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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cold, Grim Fantasy

The truth is that are more games released than I can ever review however much I try. This means that I miss games that I want to review as I never find the time to tackle them. One such game is Hellfrost, a setting published by Triple Ace Games which I had good reason to read this last fortnight or so. Written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams for use with Savage Worlds – the generic RPG rules from Pinnacle Entertainment Group that handles slightly pulpy, cinematic action – Hellfrost is yet another fantasy RPG setting, but one that is very different to other fantasy RPGs in a couple of important ways. First, whilst it is fantasy RPG that draws on European roots, those roots are not atypical fantasy, for setting can be best described as a pre-apocalyptic, Northern European set fantasy. Second, unlike other Savage Worlds settings, it comes as a typical fantasy RPG rather than a Savage Worlds book. In other worlds, it is not a single book with an included campaign like Triple Ace Games’ Sundered Skies or Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s 50 Fathoms, but rather a true setting in that it is described in three books – the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, the Hellfrost Bestiary, and the Hellfrost Gazetteer, with support in the form of scenarios and supplements sold separately. It is the first of these books, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, which is reviewed here. As with previously reviewed titles from Triple Ace Games, I should point out that I have worked on several of their titles as an editor, though not specifically on Hellfrost itself.

The setting for Hellfrost is Rassilon, a continent that for centuries has been divided in two by the Ice barrier, a gigantic, mile high wall of ice and cold that rose at the end of the Blizzard War. North of the Icewall, an army of coldfire-breathing Hellfrost dragons, frost giants, coldfire elementals, and orcs swept away numerous, but now forgotten civilisations whose lands lie under deep under snow and glacial ice. As fire as an element diminishes, the newly appeared Coldfire grows in its place, being an element that burns as well as it freezes, such that it can be used to forge arms and armour, especially from the new “black ice.” South of the Icewall, some civilisations held out against the Hellfrost armies, but in the five centuries since, ice and snow has continued to encroach ever further south as the temperatures drop. The forests continue to freeze, coniferous trees replacing deciduous ones, Taiga Elves living amongst the former, whilst their cousins, the hearth elves, reside in the latter. Frost Dwarves now build their cities into the high glaciers as well as the rock of the high mountains, all the whilst mining for precious metals and gems as well as the “black ice” from which they can forge arms and armour. South of the Icewall, three human civilisations can be found – the city-dwelling Anari; the rural and clannish Saxa; the tribal and warlike Tuomi; and the nomadic Finnar. Travelling in great caravans throughout this region are the Engros, a diminutive and distrusted race that has the reputation of being thieves and beggars. Nevertheless, their indomitable spirit sees them withstand all of the jibes that come with such a reputation. Lastly, the Frostborn are a new race, born of other races, which has found a home in the encroaching cold and snow even as their recent appearance is seen as one more sign that the gods have abandoned the peoples of Rassilon to the cold.

All of these races – Engros, Frostborn, Frostdwarves, Hearth and Taiga Elves, and the Anari, the Saxa, the Tuomi, and the Finnar – are available to play. In terms of occupation, both the setting and the Hellfrost Player’s Guide offer numerous options. Elven Bladedancers and Engro Bludgeoners protect their respective races, whilst druids protect both races and also attempt to protect the wilds from the oncoming Ice Age. Elementalists are wizards that work to master the elements one-by-one. Heahwisards work their powerful magics through their staves, but would be lost without them. Hrimwisards, or “Hoar Frost Mages” draw directly from the cold to fuel their spells and the more cold it is, the more powerful their spells are. Meanwhile, the Frost Dwarves remain the last people to retain knowledge of Rune Magic, focusing their magic through carved runes. The tradition of magic, poetry, song, and stories is maintained by the Skalds, entertainers who are welcome in any stead or household.

Several knightly orders are known across Rassilon. Hearth Knights defend directly against the predations of the Hellfrost inhabitants and mostly work along the Icebarrier and beyond. The Order of the Knights Hrafn, or “Order of the Knights Raven,” is dedicated to military leadership and usually serves the nobility as advisors. In addition, protection is provided by various guilds, such as the Iron Guild, which hires out its mercenaries to protect merchants. The Roadwardens are an informal organisation dedicated to protecting travellers on the road, whilst the Elven Woodwardens protect the forests.

Lastly, the Lorekeepers are an informal organisation dedicated to finding lost knowledge and ensuring that it is never lost, whilst the Reliquary is more interested in locating, studying, and protecting magic items. The art of creating magic items is one that has been lost following the rise of the Hellfrost, but the Reliquary would rather ensure that the remaining relics never fell into the hands of the enemy than see it be used against the enemy. Both the Lorekeepers and the Reliquary consist of scholars and tomb-raiders.

