Continuing the discussion from The OSR PIT zine:
Written for Zine Quest 2 by Shane Walshe, creator of Woodfall - a Mini Hexcrawl Setting, Willow delivers “grim” in spades, providing an easy to run setting that can be dropped into, or used to kick off, any OSR campaign. The zine is written for the Swords & Wizardry system, but with a bit of conversion the material contained within should be able to be used with any similar ruleset. While the world of Willow isn’t as doomed as the one in, for example, MÖRK BORG, without the intervention of your players everyone within will end up just as dead.
Look, Feel, and Space Utilization
Before diving into the content, let’s examine the booklet itself. This 32-page zine is an 8.5”x5.5” print, so it’s a little taller and a little less wide than a standard A5 book. The printing, done by Mixam, has a light card-stock cover with a matte finish that does unfortunately pick up fingerprints. The interior is printed on glossy, high-quality paper. The overall construction and build caliber is good. The text doesn’t smear and the printing will hold up to some wear and tear. The zine has a nice feel in one’s hand.
The cover of the zine does pop upwards, which makes it impossible to just have it lie closed on your table without it encroaching upon the space above it; therefore, the booklet should reside in either a bookshelf or in a stack of books when not in use. While this isn’t ideal, it does have the effect of allowing the booklet to lie open in your hand or on your table while you read it.
Aside from the front cover, every square inch of Willow is packed with content, so you’re getting a good value for your CA$ 14 shipped for a print copy (CA$ 7 for a PDF version). The setting is fantastic and wildly imaginative. It’s reminiscent of something evil and wild; hidden, lurking deep within the forest. A small town sits in the middle of it all on a lake, slowly being corrupted by the outside influence pressing inward. Appropriate artwork is included in all but one spread, which helps build the setting and pull the reader into the world of Willow. The standout drawing is of the interior of the wizard tower, which is extremely detailed and intricate.
There are six total locations keyed in the zine, along with a sixteen room dungeon, some NPCs, a rumor table, monster stat blocks, and other tools that will help a referee run the setting. Retainers were notably absent, which is an odd stylistic choice for an OSR setting; however, some town members can be recruited if certain conditions are met.
Several tables are also included in the booklet that are particularly good and could be used in other games as well, such as weather descriptors and a magical item generator. In addition, there is a cause and effect table, which shows what can happen if the players take a certain action. This table, coupled with the timeline table at the rear of the zine, make Willow particularly easy to work with as a referee.
The rear of the zine and inside covers all contain usable information that you might want to access quickly, for example a hex map and a shop’s inventory. The back cover spread was the most useful, as it showed both a 3-tier random treasure table along with a timeline of possible events. Willow would have benefitted from this design for use on the front cover spread as well. The referee is given a section on how to use the booklet on the opposite page instead, which isn’t digestible at a glance. It would have been better to include the faction relations there, which also helped break down what the pertinent locations on the hex map were. Rather than being located next to the map, this useful diagram is located on page 13.
Willow is staple bound, and could have leveraged the space in the center of the zine for a large two-page map, table, or art piece to maximize the utilization of the middle spread. Instead, we have the start of the keys to the dungeon that is shown on the two pages before it. Not ideal, but not necessarily the worst usage of the space either, as the zine automatically falls open to the dungeon’s room descriptions.
There are a few other usability issues with Willow. The hex map on the inside cover is a little plain, and could have benefitted from the inclusion of page numbers for the major locations it represents and a distance measure to give the referee an idea of scale. This appears to be a recurring issue, as the isometric map of the town, while beautiful, also has this same problem. There are missing or misplaced statblocks, even for the NPCs that are expected to join the PCs if certain events transpire. For instance, the NPCs Sania and Sir Oliver are listed without statblocks in the NPC section of the booklet; however, if you examine the cause and effect table it does indicate their level. This requires the referee to flip between two sections of the booklet to gather pertinent information. There are some concepts in the zine that are introduced before they’re explained in detail, and there’s also a relationship map that is overly complex and difficult to decipher. Finally, the dungeon key could have made better use of bolding to highlight pertinent parts of the dungeon. As it stands, some monsters are bolded, some are not, and some are only partially bolded.
Overall, Willow is a great setting booklet and, at under 40 pages, flipping through the zine to find things is no big deal. Anything not included or difficult to find is easy enough for a referee to improvise on the spot. The stylized artwork helps as well, as paging through it numerous times was a joy in and of itself. While there were a few typos and grammatical errors and a few usability improvements that would benefit this zine, Willow is a worthy addition to any OSR fan’s collection, especially if they enjoy grim settings.
Links to the Author