Würm was originally published as an amateur game on the Francophone RPG website La Cour d’Obéron in 2007, and gathered enough interest that eventually Editions Icare gave it a professional release in 2011. Now, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign by Nocturnal Media, the cream of Würm content is now available in English. Was it worth the wait? Time for a Kickstopper investigation…
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
Nocturnal Media are a small RPG publisher started by Stewart Wieck, who along with his brother Steve Weick had been a co-owner of White Wolf from its foundation to its sale to CCP. Stewart initially founded Nocturnal in order to provide a new home for the Pendragon RPG, but wanted to expand, and was in the midst of a brace of Kickstarters with an eye to diversifying the Nocturnal range. (For instance, this included a reprint of the Storypath and Whimsy cards from back in the pre-White Wolf days at Lion Rampant.)
Reaching out to foreign language RPG publishers to produce English-language translations of their game lines is a great idea. If a product line has proven traction in its mother tongue, then you can get a bit of instant buzz around it, and if you’re already negotiating a licensing deal with a publisher to create a version of your own games in their language, what’s the harm in making it a bit more of a two-way street? On the downside, the process of getting a decent translation may be more expensive and time-consuming than you expect – cheaping out on that part of the process and you end up with a text which reads unnaturally, driving people away. On the plus side, you at least save on playtesting – the original publishers already got the game to a point they were happy with for publication, and the feedback from existing fans should quickly establish whether there’s any features which particularly urgently need patching.
As well as crowdfunding Würm, Nocturnal would also make a bid to translate Aquelarre, a legendary Spanish RPG of historical horror which I’ll cover when I get to it. For Würm, the campaign was conducted hand-in-hand with Editions Icare, which caused mild problems since some of the updates coming from Editions Icare came in the somewhat stilted English characteristic of a non-native speaker, which made people worry about the quality of the translation. Nonetheless, it was a modest success, aiming for $9000 and hitting $18,426.
What Level I Backed At
Core Rulebook (print+pdf) + GM’s screen
This level also got me a range of stretch goals.
Delivering the Goods
Though the PDF versions of rewards got out in a reasonably timely manner, the same was not true of the print versions of the product – I wouldn’t get mine until June 2018. The major reason for the delay was the death of Stewart Wieck, who very suddenly and unexpectedly suffered total heart failure after fencing practice. This left the various Kickstarters he’d been overseeing in a bit of disarray, not least because it became apparent he’d been keeping all of it straight in his head and hadn’t done a brilliant job of documenting it, causing a headache for those who had to pick up the slack.
Reviewing the Swag
The basic conceit of Würm is that it is a prehistoric RPG. More specifically, it assumes that player characters are members of prehistoric tribes of “Long Men” (modern humans) or “Bear Men” (Neanderthals) during the Würm-era glaciation, and more specifically during the transition period between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic around 35,000 to 20,000 years ago. This would have been an era when much of Northern Europe was under glaciers and effectively uninhabited by humans, but southern Europe would have had a cool but not insufferable climate (with summer highs of, say, 20 to 25 Celsius).
Although that’s an incredibly broad canvas in terms of time period – it covers a span longer than recorded history, after all – the fact is that so far as we can tell people’s way of life changed incredibly gradually during this era. And in geological terms, the game is homing in on a very specific moment in prehistory – the period of slow migration of homo sapiens sapiens into Europe, and the interactions with Neanderthals that accompanied that. The specificity helps ground the game in a particular setting in terms of locale and general era, which is important if you are going to be able to take a concept as broad, poorly-understood, and subjected to cartoonish misconceptions as “prehistoric humans”; naturally, the era chosen happens to be one which has left rich archaeological evidence in southern Europe that has been extensively studied, so not only is there a French connection which presumably had a resonance with the original Francophone audience but also there’s a fair amount of literature for both designer Emmanuel Rodier and for referees and players at home to draw on. At the same time, a certain amount of imaginative invention is required to fill in the gaps, and Rodier is usually good about flagging where this has taken place.
