Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hellfrost Review, Part II: Player's Guide

In Part I of this review series, I gave a bit of an overview of Hellfrost as a product line supported by Triple Ace Games. In this article specifically, I'm covering the Hellfrost Player's Guide which I had purchased for use in an online campaign. The Player's Guide is really the meat of the setting as it contains the core rules, character options, religion, and other crucial information necessary to run a Savage Worlds game in the Hellfrost campaign setting. Below are highlights of what the book brings to your Savage Worlds fantasy game as well as a  breakdown of the strengths (and some weaknesses) of this impressive product.

A Misleading Title

To start with, the title of "Player's Guide" is actually a bit of a misrepresentation of the purpose this book serves. In the normal Savage Worlds convention, a player's guide is typically a version of the core setting book with all the GM secrets stripped out, and it's usually a bit cheaper than the main setting book (see Slipstream and Necessary Evil as examples). The Hellfrost Player's Guide is actually a complete core setting book that includes all the information needed by GMs and players wanting to use this setting. If you're familiar with the D&D v3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting, it's a lot like that; it's cover even has the beautiful glossy/matte combination that the Eberron Campaign Setting had. (Who doesn't appreciate a beautiful cover to an RPG product?)

Introduction to the World

The book gives a breakdown of the history and current affairs of the world in a larger sense. If you are looking for detailed information on a specific region or organization, you'll have to refer to the Gazetteer unfortunately. That's  where the dependency on the other books begins to creep in.

You get a bit more information about the history than what's presented in the preview PDF, specifically the Blizzard War that took place five hundred years before the start of the campaign. The book also presents a brief summary of the races and cultures as well as how magic and religion are applied to the setting. The detailed rules come later though.

Map

Speaking of the world, I was slightly disappointed that the Player's Guide didn't include a map. Fortunately, Triple Ace Games provides a PDF map on the Hellfrost web page. This really isn't a sticking point for me in any way as I'm a huge advocate of online resources, but someone not plugged into the online community as much might not know to find the map online; the book makes no reference to such a map.

The PDF map is a relatively small size (11" x 17") for such a detailed continent. In fact, m.s. jackson and I both agree that the map is way too difficult to read well. I was able to print and laminate the map for less than $5 at Office Depot, but I at least would enjoy the option to have a higher resolution map available for reference on my computer.

Update: Triple Ace Games coincidentally announced today the availability of a 17" x 30" premium quality map printed on canvas and available exclusively from their online store.
Hellfrost Rassilon - Road Wardens Edition
Hellfrost fans rejoice! Chart your course over the frozen lands of Rassilon on this beautifully rendered map. 
The special collectors map is printed with eco-solvent permanent inks on archival quality canvas, then coated with a professional grade acrylic varnish for added protection, this map will enhance your Hellfrost campaign for years to come!
Interestingly enough, m.s. jackson has produced a redesigned map of the lower-left quarter of the map at a higher resolution and heavily inspired by Rob Lazaretti's Forgotten Realms map. The other forum members are begging him to finish the map, but he's extremely limited on free time.

Races

This was one of the areas that resonated with my love for Greyhawk. The races include six cultures of humans (Greyhawk had five), the halfling-like engro (or engros if plural), the frost dwarf, frostborn, and two elf races, hearth and taiga. The most important thing lacking in this section was a lack of illustrations to accompany the descriptions of the races and their cultures.

Engros: Engros are similar to D&D 3e's nomadic halflings who are distrusted and regard as thieves and troublemakers. There's a bit of a tartan-like tradition in that each tribe has its own pattern associated with it. These patterns aren't defines, which allows the players and GMs to create any custom design they'd like if they care enough.

Frost Dwarves: Frost dwarves are really the only type of dwarf in Rassilon so I'm not sure why they would culturally or socially be referred to as anything other than dwarves in this setting. In any case, they are a clannish race that dwells deep in the mountains far to the north above the snowline. Recently, however, they've been migrating southward as the cold expands from the north. Frost dwarves are masters of using coldfire, a new energy type presented in Hellfrost, which is described as a fire that generates intense cold instead of heat. Frost dwarves are also familiar with rune magic and understand how to wield such power.