Character creation more or less follows the standard pattern for Savage Worlds. Except that there are more options given in the Hellfrost Player’s Guide than in many other Savage Worlds settings, and because a character’s race is important in Hellfrost, a player’s choice of race uses up the Edge (or advantage) that all characters begin with prior to creation. This includes Humans as race, but rather than receiving further Edges and Hindrances as part of a racial package, they instead have a choice of more skills or an extra Edge. The two sample characters below are typical of the setting, a hated Hrimwisard or “Hoar Frost Mage” who searches the Winterlands and beyond for lost secrets, whilst the second is a stalwart Roadwarden, protecting Rassilon’s roads and travellers. Nevertheless, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is ripe with character options and ideas, and it would be easy to fill this whole review with sample player characters. That would be extra hard work though, in part because the process does flipping back and forth to work out what works with what and what each of the setting’s new Edges requires.

Howell Frostfall – Frostborn Hrimwisard
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d6, Strength d4, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Fighting d6, Hrimwisardry d8, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Arcana) d8, Knowledge (History) d4, Lockpicking d4, Notice d6
Charisma: –4
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 5 Toughness: 5 (+1) Bennies: 3
Languages: Anari, Classical Anari, Frosttongue, Trader, Selari
Hindrances: Bad Eyes (Minor), Curious, Necromantic Weakness (Minor), Outsider
Edges: Arcane Background (Hrimwisardry), Lorekeeper
Spells – self only: Armor (icy skin), Environmental Protection (against cold only), Smite (icicles grow from hands or a held weapon), and speed (ice-shod feet) – all from Frigid Form
Spells: Burrow, Detect/Conceal
Notes: Frigid Form; Heat Lethargy (Lethargic at temperatures of 53° or higher. –1 to all trait rolls in such temperatures); Winter Soul (+2 to Vigor saves to resist the effects of cold weather, and +2 Armor to resist the effects of cold, coldfire, or ice attacks); Hrimwisardry (permanent environmental protection (cold) spell, but +4 damage from heat and fire attacks)
Gear: Leather Armor (+1), knife (Str+d4), warhammer (Str+d6, AP 1 vs. rigid armour)

Yrsa Skulisdohtor – Saxa Hearth Knight
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d6, Spirit d4, Strength d6, Vigor d6
Skills: Climbing d4, Fighting d8, Guts d4, Persuasion d4, Riding d6, Shooting d6, Stealth d4, Survival d6, Tracking d6
Charisma: +2
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 6 (+1) Toughness: 5 (+2) Bennies: 3
Languages: Saxa, Trader
Hindrances: Code of Honour, Magic Forbiddance
Edges: Attractive, Roadwarden, Snow Walker
Notes: Roadwarden (+2 to all Survival and Tracking; +2 to Notice rolls to detect ambushes, traps, concealed weapons, and such like)
Gear: Chainmail Hauberk (+2), Medium Shield (+1 Parry, +2 Armour against ranged attacks), Short Spear (Str+d6, Reach 1), Bow (12/24/48, 2d6), winter clothing

Magic, as has already been suggested by the character types earlier, comes in numerous forms in the Hellfrost setting. These are not the only forms of magic in Rassilon, for Alchemy is also studied, as is Hedge Magic and Herbalism. Both are natural magic rather than arcane or divine magic. Herbalism focuses on the creation of poultices and draughts to provide remedies to various maladies, but Hedge Magic draws on natural magic to replicate other forms. In game terms, this requires both the Hedge Magic Edge and a Professional Edge if a character wants to know more than Herbalism. The advantage of both Hedge Magic and Hrimwisardry is that neither is affected by the disturbing phenomenon known as The Siphoning which replaces Savage Worlds’ Backlash rules and which can occur any time that an arcane spell is cast. In game terms, any time that a one is rolled on the arcane skill die, The Siphoning occurs with effects ranging from the caster being simply Shaken – at best, or Fatigued and losing the use of his powers for a day, to at worst, being Wounded and losing his powers for days or even permanently losing part of his magical ability. The latter is represented by a reduction in type of die he rolls for his arcane skill. The effect of The Siphoning is to make casting spells anything other than an easy choice, even though all arcanists are free to cast as many spells as they would want. In game terms, the casting of spells in Hellfrost does not use the Power Points usually found in other Savage Worlds fantasy settings.

