When I wrote about Upwind a few weeks ago, I mentioned the game Cairn which I called “quirky enough to be nearly unplayable.” I stand by that but I’d heard good things about Nocturnal Media before (for games like Pendragon and Belly of the Beast) that I wanted to give one of their other products a try before I crossed them off the list. Looking through their collection I saw Würm and thought, “Bingo.”
Let me just start off with the tl;dr version: Würm is an Ice Age RPG with a solid system and a great background, which is produced in a book with a lot of extra junk that you can just slice out of it to make the game playable. Würm started off as a much-beloved French RPG and was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which wrapped up about two years ago. It is purposefully a toolbox book without a lot of predefined setting details so that you can fill in what you like. That might turn some people off, but it also means you can create exactly the version of the Ice Age that you want to play in. The book also goes out of its way to bring archeological details and context into the game.
Reading the description of the game at Nocturnal Media, you can get a clear picture of the intentions behind this game. It’s a setting that cleaves closely to what we know about hominid cultures in the Paleolithic but that has room to expand into the supernatural if you want to take it in that direction. I think the game designers did a great job of doing that… and then they included some more stuff, and then they just dumped the kitchen sink in too. This book is packed and as soon as I got into the groove of Würm and began imaging a campaign I was jarred out of it by some weird quirk or strange bit of artwork.
But, we’re putting the ibex before the hand axe (I spent an embarrassing amount of time reworking that idiom). What is Würm like and how does it play? Strap on your reindeer hide boots and let’s take a look.
The central game mechanic of Würm is great and easy to use. It’s simple, relying on a 2d6 roll to beat a Difficulty Threshold (DT), and only uses six-sided dice which any gaming group should have in steady supply. Like games Powered by the Apocalypse if you roll really high (defined as 6 or more higher than the DT) then you get an extra-good success (a “Brilliant Success”). There’s also provisions for a Critical Success (double 6s) or a Catastrophe (double 1s) that make the game higher stakes. That’s all easy to remember too; you could write it down on a Post-It note!
So what about stats and such? Well, the only real stat is Stamina (hit points) and a social score called Prestige. Your character’s Stamina depends on your hominid species, either Long Man (Cro-Magnon) or Bear Man (Neanderthal), and can be modified later or with experience points. Prestige generally starts at zero and then builds as you adventure.
Aside from this, your character has Strengths and Weaknesses. These are a little like aspects from FATE crossed with skills from the Cypher system: it’s a general description of things you do well (or poorly) and when you’re doing those things you get an extra 1d6 (or a -3) to your roll. For instance, if your character is trying to convince a strange tribe to take her seriously then she would roll 2d6 against the DT. If she has the Strength called Majesty of the Aurochs, though, she would instead roll 3d6. If she also has the Weakness called Quick-tempered (she’s noble but easily angered) then she’d subtract three so with both the roll would be 3d6-3 against the Difficulty Threshold.
And that’s the whole thing! There are some Talents which represent particular innovations of technology (flint knapping or cave painting) which you get from your tribe and there are advanced combat skills and Shamanism skills for the truly exceptional and for some campaigns. The Talents, though, are even less involved than the Strengths and Weaknesses and the spells are only for some characters (if you want to include them at all). The Game System chapter gives you tools to do pretty much anything you can think of from hunting animals and harvesting meat to making tools and giving birth (and, yes, for having sex too). These aren’t things for your character sheet, though, just situations to refer to as the story goes on. In all, the character sheet is as sleek as a FATE sheet and seems nice and narrative for this setting.
Did I say setting? Well, that might be language that’s a little too strong. There isn’t really a setting per se, unless you count “central and southern Europe about 35,000 years ago as far as we know” a setting. There’s lots of information about Paleolithic cultures in the book to get you started and you can always delve into it on your own. But really, you can take the impressive start that they have in Würm and make up the rest because a lot of what early humans went through during the Ice Age is still a mystery.
This is where “tribe” comes in. You can make up your own area with a made-up tribe (or an area with multiple tribes in it like the later books in the Clan of the Cave Bear series) and pick the Talents and (potentially) secret skills that your player characters’ tribe has. They can be Long Men or Bear Men (mixed stories are possible but seem messy to me) and there is ample advice for both species to make the campaigns interesting. There’s also a bestiary of Ice Age creatures, notes on climate and practice, and even a section on potential religious beliefs to use in your setting. At the end are some premade adventures which are… fine, but I would just make a nice sandbox area and let the players take it from there.
Where it All Goes Wrong
Time for the mid-review turnaround! (Credit to Shut Up and Sit Down). So all of those things that I described above are great and set you up for a nice game of Ice Age adventure and survival. The rest of this review doesn’t really negate any of that, which is what so intrigues me about Würm. If you took this core it would be a nice, slim game with all the tools you need in there.
But it doesn’t stop there. The first deviation from the focused version of Würm is that, after the character generation section, they have a completely different character generation section for making children characters. Would it be cool to play a child in the Ice Age? Oh yeah. Can you easily come up with coming-of-age stories for Würm? Certainly! Does this need to be part of the core rules? No, not at all. I mean, a ruleset for playing youths in any adventure game would be neat (Young adventurers in D&D saving their parents from a goblin horde! Urchin deckhands aboard a Castille tall ship in 7th Sea!) but if you were reading through the Player’s Handbook and there were multiple pages saying “here’s how you play kids” that would be weird, right? Maybe a fun expansion would be good, but as core rules? Nope.
The second thing that made me stop and scratch my head was when Würm starts getting into the supernatural. It starts off just fine with powers that come from “the spirits” and grant abilities such as spirit-exorcism, communing with spirits, and creating enchanted weapons or charms. These are handled as Talents but there is also a group “Manna pool” of d6s that can be pulled in as needed by anyone. This is all great and you can leave it in or remove the mysticism for your version of the Ice Age, but then come the supernatural creatures.
A bison-man is just fine but then it just seems like they went through the D&D SRD and pulled anything remotely bestial. Chimeras, dragons, “earth monsters,” ice giants, skeletons, unicorns, winged dragons (for good measure), wraiths… Somewhere the thread was lost. If we wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons in the snow we’d pick up a copy of Frostburn or the new Ultimate Wilderness sourcebook for Pathfinder. This is supposed to be something different, and talking about “historical accuracy” then just throwing in monsters that are clearly out of place is jarring. You could make up monsters that actually match the tone (and, no, the “ice animals” don’t count) or just leave them out.
Speaking of leaving things out, I said that my criticisms didn’t really affect the game and that’s because you can just excise them. Don’t play kid characters, leave out the chimeras, and focus the game on what it does especially well. At it’s core, Würm is a game of gritty survival in a harsh landscape at the dawn of humanity’s time on the Earth. There’s a touch of mysticism, which you can leave in or tamp down, and also some pure speculation to fill in the cultural details of a people long gone. Focus on those parts and Würm becomes a great book (with two adventure compendiums and a lone shorter adventure with tinges of supernatural horror) that can give you a different and interesting gaming experience.