Wolf Packs & Winter Snow Revised Edition (OSR) (Priority Review)
This massive hardcover clocks in at 294 pages, 1 page front cover, 3 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, and 4 pages of handy index, leaving us with 285 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreon supporters.
Okay, so before we dive into the book itself, it should be noted that, while I have used both pdf and hardcover to write this review, I can ONLY recommend getting the hardcover. Why? The pdf is missing bookmarks, rendering it extremely grating to use and impossible to navigate on the fly. If you’re interested in actually playing the game, get print or prepare to suffer.
Now, as for what this is: Essentially, Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow (WP&WS) is a prehistoric roleplaying game that has several modular components that allow you to utilize in it a pretty wide variety of contexts; from a quasi-historic version sans magic to one featuring subdued magic to massive, full-blown magic prehistoric roleplaying, the system/setting allows for a wide variety of playstyles.
Now, it should be noted that I consider this supplement to be pretty much what I’d deem “Peak-indie-ness”; this book is mostly the work of one woman, and it feels like an indie game with a concise and undiluted atmosphere; however, this strong focus is also represented by flaws, particularly when it comes to editing and formatting; some pages tend to be exceedingly precise in both regards, while others suddenly sport accumulations of minor snafus. If, e.g., ability scores (which the game calls Attributes) being in title case at one section, then lower case in another, then this’ll annoy you once in a while. Not consistently, mind you – this is better in that regard than I figured it’d be, but considering that this is the revised edition of the system, I was surprised to see that this wasn’t adequately edited with regards to that. Some of the glitches are very obvious, when e.g. a class table suddenly lacks the number indicating the die-size for grit gained.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we have the classic ability scores as Attributes, with their modifiers ranging from minus 3 to plus 3. Skills follow the “x-in-6”-style we know from Lamentations of the Flame Princess; we have 4 saving throws: Weather, Poison, Hazards, and Magic. (The latter can eb cut in a game sans magic, obviously.) Constitution modifier is added to saves vs. Weather and Poison, Dexterity modifier applies for saves vs. Hazards, and Wisdom modifier is applied for saves vs. Magic.
The standard level-range noted in tables ranges to level 15, but there is content herein (such as among the spells) for levels beyond that. The game has 4 core classes: The Expert is basically your guy who uses skills, akin to thief/specialist, etc. – they start with 6 skills, and get +2 per level, and use d6s to determine how hardy they are. Hunters get scaling Animalism as a skill, d8s to determine hardiness, and are the only class that gets an attack bonus, which scales up to +10. Hunters can take the fight defensively, fight recklessly, go for the kill and aim actions sans penalty. Magicians are the only spellcasters, get d4s to determine hardiness, and get a scaling Art-skill. Neanderthals get d10s to determine hardiness, and a 3 in 6 Foraging, Athletics and Tracking skill, as well as the same combat benefits of hunters. Neanderthals are, statwise, better than hunters of equivalent levels, but require more XP to attain a new level; additionally, there is an implied social stigma attached to them, but as a whole, I think it’d have been nice for hunters and Neanderthals to get different unique things to set them apart.
Now, you may have noticed that I have used this weird term “hardiness” to talk about the staying power of these classes, and there’s a reason for that: You see, Hit Points are differentiated between Flesh and Grit. You roll the die for Flesh, but every level after that, up to 9th, nets you only +1 Flesh. A new level attained does net you a full die determined by the class. As an example: An expert starts play with d6 Flesh and d6 Grit; At third level, we have a total potential of Flesh of 1d6+2, and 3d6 Grit. Constitution modifier is add to BOTH Flesh and Grit at first level; at higher levels, the modifier is only added to Grit. As common in old-school games, full Hit Dice are only gained up to 9th level – beyond that, we have no more Flesh increases, and Grit increases by a fixed amount defined by the class. Neanderthals get btw. 1 Grit more than Hunters – probably because being roughly based, framework-wise, on dwarves, but without their level cap limitations. Grit is regained pretty quickly – one turn, or one hour; however, when fatigued, it takes a full night’s worth of sleep to recover Grit; Flesh, however, only replenishes at the rate of 1 per such longer rest, 2 if the circumstances are particularly favorable. Using the Medicine skill can also replenish Flesh. You die if your Flesh is reduced to 0.
It should be noted that there is a system that makes gameplay less lethal, but more gory: When reduced to 0 Flesh, you consult a table depending on the type of damage that reduced you to 0 Flesh; The game has a basic and concise engine for bleeding out, and each such injury will have serious implications – you can end up losing an eye or the like, become a Dead Man Walking (with only a few rounds left before you inevitably die), etc. – if you want a less gritty, and more epic-bloody angle, this system is the way to go.
