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Saturday, 23 May 2015

Hot, Dry Fantasy

Hellfrost: Land of Fire is a supplement for Hellfrost, the desperately wintery fantasy setting published by Triple Ace Games. Over the course of three core books—a Gazetteer, a Player’s Guide, and a Bestiary, as well as numerous PDF titles, Hellfrost describes the continent of Rassilon, divided in two by the Icewall, a gigantic, mile high wall of ice and cold that rose at the end of the Blizzard War. The peoples and nations of Rassilon are threatened by encroaching armies of coldfire-breathing Hellfrost dragons, frost giants, coldfire elementals, and orcs from north of the Icewall, by the ever falling temperatures, and by the growing belief that the gods have abandoned the peoples of Rassilon to the cold. Written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s popular Savage Worlds, the Hellfrost setting is a pre-apocalyptic, Northern European-inspired fantasy. In many ways, Hellfrost: Land of Fire is both very different to the setting of Hellfrost and its counterpart.

Technically, Hellfrost: Land of Fire is not a standalone book. Of course it requires Savage Worlds, but it is actually a geographical expansion for Hellfrost, so requires two other books—Hellfrost: Player’s Guide and Hellfrost: Bestiary. The need to access these two books is limited to various Edges and Hindrances as well as certain creatures that reside in cold North and the hot South. As one book though, Hellfrost: Land of Fire combines a Gazetteer, a Player’s Guide, and a Bestiary into one volume. As its title suggests, the element at the heart of its setting is fire rather than cold. Physically, this manifests in burning sands rather than freezing ice, and just as Rassilon faces falling temperatures, so do ‘The Lands of Heat’ or Al-Shirkuh. As Al-Shirkuh grows colder, the rains come less often, and the sands of the desert encroach upon the fertile ribbons along the continent’s coasts. Nevertheless, for the last five centuries, Al-Shirkuh has been free and prosperous, ever since Suleiman the Great overthrew the great Jinn and bound them in copper jars, and left the minor jinn to be commanded by Jinn mages. Suleiman was capable of great magics—magics that he believed did not come from the ‘gods’, but came from within and that anyone was capable of were they to live a good life. This belief spread quickly amongst the human slaves who fought to throw off the shackles of the Jinn. Yet since his death, the source of Suleiman’s magic has divided Al-Shirkuh. To the Devoted he is the greatest Mage who ever lived, who mastered all of the magical arts and stated that everyone was responsible for their own salvation. To the Faithful though, Suleiman is a prophet and a priest for all of the gods rather than none. This divide cuts through the politics and cultures of the peoples of the coast of Al-Shirkuh and colours the magics of the region.

The encroaching sands is not the only threat faced by Al-Shirkuh. The vast inner plains of sand and ash are still home to Jinn that continue to plot against their former slaves, fire giants launch raids from the Heart of Fire with impunity, whilst the remnants of two ancient rival empires have resurfaced and are determined to restore themselves to their former glories—the Ophidae or Naga empire of serpent people and the Hekatic Empire, a land of the undead ruled by necrotic Pharaohs! To the peoples of the coast, these and other places within the vast deserts are dangerous, but with their lost tombs and ancient, glittering cities, they are wondrous, full of magic and secrets ready to be won by those brave enough to seek them. That is of course if they can survive the dangers of travel across the desert. Danger and intrigue also lies on the coasts, including from assassins for hire, cults devoted to re-establishing the power of the Jinn, women plotting to overthrow the traditional order, and Wizirs—some mages, other not—aiming to overthrow their Sultan masters.

As with Hellfrost, the setting presented in Hellfrost: Land of Fire provides plenty of character options. In terms of Race, these include the Cakali, nomadic jackal men known for their sense of honour and their fearlessness; the hyena men or Hyaenidae, who scavenge the ruins in the desert and have a poor reputation due their greed and taunting yap; the Jinn Blooded, humans who are naturally capable of commanding Lesser Jinn and thus have an innate control of the elements; and Sand Goblins, also known as ‘Camel Goblins’, hunched creatures with wide feet who are capable surviving longer in the desert and walking across its sands with ease, who are known for being lazy and live as beggars, scavengers, and thieves. Lastly, Humans come in two cultural varieties, the city and coast dwelling Hadaree and the nomadic, desert dwelling Bedu. Both receive a free Edge or extra skill points.

