc., all of which are truly interesting – for example, what about the one run by octogenarians, who have their gardens adjacent to the woods, with an alcoholic son and his self-proclaimed neighborhood watch-like ruffians; what about the pub that may well not cater to anyone looking too smart? There is some truly creative stuff going on here. Did I mention that the town has a semi-completed wall that may or may not be related to one of the fairy lords? That the town seems to be in cahoots with one of these mighty entities?
And what about the amazing, magic and utterly decadent magical clothing shop “Brandybile’s”, which is supplemented by multiple pages of sample clothes and ridiculous embellishments, which make it PERFECT for use in conjunction with carousing rules? That one is one of my favorites here…though it and the inn/pub density do make me wonder regarding the settlement’s size – I hope we’ll one day get a map and full-blown gazetteer of the town.
If you’ve been close-reading this review so far, you’ll notice that I have deliberately not talked about one hex. Well, that’s because it is basically an adventure-location/encounter/area. It is beautifully mapped in b/w and lavish detail by none other than Kelvin Green in a neat two-page spread, but much like St. Clewd’s abbey, we unfortunately do not get a player-friendly version of the map without labels, which is a bit of a pity. (As an aside: Assembly of the map in the pdf is easy, in spite of the two page spread, and in the PoD, it similarly looks good – kudos!)
This article also ties in with a couple of new spells, but in order to talk more about this, I will have to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
So, half a mile south of the road, there is a rustic cottage, where a woman lives with her twelve adult daughters – all of whom are featured with brief notes on their characters and looks. Known as “Mother”, the old lady is a culinary master – her cookies can heal, and she loves offering special, magical tarts. These allow her free-spirited daughters to seduce pretty much everyone, which also accounts for the presence of fluctuating guests. Mother has a ring that can render her invisible and a wand of condiments; and the nearby woods contain a ginormous…dough pool? Yep. Oh, and it’s infested by a Raging Yeast Demon. So, would you kindly take care of that, dearies? No? Oh, guess it may be time to make gingerbread men…You see, the bandits that can be bought off with pastries? Mother’s daughters. And suitors that are no longer useful? They await a fate of being baked alive and rendered into quasi-golemish gingerbread men. Grisly, yet whimsical – though personally, I will add Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess’s rule that you can’t catch the gingerbread man to them.
This also ties in with the Gingerbread Grimoire, 4 new spells of most delicious nature. At 1st level, we have gingerbread charm, which can grant a quirky and unreliable life to gingerbread beings (8 personalities), and yeast growth, which is per se harmless, yet icky – you may slip, and it can hasten fermentation/baking. At 2nd spell level, we have en croute, which encases targets in delicious crust – they can breathe, but it’ll need time (governed by Strength) to get free. The highest level spell is ginger snap, which clocks in at 3rd level. The target must save vs. spell of partially transform into brittle gingerbread, with the caster’s power governing how much is gingerfied. It takes close reading to note that only humanoids can be affected, which should probably be spelled out more explicitly. You see, and successful attack to such a gingerbrittle-ified bodypart automatically snaps it off and turns it to brittle. This is an archmage slayer (have fun casting sans hands…) and potentially very powerful (high levels allow for torso or even whole-body transformation) – but that’s not my sole issue here. The absence of concise rules for the loss of limbs and their effects ultimately means that this spell entails a lot of referee-handwaving – more than I enjoy even for B/X and certainly more than what I’d expect from Gavin Norman’s usually very precise writing.
Editing and formatting are still very good on a formal and rules-language level, but the installment is not as precise as the best of the Wormskin-zines. This is the longest one so far, but it also has a tad bit more minor hiccups. Layout adheres to the smooth one-column standard for the most part, with tasteful and subdued full-color highlights. Artworks are a great blend of psychedelic full-color, fun and dark b/w-artworks and tastefully chosen public domain. I loved Kelvin green’s b/w-map, though a grid, and more importantly, a player-friendly, unlabeled map for the electronic version would have been a big plus. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks, and the PoD-version noting the title on the spine is a plus, as far as I’m concerned.
Gavin Norman, with contributions from Greg Gorgonmilk and Andrew Walter, has gone the other way round this time: Prigwort, as a center of civilization in Dolmenwood, also seems to be one of the more light-hearted regions; where Wormskin #5 was pretty dark and steeped in occult lore, this installment wholeheartedly embraces the strange fairytale vibe, and it does a good job with it; it feels more distinct, and hearkens closer to the Hill Cantons than to LotFP’s aesthetics in this installment – though Dolmenwood still remains, even at its oddest, less in-your-face-crazy, more subtle. A very distinctly British strangeness, if you will – elegant in its implementation and blending of whimsical and potentially rather horrifying components, this is a pretty impressive success regarding the difficult theme…and it offers A LOT high-quality bang for your buck. All in all, this is a neat continuation of the ‘zine and manages to retain the high-quality run of the series. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this flavorful and cool installment of Wormskin here on OBS!
As per the writing of this review, you have 48 hours to join the Old-School Essentials kickstarter here!
If you’re enjoying my reviews, please consider joining my patreon here. It’s what keeps the lights on!