Almost a year ago, I wrote a post titled Fantasy RPG 2D Terrain Products – Past & Present that focused on fantasy terrain accessories that gamers used in the early days of RPG gaming and today. Tucked into that post was this short note:
Note: One of my earliest memories of seeing miniatures used in real combat gaming was at a sandbox table at (if memory serves) a local gaming convention in Pensacola, FL, where a group of wargamers had set up a large ping-pong sized table with buildings and a river and other obstacles. I believe it was a Napoleon-era style battle based on the painted uniform jackets and hats and the players had obviously gone to great lengths to create this beautiful miniature battlefield. I believe my seeing that tiny battlefield and all its details has greatly influenced my role as DM and why I’m not a traditional TOTM gamer.
I have always been fascinated by the history of wargaming and RPGs, and my copy of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World is well-worn and highlighted. (It’s an essential read for any gamer interested in the origins of wargaming and Dungeons & Dragons.) I can close my eyes and still picture that table I saw so many decades ago filled with painted metal soldiers. Since then, I’ve seen (but never played) quite a few historical-based wargames played out at conventions here and yonder… and I always smile at the debates (and quite loud arguments) over rule interpretations and the nit-picking over whether certain soldiers would have used this weapon versus that weapon at such-and-such-a-range. Then out come the rulers and lengths of string for measurements and line-of-sight. For me, it’s just a style of gaming that I’ve always enjoyed reading about and watching, but never really had an opportunity to play due to the startup costs and time commitments needed to play. (These games can run from hours to almost an entire day or days depending on the campaign and the level of complexity and realism the players wish to simulate.)
I enjoy my weekly D&D session with my oldest son but for some time now, I’ve been giving serious consideration to trying out my hand at a non-RPG wargame. I lurk in a number of different gaming groups, and for the last year or so I’ve been seeing some amazing 3D terrain created from scratch for a mix of possible game candidates. It’s a bit overwhelming at times seeing all these incredibly gifted crafters share not only their photos but also details about the games they play with their terrain. I’ve been looking for a good excuse to jump in, and it was the 2016 holiday season that gave me inspiration…
A Break From Electronics…
My boys are just a little addicted to their iPads. They love playing a mix of games on these devices, but as a parent it’s sometimes difficult to get them to put the tablets down and jump on homework or read a book or just plain go outside. It was during the 2016 holiday break that I realized my boys were spending way too much time on the tablets and something needed to change. So I decided to have a no-electronics month in February to cold-turkey them before severely reducing their screen time when the month is over. I’ve been talking it up to the boys and reminding them constantly that electronics (including TV) are going away for four full weeks. They, of course, have been asking what we’ll be doing instead. There will be reading times and lengthier walk-the-dog breaks and some new boardgames, but what I’m looking forward to the most is having them help me create terrain for what I’m calling Frostgrave February.
If you’re not familiar with Frostgrave, it’s a relatively new (released in 2015) wargame created by Joseph McCullough. The only book you need to play the game is the 136-page hardback rulebook, but be aware there are three expansions books (all paperback) available plus some digital-only content released by McCullough that will be gathered into a 4th book releasing in March. In addition to the rulebook, the game is played with miniatures, a 3′ x 3′ game area (or smaller for certain mini-games), a couple printed sheets to track stats, and a d20 die.
Amidst the frozen ruins of an ancient city, wizards battle in the hopes of discovering the treasures of a fallen empire. In this fantasy skirmish wargame, each player takes on the role of a wizard from one of ten schools of magic, and builds his band of followers. The wizard’s apprentice will usually accompany his master, and more than a dozen other henchman types are available for hire, from lowly thugs to heavily armoured knights and stealthy thieves. Wizards can expand their magical knowledge by unlocking ancient secrets and may learn up to 80 different spells. While individual games of Frostgrave are quick and can easily be played in an hour or two, it is by connecting them into an ongoing campaign that players will find the most enjoyment. The scenarios given in the book are merely the beginning of the limitless adventures that can be found amidst the ruins of the Frozen City. – ospreypublishing.com
Frostgrave pits two or more players against each other; each player controls a single wizard, a wizard apprentice, and eight ‘soldiers’ who battle it out in a quest to retrieve treasures in the lost city of Felstad. Battles can be one-off with no post-game ramifications or players can participate in a number of campaigns where their wizards can level up, gain more powerful spells, purchase more powerful henchmen and even build a base of operation.
