Wormwitch – The Life and Death of Belinda Blood (2019)
Amhisa Kerp & Wind Lothamer (Knight Owl Publishing)
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The sponsored reviews continue. Knight Owl Publishing is a quixotic little OSR publisher operating out of distant Portland Oregon and responsible for the genesis of such products as Invasion of the Tuber Dudes, Black Blade of the Demon King and The Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia. Genre defying, 4th wall breaking, fuelled by too much Michael Moorcock and Cormac Mcarthy and somewhere between smart dumb and dumb smart, their stuff is worth the coveted label of interesting and is thus a delight to review, for good or for worse.
When I read the premise to Wormwitch I was understandably hesitant. The idea of expanding the gonzo/new weird campaign setting of Meatlandia with a tiny sliver of an island, and make that island MORE RESTRAINED seemed foolish to me. The whole point of Meatlandia was how batshit insane it was. Meat mech suits, kaldane, ninja assassin cults, fleshcrafting wizards and so on. But Worm Witch, or rather, the island of Annalidia is actually very interesting because it CONTRASTS with Meatlandia. It is a tiny pinprick of normalcy and life, one of the last few of such places remaining in the chaos-wracked distopia of Meatlandia.
I get ahead of myself. Wormwitch takes place on the island of Annalidia, off the coast of the main continent of Meatlandia. Eager for conquest, the Meatlord’s armies were unprepared for the fierce resistance put up by the native Worm Witches and their coteries of Worm Wardens (think Aragorn but with Worms). For a long time they have held out, but their losses have been dire. Now they are all but extinct.
The progress of the war for Annalidia since its inception ten years prior is told in little journal entries in sidebars alongside hex descriptions. This works surprisingly well. Information pertinent to a specific location is delivered in the actual description, with background and flavor text mostly relegated to the journal entries, communicating theme and mood.
Anno Meatlord 239, 17 Dec.
The Meatlord has weaponized the very forces of Chaos and, using bound and captive Nexus Bards, he wreaked utter havoc upon our forces. A small mobile force of Meat Men and their prisoners landed on this barren plain. In our hubris, we believed we could remove them with little trouble.
No natural law remained constant as Chaos ripped through us as easily as light passes through a crystal. Despite the bravery of the Worm Warden PK Lloyd, who somehow survived long enough to kill the Nexus Bards (poor doomed fools), we had already lost the cream of our army.
Not just elder witches, not just the most experienced wardens. We’ve lost Belinda Blood herself. She has fallen and none can find her body. Wither can she have fled to? With the forces of Chaos so utterly ascendant, this looks as costly a victory as ever was
The lynchpin of this bizarre conflict between fleshwarping tyrannical empire and nature witches flying on worm brooms is the mysterious Belinda Blood, newly risen hero of the resistance, now presumed dead, who can serve as an intriguing mystery for the PCs to either rediscover or assassinate. Several locations on the island are tied to her or will have information on her last location, should she still be alive (up to the GM). I’ll also give props that as far as content goes the setting does what it says on the tin, facilitating both pro-meat lord, pro-rebels and pro-looting playstyles.
Which is not to say Wormwitch is flawless, in fact if it had not been so strangely compelling I would have tsked harshly. Its structure is…weird. As a hexcrawl it sort of works as the map of Annalidia (beautifully handdrawn), is composed of 60 mile hexes but at the same time the format is puzzling. Hexes have encounter tables that simply trigger every day or night the PCs stay in them, with subsequent rewards usually doled out automatically. There are some puzzlers; PCs hanging out at the Blood Shore, site of a horrific battle, encounter a scary but harmless haunt each day (like clockwork?!?), and roll 1d4 for treasure. There’s a fucking magic spear on this table. The big point of tables like these is that they can be re-used but many of the tables in Wormwitch seem VERY MUCH single use items and thus of limited use. There’s a way to do a good hexcrawl and this ain’t it.
At the same time some locations display a deep understanding of proper hex crawling. Some will contain items that serve as quest items for hooks in the city. Some random encounters are fine:
Encounter Patrel Danner the NecroWarrior—Level 4 Chaotic Fighter, AC 3 (plate), HP 24, Att 1 x necro-bow (1d6+1, become zombie when killed) or longsword (1d8+2), THAC0 18[+1], SV F4, Items: necro-bow. He is searching for The Book of the Wyrm but if the PCs impress or charm him, he might be willing to join.
Marn and Tarn, a husband and wife team of disappointed slime worm hunters.
Bloated Ogre. AC 5, HD 4+1 (23 hp), Att 1 x club (1d6+2), THAC0 15[+4], SV F5.
