Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargaming in the Frozen City
This rule-book clocks in at 136 pages, minus 4 if you take away ToC, editorial and the like.
This review was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book in question.
So, what is Frostgrave? Well, in-game it was once the center of magics, a metropolis of ridiculous power, steeped in arcane might; then, the ice came and swallowed the city; winter had come and devoured it wholesale. For untold years, the powerful magics of the place had been kept below the grinding glaciers…but now, thaw has come, unearthing ever more of the labyrinthine ruins that make up the city, unearthing countless mystical treasures, rife for the taking for those foolhardy or brave enough to venture inside. From all traditions and lands, wizards and their entourages flock to the place, all hoping for supreme magical power, you can buy headphones for this game and the skullcandy earbuds to get.
So that would be the in-game reply. Out-game, Frostgrave can best be pictured as a beer-and-pretzels, quick-play hybrid between fantasy wargaming and roleplaiyng, one that requires no GM and yes, the game supports more than two players. So how exactly does it work?
Well, you need a couple of things to play, but significantly less than for similar games: You need miniatures…but not more than the average gaming group has on its hands; 28 mm miniatures are assumed as default. Per player, you cannot have more than 10 minis under your command, so the game’s pretty tame as far as that’s concerned. You also need dice – one d20 suffices, though one per player is better. Frostgrave can be played easily on most household tables; 2′ by 2′ is enough for quick games, 4′ by 4′ or larger tables allow for more impressive games, though. A crucial difference between Frostgrave and other games of this type is the emphasis on terrain – the game taking place in the frozen ruins of the eponymous city also means that the ruins are supposed to be crowded and maze-like; if you *have* a ton of terrain, well, perfect; if not, anything from clothes to books suffices. Heck, I once played a game with clothes and coins for a lack of minis (I always carry dice with me) and it worked.
So, the “avatar” and most important figure under the command of each player would be the wizard. The wizard is further diversified by his focus on one of ten schools of magic, specializations, if you will. Each of the schools has one opposed school, 5 neutral schools and 3 aligned schools – these represent the grades and ease with which you can cast spells beyond your school’s field. Aligned schools increase the DC by +2, neutral ones by +4 and opposed school spells by +6. In case you’re interested, the specializations are Chronomancer, Elementalist, Enchanter, Illusionist, Necromancer, Sigilist, Soothsayer, Summoner, Thaumaturge and Witch. For most people with any degree of familiarity with fantasy traditions, these should be pretty self-explanatory. When creating a wizard, you begin play with 8 spells: 4 from your own school; 1 must come from each of the aligned schools and finally, 2 are chosen from the neutral schools, but each must come from a different school.
This choice made, we must talk a bit about the stats: Creatures have 6 stats: Move (M) denotes how far a character can move per turn. Fight (F) is the character’s melee capability. Shoot (S) depicts the ranged capability. Armour (A) represents the armor of the creature – natural or otherwise. Will (W) is the character’s willpower and ability to resist spells. Finally, Health (H) is basically the hit points of the character. Fight, Shoot and Will are noted with plusses, denoting the modification to the roll – for roleplayers, think of that as basically the respective BAB or base save. In some cases, stats will be noted with splits, like +2/+3, for example – the first stat denotes the actual stat, the second the effective stat, modified by magic, items, etc..
A wizard’s unmodified stats are M6, F +2, S +0, A 10, W +4 and H 14. All creatures in Frostgrave can carry items. Wizards can carry up to 5 of them, apprentices 4 and soldiers 1. Wizards begin play with a staff or hand weapon and may buy a dagger, two-handed weapon, bow or crossbow for 5 gold. Dual-wielding sword + dagger nets you +1 effective Fight. This would be the most important character all done…now let’s assemble our warband.
I already mentioned the apprentice, who is the most important character beyond the wizard – you may never have more than one and the apprentice costs a whopping 200 gp. The apprentice is the only way to have a second spellcaster and his F, S and W-values are based on the wizard: The wizard’s stats -2, to be more precise. Health is equal to the wizard’s -4. They get the wizard’s spells, but cast each spell at -2. The system also provides a total of 15 types of soldiers you can hire, ranging in price from 10 gp war hounds to the costly 100 gp veterans. The price for these guys, just btw., goes up exponentially with skill. The stats of these soldiers never increase via spells or magic items – they are basically your lackeys or mooks. The system does not distinguish between races – elven or dwarven soldiers use the same stats, though admittedly, you can easily introduce racial modifiers, if you so choose.