Whilst The Siphoning does not affect priests and divine magic, the gods of Rassilon are all the more difficult to contact and they dislike those who abuse their power or call upon it too often. Thus when casting Miracles, a cleric who rolls a 1 on his Faith die, regardless of the Wild die, is automatically Shaken. At worst, he can be Fatigued or even Wounded. Nevertheless, the gods are important and through faith and dedication, it is possible for priests and paladins to become disciple of any one of the twenty-four deities that are recognised – if not always worshipped by the peoples of Rassilon. Each of the gods is fully detailed, from the titles they known as and the aspects they have domain over to the signature Power and Powers granted. More importantly for paladins and priests, the description includes the sins that in committing would cause either to lose their Powers.

For example, Thrym is the god of winter who has risen to prominence as the gods of the fire and sun, Kenaz and Sigel, have disappeared. Also known as the Blizzard Roar or the White King, Thrym’s aspects are cold, ice, winter, blizzards, and icy realms; his symbol is the head of a Hellfrost Dragon’s head; any day that temperature falls below freezing is regarded as being one of his holy days; the duties of his priesthood – the Breath of Winter, and his paladins – the Talons of Winter are to expand the Hellfrost and to destroy servants of fire and heat (including those who worship Kenaz and Sigel, fire elementalists, and fire elementals); and sins against him include lighting a fire, deliberately warming oneself by a fire, eating cooked food more than once a week, slaying any creature with Resistance or Immunity to cold except in self-defence, living in the warmer Hearthlands for more than half a year without permission of a superior, slaying a Hellfrost dragon, and working against the Fimbulvintr. To his worshippers, Thyrm embodies the Hellfrost, and whilst neither a “good” or an “evil” deity, Thyrm is followed by evil races such as Orcs and Frost Giants, though Hrimwisards at least acknowledge him as the source of their spells.

In addition all player characters have a statistic new Savage Worlds – “Glory.” It is like Charisma, but represents a character’s reputation rather than his force of personality. Within the game it is rewarded for undertaking heroic deeds – in addition to Experience Points – and every twenty or so Glory a character gains Connections with certain organisations, greater Combat Prowess, and can even be “Immortalised in Song”! Skalds can tell stories of a character’s deeds and so increase his Glory. Of course, Glory can go down as well as up, and gain such an infamous reputation that he is a Wanted man or even gains an Enemy who wants him dead! Essentially, encourages positive play, though a player could still play a villain if he wanted to.

Although the Hellfrost Player’s Guide provides only general information about Rassilon’s topography – the actual geographical details are described in the Hellfrost Gazetter – it does give plenty of background information and the rules to support this information. This includes not just chapters on gear – from food to fortifications and vehicles to weapons, and daily life on Rassilon – everything from food and funerary customs to calendar and coinage; but also descriptions of many of the continent’s organisations, all of which the player characters could join (if they qualify) or interact with; all before rounding out the volume with a set of setting specific generic rules. These understandably cover the weather and its dangers in some detail as well as the dangers of travelling in cold environments.

Physically, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is a nicely presented hardback. The book is heavily illustrated, but what there is, does capture the grimmer nature of the setting. In comparison to other Savage World settings, a complaint could be made that the volume is incomplete in that it requires more books and an adventure to play. This though, should not be held against the publisher, for the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is, as with other well-known fantasy RPGs, a book intended for both players and GMs. Further, beyond the Hellfrost Bestiary and Hellfrost Gazetteer, the Hellfrost setting is well supported by the publisher. If there is an issue with the Hellfrost Player’s Guide, it is a lack of map that would give some idea of Rassilon’s geography. That said, a map is available from Triple Ace Games which also gives the breakdown to which of the setting’s areas the various Region Guides describe. Another issue might be the setting’s extensive use of non-English for its terms, such as some of the titles taken by the characters – Hrimwisard or Skald, for example, and names of the gods and Rassilon’s calendar. To be honest, this is just another element that brings Rassilon to life and the book includes a pronunciation guide.

Although the Hellfrost Player’s Guide is not a setting book, it does much to bring the richness and detail of Rassilon to life. Obviously, this is primary through the myriad number of detailed character options available right through character progression, which are tightly tied into Rassilon’s various organisations and elemental adversities and not only give rise to interesting characters, but also interesting character motivations too. The richness also shows in the setting’s inspirations, the cultures of Northern rather than Western Europe, and the extensive use of their languages. Accompanying this richness is a grim and gritty feel, one that again shows in the setting and its encroaching apocalypse, in its character options, and to an extent in the rules for magic and the weather. Above all, the Hellfrost Player’s Guide brings the complexity and detail of Rassilon to life in preparation for the heroic exploits of the player characters.