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So to use the multiline text field with append changes, I turned on the versioning setting for my list. However since doing so, users without delete permissions (custom contribute level without delete) can no longer open Display or Edit forms.

I can't see anything in the versioning settings that would prevent their view/edit of list items, nor have I seen documentation that supports the requirement to have Delete permissions for lists with versioning enabled.

Am I mistaken, or is there a work-around?

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To your custom contribute level, add the permission "View Versions". This enables user of the group to view versions and edit items. They can't delete items nor versions, if you don't allow them to.

More to read: Create custom permissions - for SharePoint

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