Monday, December 14, 2020

Wolves of God Review

I think I have a new favorite Sine Nomine book.  It seems like it would be a hard game to find players for, but it was entertaining to read and there were some stealable bits.
The whisky-taster description: A nose redolent of Beowulf and Maldon.  Some complexity in the body, with Stars Without Number dominant, hints of Pendragon, and a twist of Rome.  ACKSy notes in in the finish.
Things I like:
  • It's Beowulf: The RPG, plus Christian saints, untrusted wizards, and pocket-dimension dungeons via portals in Roman ruins
  • Presentation/style is super flavorful
  • Mechanics of eg feasting, gifting, glory, shame link up nicely with the norms of the Northern European heroic age (contra murderhoboism)
  • Several ACKSy systems (mortal wounds, domains, mass combat) are present, with lower-resolution / less generality than ACKS', but higher-resolution / more concrete than eg An Echo Resounding's domains and better thought-out than eg 5TD's maiming.  Nice middle grounds here.

Things I don't love:

  • Expensive ($20), which is why I waited as long as I did to pick it up
  • Traveller-style skill system with varying target numbers
  • I feel like it might be hard to come up with good low-level adventure seeds (high level seems easier, as you have Beowulf and Maldon and norse sagas and Arthurian legend).  There's always dungeoncrawling, but then there's a weird shift from dungeoncrawling to Beowulfing, but that's the same dungeon-to-wilderness shift that a lot of OSR games have so I guess I shouldn't hold that against it.

Things that don't bother me overmuch, but that you might dislike:

  • Presentation/style
  • Christianity
  • Talking shit about the Welsh (in character for the nominal author, Brother Cornix)

Other things I could see hacking this system into:


And now the wall of text you've all been waiting for.

Wolves of God is a lowish-magic heroic fantasy rules system tied strongly to its setting in Dark Ages England.  The central conceit of the rulebook is that it was written by a monk in 710 AD, and great effort was put into writing style.  I opened the pdf, looked at the table of contents, saw "Cattle Raiding", jumped to that immediately, and here is the first text of the book that I read:
All gamesmen agree that a game cannot be good save that it has guidance for the tasks common to heroes, such as spear-clashing, and cunning deeds of skill, and cattle raiding, and feasting, and all common challenges that they may face.  So it is here that I advise you as to how a GM might rule over a cattle raid.
If this style annoys you, you will probably hate this book.  I find it endearing, mostly, though it does get a little old.  Many paragraphs have one-sentence summaries in plain modern English in the margin, which I imagine would be very helpful in play.
Other things I could see people objecting to: Christianity, thralls, and the Welsh matter.  I imagine that both sufficiently-devout Christians and anti-Christians will find something to complain about in the portrayal of Christianity here.  I kind of like it.  It's refreshing for a D&D book to come out and say "the cleric is Christian and the dominant religion in the setting is Christianity" rather than giving an Old Testament spell list to new deities that nobody can remember. This approach has a commendable directness to it.

Putting objections aside, on to content.

Wolves of God has a similar spine, mechanically, to Stars Without Number (possibly its second edition, which I haven't read).  Classes are Warrior, Saint, Galdorman, and Adventurer (which picks two of the other classes and gets some but not all of their stuff.  The handling of partial casting here is good, with adventurers being behind the spellcasters but not wildly far behind in their casting).  Skills are rolled on 2d6 with bonuses from skill level and attribute modifiers.  Starting skills can be rolled randomly based on background or chosen, and you get three if you roll vs two if you choose - I like the incentives that this sets up.  Only Warriors (and partial-Warrior Adventurers) gain escalating to-hit bonus from class; everyone can learn the Spear skill and fight without penalty, but Warriors are going to be the best at it by a good margin by the mid-levels.

The most unusual thing with the classes is that each class has a list of actions which earn it Glory, and a list of actions which earn it Shame.  Glory is basically XP, and Shame subtracts from your Glory total.  Doing dishonorable things prevents you from leveling.  Wolves of God doesn't fuck about with +10% XP for heroic behavior like the ACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook - if you want to level at all, you must behave heroically (subject to your role within the party; it would be shameful for a saint to kill a man, but shameful for a warrior not to.  So you can cover many of your needs honorably with a broad party, probably).  Adventurers choose some Glory and Shame sources from both of the source classes.

