The Hellfrost Player's Guide is a 128-page hardcover with full-color throughout. It's organized into an introduction to Rassilon (the continent of the Hellfrost setting), adventuring occupations, races, gear, different types of magic available in the setting, core deities, extended spell descriptions and sample trappings, Glory (a rules subsystem specific to Hellfrost), an overview of day-to-day life in Rassilon, major organizations, and setting-specific rules. Among other topics, the book also includes a timeline of major historic events, a sample character sheet and an index.
The basic premise of the Hellfrost setting is that through mysterious means, the continent of Rassilon is sliding into an Ice Age. Climate change is causing famine and depopulation. In parts of the continent, the fabric of civilization is fraying and tattered; as the civilized races retreat south, cold-tolerant humanoids and monsters take their place. The history of Rassilon is in fact an account of a series of major disasters. But most prominent among them is the Hellfrost that is causing the Ice Age – a great northern expanse of deathly cold that is slowly reaching southward, bringing with it an eternal winter. It's against this grim and gritty backdrop that the GM and heroes build their adventures.
Another way to sum up the setting, is that author Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams researched Nordic languages, cultures and myths, mashed it up with fantasy and some ice age tropes, and added some of his own ideas for spice. The result is absolutely brimming with flavor, helped along by Chris Kuhlmann's first-rate artwork, which is sprinkled throughout the book. The world of Rassilon is High Fantasy in the sense that there is a big variety of spellcasters (each of which has a limited list of magic powers, and its own quirks for using its sphere of magic); it's also Low Fantasy, in the sense that permanent magic items are extremely rare artifacts, and most magic items are single-use and/or temporary. Reading through the book, you get the sense while there's plenty of opportunity to kill things and take their stuff, the game world is about bigger moral challenges.
Races and Occupations
The vision for the world of the Hellfrost is evocative with its various suggested adventuring occupations (the book has brief descriptions for 35 careers): For example Roadwardens, whose duty it is to keep the trade routes open and safe; Hrimwisards, who tap the powers of the encroaching cold to weave their magic; and Lorekeepers, who hunt for knowledge that has gone lost through past strategies. Hrimwisards? The language is one of the conceits of the Hellfrost setting: Throughout the book there are such references: titles (“Heahwisard” instead of “high wizard”), and calendar dates (“Plohmonan” instead of plough moon, and “Sunnandaeg” instead of “Sunday”. The book isn't overloaded with these terms, but there's enough for flavor. Some readers will eat it up, while others might consider it pretentious.
Hellfrost's races are twists on Fantasy archetypes: You'll find humans (in four flavors), races that are variations of stock elves and halflings, but also cold-weather versions of elves and dwarves. You'll also find the Frostborn: magic-touched, cold-tolerant children of the warm-blooded races. The Player's Guide descriptions give the stats and a good starting idea of the characteristics of each race. There is only a little guidance about the relationships between races (the separate Hellfrost Gazetteer book helps flesh out the game world).
This brings up another potential issue that some groups might have with the setting: Rassilon is as nordic as a Swedish masseuse. There is room in the setting that visitors from other continents and cultures could be incorporated. But by itself, think Norse/Scandinavian Anglo-Saxon Celtic and Finnish, with maybe Russian, Germanic and the Baltics at the fringes. Hellfrost gets its flavor from focusing in tightly on one cultural grouping, and not throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. But that also means there's not much in the way of accommodating multiculturalism in this setting.
As mentioned, there is a great range of spellcaster options, with some flavors of magic tied to particular races. There are elementalists, high (noble) wizards, mages specializing in cold magic, rune mages, druids and skalds (bards); there are also priests and paladins, with about 20 core deities in the pantheon and many more possible. Each form of magic has access to particular subsets of Savage Worlds magic, and occupation-specific rules that make each class unique. In all, I'd eyeball 80+ Savage Worlds spells in the Hellfrost book, which is a mix of spells from the core book modified for the setting, and spells that are unique to the setting. Hellfrost doesn't use the Savage Worlds spellpoint system – instead, each caster type faces various risks of what can go wrong if a spell fails. The intent of potentially dire consequence of failures, is to encourage casters to use their magic sparingly (and keep Bennies in reserve for dealing with botched rolls). Herbalism and Alchemical Devices (ie. single-use items) each also get attention.
What are people like? What do they eat, how do they live? How educated is the ordinary person and what language(s) does s/he speak? How is religion viewed? How do people handle rituals such as marriage, festivals and death? The Hellfrost book has a short but insightful section on daily life in Rassilon, helpful for both the players and the GM to set the background tone of a campaign. Also important for a cold-weather setting are rules for weather and terrain. Traveling adventurers could face serious consequences if they aren't prepared for the cold, and for inclement weather.
Renown (in the form of Glory) is an incentive for adventurers to act courageously and do the right thing in a gritty game world. Glory is a subsystem specific to Hellfrost that tracks individual characters' renown. Glory rises as word gets out about adventurers' courageous, honorable acts and drops from known cowardly or evil acts. High Glory brings with it privileges such as additional Edges, Bennies, influence and followers. On the flipside, perform enough cowardly, heinous acts and you'll end up making permanent enemies. The rules for Glory are simple enough, sort of like calculating experience except that a skald can greatly help boost the results.
Hellfrost leans on many common fantasy themes, but it does a very fine job building a world where the races, adventuring occupations and organizations, the world's history and religions, forms of magic and description of daily life all come together beautifully. It's a player's handbook that lives and breathes its implied setting. The Hellfrost Player's Guide includes a bunch of flavor-specific Edges and Hindrances; its Power Point-less magic overhauls the stock Savage Worlds magic system; and the book adds the Glory subsystem to reward heroic deeds. Through it all, the book also fundamentally keeps the Savage Worlds rules-light simplicity – nothing feels like a rules bolt-on that's overly complicated, or fighting the core ruleset for consistency (hey Necessary Evil and Dawn of Legends, yeah, I'm lookin' at you).
To top it off, Triple Ace Games has published a bunch of free additional material for Hellfrost, available for download on the company's web site. Want to give your character a Fate (destiny) at birth? Run a side adventure where some of the heroes go cattle raiding? Need heraldry for a noble family? Want to formalize the use of Favors between party members and NPCs? All this and more is available as free downloads.
There are a couple things that might turn some people off of Hellfrost. If the northern European theme is too limiting for the group, Sean Patrick Fannon's Shaintar is another High Fantasy Savage Worlds setting. An updated Shaintar is currently preparing for release: That game world has more of an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach, and leans in favor of big-time action and larger-than-life heroes. Finally, much as I like both Savage Worlds and Hellfrost, I do wonder about how the gritty setting got married to this pulpy, rules-light game system. The combination works, but sometimes I wonder what might have been if Hellfrost had come out for a different (d20- or d100)-based ruleset.
Style: 4 Stars. The Hellfrost Player's Guide is a beautiful work – laid out cleanly on glossy, high-quality paper with sensible sections, headlines and subheads. Its consistent, evocative artwork is just a little lean, but I'm happy with the decision to favor more content. The style and layout is carried across Hellfrost's other core books, the Hellfrost Gazetteer and Hellfrost Bestiary.
Substance: 5 Stars. The flavor of Hellfrost is a fusion of classic fantasy themes drawing from northern European history and culture. That limitation may or may not work with your gaming group. For those groups who want to try this tightly wrapped fantasy flavor, the Hellfrost Player's Guide should be really effective at getting players excited with character ideas that draw on the implied look and feel of the world of Rassilon.