Frostborn: Frostborn are essentially an anomaly race. They are not an evolved race nor are they specific to any particular race. They are actually a byproduct of some unknown magical affliction that affects all races. Essentially, it's sort of like a template for the other races, that grants an innate form of hrimwisardry (cold magic) while retaining the physical traits of the base race. A frostborn engro, for example, would still have the small trait. It's unclear whether or not some traits of the base race are physical or cultural and whether the latter should apply. Returning to the example of the engro, should a frostborn engro also have the sneaky trait? It's not a physical trait, but why couldn't a frostborn engro still live oprating outside the law as described in the racial Edges and Hindrances for an engro?

Playing a frostborn comes with a price. Cold magic is feared by commoners, who believe that hrimwisardry is practiced only by those who wish to exploit this encroaching winter covering the continent.

Hearth and Taiga Elves: The taiga and hearth elves are actually both from the same hereditary line, specifically that of the hearth elves. There was some point in the past when some of the elves argued that all forests should be homes to the elves, including those that near the frozen regions. There was an amicable split, and thus the taiga elves came into being. Essentially, taiga elves are frost elves.

Another nice trope carried over from more familiar fantasy is that there is still a bit of rivalry and politics between the elves and the dwarves and between the elves and humans as well. As the elves have had to move southward into human lands, the humans have regarded any loss of their remaining resources as a serious threat, creating tension between the two.

Humans: Speaking of humans, I think this is where the races really become interesting. There are six cultures, each very different from the others. The Anari are the more urban humans who dwell in towns and cities. The Finnar are a nomadic people who live in the colder climates and have a good rapport with the taiga elves. The Saxa are clannish and live in farmsteads and villages with some towns as part of royal territories and a culture based on oaths of loyalty and principals of hospitality (recall King Hrothgar's land in The 13th Warrior or Edoras in The Lord of the Rings). Finally, there are the Tuomi, a dwindling culture of proud warriors who use bloodshed to settle disputes rather than diplomacy.

Glory

This is a new trait that's introduced in the character creation section of the book but elaborated upon in its own chapter. Essentially, Glory is a system by which you acquire fame, followers, or immortality through song. When you reach a multiple of 20 Glory, you get to spend it on a benefit listed in the chapter. These benefits really add a lot to your character's story with respect to the enjoyment of the game and the development of the campaign story and setting. It gives some additional depth for you to roleplay your character while also extending the lore of the world as you and your friends continue to develop your campaign.

Magic: 'Fast! Furious! Fun!' Turned up to 11!

Magic is handled a little differently in Hellfrost, and I think it's a system I'd actually adopt for other settings as well. In a nutshell, there are no power points to track... EVER! Instead, the conventional backlash affect for Arcane Background (Magic) was replaced by an effect known as "the Siphoning" which has the potential for permanent effects such as losing a die in your arcane skill or even permanent loss of the Arcane Background (Magic) Edge. Lesser effects are more common, such as not being able to use magic for a period of time ranging from rounds to hours to days coupled with various durations of fatigue.

The benefit of this is that you can cast or augment your magic as much as you'd like. You can also sustain magic indefinitely until you dismiss it or can no longer concentrate on it. If you felt like taking risks, you could keep casting and dropping maintainable spells until you ace, but you run the risk of suffering from the Siphoning.

Another interesting effect is the Hellfrost's weakening effect on fire magic. This effect impacts both magic and miracles. The climate in which the character is currently in applies penalties ranging from -1 to -6 depending on the temperature of the environment.

The one odd thing in the Magic chapter is the mentioning of the effects of lunar tidal flows. It's a one line reference that doesn't seem to be connected to anything. After searching Triple Ace Games' forums, I found this thread in which Wiggy explains that the rules were cut for simplicity.

Hedge Magic

Hedge magic is a nice addition to the fantasy setting genre in Savage Worlds. Hedge Magic is actually not magic at all and it does not require an Arcane Background Edge. Instead, Hedge Magic is a Professional Edge that allows anyone to use roots, leaves, and herbs for special purposes. The Player's Guide provides a list of example purposes for an herbal remedy, but it's by no means exhaustive. In fact, Triple Ace Games provides a freebie of additional Hedge Magic remedies. While hedge magic might seem like low-hanging fruit, it can take a number of hours to perform (depending on the desired bonus), and the materials can also be difficult to procure (also depending on the desired bonus).

