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Friday 15 March 2024

Friday Fantasy: Tales of the Wolfguard

Blizzard Vale is the most northerly of the Empire’s provinces, a long valley cutting through the mighty Moonmaiden Range, perpetually snow-covered and marked with sparse stands of conifers, ice-covered lakes, and frigid rivers. Here can be found the clans of the barbarian Elves, long driven out of the vale by the Empire and into the surrounding mountains and much reduced from what they once were, and no longer considered a threat by the Empire. At the entrance to the valley stands the town of Ysvindur, an imperial provincial capital that would have long since been abandoned were it not for the exotic goods that merchants from the south come to buy from the Elf clans. Indeed, both the governor or legate and his various bureaucrats consider a posting by the Emperor to Ysvindur and the Blizzard Vale a disappointment at the very least, a punishment at the very most. Yet there are those who welcome assignment or exile to Ysvindur, either because they wish to make a new start on the frontier and escape whatever misfortune or scandal befell them in the capital or because they have been sentenced to serve in the north for crimes that might have otherwise seen them imprisoned or even exiled. They serve in the Wolfguard, whose members are dedicated to protecting the vale and Ysvindur. Their endeavours are explored in Tales of the Wolfguard.

Tales of the Wolfguard is a hexcrawl published by Hellwinter Forge of Wonders for use with Old School Essentials, Necrotic Gnome’s interpretation and redesign of the 1981 revision of Basic Dungeons & Dragons by Tom Moldvay and its accompanying Expert Set by Dave Cook and Steve Marsh. It is designed to be played using Third Level Player Characters, ideally members of the Wolfguard, newly appointed, prepared for exile and a new life in the frigid north. The roles within the Wolfguard map onto Classes of Old School Essentials and other retroclone. As record keepers for the Wolfguard, Chroniclers are Acrobats and Bards; Priests provide spiritual and healing needs as Clerics and Druids; Rooks are its frontlines warriors and are Barbarians, Dwarves, Fighters, Knights, and Paladins; Striders are its spies and scouts, so are acrobats, Assassins, half-Orcs, Rangers, and Thieves; and Warlocks deal with arcane magic and thus are Elves, Illusionists, and Wizards. The Wolfguard also has its own headquarters, the Faraway Den, roughly a day’s ride from Ysvindur, a keep carved out of the mountainside and featuring an armoury, a thermal pool, infirmary, and temple. Fully mapped and detailed, the Faraway Den is relatively small, capable of housing only twelve members, which also indicates the maximum size of the Wolfguard. Also housed in the Faraway Den’s temple is its ‘Syare’. This is an arcane orb, part of a network which enables magical and instant communication between the sites where they are installed. Essentially, think of the Palantir devices from The Lord of the Rings. It enables the Wolfguard to maintain contact with the Legate through his Syare in Ysvindur and even with Emperor Egon Kruvaja XII, far to the south, via the Sovereign Syare housed in the Imperial Palace.

If the Game Master does decide to use the Wolfguard as her Player Character organisation—which feels similar to that of the Night’s Watch from A Game of Thrones, one of its great features—and that of Tales of the Wolfguard—is the capacity for the Faraway Den and the Player Characters to attune to each other. This is done by the players investing their characters’ Experience Points in the Faraway Den itself. Invest enough Experience Points and it unlocks a feature. For example, for nine hundred Experience Points, the orb lights in the Faraway Den will turn red whenever someone with evil intent enters Windswept Pass that leads to the Wolfguard’s base of operations. There are a total of fourteen upgrades, some of which grant Reaction bonuses with certain groups or enable the keep’s thermal pool to restore an energy drain caused by the undead once a month, and they let the Player Characters make the Faraway Den their home and collectively personalise it. This echoes the community building rules to be found in Free League Publishing titles such as Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying, and are more than welcome here.

