This is an in depth review or analysis of Frostbitten and Mutilated. I am writing this after having read the book. I have yet to use it but am planning on using it sometime soon.
Initial ImpressionsTo be honest I wasn't super pumped about it when I heard it was coming out or even when I heard it was Norse/viking themed and based off of heavy metal stuff. It made me roll my eyes a bit.
I don't listen to heavy metal, I have nothing against it, it's just not to my particular taste. I do kind of like the imagery of it, the music videos and themes the music embodies etc. but I'm just not a fan of the actual music even though I've tried. While I'm not into heavy metal, I am into Norse mythology and viking history. I've read the Norse myths, the Eddas, stuff about the history of the vikings. etc.
Going into Frostbitten and Mutilated I had two main fears about how it might be:
- Full of low hanging fruit: I feared that it would contain the usual basic references that most Norse/Viking based stuff does: a section about the Norse gods, a section about runic magic and some kind of rune magic-user character class, maybe giant wolves as character mounts, a section about the socio-political structure of Scandinavia at the time, several different types of giants, like fire and ice ones. Basically all the stuff you could pretty much copy-paste from a bunch of historical and mythology books and slap together into a shitty sourcebook that there already exist dozens of.
- FUCKING METAL!!@#$!@#: you know, the kind of heavy metal aesthetic that is not just a bare chested warrior riding across the tundra but one riding across the tundra with the heads of his slain enemy tied to his horse, and the heads have spikes in the eyes, and those spikes are made of coffin nails. Cause you know, METAL!!! Don't get me wrong. I don't mind the aesthetic of heavy metal but I find it a bit derivative at times where it just keeps on throwing on 'metal' imagery instead of developing it's ideas and creating nuance. It's one thing to have a 5min song be mainly full of a single type of imagery/emotion, but a book, even a gaming one, is a different medium. You can only have so much of the same before it begins to fall flat and feels repetitive.
Anyways, I am really glad to report that my fears and assumptions regarding Frostbitten and Mutilated were false. That it has none of the above problems. That it really won me over and I found myself enjoying it and quite impressed.
I think it also shows Zak's caliber as creative type. I find a lot of creative types, especially when beginning, their work is full of references. This isn't necessarily bad, more just leads to something a bit more predictable and average. They don't take time to mix and match, to throw contrasting things together, to balance developing elements and ideas vs adding more of the same.
I find creativity is like cooking. You're making something for consumption by other people. First you learn by following a recipe. You produce something average. Then as you get better you learn to cook without a recipe and really find your own unique style and voice. Zak is a skilled cook.
Anyways, I'll stop rambling about creativity. I think overall one of the things that impressed me the most about Frostbitten and Mutilated is that Zak managed to preserve and explore the themes of Norse mythology and vikings without actually referencing a lot of Norse Mythology and Viking stuff. This made it seem really fresh, but deliver on what it promises.
In this way Frostbitten feels almost more like a work of Norse mythology than some of the gaming stuff that actually has Odin and Thor in it because it feels like you're not just reading about things from a Norse myth, in some kind of dry fashion, you're experiencing it.
And the best part is that you're players probably won't realize this at first. That they're in a Norse myth, they just don't know it yet.
And the best part is that you're players probably won't realize this at first. That they're in a Norse myth, they just don't know it yet.
What You GetOverall Frostbitten and Mutilated is a thin book. It packs a lot in at 144 pages. It's probably the most play-ready RPG book that I've ever read where it feels like anything that wasn't immediately interesting or usable was discarded. It doesn't feel like something that was written and then play-tested, but more like someone had an evolving campaign, created stuff for the players as they went along, and then took the notes, edited them, and complied them into a book. I'm actually curious if this was the case.
The book is divided into a few main sections:
Inhabitants: an A-Z listing of peoples, monsters, and things you can encounter in the Devoured Lands. They are all laid out in very easy to use encounter style.You could flip to any page in this section mid-game, quickly scan it, and use it in play. This is probably the most interesting and engaging section of the book. It's also the longest.
Most of the inhabitants can be loosely grouped into the following:
Amazons: basically heavy mental themed tribes of warrior women. A nice way to have vikings/barbarians but without them being your stereotypical Conan types.
