I’ve mostly transitioned to only writing reviews for things that I liked, more as a means of getting the word out, and maybe starting a conversation. With Würm: Role Playing in the Ice Age, there is a lot that I like, but it is definitely not a perfect game. It feels almost as out of time as the world it seeks to (re)create. I think the positives outweigh the negatives, but this one may be a real challenge to bring to the table.
I’ll start with what is the most obvious thing about this book when you look at it. The art and design are absolutely beautiful. There’s a good deal of full color work, mixed with some grey-tone pencil or charcoal drawings, and it’s all excellent. It’s easy to read and the copious illustrations do a lot to keep you in the headspace of the game.
I’m fascinated by the prehistoric world, particularly the middle and late Stone Age, when “modern” Humans walked the Earth with other species, including most famously, Neanderthals. Art, tools, language, and more were all spreading and advancing as the various species came into contact with each other, possibly fought, likely lived and worked together to some degree, and definitely mixed genetically. Würm focused on central Europe during this time, in what would today be France. However, it would be easy to move the action further west, north or east. The default time is about 30,000 BCE, but there’s at least one scenario and some advice for moving forward to around 20,000 BCE.
The system seems fairly straightforward and relatively simple. It also seems like the kind of game where you can learn as you play, starting with younger characters and learning the complexities of the mechanics as they grow into new skills and such.
An important thing to know about the game, which I have somewhat mixed feelings about, is that it is ultimately a Fantasy game. Though it is set in a real time and place, and the authors have endeavored to make things relatively up to date with the archeology, magic and mysticism are key elements of the game. While some lip-service is paid to the idea that the Fantastical elements could be toned down to suit various game groups, it’s woven pretty deep into the fabric of the game, and definitely plays a major role in all the adventures I’ve read so far. I certainly would have preferred it to be a bit more modular in that respect, as there really isn’t a straight, non-fantastical Stone Age game that I know of, except perhaps GURPS: Ice Age, which is long out of print (and I haven’t read it, so I can’t even say for sure).
I mentioned that the game itself felt a bit out of time. When looking around for more info, I found very little. The game seems to have come and gone with barely a ripple. But the one review I found really hit the nail on the head. It felt in many ways like a game that would have come out in the 1980s. Though everything about its visual presentation is modern and high quality, there are elements of its organization, as well as certain less than current attitudes, that don’t feel right today. For one thing, even though the rules seem relatively straight forward, they appear to be spread haphazardly through too much of the book. By about the halfway point, I was just wishing there were a two page summary of everything I’d read to that point. I can’t even imagine having to consult the book during a session. And no, there is no index. How you can put out a book without an index is beyond me. It’s one of the major factors that tanked the first edition of Blue Planet. It’s just bad design. I was reminded of a lot of the games I picked up in the late 80s and through the 90s, though. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine sitting down at the table with a few friends, and each of you skims through the book as you play, and over the course of a few sessions, you get a real handle on the rules and how things play. I think of Ars Magica (2nd & 3rd ed.), Cyberpunk, or *shudder* anything from GDW.
Getting past the organization, there is the use of language. Other than a few times where there’s a hastily thrown in “or she,” this book feels like a lot of those 80s games, written by straight, white dudes from the Midwest, who assume the only people who are ever going to read or play the game are other straight, white dudes (probably also from the Midwest). A few times, it skates the line of being…I don’t want to say anti-woman. That’s too strong. But not friendly. There’s also a scenario with some questionable material dealing with what I suppose we’d call a Trans person, now. On one final note, the book uses the term Cro-Magnon for Stone Age Homo Sapiens, even though that term is not really used anymore, and I don’t think it was being used by scholars when this book came out in 2017. Not a big thing, but when such effort is taken to get details right, that feels off.
The book does come with several adventures, though they’re sketchy and vague at best. There are no maps or nitty gritty details. They feel more like pitches for adventures than actual fully fleshed out adventures. At least they give you an idea of what sorts of stories the writers thought you might tell with the game, which is definitely better than some games. I’m not going to bother to write a separate review for it, but I also read Black Machairodus, which is a separate, short adventure book. I believe it was a Kickstarter stretch goal. It has some cool ideas, but is written in much the same vague way, even if the overall story is a bit more involved. There are two other books of adventures which I’ll get around to reading at some point.
Overall, I find this game extremely compelling, and I think there’s enough here that with the right group, you could tell some wonderful stories. While reading it, I was inspired to write up several ideas, including a distance and time spanning, and possibly multi-generational campaign that I think could be really cool. If I’d picked this up in 1996, I almost certainly would have pulled together four or five other people and played the hell out of it. Am I going to be able to bring it to the table now? If I’m being honest, probably not.
Though it appears to be out of print in the US at the time I write this, you can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG.
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