Review: Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow by Dying Stylishly Games

Credits

Writer: Emmy Allen
Art: Various public domain sources to include works by Awanda 747, Jules Férat, Arthur Rackham, Léon Bennet, Henri Meyer, Georges Tiret Bognet, Frederic Bennet, Harry Clarke, Édouarde Riou, Earl Geier, Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre, Paul Jamin, . Borja Pindado, Jose Maria Valesco, Emily Stepp, Sofyan Syarie
Design: Emmy Allen
Publisher: Dying Stylishly Games
Length: Approx. 156pp
SKU: Unclear, see Notes below
First edition (?), print-on-demand.

Note: This review is for the POD version I purchased from DriveThruRPG some years back. There is a newer PDF edition and supposedly a special hardcover (where do I buy that?!) which I haven’t checked out; there may be incongruity between this review and those versions. I elected to review this copy rather than those solely because it is the version I am familiar with. I apologize if this is dated and inaccurate to those versions! Please let me know what you think of those if you have experience.
Note 2: I am so out of practice. This will likely be long and probably meandering. It’s been a long time since I wrote a review. Sorry in advance. I’ll try to do better and be more coherent and brief in my next review.

Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow

I am long, long overdue in writing this review. Frankly it’s probably not even necessary at this point but: I love this book, and I mentioned in a recent DriveThruRPG sale post that I consider it flagrantly undervalued by this hobby, so I want to contribute in some small way to changing that. One of the very first things that grabbed my attention when I became aware of and interested in the OSR and its bounty of new ideas was Emmy’s Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow. This is because the parts of human history I am most fascinated by are the periods that still have so many questions: the stone ages and the bronze age. Questions are the root of fantasy, and it is a richly fertile world for the imagination to travel. The games I prefer to run and play are of this sort, with “points of light” philosophies and contradictions and curiosities and mysteries. The books that capture my imagination most present universes with far more questions than answers, whether they are the normal sort of fiction or game books; the tendency of corporate role-playing games and fantasy/sci-fi IPs to detail every single thing and person and place in the world in the name of “world-building” is an immense and grotesque misstep in my eyes.

Emmy Allen’s book is set in a fictive misty dawn of humanity (and the dusk of our close cousins the Neanderthals) when the world was strange and alien and changing rapidly. This is the time when the ice sheets retreated across much of the northern hemisphere of the earth and revealed new lands (some of which have since become submerged archaeological treasure troves in real life as the seas rose when the ice melted). This is a world ripe for fantastic adventures, where the written record is not yet even a glimmer in the eye. Here, a million stories could have occurred, strange foes fought and their skeletons lost to time, and possibly even awesome artifacts and inventions discovered only to be forgotten by storytellers countless times over before the invention of writing. It’s the kind of setting that is incredibly fertile and tied just closely enough to our own real world that it snatches hold of your imagination easily. It’s like Conan in this regard; a fantastic pseudo-period just recognizable enough to be believable; you can picture things in your mind clearly not just because of Howard’s lurid writing but also because just enough of it is tied to things you’ve seen and read a thousand times before.

This the the setting of Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow: a prehistoric Earth where strangeness and danger await. Using the fantastic random tables throughout the book, a randomized version of our world’s ever-changing landscape can be created, perhaps unlike any place we know now but reasonable for the world lost to time. In a recurring theme for this book, the random tables are extremely strong and evince the sort of brilliant random design Emmy Allen is now known for; her random tables are always excellent and these prove that gift goes back to her first efforts. Nesting the elements of the world within each other – tribes, beasts, biomes, features, etc – using her tables creates a rich and seemingly-unique version of our world that is ripe for exploration.

Included in building this book’s setting are plenty of foes and magics, but its treatment of the environment as the greatest threat among them is absolutely the most powerful, evocative, wonderful part for me. I love it. I love the copious random tables with explicit and implied setting characteristics, I love the attention given to the biomes of the world, many of which may be utterly new and strange to the player characters as the glaciers retreat and reveal the hidden majesty of lands hidden from view for eons. I love how she captures this and how, more than just being a treat to read, it actually appears on the table during play – sometimes at the worst and deadliest times imaginable. Weather is so important – I think we underappreciate this in many games and gamebooks and I fervently believe in adding it to games at every turn. I wrote about this in a recent blog post giving specific accolades to a great set of weather tables for games. Weather is dangerous. This group of features really and truly captures the experience of being tiny humans in a strange and massive and uncaring prehistoric world.

