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Sunday, 5 May 2019

[Fanzine Focus XV] Wormskin No. 6

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

The Wormskin fanzine, published by Necrotic Gnome is written for use with Labyrinth Lord and issue by issue, details an area known as Dolmenwood, a mythical wood, an ancient place of tall trees and thick soil, rich in fungi and festooned with moss and brambles and rife with dark whimsy. Wormskin No. 1 was published in December, 2015, and was followed by Wormskin No. 2 in March, 2016. Both issues introduced the setting with a set of articles rich in flavour and atmosphere, but lacking a certain focus in that the region itself, Dolmenwood, was not detailed. Fortunately, in March, 2017, Necrotic Gnome Productions released Welcome to Dolmenwood, a free introduction to the setting. Further, Wormskin No. 3 and Wormskin No. 4, published in July, 2016 and Winter 2016 respectively, improved hugely upon the first and second issues, together providing a better introduction to Dolmenwood, giving some excellent answers to some very good questions about the setting before delving into what is the biggest secret of Dolmenwood. Published in the winter of 2017, Wormskin No. 5 looked at how the region might be explored, whilst also presenting the region around ‘Hag’s Addle’.

Wormskin No. 6 was published in Spring, 2017. Primarily, it focuses on Prigwort, the largest town in Dolmenwood and its immediate surrounds. It begins though with ‘The Fairy Lords of Dolmenwood’, a full list of the sixteen Lords and Ladies of Fairy who concern themselves with the mortal realm of Dolmenwood, have long dallied in order to enjoy the strange magics of the region, often establishing domains on the mortal realm as well as the faerie realm. Some have long left, but others remain to this day. Each is accorded a full paragraph, such as Duke Mai-Fleur, the supposedly Half-Elf with realms in the mortal and faerie realms who spends most of his time on hunts deep in the forest, perhaps in command of the Wild Hunt, or Lord Gladhand, who wonders Dolmenwood in the guise of a kindly old wizard and enjoys mucking about with the adventurers’ lives, sometimes to their benefit, but mostly not. It is followed by ‘The Brackenwold Calendar’, which gives the days and weeks which life in Dolmenwood is lived by. Notably, the region is beset by ‘Unseasons’, irregular events which take place between the normal seasons, like ‘Chame’, the Unseason of snakes and unease when serpents of all kinds fill the wood. None of the region’s saints’ days are given—they are saved for a later issue—but these two articles give a broader overview of Dolmenwood and enable the Labyrinth Lord to bring detail to a campaign set there, wherever a campaign is set in the region. Certainly the calendar is a means to add colour to a campaign on an almost daily basis and to an extent, cast a light on the inhabitants’ daily lives.

Over half of the issue is devoted to the town of Prigwort and its surrounds. In the main, ‘People and Places of Prigwort’ focuses upon its ruling Elevated Council of Brewmasters and the inns and taverns that they run or frequent. Four such establishments are described, all in some detail that add flavour and atmosphere, like the coarse, doorstep-sized fish paste sandwiches which are the usual fare at ‘The Oaf-in-the-Oast’ tavern, often accompanied by two-pint steins of Heggid’s Bitter, the steins being decorated with the alarmingly gaudy depictions of barmaids’ faces, or the strange meetings which go on behind closed doors ar Raptappen’s Quadrants, but which always seem to dissipate should anyone enquire about the noise. Other notables of Prigwort include the wizard, Mostlemyre Drouge, who can be consulted for magical services and the identification of magical artefacts, and Brandybile’s, a high-fashion house open by appointment only which provides highly fashionable clothing to its discerning clientele—a set of tables provide the means for the Labyrinth Lord to create just the adventurer with ‘taste’ and money to burn.

An accompanying article, ‘Spirituous Beverages’, lists just some of the brews to found on sale in Prigwort and their effects. Thankfully this is quite short and nothing like the treatises on fungi and common tavern food to be found in the first two issues of the fanzine, although there is no denying that the latter article would be useful for taverns in Prigwort. In comparison to the writeups of the taverns, the description of the town itself feels underwritten and although a lot of supplementary information is provided in the lengthy footnotes, Prigwort does not really come alive. Even the list of rumours does not help, such as the local lords at Harrowmoor Keep being said to consort with a monster in the lake in return for wisdom, serving more to push the adventurers away from the town.

And once away from the town, there is a lot more variety in terms of the content. This begins with ‘Prigwort and Surrounds’, which details the region’s nearby notable features. This includes the roadside signpost at Shub’s Finger which never points to anywhere real, but always seems to, the Witch Glade where witches sometimes commune with their wood-god, and Gorthstone, an obelisk in the middle of a large pool where the weather is always the opposite of the local conditions and the waters have strange reversing magics. As with previous efforts to gazetteer Dolmenwood, these places have a pleasing sense of age and permanence with there being nothing brash about their fantasy. Several locations are explored in depth. Not just the town of Prigwort itself, but also ‘Highway Robbery and Tasty Pie’ which describes an encounter with a group of highwaywomen bent on stealing pastries, but is further expanded in ‘The Baker’s Dozen’, where they live with their mother, a jolly woman renowned for her cakes. Aided by her daughters and an array of culinary spells and magics—such as a Wand of Condiments and En Croute which wraps a target in a pastry crust—and protected by an almost inexhaustible supply of Gingerbread Golems, Mother is a powerful, if parochial figure, an interesting twist upon Hansel and Gretel. Beyond the encounter with the highwaywomen on the road nearby, several hooks are given to involve the player characters in her culinary doings, whilst ‘The Gingerbread Grimoire’ details each of her spells.

Finally, the issue describes five new creatures in ‘Monsters of the Wood’. These are the Kelpie, demi-fey shapeshifters dwelling in the region’s lakes, pools, and rivers, notorious for charming and drowning careless travellers, and Wyrms. Wyrms in Dolmenwood are different than elsewhere, being wingless and associated with the five elements and five bodily humours—black bile (earth), phlegm (water), blood (air), yellow bile (fire), and ichor (ether). Although not all are detailed here—only the first four are given writeups—their descriptions include encounters and lairs and again add flavour to the setting.

Physically, Wormskin No. 6 is is as well presented as the other issues of the fanzine. The writing is clear, the layout clean, the illustrations good, and the use of colour is just enough to set it apart from other fanzines in terms of production values. Of course, every issue of Wormskin adds further detail to the setting of Dolmenwood, but whilst this sixth issue does that and such details are certainly supported by rumours and adventure hooks, the description of as important a place as Prigwort seems less substantial than it should be, giving the issue a somewhat unbalanced feel. Nevertheless, Wormskin No. 6, essentially the ‘Brewing & Baking’ issue, is rich in detail and flavour and continues the publisher’s exploration of the brythonic weirdness that is Dolmenwood.

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