The setting for Tales of the Wolfguard, Blizzard Vale, is described in a mix of broad and thumbnail detail, the latter typically focusing on particular locations and points of interest across the valley. Ysvindur lies partially dug into a mountain, its notable buildings beside the Legate’s palace include House of Pleasures where the Last Stand is popular gambling game (its rules also included) and Kastran’s Bric-à-Brac, from the Dwarf owner sells all manner of things, including potions and even magical items. Local traditions and typical dishes, like elk jerky (dried with a blend of spices and perfect for long journeys through the Blizzard Vale) and the hearty frostberry stew, add flavour and feel. There are secrets too, including threats that belie the reputation of the Blizzard Vale as a sleepy backwater. One of them is a sect of assassins and criminals known as the Scorpion Milk, and although Tales of the Wolfguard does not actually tell the Game Master what the sect’s aim is in and around Ysvindur, it does provide a random table of its possible actions as it works to destabilise the region and take advantage of it. This is one of the features of Tales of the Wolfguard, tables that provide hooks and details.

A more obvious threat—according to some in Ysvindur—are the Barbarian Elves. This attitude dates back to the Empire’s first encounters with the Elves of the Blizzard Vale and the rumours of demihuman and human sacrifice. The Legate, Lord Rathlas, believes them to be a threat. Of course, the situation is not quite as simple and the Player Characters have the chance to interest with the Elves from the moments they arrive in the Blizzard Vale and again on a regular basis at the Barbarian Market held each month by the Elf leader, Byrde of the Ice Gaze, outside the walls of Ysvindur. This is where the merchants who come from the south can purchase the exotic goods that can be sold elsewhere in the Empire. A table of such goods is given too, and include the foul-smelling ‘Ice Grease’ which is very effective against the cold, and ‘Tnar’, a board game played by the Elves. Tales of the Wolfguard also gives the rules for the board game too along with a full sized board. The game is simplistic, but getting a player and his character to play against an NPC would add a certain verisimilitude.

Other secrets include a race of birdmen and a set of ancient ruins. The former, the Ikaryas, reside in mystical seclusion atop the mountains, their existence is either completely ignored or regarded as nothing more than myths. The latter consists of a shattered tower that was once the home of a dark sorceress known as the Winter Crone. Although the tower itself is not mapped out or detailed, several mini-dungeons are described, including caves, temples, libraries, and more, their entrances strewn across the ruins that litter the small valley where the Winter’s Crone tower stands. Their exact locations are not mapped out, but instead triggered by the rolls on the encounter table. The dungeons themselves—each generated by Watabou’s One Page Dungeon [https://itch.io/profile/watabou]—are briefly described and the Game Master may want to flesh them out some more. Similarly, the Ikaryas have their own set of encounters.

The Game Master is further supported by stats for all of the various monsters and NPCs, a table of legends and rumours that the Game Master can use to develop her own encounters, and a ‘Quest Plot Generator’, a set of tables which determines a quest or scenario’s setting and theme, villain and his motivation, possible reward for the Player Characters, the scenario starting point, twist, and climax. Lastly, Tales of the Wolfguard includes an introductory adventure which assumes that the Player Characters are members of the Wolfguard. It begins at the entrance to Windswept Pass which leads up to the Faraway Den and sees them investigate the disappearance of the former garrison there and involves Elf Barbarians and a dark villain. The scenario mentions the villain only by name, the intention being to have the Game Master develop this herself.

In addition, Tales of the Wolfguard comes with six pre-generated Player Characters, each with a reason to join the Wolfguard. Not all of them are pleasant. They also all have magical weapons. That said, if there is anything actually missing from the pages of Tales of the Wolfguard, it is a table of reasons to join the Wolfguard should the players want to create their own characters. There is even a mini-soundtrack to play during the running of the scenario.

Physically, Tales of the Wolfguard is well presented and the layout clean and tidy. The artwork is decent and the cartography good.

Tales of the Wolfguard comes with lots of playable content and room for both the players and their characters to make their mark on the Blizzard Vale and the Game Master to develop further material. This can be her own content or it can be inspired or drawn from the many prompts and hooks to be found in the pages of Tales of the Wolfguard. This is by design, as beyond the starting scenario and initial setting content, the Game Master is expected to develop further material. That can also apply to some of the existing content, such as the dungeons, which do require further fleshing out. Overall, Tales of the Wolfguard is a good combination of hexcrawl, hexcrawl toolkit, atmospherically frigid setting, and hooks for the Game Master’s imagination. It would be great to see some further content released for Tales of the Wolfguard, but in the meantime, the Game Master has everything she needs to make it her own.

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