Frostgrave knows a total of 6 item classes: Daggers reduce damage by 1; two-handed weapons increase it by +2; staves come at -1 damage, but also decrease the damage received in hand-to-hand combat by -1. Bows have a maximum range of 24”; crossbows take one action to load and one to fire, but hit at +2 damage, with a maximum range of 24”. Finally, unarmed combat means -2 Fight and -2 damage.
Now, since I already talked about setting up the table, let me mention that, at the beginning of the game, after terrain has been placed, the players put 3 treasure tokens per player on the ruins, taking turns when doing so. The tokens must be placed at least 9” from a player’s table edge. After placing the tokens, you do roll which designated player side becomes your starting side…so just placing them close for convenience may fire back big time.
Ok, that covered, we have begun talking about actions, let’s take a look at the structure of turns. At the beginning of each turn, every player rolls initiative, ties are rerolled and players act in sequence of the result rolled. Each turn is divided in 4 phases, which, in sequence, are as follows:
The wizard is activated (the term for using a miniature) first and may also activate up to 3 soldiers within 3” of the wizard alongside with him. When a figure is activated, it gets to perform two actions, one of which MUST be movement. The other action may be a second move, fighting, shooting, spellcasting r any special actions eligible. A figure may only perform one action, if it so chooses or is otherwise handicapped. The use in conjunction with the nearby soldiers is called group activation. During the wizard and apprentice phase, soldiers within 3” of the caster may be activated alongside him/her/it. The thus activated soldiers must all move in conjunction and the first action of group activation must be movement. All figures thus activated get to act. Once a wizard’s turn is done, the next wizard may act. Yep, you don’t have to wait through x phases to act – this keeps the game pretty dynamic. After the wizard phase, it’s time for the apprentice phase – which follows the basically same structure. Then, it’s the soldier phase and after that, the creature phase.
Movement is pretty simple in general: The first move is at the full Move stat in ”; any subsequent move takes half the Move stat; a character with move 6 could e.g. use both actions to move 9”. Moving over obstructions (you agree on those when setting up the table) costs 2” per inch; rough ground similarly halves movement. Which brings me to one of the very few rough edges of the system – as you may have noted, there is some halving going on. The lack of a grid means that you don’t have something and you don’t round up or down. For people used to the metric system, this becomes slightly more annoying; at least alternate distances may have helped there and rounding guidelines would have sped up play; in my playtests, the lack of rounding up/down constitutes one of the few instances where the game did not play as smoothly as a well-oiled machine. When two creatures are in contact, they are designated as “in combat” and may not move. Why am I talking about this now? When a figure moves within 1” of another creature, said creature may force combat, placed immediately next to the creature passing. Movement by spell etc. is btw. not considered to count as movement, but any creature using this that ends movement within 1” is forced into combat.
Figures moving off the board are out of the game and may not be involuntarily be forced off the board. A creature can jump as part of the movement if it moved at least an equal distance prior to jumping – a creature with move 4 can e.g. jump up to 2” after moving 2”. If a creature falls more than 3”, the critter takes 1.5 times the number of excess inches in damage.
Combat is simple: You spend one action and both figures involved roll 1d20 and add their Fight stat plus any additional modifiers. The figure with the highest number wins. After that, you subtract the armor score from the winner’s roll. If the score is positive after detracting the armor score, the target takes damage equal to the remaining points. In the case of both rolls being equal, the combatants hit each other and cause damage to one another, allowing for double K.O.s. After determining damage caused, the winner can decide to either remain in combat or push back either figure by 1”, directly away from the opposing figure. Figures thus moved are no longer in combat, Combats with multiple figures are slightly more complex, but they are explained in a very concise and easy to grasp manner. The system, as you can see, is pretty lethal due to its swingy nature of opposing d20s – which means that it emphasizes tactics over strategy. You can, if you’d like to, also use a critical hit optional rules for even more lethal combat.