A disheveled old woman who claims to be Belinda Blood
Many of the random encounters are just monsters, but everything fits together to create a bizarre sort of plausibility to this new weird horror show. Some of the noninhabited locations like the Island of Worms or the Isle of Tremors really needed one or two good hooks or encounters besides the random stuff. Conversely, there is an interesting little mini-dungeon shrine in The Wormwood and the Witch’s Woods and most settled locations like New Fleshtown or Perron have both Hooks and Rumors. Population and garrison size is only really given for Fleshtopia.
How do I explain the mood? Are you one of three people to have read Alistair Rennie’s Bleakwarrior? The bizarre nature of the piece grows on you because it takes itself seriously and plays it straight. Before you know it you can read about the dreaded General Calcidian and the reign of terror of Imperia Esmae without a hint of a snicker. The journal entries grant the place a history and an add sort of versimilitude.
The book introduces two new classes: The Worm Warden and the Worm Witch, both of which are okay but fairly mundane compared to Meatlandia’s roster of bugfuck insane super-classes. The Worm Warden is a modified ranger class that grants a morale boost to nearby allies, forage for food and gain the use of a minor special ability. This one is alright but relatively unremarkable, a resistance fighter class that seems a poor match for the Meatlord’s augmented shock troops.
The Worm Witch is Annalida’s answer to the druid class, and while it lacks the bizarre insanity of the Meat Mage, there are some interesting changes. The commitment to the vision of Worms, Blood and other grotesqueries is admirable. Worm Witches may pass through worms, identify worms, summon and shapechange into Worms and so on. Spells include the habitual druid stuff alongside an astonishing number of spells that infest people with worms, summon worms, rid them of worms, cover them in worms – gross! Healing magic is almost entirely lacking on the roster in the first few levels, also implying that Annalidia has yet another handicap in the war against the meatlord.
As I mentioned, its not quite on the level of Meatlandia but some of the spells are interesting. Worm Witches can divide their levels into two characters by splitting up, transform their visage into a writhing vision of horror, infest people with parasitic worms that burrow out and kill them, and even summon the mighty Chaos Worm (uncontrolled!).
There’s a nice variety of areas in Annalidia. Rugged, almost desolate terrain is alternated with the horrific aftermath of battles, lands transfigured by Chaos. A great lake of blood that remakes all those that bathe in it, the aftermath of a horrific chaos storm. Beaches are girded with deadly reefs, populated by colonies of nixxies, or haunted by the ghosts of dead soldiers.
There’s good use of creatures too, an odd sort of restraint. The endless varieties of monstrous worm are juxtaposed against mundane animals and only the occasional hit from the monstrous manual. The mundane inhabitants reinforce the theme, that this place is one of the few remaining bastions of normalcy in a world of chaos and horror.
All the new monsters are worms. Worms that animate dead bodies, worms that burrow into the brain, big worms, small worms, giant chaos worms and so on. The one other monster is the hideous Dreadnought, a cobbled together amalgam of bodies used as shock troops by the Meatlord’s armies (think a Bazragh). It doesn’t feel out of place, its just as bizarre as the rest of the piece.
Settlements are nice, each one equipped with rumors and hooks. There’s the odd neutral ground secretely sympathetic to the Resistance, the enemy capital of Fleshtopia which has a full map key, some NPCs, henchman and more quests and, naturally, a secret rebel base.
I think one question that needs to be asked is if the setting facilitates a campaign where the PCs look for the whereabouts of Belinda Blood and the answer is sort of yes. Despite the somewhat sparse description, Annalida actually has a lot of things to discover, factions to befriend and places to visit for purposes other then looting. I imagine a campaign of subterfuge, hardship and careful evasion, where the PCs must win the Resistance’s trust and follow a trail of rumors, from Belinda’s birthplace of Perron to the secret Rebel hideout somewhere on the Island.
Last and probably as good a use of a few pages as any, a whole new d100 is provided to generate Chaos Storm effects, a welcome addition that has the few habitual gems.
A randomly selected party member is suddenly and instantly a kung-fu master
Every NPC the party meets for the next d6 days is named Xargan Zargan.
It rains sharp toothed fish—piranhas, barracudas, etc—for exactly 3 minutes.
Wormwitch is messy and has the unfortunate disadvantage of falling somewhere between a hex crawl and a campaign setting proper, meaning some legwork and elaboration from the GM will definitely be a must. I am not happy with some of the random encounter tables. That being said, I find myself asking whether or not I would be willing to sink in the time and effort to run this weirdo campaign.
The answer would be probably. If I get tired of elves and orcs and magic pixie faeries of brookbottom bay I shall take my players and transport them to the grotesque land of meatlandia, wage war against the minions of the vile General Calcidian and have a not quite as batshit but still very entertaining time searching for the mysterious Belinda Blood while you piece together what happened.
For anyone looking to spice up Meatlandia with something more coherent but no less weird, Wormwitch probably scratches that itch and scratches it good. Its not perfect, but its interesting, quirky and downright fascinating at times.
I’m actually going to like an artpunk thing. I must be selling out.***
Wormwitch can be purchased here.