Spellcasting is interesting in how it represents a riff on the traditional systems, contextualized in a couple of very interesting ways: We have the basic Vancian spellcasting with spell preparation etc. as the framework, and we have the usual spell levels, though this book calls them “ranks” instead; these go btw. up to rank 9, even though the standard range of play only advances to 8th rank. Anyhow, since we don’t have paper yet, the spellcasting has a very important aspect: It requires a wizard’s sanctum, where rituals are conducted, with the actual spellcasting only finishing these rituals. When preparing a spell in a spell slot not suited for it, the magician must make both an Arts skill check and a saving throw versus Magic, risking casting the spell normally on a failed Arts check, and risking magical backlash on a failed save. The engine explicitly tells you that e.g. making a spell that usually grants protection from an element do the inverse, rendering the target vulnerable, etc., would be a valid tweak. In short, the system, while still very much focused on precision, does allow for creative modification. Good! The backlash tables are also well-wrought, ranging from the minor and cosmetic to the apocalyptic, with application left up to the GM.
This is great, because it keeps magic volatile, while at the same time allowing for the means to rein in attempts to game the system, all without risking that campaign play is wrecked on every cast. In short: The backlash system proposed herein is, much like the one in Lost Pages’ “Wonder & Wickedness” of Goodman Games’ Spellburn-engine from DCC, one of the better ones out there, providing volatility without destroying outright and constantly – you can play magician without being hated by everyone at the table. But how do the magicians record their spells? Art! They have a sanctum, usually a cave or hut, and it is here that their art and rituals take place; item creation in this place is also much faster. For the purpose of magic item creation and beyond, we also have herb, reagents and body-part generators, allowing for precise and on-the-fly creation of components – and thus, adventuring potential. The general notion of the grimy, visceral haruspex-style savage magic is strong here, and I love it.
Speaking of elegant components I enjoyed: There is a handy mechanic for light going out; essentially, light sources have a die that you roll, and after a timeframe or when drenched etc. by a downpour, you roll, and if you roll badly, the light goes out. It’s pretty simple, and it does its job. Beyond that, we have a weather table, altitude sickness, the consideration of requiring food and water (Constitution damage looming…) and more, and the base engine already is interesting.
Speaking of interesting: XP is generally awarded for exploration, and for the exploration of ENTIRE complexes, which means that the game has a hardcoded reason to dungeon (or rather: cave) dive, if you will. Ignoring danger? Doesn’t net XP. Ignorance, though, like not realizing that there are more rooms hidden, for example, is taken into account – so your players can’t use XP to know if they explored the entire system. Killing harmless animals and other NPCs doesn’t net XP, but looting the gear might – the focus here is more on survival.
However, there is one aspect that I very much enjoyed, and that was probably already obvious to some of my readers: When the sanctum of a magician is essentially a fixed place (it can be moved/transferred, mind you – just not easily), how does that interact with the gameplay? Well, the book does a pretty solid job depicting that, but unlike many OSR-games, I’d argue that WP&WS offers for an interesting playstyle that is rarely, if ever, supported: What’d call “generational.” You see, it’s easier to attract a tribe than in many comparable games, and the tribe needs to be fed; there are mechanics provided for managing the tribe (you assign roles), which, while as simple as the ones presented for the day-to-day survival, ultimately allow for a playstyle that lets you potentially focus on more than one character – I like that. So, your old PC died? Good news, your tribe has this excellent hunter anyways…Paired with the relatively subdued power-gain of the system we have a game that is lethal, but not unduly so, but one that also will make a PC death hurt in just the right ways.
The book, and this should be noted, is littered with random tables, with particularly the exploration of biomes above and below ground being important factors here; since exploration and survival are driving forces, the sheer amount of random cave/dressing generators and features really help crafting the encounter-driven aspect of the game. (Other examples of tables include magical transformations, etc.) The exploration focus also is enhanced by the plethora of cool hazards featured, which include a variety of fungi, spores and slimes, and e.g. calcifying miasma and the like – really cool. Speaking of which: Herbalism has a pretty nifty core engine (including a table to let you determine whether that poison/drug/etc. will be a broth, syrup, etc.
But let’s take a look at exploration generators for a second: We’re exploring a plain, and thus, we roll a d8 (Landscape), a d10 (wildlife) and a d12 (weirdness): and get: “Snow laying in the lee of scattered boulders in a wide plain of low grass and weeds, the howls of wolves echoing around the plain at night…and sometimes, plants move in the breeze, even when no wind is blowing.” You can work with that, right? Considering that the book presents an easy method for randomized grid maps, we have, as a whole, a rather impressive component here; and of course, we also receive a massive bunch of random encounter tables. Indeed, the hazards and dressing will make a lot of sense to check out even if you’re not interested in the game per se. The book also provides a solid little haunting engine, and yes, we do get a proper generator.