Before I go into any more detail about Frostgrave, however, let me take a step back and explain just why Frostgrave has grabbed and held my attention. To do this, I want to briefly discuss one of the more famous fantasy wargame rulebooks that is so relevant to D&D players — Chainmail. Now, I’ve never played Chainmail. When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, Chainmail had already been out for almost a decade (1971 release date), and while it had been a required rulebook for those playing the first version of Dungeons & Dragons (it provided the miniature combat rules), the Basic D&D edition and Advanced D&D contained rules for combat. So I never needed the Chainmail rules. Only later as my interest in wargames and D&D grew did I get my hands on a copy of Chainmail to examine the rules.
I’m not going to go too deep into the Chainmail rules — you can read my lengthier (but by no means comprehensive) comparison of the rules against D&D Fifth Edition here. With Chainmail, players were tracking a lot of different variables such as fatigue, morale, angles and rates of fire, and even the taking of prisoners. Toss in different damage values depending on distances, armor types and which weapons are effective against them, and the various speeds of different types of soldier and it’s easy to understand why some wargames could last days. This level of detail for a simulated game is quite typical of early wargames where players wanted to squeeze out as much realism as possible. That level of realism comes at a price, however; the building of a substantial rules base.
Don’t get me wrong — this is not a criticism of Chainmail whatsoever. And to be fair, there are other wargames out there with significantly more rules and more complex gameplay. The point is this — wargames can be as easy or as difficult to play as the players’ level of realism demands. Thankfully, today’s wargaming options cast a wide net, providing games for casual, short-game play or the lengthier, super-detailed campaigns. And that’s why I’ve elected to introduce my boys to Frostgrave… short (typically under 2 hours) games with a limited set of rules and simplified combat in a fantasy setting.
My boys (ages 9.5 and 6.5) love playing games, but I know their limits both in terms of patience and complexity of rules. For these reasons, I am quite pleased with my examination of the basic Frostgrave rules, some of which I’ll discuss below.
Examining Frostgrave Rules
Don’t let the 136-page Frostgrave rulebook intimidate you. Yes, it’s lengthier than the 45-page Chainmail rulebook, but I believe the Frostgrave core rules could be summarized in less than 10 pages; much of the rulebook is filled with gorgeous full-page artwork and photography of incredibly detailed terrain and miniatures. I read the entire rulebook in under an hour and was quite surprised at how easy the basic rules were to commit to memory. That said, take a look at this official summary sheet of the rules that fits on a single page! I honestly believe I could hand this sheet to a new player and get started playing a tutorial game immediately and they could learn as they go.
This isn’t to say the rules are so simplistic that a game isn’t fun. I played my first game against a friend recently and neither of us could wipe the grins off our faces as we moved our minis around. (We used paper minis and a Fat Dragon papercraft dungeon setting because I hadn’t yet made up my mind whether to pursue creating some custom terrain.) Here are some random thoughts and examinations of just a few of the Frostgrave rules that I have come to appreciate for their simplicity and ease of remembering:
- Miniatures – Unlike Chainmail and other wargames that use rules where a single miniature might represent 10 or 20 soldiers or horsemen or cannons, Frostgrave is a 1:1 wargame. Each miniature represents a single combatant or creature, and all players come to a battle with a wizard, the wizard’s apprentice, and eight supporting combatants. This collection of miniatures is called your warband, and these combatants have purchase prices, so you can customize your warband with a mix of fighters, thieves, bowmen, and more.
- Movement – All movement in a game is done using 1″ increments. Each combatant has a maximum value it can move (typically 6″). Higher movement values indicate a faster opponent (such as a wolf). There’s also a well-defined order of play that involves initiative rolls and four phases of action. Very easy to remember, too, but it’s on the Quick Reference sheet anyway.
- Stats – There are six stats you’ll be referencing for your warband members – M(ove), F(ight), S(hoot), A(rmor), W(ill), and H(ealth). You can record everything you need to play a game on two sheets of paper that hold your wizard and apprentice details plus the eight other combatants. In a nutshell, most of the stats are values that are added to a single d20 die roll to determine hits, misses, and other results. For non-campaign games, stats are the same for the players’ wizards, their apprentices, and with a slight variation in stats for the rest of the warband depending on the types of combatants a player has chosen to fill out the group. So a fair game is fast and easy to get going.