In system terms characters are defined largely by Strengths and Weaknesses, Rodier taking the philosophy that you don’t need to know about the stuff characters are simply “average” at but only need to know what areas of endeavour they find particularly difficult and where their areas of aptitude are. Task resolution is done by rolling 2D6 and comparing to a difficulty number; you subtract 3 from the roll if one if your Weaknesses applies, and roll an extra D6 if a Strength applies. The difficulty levels are well-chosen, especially considering the bell curve, such that if you’re dealing with a task that’s within your wheelhouse you will succeed at even difficult tasks more often than not, whilst if you have no particular strengths or weaknesses in an area you’ll probably succeed at average tasks over half the time and if you’re in an area you’re not so hot at you still won’t fail too many truly easy tests. Overall the system gives a good impression of an era before specialisation, when every member of a clan had to muck in a bit with all aspects of the clan’s work and complex, narrow areas of expertise by and large haven’t developed yet beyond a few secret techniques you can pick up here and there.
An imaginative twist is given by tying your personal Strengths into various totem animals – which doesn’t mean you have to be nice to the animals in question, but does mean you feel this sort of animistic kinship with them and would prefer to deal with them with a certain degree of respect and sacredness, lest this talent fail you. Likewise, the party has a relationship with the Guardian Spirit of the clan symbolised by a communal pool of dice – you can grab dice from the pool to aid an action, or toss dice in the pool to honour the Guardian Spirit, but if you all get greedy and let the pool hit 0 then the Guardian Spirit feels neglected and you have to give it a bunch of tribute to get the benefits again.
These factors, plus the rules on shamanism and sorcery and the like, offer a supernatural dimension to the game for those that want them, but a nice thing about it is that Rodier offers pointers on having a low-magic or no-magic interpretation of the game if you wish: in this case the relation with the totem animal is purely cultural in nature and doesn’t actually affect your abilities, save to the extent that you believe it should, and the Guardian Spirit pool is more of a “community cohesiveness” rating, representing the benefits you get out of feeling supported by your peers (and the penalties for it hitting zero representing the unravelling of communal ties as a result of everyone acting selfishless and nobody giving back.
This is a grand example of Rodier’s encouragement to the end user to adapt the game to their own purposes. Although at the time he wrote it he was trying to base it on the best current research, Rodier admits that the state of the research is stuff that there’s all sorts of room for varying interpretation and blank spots, whilst calling out some of the more simplistic assumptions of popular culture like the grunting caveman or the genocidal war of homo sapiens vs. Neanderthal. (On the latter point, it seems like the population density in Europe was low enough at the time that competition for resources hardly seems likely to be widespread, and social groups hardly large enough and complex enough to sustain anything resembling warfare.)
In effect, it feels like engagement with the research would be part of the point of playing Würm, much as engaging with history would be part of the point of playing an Ars Magica campaign which dialled up the historical accuracy angle to a certain point. In most respects Rodier manages to avoid all the slightly politicised “biotruths”/evolutionary psychology nonsense that people talk about prehistoric humans – the distinctions he draws between homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals seem primarily based in sound science, for instance. The closest he gets is the suggestion that women would disproportionately get stuck with the childcare and would not do much in the way of hunting, whereas as I understand it current research suggests that women and men both did as much hunting and gathering as each other, but in the section on gender he is extremely careful to note that the prehistoric evidence on this point really isn’t that complete.
That said, some parts of the presentation I can’t get behind. There’s a comedic mini-adventure called The Birdcave about a man becoming a “berdache” and a woman gaining recognition as a man, which in principle sounds like an excellent chance to consider how prehistoric tribes could have had radical variations in ideas about gender roles but in practice is an opportunity for goofy puns – like there’s a shaman called “Rupe-Awl”. Other issues may arise less from Rodier’s sense of humour but from issues with the translation. The use of “Men” as a gender-neutral collective term could have been avoided with “people” or “folk”, and whilst I can see the point of using the term “berdache” in reference to the idea that prehistoric groups may have a specific cultural role for LGBTQ+ folk, it’s used without any apparent awareness that it’s a term people find objectionable.
