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Saturday 29 August 2020

[Fanzine Focus XXI] Wormskin Issue Number 8

On the tail of the 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 DM 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 focused on the area around Prigwort, as well as detailing ‘The Fairy Lords of Dolmenwood’ and the ‘Unseasons’ that beset the region, whilst Wormskin No. 7, published in 
the autumn of 2017, added both personal names and honourifics to Dolmenwood as well detailing further hexes under the eaves of the extensive forest.

Wormskin Issue Number 8 was published in February 2018, and exposed further secrets of Dolmenwood, presented a further guide to travelling in the region, and added further monsters. It feels like a relatively short issue, just containing four, reasonably lengthy articles, but all four do add to the setting. The issue opens with ‘The Sisters of the Chalice and the Moon’, an examination of witches and the witch cults to be found in Dolmenwood. The witches of Dolmenwood worship and become companions, guardians, and wives to otherworldly wood-gods known as Gwyrigons, and are highly secretive about their beliefs and practices. Their tenets are given as well as their initiation rites, how they live, their powers and abilities, schemes and goals, rumours about them, and their relationship with the factions also in the region. So they are cast spells like Magic-Users, gain certain powers from the Wood-gods—these are detailed in Wormskin Issue Number 7, can craft potions, talismans, and charms, and so on. For the most part, these are fairly typical abilities accorded witches, and since no mechanical details are given, the Game Master could easily refer to The Craft of the Wise: The Pagan Witch Tradition for the game stats. The relationships with other factions is just as useful, such as the Elf Lords’ view that the witches’ communion with the daemon nobles of the Otherworlds as discourteous, treacherous, and disgusting, whilst the witches claim fairies to be selfish and false; that the Duchy of Brackenwold and Barony of the High Wold tend to pointedly ignore the witches—since some of their family members might actually be witches, whilst the witches see both as ephemeral and irrelevant; and the witches seeing adventurers as useful when they need a task done that they themselves cannot do. Overall, it is good to a faction like the witches covered in such detail, and for the most part they are going to remain as NPCs, so the Game Master will need to provide the mechanics and rules herself should one of her players want a witch character.

In the course of eight issues, Wormskin has described a lot of the hexes, roads, and locations in Dolmenwood and since the region is quite a wide area, the Player Characters are going to be doing a lot of travel throughout the wood. Which also means that they are going to be staying out in the forest overnight on a regular basis. This is where ‘Camping in Dolmenwood’ comes into play, which provides rules and guidelines and charts for camping wild in the woods. This covers finding a suitable campsite, setting it up—fetching firewood, building a fire, fining water, foraging, hunting, and more, activities they might undertake during the evening, setting watches, and sleep. It all looks a bit mechanical, but with the roll of a few dice—including a thirty-sided die to determine a particular campsite and its features—a Game Master and her players can determine where and how well the Player Characters are camping, and from that derive a bit of roleplaying and party interplay. How often a Game Master wants to use these rules depends how much she wants to make travel a strong feature of her campaign (for example, it is a strong feature of The One Ring: Adventures Over The Edge Of The Wild), but can also be used to reinforce the fact that Dolmenwood does not being weird and eerie when the Player Character beds down for the night.

‘Strange Waters’ lists thirty different types and forms of water, their appearance, taste, and effect if consumed to be found in Dolmenwood—whether at the end of the day when setting up a campsite. For example, a shallow, muddy pool decorated by lilies and inhabited by amphibians whose surface is a perfect mirror and which tastes perfumed, but if drunk, instils an insatiably lascivious urge to remove your clothing! With thirty options for each element, the Game Master can use this table to make some of the waters to be found in the forest weird and hint at some the magics which run through them.

Rounding out Wormskin Issue Number 8 is more ‘Monsters of the Wood’. This entry in the department has a mycological theme with the inclusion of the Brainconk, Jack-o’-Lantern, Ochre Slime-Hulk, Pook Morel, and Wronguncle. These are all predatory fungi, some even sentient, such as carnivorous Brainconk which creep down from their current treetop homes to latch onto sleeping victims and slurp out their brains, and Pook Morels, which are tiny, but which project psychic horrors upon their victims who drop their possessions. These the Pook Morels scoop up and scamper back to their lairs to hide! All five of these fungi are accompanied by superb illustrations which will be sure to highlight their creepiness when shown to the players.

Physically, Wormskin Issue Number 8 is as well presented as previous issues. It is well written and cleanly and simply laid out. The artwork is good too, a mix of colour and black and white, which captures the weird and dreamy feel of Dolmenwood.

Of course, if you have previous issues of Wormskin, then Wormskin Issue Number 8 is absolutely worth adding—a major faction, something to engage the players and their characters with, a little of the weirdness to be region’s waters—literally, and new monsters. There is a nice sense of scale to the issue too, moving from the overview of the witches and their place in Dolmenwood, then getting smaller and smaller down to the mycology.

Sadly, Wormskin Issue Number 8 is the last issue. This is not as bad as it sounds, since Necrotic Gnome is planning to create a definitive Dolmenwood supplement, one which would best showcase the setting’s promise first hinted at with Wormskin Issue Number 1. Looking back at the eight issues, the ultimate problem with them is their ‘partwork’ structure, resulting in an incoherent feel. It meant that there would be several issues before there was a real introduction to the setting and articles which asked the most basic of questions about the region. What it felt like was needed is to take all eight issues and then split their articles up and assemble in some sort of order. With any luck, the forthcoming Dolmenwood setting supplement will address these issues, for the Wormskin fanzine has never been without flavour or atmosphere, just organisation.

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