Why Hellfrost

I have been pondering what my long-term gaming campaign setting will be when I am done GMing 50 Fathoms. We have a number of GMs in the group, and I have considered an alternate game. I just wanted to think about what that core fantasy setting would be.

Greyhawk caught my eye for while under the “Olde Skoole” concept. I have most of the 3e FR and Eberron books. There are a couple of “classic” fantasy settings for SW – Shaintar is coming out and Hellfrost. There are some others more on the fringe (50 Fathoms, Sundered Skies, Evernight). I have even been reading Tekumel (Empire of the Petal Throne) – its was rich in detail before Greyhawk was much more than a giant dungeon near a city. Heaven forbid, I could make may own homebrew — but I figure that would fizzle.

When I was kicking it around initially, Eberron came to the top for a number of reasons:

  1. At its heart, its D&D. Outside of something pure Drow-centric or planar, I can drop anything fantasy into Eberron somewhere.
  2. I found it balanced nicely the magic as technology without it becoming a Magic-punk game.
  3. #2 can be moderated — one can go heavy on Warforged, Artificers, and Lighning Rails or one can just run regular fantasy.
  4. I have already run 3 games in it and enjoyed all 3 (some of the original modules, Eyes of the Lich Queen, and Ravenloft).
  5. Shadow Company
  6. If one wanted politics and intrigue, the setting is built for it with the “cold war” that is in place now.
  7. Not too many gods — I like settings where your can focus in and know them as opposed to the 901 FR gods.
  8. It seems like anything I want to stick in there gets enhanced by the setting. I had a whole rich tapestry of events behind the Ravenloft game that really made that material mine, and allowed me to really drive Strahd’s motives and actions.
  9. Eberron is pulpy and SW just is a natural fit.
  10. Plus I think under SW the Emerald Claw will be a better nemesis than they were under D&D – they quickly became a joke with the Michigan group.
  11. The Dragonmark families are pretty cool but they are not so central to the game that you cannot just ignore them. They have been little more than flavor in the couple of games I have run. But if a group were interested, it would create different feel to a campaign.

There is a very nice Savage conversion of Eberron out there, but I wanted to make it mine. In the process of that I started to cool to Eberron as the go to setting. I enjoy the setting, but it seems like alot of work to make it work. When I think of the players, I do not want them having a ton of effort in this either. I figured Eberron was something I enjoyed and could pull out as needed, but I then decided against it as a Core.

So I wanted to review Hellfrost and Shaintar (re-release here in 2013 – I have the players guide). I’ve played some Shaintar both in the Savage Buckeye group and with its creator, Sean Patrick Fannon. In the end, it feels like Forgotten Realms to me. This is not a coincidence since SPF lists it as one of his inspirations. Here is my most basic issue with FR – its a magical without magic. That sounds strange, but with all the people that can cast magic in that world there is little in the way of magical technology. Tons of +1 swords but everyone walks or rides a horse. That is why I prefer Eberron – the world reflects the implied level of magic.

Shaintar has a lot of claims of EPIC but little in the way implied societal magic that would go along with it. In the sessions I have been in I have not seeing anything that stands out as being all the different than FR/classic fantasy. I have tried to read some of the world stuff and its just dense facts. Its really not caught my imagination. Then there was a little line on Dragonsfoot that just completely sealed it. They were talking about bad settings and someone mentioned Greyhawk was a bit bland. A person countered that is what made Greyhawk great – you need something mundane to contrast with the fantastical. That really clicked – if everything about a setting is epic, heroic, and magical — then nothing is really all that fantastical since its all the same. Monsters are not monsters if they are just walking down the street like everyone else.

So I started digging into Hellfrost from Triple Ace Games. I had the Players Guide and the Gazetteer on the shelf and a pdf of the Bestiary. The only one that had caught my eye to date was the Bestiary – other than some of the cold stuff it just screamed D&D. A great resource no matter what your fantasy game.

I looked to some reviews to get me context. This review in particular was insightful . The thing that was the best help was in the 3rd installment on the Gazetteer. They said the best way to get into it was to look at the map, find something interesting, then look it up. Wow, did that bring the thing alive! I was on my way to something with a spider forest when I flipped to the Lich Lands — here lies the Big Bad Evil guy and he might be stirring! Then the Mistlands – if you ever wanted to run Ravenloft here was a great place! There is a big war between Vestmark and Orcmark (all the “n”-Marks are under the Saxa “kingdom” and the Orcs came streaming out of the mountains to take half of Vestmark).

