Longwinter: the horrors of the icebox survival project

The snow is alive. A soft, cold spirit courses through them. Her lace threads the world; watching, drinking, listening, stroking, soothing, killing. Her touch is soft and icy. She is Winterwhite, the daughter of the Waterdrinker and the Northwind, and she is a terrible god. An avatar of ice and hunger, of visions and death.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how to turn one of my favorite campaign settings—the winter survival horror sandbox of Longwinter into a book that other roleplayers could read, play, and enjoy. After I finished the Ultraviolet Grasslands I knew I had the sitzleder to pull it off. When I finished off Witchburner (September 2018) I finally had the setting that would hold it. Once the heroes supporting my patreon were on board, I decided: right, now’s the time to do it.

Ahh, hubris.

I decided to do something a little different. I wanted Longwinter to be an enjoyable work for both the referee and the players, so I decided to write it in two interlocking parts: the skin of the book, which would stand on its own as literature and resource for the players, and the bones of the book, which would expand the book and give rules for the referee to run the game.

This is an order of magnitude harder than writing a simple setting book like the UVG.

First, I wrote The Traveller’s Guide to Brezim, as a mock in-game tour guide.

The Traveller’s Guide is an Up-To-Date and Accurate Document, which shall greatly convenience the gentle visitor who wishes to discover this bucolic barony, which though it is changing fast after the reopening of the fabled Mines of King Rudvik, still offers a wealth of charming vistas and quaint traditions to amuse even the most jaded palate.

After writing fifteen pages of this, I was struck by a realization. I don’t like reading travel guides, so why would I enjoy writing one. That was fun. I scrapped them.

Then I set about writing the bones of the game first and quickly ran into the second challenge. Besides writing Longwinter, I am also writing Red Sky Dead City, a city-plundering game set in the aftermath of a great war, and I am editing the Ultraviolet Grasslands. I realized that I needed a system to keep my writing coherent. Sure, I use a simplified D&D 5E skeleton for my writing, but I needed to make this implicit system explicit, so I could share it with editors—and refer to it when I needed things to stay consistent (spoiler alert: they’re not fully consistent in the UVG!).

That took another week before I had my notes in something resembling a useful format.

Dwarves and Giants
The biomancer can make offspring larger or smaller. Dangerous. Imbue.

  • Level 1: The biomancer stretches his aura into an embryo, whether inside an egg or a uterus, and tweaks it into a dwarf or giant form of that creature. A gigantic fetus will often kill its mother during birth, while eggs usually survive. The biomancer imbues the embryo with its aural essence for the full duration of the pregnancy.
  • Level 3: The pregnancy lasts only a few weeks.
  • Level 5: The pregnancy lasts mere days.

Yeah, it’s a biomancer spell. Yeah, they’re a big deal in the UVG. Yeah, I’ve got a dozen of them.

So now, more than two weeks behind my self-given schedule, I was ready to turn Longwinter into a book.

The Player-facing Skin of Longwinter

The book starts with the classic opening, “why are you here?” A question that applies to players and referees alike. It continues with the map, or rather, the open version of the map.

Barony of Brezim in the Summer and Autumn
Barony of Brezim in the Summer and Autumn

Open version? Yes, there are other versions just for the referee, which reflect changes to the environment as winter grows harsher. The same applies to the rest of the story and description of the world: all of it is open to the players, but as time continues and the winter grows harsher, the common knowledge of the Barony grows less and less reliable. A veil of obscuring snow descends.

The other big part of the common knowledge are rules for time and space, inventory and survival, and rest and recovery in the winter icebox.

longwinter mountains sample layout
Sample layout of the mountains of Brezim.

The Referee’s Bones of Longwinter

So, if the player has the common knowledge, what does the referee get?

The referee gets the rules and many many random tables to corrupt and disrupt that common knowledge. As the winter begins, portents arrive.

  1. White faces float beyond windows at night.
  2. Fish frozen in streams.
  3. Barrows ploughed open by upthrusting ice.
  4. Tinkling laughter on the icy wind.
  5. White wolves whose shaggy manes drip hoarfrost.
  6. Glaciers slithering down mountainsides like icy worms.
  7. Powdery snow that refuses to melt.
  8. etc.

The referee gets a detailed day-by-day calendar covering one hundred days of ever-worsening conditions (much like in Witchburner). The reason I’m writing this is because having good time-keeping actually does make a game feel much more real, but in practice, as a referee, I’m pretty bad at this and want to have a very solid framework to hang random events off of.

That’s the third part. The random encounters and terrains. Here I’m changing one thing from both the UVG and Witchburner. Encounters happen once per watch (in Longwinter about six hours long) and I’m overloading the encounters, turning them into just one d100 roll that delivers some kind of event or choice every time.

