Wormskin #01–#08 (2015–2018)
by Gavin Norman and Greg Gorgonmilk (with further contributions by Yves Geens, Matthew Schmeer, Andrew Walter and Brian Richmond)
Published by Necrotic Gnome Productions
Fanzines may be the ideal vehicle to publish offbeat, visionary RPG ideas. The format is suitably inexpensive to produce and buy, and the scope of a single issue just right for personal, creative takes on a game or setting. Zines can speak to niche audiences, and afford to be small enough to be unconcerned by the dictates of mass-market viability – if you have a zine you are selling to a circle of 30 happy friends and acquaintances, it may still be worth it just for the pleasure of creating something. That is the theory: in practice, zines are all over the place, from the deadly dull to the inspired, and from dodgy photocopies to lavishly produced physical artefacts. A lot of them will have no meaning outside a small scene – they are memorabilia, physical embodiments of collective memories and ephemeral personal networks. A lot of them are, also, hipster bullshit. Yet sometimes, zine creators strike solid gold, and produce a run that develops into something amazing, and sets standards for years to come. Welcome to Wormskin.
Wormskin is a zine with a precisely defined theme: it presents guidelines, background detail, and materials for Dolmenwood, a faerie-haunted woodland setting “somewhere” in a fantastic England. It is a setting with no link to a precise time and place, and if you look deeper, it is a mishmash of mediaeval superstitions and folk tales, Victorian fantasy (mostly Dunsany and Morris), and romanticised Georgian-era rural life – in roughly the same way vanilla D&D is a hodgepodge of disparate influences from the “Appendix N” novels to monster movies, fantasy wargaming, and comic books. And yet, this mixture has a strong internal consistency, with a characteristic rustic and earthy feel to it, conjuring images of muddy roads, mossy tree trunks, crumbling monasteries in the deeper forests, stone circles avoided by men, and rowdy taverns offering sweet and savoury delicacies with bitter ales and the warmth of the fireplace.
This imagery has a long presence in D&D, whose idyllic forests, wayside inns and sleepy rural communities are intristic parts of the assumed milieu, even if they often feel more like more early 1900s American farming settlements than historical English villages. Which is not a criticism: D&D, even at its most specific (and it can get very specific), deals with a wider range of influences from westerns to planetary romance, while Dolmenwood focuses on a much narrower range in an undiluted fashion. It is a setting with a strong and peculiar flavour, something that has been done before many times, and subsumed into the tired cliché of Merrie Olde Englande so that all its individuality has been lost in modern renfaire fantasy. But Dolmenwood is not that setting: by returning to its imaginary roots, it highlights the fresh, fantastic and uncanny aspects of the English countryside.
|Issue #02, back cover|
One of the primary strengths of Dolmenwood come precisely from its synthesising and (particularly) transformative nature: it can accommodate and blend together ideas from very dissimilar sources, and make them work in a whole that becomes a new, original thing of its own. It takes folktales and ballads about forest-dwelling faeries and witches, and recreates them as the powerful antagonists of a role-playing game; or it tackles the legends of druids as the secretive order of the Drune, complete with machinations around ley lines and places of power. All of this has a veneer of familiarity, but the end result always comes with a clever twist or surprise – not deconstruction (a gotcha that’s more tired now than playing things straight), but a few steps towards reaffirming the unfamiliarity and oddness of the woodlands.
In particular, the zine is very skilful about repurposing Victorian kitsch: syrupy and domestic source material (bowdlerised fairy tales with red-cheeked garden gnomes and talking animals, idealised depictions of “the good country life” with its rotund monks and beer-loving farmers, and so on) becomes great game fodder in the creators’ hands; random public domain woodcuts are given new life in a newly imagined context. The village of Prigwort, renowned for its brewmasters, is accompanied by a random table of fantastic beverages (the minstrel’s cordial is a frothy orange with a taste of malty rye, and encourages the imbiber to engage in unexpected poetry), and gingerbread golems have been known to lurk in certain bakeries. The zines pay a lot of attention to the material comforts of the region – beers, common tavern fare, fashionable garments and places worth visiting all receive their due. This is a place painted with warm tones, yet without sentimentalism.
The articles in Wormskin range from setting background and hex descriptions to game procedures, the obligatory monsters/magic items, and random tables. Not unlike early Judges Guild, it offers a diverse selection of materials, which are useful enough on their own, but also come together to form a certain vision of running a campaign. There is a free introductory PDF to serve as an overview; but Dolmenwood is mostly described by way of example, through the tone and content of its more specific articles. Somehow, it works admirably well.