In terms of character options, players have plenty to choose from. They can play Assassins, Beggars, Headsmen, Houri, Nomads, Pegasus Guards, Tomb Raiders, and more, most of which have related Edges. For example, the Headsman Edge grants the masked members of the Guild of Headsmen the right to conduct executions, including beheadings, using the Called Shot action; beggars can be Unfortunate Souls, members of a brotherhood who often seem to pass unnoticed and can rely upon each other; and Pegasus Guards are elite soldiers and messengers who bond with their pegasi mounts. This in addition to the range of Edges that fit the Arabian Nights genre of Hellfrost: Land of Fire, such as Storyteller, Desert Son, Mameluk Mercenary, and so on.

Our sample character is a highly persuasive assassin who uses her wiles and stories to beguile her intended victims. These are her weapons against them rather than straight out good looks and charisma. She is fascinated with history and folklore and takes pleasure their study as much as she does of her studying of her victims.

Husna bint Azhar – Hadaree Houri-Assassin
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d4, Vigour d4
Skills: Fighting d8, Knowledge (Folklore) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d8, Stealth d8, Streetwise d6
Charisma: +0
Glory: 0
Pace: 6” Parry: 6 Toughness: 4 Bennies: 3
Languages: Al-Waziran, Anari, Classical Anari, Holy Tongue
Hindrances: City Dweller, Code of Honour, Sea Fear
Edges: Diverse, Brotherhood of Assassins, Houri
Gear: Dagger (Str+d4)

Magic in the Land of Fire offers just as many options, though there is a deep divide between the Devoted and the Faithful. Beyond the cultural differences, only the Devoted study the arcane arts, whilst the Faithful worship the gods and receive miracles. Dervish Magic involves spinning and the longer a Dervish spins, the more effective his magic is, whilst Jinn Magic is not so much magic as commanding Lesser Jinn to control the elements—the Jinn Blooded are often adept at Jinn Magic. The art of Khem-Hekau is actually necromancy, whilst Sand Magic is the study and manipulation of the magical energy flowing through the deserts, essentially a sort of ‘desert druidism’. Ushabti magic involves the animation of inanimate objects which the caster must be able to touch the objects he is animating, including the temporary creation of flying carpets! Animate Object, a new spell, is regarded as a signature spell. Lastly Wizir Magic is divided into two types, although both draw from the connection that a Wizir has with a patron, such as a Sultan or rich merchant. Guardian Wizirs use magic to protect their patrons, whilst Counselors are advisers or spies.

That Hellfrost: Land of Fire is the counterpoint to Hellfrost is particularly self-evident in the range of options available to design the player characters. Essentially Cakali are the equivalent of Elves in Al-Shirkuh—more or less—whilst Sand Goblins are the equivalent of Rassilon’s Engros. In place of the Frostborn from the North, Al-Shirkuh has the Jinn-Blooded, and although it has elementalism in the form of Jinn Magic, fire is the favoured element rather than ice. Indeed, in the brazen heat of the southern deserts, the ice and cold magic of the Hrimwisards of the North is severely curtailed. Similarly, the Land of Fire has rules for its difficult environment—heat, ash, and fire, and of course, water and dehydration rather than the cold, ice, and snow. Other notable setting rules govern the types of arms and armour available. Notably, these state that the use of bronze is far more common for both, and armours worn tend to be lighter because of the heat. Surprisingly, silk is considered a type of armour since it slows arrows.

The bulk of Hellfrost: Land of Fire is devoted to a gazetteer. This covers everywhere from the coastal states such as the Caliphate of Al-Shirkuh and the Free Emirate States to the deep desert ruins of Hekata, the Realm of the Medusae, and the Jinn Lands of Old. Much of it is richly detailed, typically half a page or more per major location, but for all that detail, the supplement does feel underdeveloped in one or two ways. First, the effects of the climate change that is currently affecting the northern continent of Rassilon do not feel as desperate in Al-Shirkuh and this lack of desperation moves it away from the pre-apocalyptic feel of Hellfrost. This is not to say that a lighter tone is unwelcome—this is after all, a land of Arabian fantasy—but the lack of urgency in the threat overhanging Al-Shirkuh means that there is not the impetus playing out in Al-Shirkuh that there is in Rassilon. Second, this is not helped by the lack of advice for the GM or suggestions as what sort of campaigns could be run in this setting. After all, it could be argued that Hellfrost: Land of Fire is very much a standalone setting.

Hellfrost: Land of Fire is well presented and nicely illustrated. As a setting it can of course be presented as a counterpoint to the iciness of Hellfrost set in an Arabian Nights fantasy, but just as easily it could be played as an Arabian fantasy of its own. There is certainly enough supporting material—if not advice—to do either. Where Hellfrost: Land of Fire shines is in its character options, both in terms in what there is to play and what magic there is to cast; indeed, Hellfrost: Land of Fire provides wonderfully thematic characters to play and some thematically great magic to cast.