Characters also get wyrds, which remind me a lot of the rule we used to use when we ordered chinese takeout to gaming sessions, that you could use the text from your fortune cookie to influence narrative events.  Wyrds are generated from a table at character creation, and you only get to spend them once in your character's lifetime.  You get two noble wyrds (good things) and one ignoble wyrd (bad fate), which the DM can trigger.  It's a little weird (pardon) that you can avoid death through an ignoble wyrd; I can't tell if the wyrd rules as written would tend to lead to players burning the noble wyrds early to win hard situations at the low levels and then meeting ignoble ends, when one would hope for the opposite.  I guess it would depend on how aggressive the DM is with triggering your ignoble wyrds.
Foci are basically feats.  Some of the names are allusions to the text of The Battle of Maldon.  You don't get many of them but they look strong; stuff like ability to ignore scars from near-death wounds, auto-hit weak foes, berserkergang, immunity to surprise, and regaining HP by drinking alcohol (and immunity to penalties from drunkenness, score).  There's a fair bit of "roll twice and take the better" throughout these, and throughout the rules generally.  I don't see a whole lot of other 5e influence; the other main change I notice from SWN 1e that seems more modern is that there are only three saves (Str/Con, Dex/Int, and Wis/Cha) versus the old five or six, but that's hardly 5e specific.  Saves are still roll-over-target-number, starting at 15+ modified by ability scores and improving by 1 per level, which is nice and simple, preserving the typical TSR-D&D behavior at both ends, where low-level characters are fragile and high-level characters are durable.

I don't love that skill checks exist in RPGs at all for noncombat matters, but I guess if you have to have them, a Traveller-like 2d6+small mods system is one of the least objectionable ways.  I do like the skill names and the ones selected for inclusion.

Encumbrance has an interesting distinction between stowed and ready items.  I get the feeling that the baseline amount of stuff you can carry is fairly high (but the amount you can keep ready is fairly low), and then carrying more stuff than that, you lose speed pretty quickly for relatively small increases in stuff carried.  I haven't gone and done all the math though, that's just my first gut impression.  Encumbrance limits do scale fairly tightly with Str and low-Str characters will have trouble, but ability score generation is relatively forgiving (3d6 assign, and if no stat 14+ change any one into 14+) so maybe you just pick something other than Str to put your 3 in.

The most novel thing in combat, I think, is shock damage, where you inflict a small amount of damage even on a miss against some opponents (if their AC is lower than a threshold determined by your weapon).  I'm not sure I get the game design/intent of this mechanic yet.  There are a bunch of ways to mitigate it (some foci, shields, shield walls, total defense).  So I think maybe it's intended mostly to make missing in combat suck less for PCs / let them still put a little chip damage on targets?

The other novel thing is the Snap Attack, which lets you make an attack when it isn't your turn at a big penalty (and sacrifices your action for the round).  I'm not sure what the implications of this rule are.

I like that charge explicitly lets you throw a spear at the end instead of having to make a melee attack.  Not much in the way of special rules for spears, they're just assumed to be the default I guess.

"Creatures much larger than a man suffer double damage from falls, for their great size makes them fall more quickly, as Aristotle has shown us."

The scars / mortal wounds table is mostly -2 or -4 to an ability score (but can't reduce below 3, and generally doesn't have obviously retirement-forcing entries like ACKS' "paralyzed from the waist down").  Some foci or healing spells let you roll twice or swap the dice on the percentile roll or that sort of thing.  This is definitely better than 5TD's wounds table, as it links attribute penalties to clear mechanical penalties in a fair/consistent way, but not as complicated nor as brutal as ACKS'.  You have six rounds to administer aid, which is nice and concrete and wouldn't lead to people conceivably prolonging combats to give their clerics a chance to heal downed people "before end of combat" for the better bonus on the roll in ACKS vs after combat, but does have the downside that you have to keep count.  And you still get between one and two months of bed rest.

Splendor is a mechanic that gives you rerolls based on how valuable your personal possessions are, up to limits based on your character level.  It seems fairly gamey, in that having nice things gives you rerolls on tasks unrelated to those things.

Feasting - you want to be the guest of honor because that gives you a chance at extra Glory, but it also means you have to swear an oath, so it's one of those "each deed led me on to another deed" sort of things.  The treadmill of heroism.