- Spells – There are ten types of wizard schools in Frostgrave. Each wizard type has certain spells they can use well and other spells that are less reliable. The number of spells isn’t overwhelming, and what spells you will have are easy to understand and most can be summarized in a few sentences on small cards included in the book. (Spell cards can be downloaded here and printed if you don’t wish to cut up your book.) Casting a spell is as easy as rolling the d20, adding modifiers, and exceeding a value listed on the spell card.
- Combat – Combat is super-straightforward; choose your type of attack (examples are sword, dagger, arrow, or thrown item), add modifiers (based on your stats) and try to beat the opponent’s same roll and hopefully score higher than a target’s Armor value. If you win the combat roll, each point over the AC deducts from Health. There are a small number of other combat situations (spells and line-of-sight, for example) to remember, but basic combat resolves fast.
- Gameplay Area – For most games, you’ll need a surface area no larger than 3′ x 3′ — the city of Felstad is supposed to be a crumbling ruin, so scattering debris and broken columns and walls around is one of the recommended methods for the setting. Most scenarios (including the Campaigns – more on those in a moment) provide details about where the entrances and exits are for the particular scenario as well as any key structures that should be present.
- NPC/Creatures — The rules that govern NPC and creature movements are short and easy to resolve. Typically it involves checking to see if a warband member is within a certain distance (and in line-of-sight) and then moving the NPC/creature in that direction. Some scenarios have special rules for certain creature types, but most of the time it’s a matter of moving a creature in the direction of a potential target.
Just like the Chainmail book, all the rules you need to play Frostgrave are found in this core rulebook. Once a game is underway, there is very little need to reference the book once you have the basic spell and combat rules memorized. There are some charts to consult when a game ends and a few modifier tables, but again… they’re on the Quick Reference sheet. And any optional rules that the players agree on (these are mostly found in the Expansion books, but there are a couple of Optional Rules in the core book) can be written down on the Quick Reference sheet.
While Frostgrave games can be played as one-off games, the more interesting option is to follow the Campaign rules from Chapter 3. Here, players are provided some additional rules that apply post-game: injuries, gaining experience, leveling up your wizard, and apprentice, hoarding treasure, finding and using potions, scrolls, and other magic items (including weapons and armor), and establishing a base. Bases are pretty slick — you can buy a structure such as an Inn that lets you increase the size of your warband from 10 to 11 or maybe a Brewery that saves you 5 gold on the cost of any recruited warband members. There are six other structures to consider (but you can only buy one), and all of them provide a bonus and/or benefit as your warband survives battles and progresses in skills. You can also buy as many of the 10 Base Resources as you like to upgrade your base. Two examples are the Celestial Telescope, which gives a +2 bonus once per game to the wizard’s Initiative roll, or the Kennel, which allows the purchase of a war hound.
As for spells, there are 80 from which to choose, and there are penalty modifiers for each type of wizard when they stray outside their area of expertise and cast spells specific to other wizard types. Frostgrave wizard types are Aligned, Neutral, or Opposed, making some battles more complicated if you find yourself up against a wizard of an opposing school. Gaining more spells is best done by playing in a campaign and earning XP from surviving battles and collecting treasure, so if you want more powerful spells and maybe even to gain access to your opposition’s spells, you’ll need to power up a wizard.
Treasure is something you’ll want to focus on during games — finding them and getting them out of the game area is the best way to acquire treasure and gold and allow you to buy more powerful warband members and equipment and magic items.
In a normal game (non-campaign), when your Wizard’s Health hits 0, that’s dead. But in a campaign, you roll on a special table to determine the outcome — it’s quite possible your wizard will survive but will receive a permanent injury or a bad wound that requires spending some gold for treatment. Injuries can include the loss of an eye (-2 to Shoot stat) or a crushed arm (-1 to Fight stat). There are nine injuries, so try to keep your wizard alive.
Gaining experience allows a wizard to level up, and leveling up is how you learn new spells, improve the chances of successfully casting a known spell, or improving a Stat. There are maximum values for Stats and minimum successful roll values for casting spells, but your wizard will need to survive a lot of campaign scenarios to reach those limits.
The core rulebook comes with 10 scenarios if you’re not wanting to run a vanilla game. Each scenario has special set-up instructions plus some special rules and treasure/experience modifiers. These scenarios don’t tell a story (unlike the Expansion books), but they are unique and all of them sound fun to play.
