Review of The Ice Kingdoms (by CS Barnhart, James M. Ward and Chris Lites)
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary PDF for review purposes.
So this is a bit unusual – a review!
I’ve made an exception because I’m on the hunt for settings that might suit Low Fantasy Gaming RPG…. And ho, the Ice Kingdoms has just been released! Perhaps it might be a good fit with LFG for a Nordic/vikings themed game?
Now, just to be clear, when I say “vikings”, I’m talking about fictional, fantasy vikings; the D&D-ish, Conan the barbarian, movie/TV kind of vikings (to be very current – the Vikings from the For Honor game) with horned helmets and berserk fury. That kind of viking. This is a happy coincidence because the book indicates it is a fantasy setting first and foremost, as opposed to a historical one.
What is it?
Hold up, before we begin – plug in your earphones and google Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Press Play.
Right! The Ice Kingdoms (TIK) is 200 pages of campaign setting with a strong viking theme, set in a harsh and frozen land. The PDF is bookmarked, indexed, and scrolls well on my surface; so far so sweet. The B&W art is in my view mostly good. There’s a few awesome pics, I especially love the bear rider pic on p.36 (see below), but there’s also a few poor ones. The region map (computer drawn, colour, pretty cool, although I prefer hand drawn) covers a massive area, about 700-800 miles wide I think; ample room to range across this frozen land for your whole adventuring career.
TIK is written for OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, those kinds of D&D variants; for example it uses descending AC, THACO, alignment, and thief percentage skills. There’s some conversion notes for different old school systems. I personally don’t think precise conversion notes are necessary, but for those who want such guidance, I imagine it’s handy.
Now I’m not going to go through every chapter in this quick review (check out RPGCrawler’s video review for more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NhMH6XcwVc ), instead I’m going to give you my likes, my dislikes, and a final Odin like judgment.
What I Like
So, what’s good? Friends, there’s a lot to like here.
I love the races generally speaking. Human centric world with 6 cultures to choose from, all of them distinct with at least 2 unique mechanics to boot. There’s a great overview of daily life, with 4 broad social classes – Jarls (nobles), Karls (commoners), Thralls (slaves, indebted bondsmen) and Outcasts (outside the law altogether). There are laws of a kind, very interestingly there are gladiators, and duels are sometimes used to settle disputes.
Dwarves are called Grugni and are sour, humourless, cranky bastards; nice. The Ice Elves are evil and bad news – too powerful in fact for a PC race, excellent. There’s a list of human and dwarven names at the back of the book – terrific, exactly what I need to improv NPCs.
Two new classes – the Totemic Monk and Sorcerer – are nicely themed for the setting, and make interesting additions to the usual classes.
My impression is this setting is low to moderate magic, which I prefer. TIK has the usual range of D&D casters (sorcerers, druids, priests, etc) but it’s noted that flashy magic (evocation & alteration schools) is very rare and uses 1 spell level slot higher than usual to cast. In conjunction with the general observation that “magic is frowned upon and feared”, this suggests to me a “sword & sorcery” magic vibe.
In addition to this, spell components are replaced with Rune Magic – which is very slow to set up (2 hours to create and charge a rune), but once you have a rune ready to go, the Rune Caster doesn’t have to memorize ahead of time, which makes each casting more adaptable. I think this variation on standard D&D spell casting suits the setting; less magic per day, but more flexible magic when you need it.
Also there’s 16 new spells (appropriately themed) – which as a player I always love to read through.
There are a couple of aspects that run counter to a lower magic theme. One of the human races (cultures) gets a free cantrip as an ability, for instance. And there is a region known as the Frozen Throne that has lots of undead in it. But overall it’s certainly low magic enough to keep me interested.
Before I forget – Raise Dead is not guaranteed! I love this, there is a 5% chance per level of not being raised (your soul is drawn off to enjoy eternal Valagard instead!). I prefer to simply remove Raise Dead altogether, but this is a great alternative, and will keep the game feeling genuinely dangerous once you get out of the early levels.
There are some very interesting locations to visit in the Ice Kingdoms. I especially like the Fanged Coast (raiders/pirates) and Gagorok (goblin plains surrounded by volcanic mountains, home to the Children of Belac). Grongard! When I first read that I thought it said Grognard, LOL, but no it’s a dwarven stronghold. The Mournwood (p.136) sounds terrific, as does the World Wound (a kind of huge canyon/adventure site), the Pohjola (the dark spirit world of the realm) and the Thanic Colossi (huge statues to honour the gods).
Speaking of the gods, there are tons to choose from, and they all give different abilities to their devotees. Clerics who don’t follow their god’s ethos suffer penalties and eventually lose their powers, so choose wisely. My favourites are Belac (goblin god), the Old Crone, and Mordi the trickster.
Chapter Nine details Arfrdheim, the main city. It’s about 200 years old, houses up to 6,000 people in high season, and is built on the catacombs of a dwarven ruin. And yea, there are dark & dangerous tunnels beneath the city just ripe for exploring. There are five Sveit (or districts) ranging from the poorest to the most powerful nobles, along with a section for temples and religious observance. At least one thieves guild operates in the city, as do some secret cults dedicated to dark gods and demons. The huscarl elders vie to claim the Cold Throne for themselves, setting the scene for plenty of political intrigue if that’s what your players are interested in. Overall, an excellent home base and adventure site in one.
What I Don’t Like
Of course there’s a few things I don’t like. I think it’s probably a “real viking” thing, but I dislike names without vowels that I can easily say (demon names excepted). For example the main hero of legend is Arfhrd, and the city he founded is named Arfhrdheim. Luckily though for me there aren’t too many names in this vein, so not a huge deal.
For me personally, I’m not all that interested in a chapter on the history of the setting. I’d rather have seen that space dedicated to some mini adventures in Gagorok, for example, but I understand some readers love a detailed history and this setting certainly has that.
The Bestiary is pretty short. I would have loved to see more setting specific monsters in here.
I would have liked more headings or paragraph breaks to space out the text more, eg in the geography/points of interest sections (that could be a PDF thing, the physical book would be bigger).
Finally, I’m not a fan of the Arfhrdheim city map. Too grey and not enough detail for my tastes. Still, it would be easy to find a replacement map on the interwebz, or perhaps add your own detail to this one.
Judgment of the Gods
So, should you buy the Ice Kingdoms? If you’re looking for a huge, wide open, strongly themed sandbox setting of ice and viking fury – then yes you should!
If not, you might be better served looking elsewhere.
From a Low Fantasy Gaming perspective, I can totally see a campaign being run here amongst the icy wastes, fending off rival clans and monsters, and exploring the torch lit tunnels beneath the Ice King’s city. Barbarians, rogues, bards and fighters fit into the setting perfectly, and magic users are easily cast as sorcerers, priests, druids or whatever (perhaps with some slight tweaking of abilities). With the largest city population only 6,000 people, it’s easy to keep spell slingers genuinely rare.
Cold. Ancient. Unforgiving. Unthaw your adventurer spirit and brave the Ice Kingdoms!
All illustrations copyright 2017 as noted on p.1 of The Ice Kingdoms PDF, used with permission.