The overland travel rules are interesting, using hours as basically movement points.

Advancement - number of glories to level is a bit subexponential.  I'm not sure how I feel about this, as it means that lower-level characters may have more trouble catching up (but, wyrds should help prevent characters from dying).  Mostly you get points that you can spend on stuff (skills, attribute increases, mastering miracles).

Magic - both galdormen and saints have a pool of mana (sorcery or holiness points) that they spend to cast spells.  Saints can cast from their whole spell list, but have a chance of failure if it's not one of a small set of miracles that they have mastered.  Galdormen know only a small set of spells but have no limit (that I saw) on the max number of spells that they can learn, nor a repertoire that they have to keep prepared once a spell is known.  Spells are divided into minor, major, and great, corresponding sort of to 1st-2nd, 3rd-4th, and 5th+ spells, in terms of when you get access to them.

The individual spells are interestingly balanced; some cost a bunch of points but have quick casting times, some cost no points but have long casting times, some bear extra costs (Divine Intervention costs a level).  Point costs are not really tied to minor/major/great "spell level".

Rebuke the Wicked has a really interesting mechanic, where you pile up future / potential damage on a target, and then when an ally finally hits them it gets discharged / turned into bonus damage.  So you, the saint, aren't hurting somebody, and get to do a saintly thing (rebuking), and then the warrior gets to do his thing (hitting people), but you can contribute a decent amount of damage per round while it's up (provided you have an ally who can hit people).

The galdorman spell list is less Fireball and more Charm Person and Improve Harvest.

Shields are pretty great, providing decent AC at much less expense than armor.  Armor and shield don't stack by direct addition; instead using a shield with armor adds +1 to the armor's AC. 
The spear and the sword are king among weapons, and swords are rare and expensive.

Knives and seaxes (long knives / short swords) have better shock damage than other weapons and again, I'm not sure why mechanically (it's fine from a realism perspective, than an unarmored guy is gonna get cut).

70 pages of setting material, mostly around norms and expectations.  Includes random tables of tags for monasteries (minsters) and random monk creation tables.  I never knew I needed a random monk table.

Monsters.  A lot of these have 8-12 HD, which is rather scary in a game where the max character level is 10.  One interesting thing going on here is that monsters can have abilities from particular spheres (eg, "Ylfes commonly have powers of Beguiling, Deceit, Forging, and Wisdom", and then Beguiling, Deceit, Forging, Wisdom, etc each has a random table of 12 abilities).  These power tables mean that you're pretty much never going to fight two creatures of the same type with exactly the same powers, which is very...  mythological.  I dig it.  It's like like giving every monster the same amount of variation that normally only dragons get in OSR D&D.
I also like that these monster entries follow a bit of a formula, where the first 1-3 paragraphs tell you what they are and where they're found, and then the last always talks about what they desire and which of the supernatural powers tables they can roll on. 
There are, however, no "Number Appearing" entries; suggestions appear for some monsters in Stocking an Arx (dungeon), but not for all.
Treasure tables are by source (ranging from "Humble Churl" to "Lost Roman City Treasury"), rather than a numerical or letter type, but still have a pretty typical form other than that (% chance of common trade goods, % chance of valuable trade goods, % chance jewelry, % chance magic items, and an expected total value if you don't want to roll anything).

If you don't have cheese on your treasure table, are you even playing old-school D&D?  (Fear not, cheese is on this treasure table)

Magic items are classified into weapons, elixirs, and relics (everything else, including a scarce few magic armor and shield bits).

Some magic weapons are +0 but with special powers.  About 80% of magic weapons are either +1 or +0.  About 3% of magic weapons are cursed.  Being cursed is independent of magic bonus.

DMing advice: "Thus is the law; if you are neither enjoying your work, nor will you
need it for your very next session, then put down your quill."

Building ruined roman cities (use a large-scale grid, put up to one landmark in each of those squares, have some common features across cities like the forum), building supernatural roman dungeons, exploration rules.

There are a number of interesting changes here from the B/X defaults.  Failure to rest imposes a -4 to hit and -2 to skills, which are bigger than usual but would not be amiss considering the confusion over whether OD&D's penalties where for Chainmail d6 rolls or d20 rolls.  Clarification on different movement speeds (moving cautiously vs switftly through the dungeon vs running), but it's unclear if/how encumbrance speed reduction interacts with exploration movement speeds.  Torches cast light in a bigger radius than oil lamps, but last half as long.  Surprise interacts with movement mode.  Players are expected to map (and one of the penalties of running movement is that you don't get to look at your map as you make it).