It isn’t just a setting book, though. It is a game. It is clearly derived from Moldvay/Cook B/X and LotFP but is not a pure clone of either. Rules from early OSR blogs creep in and are shaped and polished by Emmy; there’s at least one recognizable Logan Knight rule in here and he gets a credit in the book for it: characters have two sorts of hit points, flesh and grit. Grit is depleted first and flesh is sort of the last bastion of a character’s lifeblood; they are recovered in an interwoven sort of way that is really satisfying and one of the most compelling parts of the WP&WS game. I will borrow from the text here to explain what I mean:

A character has two different sorts of hit points; flesh and grit. Grit represents the character‘s ability to minimize and avoid injuries. Damage to grit takes the form of scrapes, ripped clothing, near misses and so forth. Damage to flesh, meanwhile represents real injury to the character’s body; blood is lost, bones break, flesh is torn. Under most circumstances, damage is dealt to grit first as attacks batter through the character‘s defenses. Once all grit points are lost, any further damage rolls over to flesh. Once all flesh is lost, the character dies.

If the character has any of their flesh points remaining, then all grit points return after a short (one turn) rest, or a longer period (an hour) without danger. A fatigued character, whether due to poisons, carrying heavy burdens or oppressive weather conditions, only regains their grit points after a night’s sleep. Every night when the character sleeps, they heal a single flesh point. If they are sleeping on comfortable bedding, somewhere warm and sheltered from the elements, they heal an extra hit point.

Emmy Allen (paraphrased), Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow (POD), pp 15-16

How great is that? How great is that, for real?

It goes beyond that, too, with an alternative to death predicated on grievous bodily wounds which are very visceral and conjure images of pulp heroes at the edge of death dragging their wounded bodies through the gore of their foes like an inevitable engine of sheer rage and determination, like the movie Mandy or things like that.

This game also mechanically differs from B/X by way of its saves, which are reorganized and truncated in number to be more thematically appropriate to the setting. They are named intuitively; great job on that. You could explain the idea of saves to a newbie at the table and hand them their character sheet and they’d probably know what to roll in a given dangerous scenario unprompted. I like these, but they’re definitely best-suited to this game in particular.

The classes take on common archetypes: a skillful fighter analogue called the Hunter, a not-quite-thief/not-quite-ranger derived from a LotFP Specialist called the Expert, a sage or magic-user called a Magician, and a meat shield dwarf/barbarian in the form of a Neanderthal race-as-class sort of fellow. These are pleasingly on-brand as described and their places in the hit dice hierarchy of survivability make sense. Each interacts with the world a little differently, as they should, which makes for a good variety of play for players. Additionally, the game makes use of skills which are thematically-relevant to a stone age world; classes have different access to skills and to skill points. Skills are resolved with x-in-6 rolls. It’s very elegant and I would not strip it out; I might consider merging a couple of the skills or something like that if I were to start homebrewing off of this game but I think perhaps the greatest compliment I can give a skill system in old-school D&D games is that this one is clean and functions well and doesn’t feel out of place.

Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow has more fantastical character options tucked in a late chapter; in a high-weirdness or high-magic game, where progenitor races or otherworldly beings exist or existed, there exist the possibility of morlocks, mutants, wendigos, and more. Each has stats, descriptions, and advancement tables.

One of the things related to classes and player characters that I really love is the Monster Hunter vibe of advancement. You’re advancing not from treasure (which would make no sense in this game) but from conflict with the natural (and unnatural) world around you. Slay great monsters, seek out terrifying bestial threats like rampaging mammoths and cave bears, kill them in brutal combat, and wear their fur for warmth and use their bones as weapons. This is how you become stronger. This is how you climb what little gear treadmill there is. This is how you attract other wandering humans to join a tribe, which is a valuable element of fictive and meta-advancement. It’s a super cool reinforcement of the setting and it really encourages you to sort of write ancient, ancient human history’s record at your table. You have basically no choice but to be the great members of a tribe, a community, and have your great deeds of cunning and bravery be tied to that in some way even if it is remote. It resets the assumptions of normal D&D and places the emphasis on the right parts of a game about stone age humans.