Animals: yes, animals. Like foxes, wolves, crows, worms, etc. They can all talk. Most of them think they're above you. They all behave in certain ways, like crows like to sneak upon sleeping characters and try to peck out their eyes. Wolves never flee until they have at least one kill, etc. Despite being seemingly 'ordinary' animals, your characters will probably be more afraid of them then most monsters they'd encounter in more generic adventures. Zak really knows how to make even ordinary animals interesting, to grant them a personality, a sense of character. I also find the use of animals as a primary monster type ingenious in the sense that it really strikes home the theme that the very land is against you. That you're in the north, the devoured lands. What is domesticated elsewhere, subdued by man, is wild here, more than wild; crafty, haughty, and more dangerous than you. You can tell Zak has been gaming for many, many years and really understands the medium of pen-and-paper RPGs. Where you can't just 'tell' your players things like themes, character, it needs to emerge through play.
Witches and folkloric creatures: these are also interesting. Includes some pretty original takes on classics like trolls and drowing demons. You can tell Zak probably read some actual folk tales and things and thought hard about how to create interesting mechanics for them that embodied these tales so they keep the weird folkloric vibe. Where puzzling out exactly what they are and how they work will keep adventurers on their toes.
Overall I think the most impressive part of this section is how Zak managed to combine three elements that are pretty different on the surface: animals, amazons, and witches, and yet, combined them in a way that they complement each other nicely and help approach the themes of the book in a different way. Like the Amazons contain your themes of violent bloodshed, your animals a harsh nobility, and the witches and folkloric creatures a sinister weirdness. Things that are all kinds of themes loosely associated with Norse mythology.
My only nitpick with this section is that a lot of the inhabitants are enemies of each other and I kind of lost track of who didn't like who. There was no overall diagram or map keeping track of how they related to each other and it would have been nice to have had one.
Calendar and Map: a hexcrawl coupled with a sequence of events that is the 'plot'. The hexcrawl wasn't bad. It uses square 'hexes' and has the description of what you encounter in them, actually written out in them. I thought this was a cool innovation.
I know there is some logic as why to use hexagonal hexes, that it's because the distance to the center of each side is the same so if the players are in the middle and the hex is 6 miles or whatever then it represents the line of sight in all directions, the horizon.
But honestly after having used hex maps for several years I find them a pain. I find determining the X and Y location in hex maps is just harder to do at a glance when compared to an actual grid. Furthermore, we tend to think of directions as being in East, West, North, and South, it's hard to correlate this to the hex map. In one direction the hexes never line up in a nice row and you always end up moving in a zig-zag like pattern that is annoying.
I also feel like most RPG products aren't as 'simulation' based as they used to be. Most hex maps are abstracted maps and don't have a real scale. Or at least when I use them that's how I play them where I'll just make each hex equal to a days or half a days worth of travel. There really is no need to use hexes.
I feel like having the map a grid accomplishes what it needs to do and overall makes it more readable. More RPG stuff should do this.
The Calendar was basically a bullet list of what the major NPCs are doing on each day of a month that repeats cause the lands are stuck in a time loop. Overall I found the Calendar to be a good idea cause it adds a sense of dynamism to the world. The major NPCs aren't just standing around waiting for your players to come across them. They are actively doing things in the world and interacting with each other. It's kind of like the idea behind Adventure Fronts in Dungeon World (Yes I am referencing a 'story' game in an OSR review).
Here is an example of an adventure front that I stole off of reddit:
Frog People of Izun-Druk
Impulse: to be taken seriously
Cast: Frog King Bleggeleg, Captured dark dwarf overseer Gazdrik
- Bleggeleg begins to rule frogmen in secret, still sending slaves to dark dwarves
- B learns to eat magic from magical items
- Frogmen begin raiding humans and dark dwarves for magic artifacts
- B. achieves massive size and power
- frogmen actually throw off dark dwarf rule and establish their own city
- begin nighttime raids into Leudik (from city below) looking for wealth, magic, sacrifices
Stakes: Why is Bleggeleg's cache of magic items so volatile? How big can Bleggeleg actually get?--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Even if you know nothing about how adventure fronts work or are supposed to work. I could probably give someone the above and they'd be able to figure it out and referee the NPCs involved in a dynamic way.