Creatures range from the common (Skeleton, Wolf, Zombie) to the truly dangerous (Vampire, Wraith, Frost Giant). In addition to a creature list (with Stats) in Chapter 6, there’s an optional rule listing for adding random creature encounters during a standard battle or scenario. Just roll on the table on page 110 and drop a potential game-changer into the mix.
For those who want more from their Frostgrave gameplay, there are currenty three expansions books that provide a mix of new creatures, new soldier types, mini-scenarios, lengthier campaigns, new spells and magic items, and more:
Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord – This one contains 10 scenarios that are linked and tell the tale of the rise of a slumbering Lich Lord in Felstad. The book also provides four new soldier types (including bard!), three spells (there’s one that can be used to turn your wizard into a lich), over 20 new magic items/treasures, and 10 new creatures that includes the deadly Lich Lord. (64 pages)
Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits – This expansion book focuses on the dungeons and tunnels beneath Felstad, and offers up rules specific to that locale that include dealing with traps, doors, ceilings, and secret passages. There are 20 traps in all, 8 new spells (including a new type called Reaction spells for fast responses to magic attacks, two new soldier types (Trap Expert and Tunnel Fighter), 20 new magic items/treasures, and twelve new creatures. This book also provides an optional upgrade to your wizard (similar to the option of becoming a Lich in the previously mentioned expansion book) called the Beastcrafter, with complete rules for turning your wizard into something not-quite-human, not-quite-animal. Finally, there are five new scenarios (not a campaign, so you can play them in any order) that focus on adventuring beneath the surface. (64 pages)
Frostgrave: Forgotten Pacts – North of the city of Felstad, barbarians are using ancient magic of their own to fight for territory. But elsewhere there are pacts being made with dark beings and summonings of evil creatures to fight for their new masters. Half of this book focuses on summoning minor and major demons and includes some amazing charts to roll up random mixes of attributes for these creatures. Summon at your own risk! The other half focuses on a new type of barbarian magic and the mystic brands that can be used to obtain new spells. Five new soldier types are offered (including Assassin and Monk) as well as 11 new creatures and 20 new magic items/treasures. Rounding out the book are two mini-campaigns (3 scenarios each) and two stand-alone scenarios that are for super-experienced Frostgrave players. (72 pages)
Frostgrave: The Frostgrave Folio – I don’t have this one to review yet, but here’s the description from the publisher’s website: The Frostgrave Folio is the complete collection of all previously released Frostgrave mini-ebook supplements in one printed volume. This includes Hunt for the Golem, a three-scenario campaign in which the warbands hunt down a rogue golem, Sellsword, which introduces rules for experience-gaining captains to help lead warbands, Dark Alchemy, which expands the rules for potions and potion brewing, and Arcane Locations which gives additional options for bases and base upgrades. The book also includes a completely new mini-supplement, The Ravages of Time. Collecting nearly two years’ worth of Frostgrave material, this collection is a necessary addition to any wizard’s library.
To make things a little easier for my boys, I’ve made a few choices about how we will play our first few games:
- My youngest will play on my team, assisting me with rolls, making decisions about moving miniatures, and more. He doesn’t like three-player games pitted against his older brother and his dad, so I figure it’ll be easier for him to learn the rules by playing with me. My 9-year-old is fair game, though.
- Both teams will start with identical warband soldiers — no unusual choices, but there will be a mix of swordsmen and bowmen. I will give my oldest a choice in picking between two wizards from opposing schools. Rather than dump all 10 schools of wizardry on him at once, I’ll let him see how the game flows and then let him examine the different schools and pick one on his own.
- I’m printing out spell cards ahead of time so my boys will be able to quickly make decisions without having to look in the book’s spell section. They’ll also have their wizard, apprentice, and soldier stats filled out ahead of time on the printout sheets.
- While I really would like to play with painted miniatures, we’re going to start out with some paper miniatures printed out and glued into 3D-printed color-coded bases. The color of the base will help identify the type of soldier.
I really hope my boys enjoy Frostgrave, and I’m looking forward to building some terrain and painting it with them. I think it’s going to be good for all three of us when the electronics are put away, too. During the month of February, I’ll be sharing some photos and details about our games and our terrain making, so be on the lookout for some Frostgrave scenario reports and our thoughts on the overall rules and gameplay. More to come…