Another 20 pages of setting material, this more concrete and gazetteer-style, about the various English kingdoms.

Domain rules - domains are measured in hides of land and the amount of wealth accumulated by the lord (which is like, cattle, grain, and cloth, things churls produce, not gold).  You split your hides between supporting your household (wives, servants, children), supporting warriors (who you can take on adventures or to war) or specialist monks (who can make things that commoners can't) and your commoners, who produce wealth for you.  You get a domain action every season, which you can use to try to attract followers, go raiding, delegate solving a problem that is troubling the domain, try to open up more land for cultivation, etc.

Your warriors will always fight for you and are ready at a moment's notice.  You can also call up the fyrd (all able-bodied free men) for one month a year, but this takes more time, much like raising armies in ACKS but simpler.

Philosophy of domains is explicitly "domains are a source of / reason for adventures".  They're not a win condition that you retire to; you have to deal with random misfortune, and maintaining warriors is expensive (in gifts, in addition to hidage).

I do like that the domain random event table starts with basically a reaction roll with God, where you get a bonus or penalty on 2d6 based on whether you donated a bunch of money to the church or did something odious.

Domain morale across seasons just isn't a thing; if the churls get restless, it's because of a single-season random event (but that might be influenced by your lack of godliness).

Mass combat - this looks a lot like Domains at War: Battles on 8-man unit scale minus zone of control / leadership rules, cavalry, and any detail on archers, plus ten-minute turns, shock damage, and merging shock and morale rolls.  It is interesting that units still suffer shock damage from misses in mass combat.  Maybe the purpose of shock damage is mass combat somehow?

Can units with shields use them to ignore the first instance of shock per round (likewise shieldwalls)?  Not really clear on this.

I'm also not clear on where you get companions vs gesith.  Are companions henchmen, or other PCs, or what?  Companions throughout the text seems to refer mostly to the party; are the 3HD companions mentioned here mostly for NPC lords, while PC companions are heroes?  Ordinarily I would expect something like henchmen or hirelings to make up this unit, but I didn't see anything about non-PC characters going adventuring, which leaves only the gesith who you get by giving them land (and gesith is its own unit type distinct from companion).

The lack of henchmen doesn't play great with some of the heroic themes; I guess Wiglaf was just a gesith?  Though the tiny scale of battles here does do a good job with the second bit mentioned by Ker in his characterization of warfare in the epics.

I do like the Beorhtnoth Memorial Rule, that a companion unit whose lord is slain may make a morale rule to get large offensive bonuses and defensive penalties from morale and grief for the rest of the battle.

The "After the Battle" section is also very similar, structurally, to Domains at War's rules for damaged unit casualties (Battles, page 27).

If you're fighting heathens in mass combat, you can bring a saint for a morale bonus to all your dudes.  Galdormen are not substantially more useful in mass combat than the average churl.

Solid two-page bibliography.

Sadly Brother Cornix did not see fit to include designer's notes at the end like some of the Stars Without Number books have, so I'm going to have to continue puzzling over shock damage.  Maybe it's to encourage people to continue to use shields once they have acquired armor?  But it's not like you're doing much anything else with your off-hand, besides holding a torch maybe; fighters in armor were already going to want to be using the Heavy Shield for the bonus to melee damage.  Hmm...


  1. Shock damage exists to tacitly ensure that combat-focused PCs are always hurting a target every round, as there are several Focus ways to boost the damage or ensure that it hits a target regardless of their AC. It's fairly simple for a midlevel Warrior to get his Shock high enough that he can reliably expect to kill any 1 HD creature he stabs at in a round- and as these Foci are available to non-Warriors as well, it's not impossible for a Galdorman to be a competent mook-slayer as well even without a high attack bonus. Conversely, it also encourages PCs to carry their shields like a good Saxon and avoid mob attacks, because they know they're going to get pinged to death even if their opponents roll low.

    Shield use nullifies the first instance of Shock in a round, but monsters generally don't carry shields and two skilled warriors going after a single target means death or injury regardless of shield use.