|The Drugsssss of Dolmenwood|
Some of the ideas are idiosyncratic, and open up new aspects of play. Moss dwarves (stunted gnomes from the deep forests) and grimalkin (a race of mischievous and creepy talking cats) are not simple character options, they are more or less new specialist character types, adding a specific spin to the way we play D&D. A set of guidelines on identifying, consuming, and buying/selling the fungi of Dolmenwood introduces a new possibility for wilderness expeditions, and comes with a d30 table featuring such entries as sludgenuts (smell like wet dog, nourishing but repulsively slimy), polkadot pig (a mild psychedelic causing creeping paranoia), or jack-in-the-green (found in fairy rings, random enchantment). This is a table I adapted for my own campaign, for the benefit of a hobbit character, whose expertise in mushrooms added flavour to both the character, and the fun of wilderness expeditions. A different issue features guidelines for camping out – these are way too detailed for my taste, with fiddly modifiers for fetching firewood and the effectiveness of sleep, but they can be scaled down, and there is, again, a table of random campsites which can lead to new adventures (a ring of identical trees haunted by strange sounds, or a verdant clearing with signs of ancient habitation). What these ideas have in common is encouraging actual play, and providing new ideas to expand the scope of running a game in an enchanted forest.
It bears mention that Dolmenwood is a complex and heavily interconnected mini-setting. You can run it by using the details (and you can also take it apart to use the bits and pieces), but there is a deeper layer to the setting where the pieces fit together, and even the footnotes refer to other footnotes. Locations, rival factions, setting-crossing elements like the ley lines and sun stones, and new guidelines make for a mighty tangle of moving parts. The resulting network of references is very rich, revealing the thought and careful planning behind the milieu; it is also too much for a casual game, and rather hard to keep in mind. It does not help that, owing to its piecemeal publication history and the variety of content on the pages of a zine, all of this material is disorganised, lacking any sort of index or reference. This level of the Wormskin materials is perhaps best used as an occasional spice, instead of the compulsion to use all of it all the time. In a way, “learning” your way around Dolmenwood is fairly close to learning a new D&D-based game system – and it is best done gradually.
|Don't Lose Your Head|
Occasionally, the wealth of detail also obscures the clarity and intent of the articles. This is not that apparent in the case of the hex descriptions, even if they are far more detailed than the usual hex-crawl fare. These issues do, however, haunt the faction descriptions and the adventure scenarios. The Ruined Abbey of St. Clewd, a major adventure location, is split between two issues – and while it is a good one, it is rather overdone for a place with 26 keyed areas. In another issue, the description of a three-room cottage (The Atacorn’s Retreat) spans seven pages, offering a loving detail of interesting clutter. It is a very good article, yet it is overpoweringly dense, and would be a logistical nightmare to run at the table. In these aspects, Wormskin feels like too much of a good thing.
And with these flaws in mind, it still comes across very clearly. Perhaps the best aspect of the articles is how the pieces reflect the whole, and vice versa. Even after eight issues, the materials on Dolmenwood are fragmentary – there are guidelines for magical waters, but no comprehensive encounter tables; we know the goat-headed lords of Lankshorn, but not the Court of the Nag-Lord or the lake of the Dark Mirror. A lot is missing, and a lot is too much to commit into memory. However, even after a single issue, the reader gets a sufficient idea about the setting and its workings that allows him to extrapolate from the details. The campaign materials are very helpful in setting the tone and encouraging you to go further on your own. And this is what great game supplements are made of.
With respect to production values, issues of Wormskin come in the form of handsome digest-sized booklets. It is printed in colour, and features colour maps and artwork. Once again, its use and repurposing of “found art” from the fin de siècle tradition is exemplary, and it is done with such a sure hand that it feels visionary rather than cheap. Tasteful layout and good accessibility are also a positive. It has a rich writing style which is a pleasure to read in comparison with the myriad stale game texts you can encounter out in the wild. This is a classy, elegant series. Perhaps it even feels “out of genre” for the wild and unruly zine scene – are zines allowed to look so good?
|The Drune Issue|
In summary, Wormskin is a visionary product with an intriguing setting. It uses its source material masterfully, turning the generica of Old England into a particular, cohesive experience. Once you get the central idea, it works like a charm. Dolmenwood wears the B/X D&D rules like a familiar and comfortable outfit, while altering them to fit its own tone and set of influences. It doesn’t simply present a few house rules, or small variations on the basic D&D framework, neither does it create something radically new; rather, it presents a new way of thinking about D&D’s core concepts and building blocks without compromising either. Campaigns set in Dolmenwood should be halfway between the familiar and the strange, with sufficiently fresh takes on a lot of D&D’s common elements to feel fresh and ripe for exploration. I do not believe much in the proliferation of old-school systems as long as they offer the same underlying experience (once you have one system based on OD&D, AD&D and B/X, you are set for life), but I would make the jump into a Dolmenwood campaign because the distance is just right to make that jump worthwhile.
All that is old is new again: like the best of the old school on offer, Wormskin provides a fresh take on concepts we had thought tired, and innovates while staying true to the game’s traditions. It is visionary, colourful, game-oriented and above all, just very well made. This is the reason why Wormskin ranks among the best of the best in old-school gaming, a position previously shared by The Tome of Adventure Design, Anomalous Subsurface Environment, and Yoon-Suin.
For the first time in the history of this blog, I hereby award Wormskin a rating of five stars with the Prestigious Monocled Bird of Excellence.