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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Your First Miniatures Wargame Companion

As the title suggests, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits is a supplement for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, the fantasy wargame skirmish rules published by Osprey Publishing. Both Frostgrave and its first supplement, Thaw of the Lich Lord are set in ancient city of Felstead, a city of magic and wizardry which has long fallen into an ice age all of its very own. The difference with Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits is that it is not set in the city of Felstead, but below it. For amongst the various rules included in the supplement are those for taking the skirmishing, wizard-led bands into the great dungeons and caverns beneath the city where ancient wizards once experimented upon and bred monstrous beasts in great pits. The secret of these Breeding Pits and the knowledge of the Beastcrafters are just two of the treasures to be found in the catacombs. In addition, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits includes new magic, new scenarios, new soldiers, new treasures, and more.

The ‘dungeons’ below Felstead comes in two forms. The first is that of huge caverns containing ruined city blocks, just like that on the surface, but enclosed in darkness and perhaps a little warmer and damper than above. This uses the standard set-up for the game. The second is that of the traditional dungeon a la Dungeons & Dragons, a labyrinth of connected corridors and chambers, but with dead space—dirt or rock walls—between them. This is the dungeon set-up and it has certain limitations on game play. In particular, ceilings limit the use of Leap as an action, dead space between the corridors and chambers limit the range of the Plane Walk spell, while in both set-ups, the need for artificial lighting limits how far you can see and the ceilings limit the vertical space and movement. Burrowing creatures though, have the ability to burrow through dead space.

Several new rules bring the mainstays of dungeon adventuring and exploration—random encounters, secret doors, and traps—into Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City. In addition to a slightly more controlled method of placing treasure at the start of the game being given, treasure below Felstead has another effect. It can trigger a potential random encounter, not where the treasure is, but somewhere in the dungeon, its location determined by a random player. Although the newly appeared creature—or creatures—must be placed away from any warband, it can be placed so as help or hinder a warband. Above ground, in the standard set-up, the discovery of secret passages allows a figure or warband to effectively pass through vertical terrain, whilst in the dungeon set-up, they can pass through dead space. In either case, these secret passages are unstable and collapse once they have been traversed. A trap is triggered when a player rolls a one on his Initiative check. Some of the traps are traditional—caltrops, poison darts, pit traps, and so on, but others are particular to Frostgrave, such as ‘Nullwave’, which will cancel all spells currently in effect, and ‘Pick Pocket’, when a thief appears and snatches the victim’s most prized possession, including the treasure being carried. In many cases, victims of traps can roll to avoid their effects.

All three sets of rules nicely handle mainstays of dungeon adventuring and exploration in neat, efficient means. The only caveat would be the instability of secret passages. It would have been nice to have included an optional rule for marking them as stable and so allowing them to be used more than once, perhaps with an increasing chance of collapse as they are used more and more.

The most notable form of magic included in Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits is that of Beastcrafting. A Wizard cannot become a Beastcrafter at the start of campaign, but must instead find the Book of the Beastcrafter and then brew the Elixir of the Beastcrafter. When this is imbibed, the Wizard gains the Beastcrafter trait. With it, the Wizard becomes slightly bestial and gains both a bonus to the Control Animal spell and more options as his Animal Companion, but soldiers are less inclined to join his warband. Available at Level Five and above, the Beastcrafter trait can be upgraded at Level Ten and Level Fifteen, each time the wizard becoming increasingly bestial, until he hybridises into an animal-like form. Together with the spells Animal Manipulation and Animal Mutation, which allow temporary or permanent change respectively to an animal under a Beastcrafter’s control, the Beastcrafting rules enable a player to field an animal focused warband. It helps of course that the Animal Mutation spell can be used to change an animal so that it can carry treasure; after all, who needs hands?

Besides the Animal Manipulation and Animal Mutation spells, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits introduces a new spell type—the Reactive spell. This enables a Wizard to cast a spell in response to a spell cast at him. Deflect allows a Wizard to reflect a spell cast at him away from him and even back at the caster, whilst with Capture Incantation a Wizard can trap the vocal component of a spell cast at him and store for later use, even using to create a scroll with it using Write Scroll. Other Reaction type spells include Slowfall, which slows someone falling so that they land safely and Energy Lash, which reaches out and damages and stops anyone coming too close to a Wizard. This brings a bit more of a back and forth flow to combat in Frostgrave, but casting a Reaction spell does use up a Wizard’s next activation.

The supplement includes and new scenarios, all set underground. In ‘The Moving Maze’, the competing warbands must cope with fungus-infested ruins which actually move from one round to the next; in ‘Here Comes the Flood’, the warbands explore a giant sewer system unaware of a giant trap they have unleashed; and ‘The Breeding Pit’ sees them discover one of the Beastcrafters’ ancient laboratories and are beset by random encounter after random encounter. In ‘The Rats in the Walls’, the warbands delve into passageways rife with giant rats and collapsing ceilings, while in ‘Mating Season’ sees the warbands caught up between two of the gigantic, acidic-larvae spitting, beetle-like Devourers bent on crossing the same area as the warbands to reach other and mate, whomever and whatever stands in their way. Unlike in Thaw of the Lich Lord, these five scenarios do not represent a campaign, but rather just a selection of scenarios. It is a decent mix, but it does seem like a shame to missed out on the opportunity to build a campaign—not necessarily a full campaign, but for example, three or four connected scenarios—in which the warbands learn of the legends of Beastcrafters and the Breeding Pits, discover that the legends are true, and go on to get the Book of the Beastcrafter and the knowledge to manipulate and control beasts and animals.

Other additions include the new soldiers, the Trap Expert and the Tunnel Fighter. The first, as written, seems better at setting traps off rather than avoiding them, so might need a simple rewrite, whilst the second, is better at discovering secret passages and sneaking up on the opposition. A new random encounter table includes more living creatures, which is simply because it is warmer underground. It includes new creatures listed in the supplement, such as Basilisks, Gnolls, Hydra and their variants, Hyenas, Minotaurs, and Two-Headed Trolls. A hoard of new treasures is also detailed, such as Bear Armour—for armouring your bear companion, the Book of the Beastcrafter, Iron Collar which allows better control of wolf companions, and Spectral Blade, which reduces the effect of non-magical armour worn by opponents.

Physically, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits is a well-presented book. The artwork is excellent, full colour paintings of both Wizards, Beastcrafters, and beasts, interspersed with photographs of miniatures in action. The book could do with an edit here and there, and a rule or two could do with a clarification, that of the Trap Expert Soldier in particular.

Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits feels like an inferior book in comparison to Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord, though the fact of the matter is that Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord is more focused, whereas Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits is more of a miscellany with a theme. It is a pity that this theme—of beasts and Beastcrafters—is not supported with a campaign of its own, but its addition brings a theme that can be explored in the long term through a Wizard’s development as a Beastcrafter. The other new rules are good additions to the game and help enforce the differences involved in exploring the underworld compared to the surface world, whilst the rules for Reaction spells will make confrontations between warbands just that little bit more dynamic. Overall, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits provides solid support and options for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City.

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Osprey Publishing will have a stand at UK Games Expo, which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.