I have further issues with the translation beyond that; it’s perfectly understandable, mind, but it’s a bit cold and clinical and at some points makes slightly obtuse word choices. Overall, it feels like the general purpose was to provide a clearly-understandable literal translation of the original text, without the translator doing too much work with an eye to making the discussion of rules and setting flow nicely for that purpose.
Still, beyond that and the bizarre misstep of The Birdcave, I found that Würm more or less sold me on the idea of a prehistoric game pitting characters against environmental hazards and inter-clan distrust and that sort of thing, as well as delivering an easily-understood system that works quite nicely for that purpose – and what more can you ask of an RPG core book than that?
Voice of the Ancestors #1 and #2/Black Machairodus
The pages of these fanzines are largely taken up with entries to a Würm adventure writing competition, though to be honest the contributions are a mixed bag. Winning scenario The Red Crown makes interesting use of a known paleolithic site, but is marred by startling amounts of sexism. (You are expected to be confined to camp if a “fertile female” unless you display exceptional skills otherwise, it is assumed that women do not join hunting parties, and only one of the major NPCs described is a woman and she’s largely disenfranchised and is defined by the approval or disapproval of men.) In comparison, The Ocher Hill offers a nice female authority figure, but a boringly linear plot, whereas What Lies In Wait manages to combine a reasonably open scenario (in terms of how the player characters solve problems) with a reasonably interesting setting. The Great Silence, the longest adventure in the first issue, is an entirely linear quest which dials up the supernatural content of the game to a point where it no longer feels like a historical fantasy and ends up feeling like sword and sorcery with a prehistoric aesthetic.
The second volume opens not with an adventure but an article – A Guide to Cannibalism – which, were its prose not leaden and dull and had it actually focused on providing an engaging overview of the evidence surrounding cannibalism during the era, would be grand. As it stands, though, it quickly gets diverted to a set of game mechanical rules for cannibalism and special bonuses derived from it, which I don’t consider at all necessary. The accompanying adventure, What We Did To Our Ancestors, is both irritatingly linear and is based on the mildly absurd premise that the PCs’ tribe all practice cannibalism as part of their initiation into adulthood, but that this would somehow be shocking or taboo to the children rather than just accepted as How Things Are Done.
As far as the other adventures go, Horror In the Deep is a horror scenario which, like The Great Silence in the previous one, cranks up the counterfactuality to an extreme that I don’t really want in my Würm, as does The Curious Case of the Spark Hunters. Overall, perhaps this is my basic issue with these magazines: whilst the core text of Würm is amenable to the sort of thoughtful low-to-no magic approach I prefer to apply to it, the fandom seems to have steered the game in a different direction, loading on supernatural material (including giant spiders, for Christ’s sake) which seem to miss the scope of the game for presenting entirely non-supernatural adventures which the players are free to interpret through the worldview of their characters.
Rodier himself, alas, seems to have accepted and embraced the high-supernatural direction for the game, since the Black Machairodus scenario is exactly that sort of thing.
It doesn’t help that neither magazine is an engaging read; apparently the same translator did both of them solo, and it feels like either it was done as a rush job or they just botched it or the original text was similarly dull.
Reasonably constructed but includes the unfathomable perversity of having the individual panels be in portrait orientation, rather than landscape orientation which as any person of taste knows is the correct way to construct a GM screen.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong
I’d say Just Right; as much as I found Voice of the Ancestors to be an underwhelming read, I’d have probably wanted to read it anyway on the strength of Würm itself.
Would Back Again?
I might wait until Nocturnal get their current slate of Kickstarters sorted out and finished before backing more projects, but I wouldn’t be against backing other work of theirs – as indeed I have, and I’ll be covering later.