The book also presents a pretty massive bestiary section that ranges from a chapter devoted solely to prehistoric fauna, to one with fantastic monsters – kudos for the separation there. Makes retaining the chosen tone of the game easier. NPCs get their own subchapter, and we do get a supplemental NPC tribe generator, including trade goods, situations and tribal quirks. Undead and constructs also have their own chapters.
In case you want more classes, the book is happy to oblige: We have the degenerate aberrant class (d6 HD, 3 in 6 Stealth, and the same chance for either Tracking or Perception, based on original race); they also deal extra damage when making a surprise attack. Morlocks are essentially reskinned elves,; mystics are a tweak on the charismatic spellcaster who gets their powers from a patron (which felt somewhat like a more DCC-style caster blended with a charlatan engine). The Neanderthal Apothecary is particularly good at making potions, which can even mimic spells. Orphans are essentially Mowgli – the class, and get superb Animalism, and while fragile, they are excellent at Stealth. There also would be the Wendigo, who can use cannibalism to heal, and limited spellcasting. This consumption-based eating is, unlike the majority of content in this book, sloppily designed, with exploits so far wide open, that, unlike other sections, this one is not a charming ambiguity to allow the GM to make their calls, but a borderline broken component. As with the core classes, I couldn’t help but feel that giving the individual classes a few more things to set them apart, while also balancing them against each other, might have been neat to see.
We do get NPCs and tribal generator options for this one. Variant rules for allowing characters to change classes are provided.
The book also features appendices for becoming eloi, hollow ones, children of snow and liches, which are pretty exciting, as all feature some procedures, often in steps, to attain the transformation – but nothing is free…
The book provides a detailed sample cult, and we get an appendix of bonus spells that can only be attained in game, not at the start. I like this distinction per se, but I considered the choice of which spells to feature here, and which to include in the core spells, odd – magic mouth, for example, is here in the appendix, and that spell usually doesn’t exactly break the game. Resist fire is a core spell – resist acid and resist lightning can only be found here. There is no real rhyme or reason for some of these choices.
The book, just fyi, also contains a variety of magic items, which note the spells rquired to make them – the garrote Throat-Closer, for example, requires silence. It’s a small thing, but a touch I appreciated.
Editing and formatting are two of the weaknesses of this book; while the tome is better than one would expect from a indie production of this size and ambition, but I still think that some proper editing would have been rather helpful for this book. Since this is the revised edition, I couldn’t help but be somewhat aggravated by the inconsistent formatting. Layout adheres to a nice and pretty clean two-column b/w-standard, with well-chosen public domain artworks and black silhouettes used. The pdf is a colossal pain in the backside to use due to the lack of bookmarks; I do not recommend getting the pdf, unless you only want to scavenge tables for your DM-tool folders. The hardcover is a neat book, with name etc. on the spine.
Emmy Allen’s Wolf Packs & Winter Snows were her first offering for the roleplaying game scene, and the book has aged surprisingly well; the revised edition has expanded the original content in meaningful ways. In fact, I wanted to review the original when the revised edition was announced. Then, the revised edition pdf hit sites, and I figured I’d wait for the print option, as dealing with a book of this size on screen is very unpleasant for me. When the print copy finally arrived, I was ecstatic, and after excessive perusal of the book in theory and practice, this has somewhat mellowed, but not vanished.
The information design regarding small rules can sometimes be a bit more precise; the organization of “bonus spells” vs. the spells available in core…there are quite a few aspects that could be smoother. While uneven classes in OSR-games are pretty much a given, I couldn’t help but feel that having more unique options per class would have been nice. Similarly, the unique selling proposition features, such as the tribal management, survival aspect, etc. are great, but I wished the book focused more on them.
This being said, all of this should be taken as criticism voiced most respectfully, for a book I generally consider well worth owning; the Flesh and Grit-rules, and the horrible wounds engine, for example, just beg to be scavenged for a variety of OSR games, perhaps even beyond that. As a whole, the designs presented are per se concise, and when it is hampered in its integrity, this is usually due to small aspects that could have been fixed rather easily by a capable editor or developer.
So, Wolf Packs & Winter Snow: Revised Edition is a flawed tome, but it is an OSR game that has more unique tidbits than MANY of its compatriots; its designs are interesting, and its vision and commitment to said vision exceed in ambition, and most of the time, execution as well, what you’d usually dare to expect from such a book. As a reviewer, I can’t rate this 5 stars – there are too many hiccups in this book for that; however, I do consider this to be a book worthy of my seal of approval. My final verdict will thus be 4 stars + seal of approval….for the hardcover. The pdf is only useful to a very select clientele willing to suffer through its lack of comfort-features.
You can get the massive hardcover of this book here on OBS!
If you just want to scavenge tables, etc., you can find the pdf here on OBS!
An editable pdf character sheet for the game can be found for FREE here!
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