01 The Dragon, flying surreally (HD 20).
02 Older Thing, a flesh machine moaning and hiding itself (HD 10).
03 Forest Spirit, gracefully patrolling (HD 8).
04 Woodland Wyrm, crawling for prey (HD 7).
05 Mountain Apes, playing monkey games (HD 6).
06 Aurochs, browsing cooly (HD 5).
07 Bears, stuffing themselves (HD 5).
08 Dire Lynx, stalking prey (HD 4).
09 Wild Boars, digging nuts and roots (HD 3).
10 Deer, a herd nervously awaiting winter.
11 Gnome Monkeys, squirreling away food (HD 2).
12 Mountain Goats, giving the evil eye (HD 1).
13 Wolffolk, shying from humans (HD 3).
14 Rabbits, multiplying.
15 Oldffolk, serfs slinking (HD 1).
16 Baronial, freesettlers working their holdings (HD 1).
17 Outlander, craftsmen and tourists (HD 1).
18 Baronial, official patroleurs keeping the peace (HD 2).
19 Cityfolk, merchants or specialists (HD 1).
20 Baronial, families enjoying the autumn, picking mushrooms.
21–30 Interaction: roll 1d20 twice.
31–40 Corpse: roll 1d10+10
41–60 Traces: roll 1d20.
61–70 Hunger: use food or lose 1d4 health.
71–80 Terrain: use survival gear or lose 1 stat.
81–90 Heat: use water or lose 1d4 health.
91–95 Soothing rest: spend 1d6 hours to regain 1d6 of one stat.
96 Wonderful spot: regain 1d6 of one stat.
97 Panorama: advantage to one mental check.
98 Delicious berries: advantage to one physical check.
99 Forgotten goods: roll on “loot the body.”
00 I needed this! Pick a common item. You’ve found it.

Part One of Three

The first upload of Longwinter is going to be enough to run a scary, slightly Hergé-styled valley as an rpg sandbox, but you’re still going to have to put in other modules to flesh out the individual locations. For example, Frostbitten & Mutilated, is a good place a referee can plunder for monsters and locations (if you don’t mind inserting them in a world with cars, trains and guns), while Do Not Let Us Die In The Dark Night Of This Cold Winter is a wonderful mini game to add the fear of hunger to the referee’s game.

That said, Longwinter is not finished yet. It’s an ongoing project supported by the heroes of the stratometaship, at the WizardThiefFighter patreon and the first part is in layout right now. Well, right now after I finish writing this post and sharing it around, because it is still largely just a one-artist operation.

It’s cool, but by jove, it’s a lot of work.

Here, I’ll leave you Snow Ape Contemplates Edelweiss as a farewell.

Snow Ape Contemplates Edelweiss

Longwinter and Red Sky Dead City are made possible by the over 250 heroes with excellent taste who are supporting my WizardThiefFighter patreon. Join them to get new art and games as I draw and write them.

6 replies on “Longwinter: the horrors of the icebox survival project”

Hey, having the “partially complete” stuff is wonderful. To be honest I find the not-quite-finished feel much preferable to a “everything-detailed-out” module as it gives more room for the table’s imagination or fiddling with things to make it fit in to a table’s current game that much easier 🙂

So please note that we’re still looking forward to these updates even when its not “finished” stuff 🙂

Thank you so much, Wombat! I completely agree on the “incomplete game” in general, but here, with Longwinter, it sometimes feels like “this is my special magic child,” because it was an actual sandbox I ran several times and it was absolutely fun and amazing … and I want to share that with the world.

Then, suddenly, I’m on page 16 of the layout and haven’t even gone one third of the way through the manuscript. O.O

Gawd I love this already! I was working on a post apocalypse thing that is set in the dead of winter. And I can’t wait to read this, it’ll help spark some more imagination and inspiration!

Thanks Shane! You can already catch the first part on the patreon 🙂

“The referee gets the rules and many many random tables to corrupt and disrupt that common knowledge.”

I like this idea. I think it will be easier to use, and ultimately more fun, than if the referee just had a list of scheduled changes away from common knowledge.

It also kind of reminds me of Evlyn M’s “mutate your mutation table!” idea.

Thanks, Anne! I’m trying to build in such a way that the calendar doubles as a random table. So, yes, the events _could_ happen in order. But you could also roll them randomly.

And then, the big question is what happens with all the smaller micro factions. What do they try to do? How do towns and villages disappear? Things like that. I’ll probably be crying about how it’s too hard to write all that in a coherent way in a couple of weeks …

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