The more I read, the more it just all ties together. I am getting a nice blend of Greyhawk/Game of Thrones/Skyrim (Elder Scrolls video game)/Lich King (WoW) here. In that past I have not thought much of the more wintry angle for gaming, but Skyrim really helped visualize that its not 100% 6’ of snow everywhere (similar with the Lich King region in WoW – that was a helpful visual of a northern land).

Here is a land where you can feel the everyday struggles, but yet there are Epic struggles just around the corner. The GM has full control of them as Wiggy (the creator) has stated that the big questions will not be resolved in any adventure or plot point campaign – its all yours. As I continue to work my way through the Hellfrost Players Guide and Gazetteer, I find myself really enjoying the setting and what it has to offer. The whole key to the thing is how much one places emphasis on the whole Winter is Coming theme. There are plenty of things to do that the winter stuff is really just background or a plot device (the classic “a storm rages and you seek shelter in….” is just a natural here). If that theme is something one wants to emphasize, there is a framework to do so (the higher you are in the Hearth Knights, the more you venture into the Hellfrost). There are also races that can easily survive in the cold (Dwarves, for example). If the winter thing is not the group’s cup of tea, the southern lands are not that impacted by it other than the influx of people moving south (conflict, which is good for gaming).

Lots of good, standard, D&D-esque monsters are in the setting. Its not quite the kitchen sink of FR/Greyhawk/Eberron, but lots of undead, orcs, giants, and other interesting critters from the bestiary.

Even the things I did not initially like it turns out there were aspects that made it useful. I do not like settings with 1001 gods (looking at you, FR). The regional guides usually have one or two of minor or lessor gods, and that got me to groan. But I was looking at the Minor Gods section in the Players Guide. Even though I said I did not like all the little gods around I do like what Wiggy did there. Minor gods have a limited spell selection (kinda like in 1e where lessor gods had a cap on spell level IIRC). His thoughts are that GM have an easy way to make all their fun secret evil cults without having to try to bend the existing main gods in odd directions. Since Minor gods are affiliated with one or two major, you can still tie them back to something better known. For players, its a way to have a religious themed character that is not hardcore cleric/paladin. If you think the classic D&D ranger with a few druid spells is a kinda of template in that way. You have the access, but not the heavy church structure that the Major Gods have. Nicely done, and something I can live with.

One other good or bad, depending on ones wallet, is the Wiggy does produce material. There is never a lack of something you can pick up for that world. There are untold numbers of adventures and regional guides available to date.

Reading the material, especially the Gazetter and the regional guides just provides one a ton of gaming ideas. A little line in Heligioland (a great starting area) is about the Hearth Knights building a tower on the border with the Barony of Cul. The Barony of Cul is ruled by a new race called the Frostborn, of which many people fearful that they are part of the longer winters. The Baron of Cul is not too keen on the idea of this tower and seeks to prevent it getting built. That immediately brought to mind the Keep on the Borderlands. I ran a short version of having a wooded fort there to protect a crew that is constructing the stone fort. The Baron is in contact with the tribes in the hills and is somehow guiding them. This immediately gave some interesting flavor to what was an old monster mash.

Further, in the Caves of Chaos there is a Minotaur plus some fire beetle “pets”. There is not much else to go on and it this becomes the classic mixed bag-o-monsters in the same area. But putting this into Hellfrost now makes it interesting. Clearly the Minotaur is “out of his element” here as he is actually from the Land of Fire region. The reason for the fire beetles is perfectly clear — it helps keep his cave network warmer in this land of cold. You then add some of the cultural trappings (say its roughly ancient Egypt) – change “beetle” to “scarab” and throw in some hieroglyphs and you have something really evocative. The Minotaur could be an exile just trying to make the area look like home. Or long ago it was much warmer in this area and there was a Minotaur enclave. This guy is researching it. It may change the encounter from “kill it” to “talk to it”.

Now I need to get the Land of Fire book :)

Why Hellfrost

Hellfrost amerigoV