New Options for Arcane Background (Magic)

The Hellfrost incorporates a handful of new arcane types for those with Arcane Background (Magic). Those of you familiar with the Fantasy Worldbuilder Toolkit might recognize one or two of these as evolved or finely tuned versions. The list includes hrimwisards (frost wizards), skalds (lore-keeping bards who master song magic), heahwisards (noble high wizards born into the Magocracy and use staves), rune mages (frost dwarves who draw upon magic of runes etched into objects including their own skin), druids (engro, elves, and frost dwarves who draw power from the natural energy of the plants, animals, and earth) and elementalists (those who draw their powers from the elemental realms of fire, earth, air, or water).

Spell Lists

With the different versions of magic available, the Player's Guide is kind enough to provide spell lists for each form of arcane magic, including sublists for each element for elementalism. These spell lists include spells from the core rulebook as well as the new spells available in Hellfrost. The twenty-four deities presented in the Religion chapter also include their own spell lists, making it easy for characters invoking miracles to see what's available to them.

Religion

As mentioned above, Hellfrost has a pantheon comprised of twenty-four deities. These deities encompass all aspects of the various cultures across Rassilon. The entries include important game mechanics such as the deity's herald (used by the summon herald power; herald stat blocks are presented in the Bestiary), the duties and sins, signature power (a free power automatically usable by a cleric of the deity regardless of its requirements), a list of powers available to a follower of the deity who has the Arcane Background (Miracles) Edge, and trappings for those powers. There is supposedly a "special" entry in the stat block that covers special notes regarding character generation, but I didn't see any such entries in the chapter.

In general, I love this pantheon and the rich stories behind the deities and their roles in the world. To be clear, the deities have made a compact to not interfere with the mortal world directly. However, they can influence their followers to engage with the followers of other deities. This is one thing I strongly appreciate, especially in contrast to settings like Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk in which the deities are walking around the mortal plane. It's also a halfway point between Eberron's take on the deities being absent from the world but existent only through the faith of their followers and Greyhawk's approach of gods walking the Oerth.

Cosmology

I can't mention the material plane without explaining the rest of the cosmology of the world. The great thing is that there's really only three other cosmic realms, keeping even the cosmology simple for GMs and players.

Scaetha's Hall: where the dead await judgement. Those who are deemed to have lived up to their patron deities' tenets are placed into the care of the deities' heralds and led to their afterlife.

The Hall of Echoing Screams: where those who followed no patron deity are sent; it serves as a venue for heralds to bid upon unclaimed souls. Most souls end up as demonic soldiers.

The Abyss: a place of chaos and misery. Its inhabitants are demons, demon lords, and tormented souls.
The only confusing aspect about the cosmology is how the tormented souls in the Abyss come to be if souls of loyal followers are redeemed by their respective deity and those unclaimed but won in the Hall of Echoing Screams are made into soldiers.

Update: Wiggy clarified the scenario of the Abyss with a rather horrifying answer. In many cases, some demon lords and deities will deliberately cast a soul into the Abyss. Often, these souls are followers who did not follow their duties according to the deity's desire. According to Wiggy, "If you're evil but not evil enough, even the demon lords won't do you the favor of making you a demonic soldier." In many other cases, the souls were won in bids by demon lords who want to keep the souls from other deities or demon lords and simply dump them into the Abyss for eternal torment.

Life in Rassilon

Life in Rassilon is a complete chapter unto itself, and it describes what living on this continent is like. The topics range from marriage and funerary customs to trade and travel, from language and education to the calendar and festivals. There are even sidebars giving the breakdown of seasons, schedule of lunar phases (a possible reference to the removed lunar effects on magic?), and a brief timeline history of the world.

The only thing I felt was lacking was some sort of visual calendar. Reading the description of the calendar is acceptable to an extent, but I'm a pretty visual so that could be a personal preference rather than a real issue.

Conclusion

I love the Hellfrost Player's Guide. It presents a truly fantastic setting for Savage Worlds. True, it can feel somewhat lacking without the Bestiary in particular or the Gazetteer for those who are completists and must know every detail of the world. Overall, this book makes it very obvious that Hellfrost as a setting is a labor of love.

Next: Hellfrost Bestiary!