Another element of the game I value, as you might suppose from my posts on domain play and castles and castle-building and strongholds and follower rules and so on which litter this blog and which all number amongst my most popular, widest-shared, most-read articles: tribes. There’s an entire chapter on tribes and tribalism in this game. It supposes you come from a tribe (or are an orphan) and that, as you level up, you and your party collect other humans of similar mind and the need for community and the safety of numbers. You need a cave as a place to base your budding tribe safely out of harm’s way, and that probably means first clearing it of dangerous beasts – this ties back to the previous bit about advancement; clearing the cave of scary wolves is a great deed that will spread renown and attract followers and painting yourself up in wolf’s blood is a pretty concrete way of illustrating your strength and showing why you should be followed. It’s as primal and primitive and downright honest as it gets, and it’s very “cozy” to my mind. You’re sort of always of a mind towards community and the concepts of domain play. It’s really cool. As a bit of an aside, if you’re playing with the magical and weird elements included, Magicians need caves or sacred sites to create and memorize spells and that sort of thing, tying that class back to this need for community and safe harbor.

Relatedly, conflict with humans is treated differently from other games. Other humans and other tribes cannot be a source of XP for your party and so conflict with them is mechanically discouraged. It may be fictionally encouraged, though – when you meet other tribes, they occupy space, they have members (followers who could be members of your tribe, which would be beneficial to you and the tribe at large, perhaps), they have supplies and food. Combat would not mechanically benefit you and indeed could claim your lives or ruin the safety and prosperity of your tribe, who depend on you. On the other hand, if the other tribe is warlike or somehow promotes dangerous elements in the world, they could become an existential threat if not checked now, despite the great risks involved and the questionable payoff otherwise. This leads to players making really weighty choices and forces buy-in to the shared fiction.

The game has an extensive bestiary. It’s got a great spread of commonplace animals you or I could find still in the world, prehistoric megafauna, and also fantasy creatures. This is one of several places where the book consciously makes it very easy to play a game rooted in reality or a game leaning into the fantasy realm without damaging the core conceits of Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow. You can very easily form a party of Hunters and Experts without a single Magician and the game runs well, seeking out giant boars. You can very easily play a game where a band of Magicians and Hunters meet an aboleth deep in a cavern and the game runs well. This can be very hard to do for many games but this one pulls it off. The fantastic monsters selected are really thematically-appropriate, too, and show a tremendous amount of care. As with the fabulous work on the biomes and environment tables, the encounter tables are absolutely incredible and probably worth the price of admission alone. Like, you could run a normal D&D game session where the party winds up on an Island Time Forgot or a Lost Valley or whatever and use these tables and have gotten your money’s worth. Just awesome.

Some Critical Thoughts

Overall, the character of the writing is on-point. Emmy writes so well in all of her books and I am certain no one is surprised to find that even in one of her earliest published works she turned in a terrific text. I admit to tremendous bias in my excitement with prehistoric stone age things, and also with the works of Emmy Allen, so I suppose you should take this with a grain of salt but I bet you know that already given that you’re reading a review on a dork’s blog who isn’t paid to do this sort of thing professionally. Anyway. Wolf-Packs & Winter Snow is extremely evocative and stylish without being aggressively stylized, which is to say that you don’t need to leap to wild fantasy elements if you don’t want to without losing out on the terrific atmosphere of the game. Emmy includes the ability to drop magic monsters and magic-using classes and play a quasi-historical game with WP&WS and if you do so you still get nearly the full force of her work. I say “nearly” because, as with many of her works, Emmy’s gift for writing cool magical things is evident here and it would almost be a shame to miss out on her imaginative creations. Her spells show off her writing chops and her imagination and I really loved them even when many D&D spell supplements make my eyes glaze over somewhere in the middle.

Editing is a little spotty. The writing suffers from the tiny details that are exceedingly common in one-person works, which are things like inconsistent capitalization and terminology (e.g.: at some points, flesh and grit are referred to individually as hit points, an inconsistent use of terminology that is even seen in the block quote above). There is also a sort of strange placement of some elements. There’s a perceivable logic to the order of elements but I am not certain it is the best possible order and I think an accomplished game editor would have probably reorganized some of it. As I’ll touch on in the layout segment of this review in a second, I think this specific factor is possibly more of a layout capability limitation or amateur handling of whitespace than any weakness of the writing itself per se. She definitely doesn’t need an editor more than I do, but it is this need that I would say is most glaring anyway.

