Review: Hellfrost Player’s Guide

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“Winter is coming!” – George RR Martin, A Game of Thrones

Periodically, people ask: What’s the best Savage Worlds fantasy setting? There are three that crop up time and again in that discussion; Beasts & Barbarians, Shaintar, and Hellfrost.

Today, I’m looking at Hellfrost, and specifically, the Player’s Guide. This is a 132 page PDF written by the prolific Paul Wade-Williams, AKA “Wiggy”, and published by Triple Ace Games. It’s one of the three core books for the setting, the others being the Gazetteer and the Bestiary, of which more anon.

The world of Hellfrost is one inspired by Norse and Germanic legend. Five hundred years ago, the ice god Thyrm unleashed an army on the lands of the civilised races, and although it was beaten back, the winters are getting longer and colder all the time. 30 years ago, magic began to fail, threatening to leave the civilised races defenceless against the surviving armies of Thyrm. This is the Dark Ages not just in terms of technology and customs, but also in terms of the theme and mood; the world is ending, and the PCs must hold back the cold and the darkness as best they can, for as long as they can.

In general, character generation follows the core rules, though there are a few new hindrances and lots of new edges, which do a good job of bringing the setting to life and tying PCs into it and its organisations, especially the edges for clerics, the professional edges, and the modifications to the Noble and Rich edges. The civilised (playable) races are humans (several different cultures), engro (hobbit thieves with the serial numbers filed off), elves (icy and warm), frost dwarves, and the frostborn, adapted to the new and lower temperatures and with limited powers of cold magic. There are no half-elves, half-orcs, or half-anything else in this setting, but the cold-adapted races suffer from Heat Lethargy, giving them trait penalties if the temperature gets too warm.

There are 27 different languages (a PC speaks as many as half his Smarts die), and about a dozen new Knowledge skills. Each race also has its own set of noble titles.

The gear chapter is mostly what you’d expect, although there’s an unusual focus on ships and fortifications.

Magic is modified in several ways. Firstly, there are herbalists, who take a professional edge instead of an arcane background and are immune to backlash; they produce herbal remedies which buff their friends but are not quite powers in the Savage Worlds sense. Secondly, there are no power points; you can cast as much as you like, so long as you’re willing to risk the injuries and permanent loss of arcane skill a backlash might impose. Thirdly, the normal Arcane Background: Magic is replaced by six new ones; Druidism, Elementalism, Heahwisardry, Hrimwisardry, Rune Magic, and Song Magic, each of which has a different power list, different rules modifications, and implications for how society views the character. Although Arcane Background: Miracles functions much as in the core rules, each PC is tied to a specific deity, which provides unique benefits and duties. There are so many of those I gave up counting; the same happened with the new and modified spells, the table of new spells alone is two pages long (and, parenthetically, something that the core rulebook would benefit from).

Like Shaintar, Hellfrost assumes that the PCs are essentially good and heroic; heroes must cleave to a certain code of conduct and take risks, and this reduces their range of options. This is balanced by Glory, which brings heroes benefits not available to those who turn to the Dark Side, and is perhaps the most important setting rule. While Shaintar expects that PCs will be heroic, Hellfrost rewards them mechanically for heroic acts. Glory starts at zero; PCs gain Glory by doing epic and heroic deeds, and telling people about them; they lose Glory by cowardice, oathbreaking, and so on. Sufficient Glory effectively unlocks extra Edges, but if your Glory falls below zero, you start gaining extra Hindrances.

There’s also an extensive chapter on life in this world; technology (appropriate to what used to be called the Dark Ages), diet, marriage customs, festivals, laws and punishments, calendars and whatnot. This segues into another chapter of organisations; racial, magical, religious, miiltary, and academic.

Setting rules focus on the effects of cold and bad weather, as low temperatures are a defining characteristic of the setting.

I’m impressed with the depth and detail of this setting, and I’d play it in a heartbeat; but I’m not sure I have the level of commitment it would take to be a Hellfrost GM.

So to answer the exam question, which is the best Savage Worlds fantasy setting? That depends on what you and your players are looking for…

Shaintar is the closest one to Dungeons & Dragons. Go with this if you like the Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels, or if you basically want to play D&D using Savage Worlds rules. (Nothing wrong with that; if you’re all having fun, you’re doing it right.)

Beasts & Barbarians is for sword and sorcery fans. Choose this if you like the stories of Conan the Barbarian, Jirel of Joiry, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. (Yes, there is a Lankhmar setting for Savage Worlds, but personally I think B&B does it better.)

And Hellfrost? Hellfrost is The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the Norse sagas blended into one meaty, satisfying whole.

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