Shooting has two terms to keep in mind: In range, which means within 24” and line of sight, which is self-explanatory. The comparison here is btw. 1d20 + Shoot vs. 1d20 + Fight., with damage being determined analogue to melee, though cover types and terrain hamper shooting with modifiers. Shooting into melee is random: You have a random chance to hit any participant. Creatures reduced to 0 health are presumed killed, unless you’re playing in a campaign (more on that later); as an optional rule, characters reduced to 4 or less health are considered to be wounded, taking -2 to all die rolls and only gaining one move; I’d strongly suggest playing with this rule, it adds some neat drama to the games.
Spellcasting is handled similarly: You roll a d20 and compare that to the spell’s casting number; on a success, you cast the spell. The game has a degree of failure system; the worse you fail the casting, the more risky it gets; on a failure, you can take damage. Spellcasters may empower spells, which is determined after the casting roll is made, but before effects are determined. The spellcaster may choose to lose health to increase the roll; if a spellcaster would, for example, fail a spellcasting roll by 4, he may sacrifice 4 health to still succeed. When a wizard colossally fails at casting a spell by 20+, he may empower spells to actually take less net damage. This is intended. The target resisted by the spell rolls 1d20 and adds the Will stat; if the target succeeds, he resists the spell. Spellcasters may empower Will rolls by expending Health on a 1:1-basis akin to how empowering spells work.
The game is about treasure, and a character next to a treasure token may use an action to pick it up; thereafter, it moves with the creature. If the creature carrying treasure is killed, the token remains there, ready to be picked up again. A character can only carry one treasure token. In order to secure a treasure token, the carrying figure must move off the board. Now, Frostgrave features more than just competing warbands – the ruins are haunted by various creatures. The system presents basically the analogue version of an AI for them; simple steps of handling them and priority sequences. So no, you do not need a GM, though obviously, it is possible to play the game with a referee/GM. A game of Frostgrave usually ends when the last treasure token has left the board or when one side has been completely wiped out.
So yeah, short instant games are fast play and can last between 10 minutes and an hour….but you’ll get the most out of Frostgrave when playing a campaign. Ina campaign, a creature reduced to 0 Health is not considered to be killed, but out of combat, which means you get to roll on a survival table; wizards and apprentices have better chances to live…and yep, you can suffer permanent injuries; a total of 9 of which are provided with rules-relevant repercussions. After a game in a campaign, you award experience to the participants: Successfully cast spells, enemy soldiers, apprentices or wizards defeated and treasure tokens secured net experience per default. Every full 100 experience points for a wizard grants the character a level, which can be used to improve a stat, a spell (granting +1 to its spellcasting level) or learning a new spell. Each treasure token secured in a campaign nets a roll on the treasure table. There is also a potion table. Scrolls are one-use fire and forget spells; grimoires are books that allow a wizard to learn a specific spell and, if you choose to, you can determine spells randomly with a table. Magic Weapons and armor, magic items, etc. – there is a lot of material here – and yes, the magic items come with concise rules.
Gold crowns accumulated allow the wizard to replace slain apprentices, hire new soldiers, buy items, etc. However, in a campaign game of Frostgrave, the game adds another cool option to using your hard-earned gold: Namely establishing a base, which may contain labs, inns, breweries, etc. – the rules presented here are concise and have relevant repercussions in game. Kudos for that addition!
Now obviously, a game focused as strongly on spellcasters needs a massive magic chapter – and indeed, it is BIG. Some spells are out-of-game spells and happen “off screen”; other are self only, have line of effect, area of effect or a range of touch; each spell has a base casting number, as mentioned before…and that’s pretty much already the extent of the framework’s rules – concise, easy to grasp and elegant…with a couple of minor hiccups: The damage-causing elemental spells or poison dart are very powerful if a wizard increases the quickly, making the respective character a nasty arcane artillery. The other spell that is somewhat OP is Leap. Yeah, I know, I didn’t expect that either until I started testing the system. Leap’s benefits: Immediate 10” move, not hindered by terrain. Considering table size, it’s very easy to grab treasure and jump off the board with this one, basically grab and run. Having the spell scale with table size and nerfing it, may be a smart choice; similarly, including a caveat that you can’t jump off the table would be appreciated – getting at least one turn to defeat the escaping wizard would be nice. As an optional spell-goal for campaigns, researching transcendence and successfully casting it can be used as a generic campaign goal.