She did a terrific job of using public domain art in most cases. The monochrome design of the book is definitely made stronger by the choice to turn what I presume was lineart or full-color images into flat silhouettes. It provides a really strong impact and makes potentially clashing styles of art into something more uniform in appearance. There’s a couple of pieces that seem to have been modified to work a bit better, where spider-webs appear to have been added to a spider on pg 40 or antlers added to a lady on pg 125, or a corpse’s hands seem to have been modified to fit on pg 89. The effect is definitely positive with these tweaks and adds to the whole; it shows a sincere care for the presentation and an understanding of the constraints sometimes present with public domain art. Overall the pieces chosen are evocative and rarely jarring because of the clever work she did in selection and modification, but there is no doubt that an art budget didn’t exist and some very different resolutions were used. In any such case, there will be weak points. I don’t think it will stun anyone to learn that an accomplished and fairly acclaimed author like Emily did not also have time to learn to be a perfect graphic designer while polishing her writing skills in 2016ish, especially when she is working with public domain artwork. The resolution of many of the art elements is insufficient for print. Each page is bordered by a repeated graphic that aims to look like messy ink brush lines or perhaps weathered and damaged pages and it is very fuzzy in the POD book; after a while your eyes basically don’t even see it anymore, which is a relief. Some of the spot art elements suffer also from fuzzy edges and a couple still have very fine single-pixel borders evident.

On layout, the book is very simplistic and workmanlike. It probably comes as no surprise that I adore beautiful graphic design in books given how much I note it with every review I do, but I also appreciate extremely “boring” and utilitarian design because it is often very easy to use at the table and to reference. This book is generally fairly easily referenced with a couple exceptions, and presented in a straightforward way and most major concepts such as character classes and their mechanics or kits are formatted to be uninterrupted spreads. I really appreciate this. As I mentioned above, the layout and the editing/information presentation are the weakest points of this book, understandably, and hold it back a little bit. The order of explained elements, the perhaps too-simple text separations and things such as this make the reader sort of hunt for details even if they more or less remember where they are in the book. There are points in the book where general rules and ideas span across a page-turn or similar but I also think slavish devotion to avoiding that leads to awkward white-space or dissonant filler art – like in the MCDM Strongholds & Followers book – that becomes more awkward than just finishing the paragraph on the next page. Again, as much as I adore beautiful books, simple layout like this or Labyrinth Lord or whatever is far from a dealbreaker and can be used easily. We’re spoiled, but if you look around, there are a hell of a lot worse book design things than plain black text more or less plainly laid out in a fairly clear order on a plain white page.

Related to both this and my quibbles with the art, I would say that the 8.5×11″ format was perhaps a poor choice. A digest-sized or A5 version would have disguised the fuzzy edges of some art better including the page borders and overall would likely have lent a bit of a crutch to these limitations. As noted in the preamble above, there is a revised PDF out there and apparently a hardcover book that may have revisited these issues. I couldn’t say at this time as I own neither of them.

The Conclusion

Maybe the last use of this review possum. Maybe not. I might redraw him. Who knows!

My official score for this book is eight giant possum megafauna out of ten. I considered a 7/10 and agonized for a bit because of the weak layout and editing that would propel this book to a 10/10 if fixed. In the end, I just couldn’t do it; I am weak. I love this game. It has an enduring place in my collection and imagination. I don’t think anyone has done this genre anywhere near as well, with as much quiet, elegant rule design and adaptation, or as much charming vision for the setting. Emmy made an amazing book and if she ever does a special edition (or I can learn more about, and buy, the supposedly extant hardcover I can’t seem to find available anywhere?) I will buy it. It is on my short list for things I want to get a lavish version of. Terrific stuff. Go buy the original POD, go buy the PDF. Just buy it and read it and play it and tell others about it. We’re missing out by focusing on the incestuous ouroboros of commodified fantasy D&D inspired by fiction IPs inspired by D&D. I love D&D, but these weird worlds full of questions are such a wonderful alternative to playing with the same elves forever.

Also sorry for this being so long and the paragraphs so dense. I love this game, but I am also very out of practice and I need to chill or get an editor.

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