This is probably going to be my biggest, and one of my only, criticisms of Frostbitten and Mutilated. After reading the Calendar section three times, I still don't really understand who the NPCs are and what they are doing. Like I'd have to take the info, slowly parse it, make notes and diagrams and shit to really understand it.
Overall I like the Calendar section and what it's trying to do, I just think the execution was a bit poor. It's also something I'm a little bit surprised at as it's executed in a very text heavy manner and Zak is usually pretty good at displaying information in a visual manner.
Like something like this would have helped tremendously in terms of remembering which NPC is which and who hates who:
Or even just having the different physical paths of the NPCs, as described in the calendar, labelled on the map via different coloured lines or something.
Overall the map and Calendar feel like two separate things and the Calendar is very text heavy. I feel like the information in both could have been presented a little bit better. It's still usable, I'm just lazy as fuck and hate re-reading and parsing stuff like a textbook to figure it out.
The Dim Fortress and Sevenfold Tower: two short dungeons. The Sevenfold Tower was kind of a neat high concept dungeon. I really don't have any complaints with it. It seems like it'd be fun and interesting to run.
The Dim Fortress, which is supposed to be the final dungeon in the whole 'calendar' was kind of short. It was filled with interesting NPC monsters but if I were to run it I'd probably expand upon it. What's there feels like the highlights of an ordinary dungeon with a lot of the 'inbetween' removed. If I were to run it I'd add more 'inbetween'. Overall it's not bad where it's pretty easy to expand and customize to your campaign.
Though it would have also been cool to have some kind of rumour table or something for it to build up suspense. Like if it's the secret 'final' dungeon that most of the big NPCs are interested in and which the players can discover if they're smart, it would be nice to foreshadow it more in some way.
Character classes, spells, substances, and survival skills and How to make a wilderness sandbox and Random Tables: basically all alternative rules and systems that you can add to your game in a modular fashion. It's a bit of a grab bag, but a very useful one that allows you to pick and choose what you want to use and how you want to flavour your game. I'm not going to go though this section too much. Don't really have any complaints or criticisms about it. It all seems very useful and a lot of nice to have extras and overall is pretty awesome.
ArtI always feel a bit out of my element critiquing art. I'm not an artist and lack a fine eye. Overall the art in Frostbitten and Mutilated, all done by Zak Smith, fits the heavy metal themes of it very well. It's all black and white and looks to be in a variety of mediums from ink pen to like paintings or something, I dunno, not an artist.
My only criticism is that it can be hard to discern details at times in some of the artwork. I just feel like it kind of sacrifices information for style a little bit although I also can see how it's look is part of the overall punk/heavy metal aesthetic. This is more just a minor nitpick. If you really like the the style you probably won't have an issue with it.
Luka Rejec is credited with the design. I'm not sure if this is referring to the layout or not. Overall I really like the layout, the use of fonts, the black and white text/background at times, and other things like this in the book. It keeps it really visually interesting, is readable, and really heightens the style.
- Making ordinary animals actually interesting. Also having a lot of 'named' monsters with unique mechanics. Like seriously every monster has something really unique about them that really gives them a good sense of character and would make for really interesting moments in game. They really, really embody the themes of the setting.
- Being super usable. It's probably one of the most immediately usable gaming books that I've ever read. It fundamentally treats everything like an encounter and most things about the world is learned through encounters. More RPG books should be designed this way.
- Squares instead of hexes. This is an innovation I never knew I wanted but now I don't know if I could go back to hexes.
- You like vikings and Norse mythology and northern landscapes but, like me, fucking hate most products on the market that try to embody these things.
- You want something that is very easy to run with no prep.
- If you intend to use the Calendar and 'plot' you're probably going to have to read it all pretty closely and make notes to get full use out of it.
- I really can't think of any other downsides. I have criticisms, but overall I'd suggest it to anyone who has an interest in RPGs.