Now, while campaigns make Frostgrave more rewarding, this also holds true for playing scenarios – these would be games with unique rules modifications. Creature spawns are very conservative in the default game and e.g. in “The Mausoleum”, you get infinite skeleton spawns; Genie in the bottle unleashes a very powerful and nasty genie when picking up a treasure and being unlucky. Featuring a tower that kills all magic inside and has the best treasure. Libraries with limited exits; museums where statues may come to life, exploring an area where giant worms dwell, exploring a haunted house…pretty cool. Or what about the super-lethal well that also may grant health when drunk from? The keep with the teleportation arcs? These modifications, which may btw. be combined, greatly diversify the game – and they engender roleplaying…when you and your fellow player agree on the need to research and thus pit your wizards against one another in a library…it’s an easy means of generating a bit of roleplaying. Speaking of inspiration and dressing – the book features a ton of small boxes that contain VERY evocative little quotes describing the wonders and horrors of the frozen city, acting as a great way to make the reading experience more inspiring and pleasant.
Now, I already mentioned creatures and the optional rule for very limited random encounters…but the book also features a ton of monsters that range from undead to animals and yetis/werewolves or trolls.
The book also contains handy spellcards by school and an easily used wizard sheet; speaking of which – I happen to have a nice, high-quality cardstock version of the sheet, which actually manages to collect the crucial rules of the book on this one less-than-GM-screen-sized sheet.
Editing and formatting are excellent; I noticed no significant glitches in either the formal criteria or the rules-language criteria. Layout adheres to a mixture of a two-column and a one-column standard and is in full-color and aesthetically pleasing. The artwork is copious and features both pictures of neat minis in full color…as well as absolutely stunning artworks of the same quality as featured on the cover. This is, in short, a beautiful book. The hardcover I receives has nice binding and has borne the brunt of all my use well. I can’t comment on the electronic version.
Joseph A. McCullough’s Frostgrave is an amazing game. I came to RPGs from a wargaming background and this book should prove to be amazing for both types of gamers. Wargaming strategists that want to have an edge via placement etc. will not be too keen on it, but personally, I loved the swingy nature of the game here; Frostgrave keeps you on your toes and features these unique moments where victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. The focus of the game is certainly PvP, but you can actually roleplay; wizards clashing again and again will enact feuds over campaigns and the game becomes particularly amazing when using more than 2 players, as alliances are formed and abandoned; if you have a passionate GM who likes making complex scenarios, you can bring a campaign up to a whole new level and increase the nastiness of the creatures featured; potentially, you can make scenarios where the wizards have to ally themselves against superior odds, etc. – in short, you can play this wargame like a wargame, like an RPG or like a mix. It’s also very fast play: I managed to run a 10-game campaign in a single day without any problems and had a blast.
More important for a core rulebook, the Frostgrave-system used here is extremely simple. Anyone who has ever played a d20-based game will immediately get how to play this. Reading the totality f the rules takes about an hour, tops; you can explain them in 5 minutes to someone else, though. Frostgrave is easy to learn and the presentation of the rules is EXTREMELY concise and well-structured. At no point did I think I could have presented the rules in a more concise, stringent manner. That being said, as mentioned before, there are a couple of rough edges; the lack of rounding up/down guidelines was remedied by house-rule in my games after a few playtesting games. Leap and the wizard artillery spells can imho use a bit of a nerf and thus, balance is not always perfect; so tournament style gaming, admittedly not the focus of the system, is not something it does too well.
If you are looking for an atmospheric, easy to learn and play game that allows you to play a game or two during lunch break and scratch that gaming-itch, then this absolutely delivers perfectly. The game may not be perfect, but it is a good offering…though one that fully comes into its own when adding in more material…and yep, I have the expansions…so expect to see those reviews soon!
The core book, on its own, is a fun, evocative and easy to learn beer-and-pretzels style game with a ton of narrative potential. While short of perfection when played on its own, the core book as a stand-alone still manages to score an impressive 4.5 stars, though for the book on its own, I’d have to round down; if you want to get the game, I’d strongly suggest also getting at least one expansion; with more material (or a creative GM/players designing more), Frostgrave does become 5 star-material, though I can’t represent that in the core book’s rating.
You can get this cool fast-play wargame/rpg-hybrid here on OBS!
The print-version can be purchased here on Osprey Games’ shop!
If you want the official miniatures, they can be found here!