Saturday, 19 September 2015

Book Review - Frostgrave: Tales of the Frozen City

Published by Osprey Publishing

Stories by: Matt Ward, Sarah Newton, Jonathan Green, Ben Counter, M. Harold Page, Mark A. Latham, M.J. Dougherty, Karen McCullough, David A. McIntee, Duncan Molloy and Graeme Davis.

'This new fiction anthology collects eleven stories of wizards and adventures as they venture into the ruins of the Frozen City.'

One thing that I missed from the Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City core rulebook was a defined setting. We knew about the city of Felstad and that the Empire around this once mighty city fell into almost ruin when the city was encompassed in the ice, but the lands that surrounded it, what was left of the Empire that now produced these warbands hoping to learn and loot from the thawing metropolis, was a mystery.

I was hoping that this book of eleven stories set in the world of Frostgrave might shed some light on this background and, while it does provide some tantalising glimpses of the world beyond the city, it doesn't really fill in any blanks or fill out the setting. In fact, it gives only snapshots of life beyond the city and doesn't world-build at all.

The game the stories are based on is, after all, a wargame, and the nature of the short sharp stories reflects the short sharp fights that the game creates. This works for the nature of the game, sure, but as a reader who wanted to explore the world this didn't give me what I was looking for.

The stories are very short and build some excellent little pictures of the kind of situations that warbands will find themselves in, but where many short stories are paintings on a greater canvas, these felt much more like sketches of those paintings. The stories didn't really give much time for characterisation, but the motivations of the characters is already defined by the nature of the game; wizards and warbands searching out and unlocking the secrets of this once great city. The stories don't contain very much in the way of characters that you can really feel for or empathise with. At first I felt this was going to disconnect me from the stories as if I couldn't care for the people involved then why should I care about the story as a whole?

But I found that the stories did work in another way - they had twists and turns and revelations and once I realised that the stories were primarily about the way the warbands had been affected by the city, how the city was twisting and manipulating them, I realised that the stories weren't about the characters but about the city itself; the dangers it presents, the mysteries it contains, and the monsters it has produced. There are some great foundations for characters in here that I'd like to see more of - especially Aen and Caelum - but I found myself turning the pages and moving on to the next story thinking 'What will this place throw at them now?' more than 'What will they do now?'

I ended up really enjoying Tales of the Frozen City. At first I was a little concerned that I'd be indifferent to the short adventures as I wasn't really feeling anything towards the characters, but once I realised that I was reading about the city itself it gave me a whole new appreciation of the book, as well as give me some great ideas for scenarios in the game and pointers to how I should be designing my own encounters.

If you're a fan of Frostgrave then buy this book - I doubt you'll regret it. If you're not yet exploring the Frozen City but considering taking the plunge, then this might give you a good starting point to experience the setting and the kind of things you can expect. If you're new to the setting or just a fantasy fan in general then you might get some enjoyment out of the stories but don't expect any multi-layered depth; the stories are too short for that kind of detail.

I enjoyed the stories and, even though I didn't get that setting background I really wanted, I can recommend it.