Games of the Year 2020: Cyberpunk Red co-designer Cody Pondsmith on Ice Age RPG Würm
Cody Pondsmith is the co-designer of Cyberpunk Red and lead designer for The Witcher Pen & Paper RPG at R. Talsorian Games. You might also recognise him as guest GM of the Dicebreaker team's chaotic Cyberpunk Red playthroughs from PAX Unplugged and PAX Online.
For the first time in a while I’ve actually had a chance to play a wide variety of tabletop RPGs over the year. Besides running a Curse of Strahd campaign in Dungeons & Dragons 5E I’ve been running a multigenerational campaign spanning a bunch of different systems from a bunch of different companies. All in an attempt to actually play some of the games in my collection. It’s given me a really great opportunity to experience a lot of different systems and it’s been pretty wild so far! Each system has really brought its own unique styles to the campaign and I’d easily recommend any of them. But the first system we played has to be one of the most interesting TRPGs I’ve played all year.
When we started out, I was running my players in a Stone Age campaign using Würm - Roleplaying in the Ice Age from Nocturnal Media. I haven’t found too many Prehistoric TRPGs on the market and Würm really shines in a lot of areas. It’s very system-light, relying on rolling a number of six-sided dice based on your character skill level, but it’s entirely crafted to simulate the feeling of being part of an Ice Age epic.
Character creation is as simple as picking whether your character is a Longman (Homo Sapiens) or a Bearman (Neanderthal) and then picking a few skill specialisations, but you can also take weighty disadvantages to get more specialisations or unlock powerful abilities that allow you to do things like paint yourself in ash and pigments to blend into the darkness or hurl javelins at extreme ranges with great accuracy. Your specialisations also determine what animals your character is attuned with which comes into play in other aspects of the game. The system itself prioritises survival and strategy and really shines when you focus on the day-to-day.
Much of the combat system is centered around a simple but extremely fun set of rules for hunting all sort of prehistoric beasts. That’s great because you’ll be doing a lot of hunting to keep from starving and to gather materials to craft tools, weapons, and armour. Even when hunting, combat feels very cinematic and carries a great deal of danger if you miscalculate the risk you’re taking. My players always had a great time going out with members of their tribe to hunt for food even though there were definitely some close calls and more than a few earned scars.
In line with the need to hunt and eat, weapons, armour and tools are primarily made of bone, wood and flint - so they take damage over time, meaning you’ll need to be crafting or repairing them after hunts. The crafting system is very loose and simple and offers some bonus options like making traps and eventually magic ointments and magical gemstone weapons which really reward crafting-focused characters.
Over time, your character can learn powerful techniques both magical and mundane that allow them to perform incredible feats like wrestling large beasts and seeing into the spirit world. If you’re really invested, you can even embark down the path to become a Shaman, which is very time-intensive but allows you to communicate with spirits, negotiate with them for power and banish spirits of disease and darkness.
By far the most stand out part of Würm is the amazing attention to detail that went into describing the world. Nocturnal Media really did its homework and is able to present a world that’s not only thrilling but also solidly based in our current understanding of Ice Age society. There are in-depth descriptions of what Neanderthal and Homo Sapien societies were like and they reference anthropological discoveries with an eye towards accuracy. Even where there are fantastical or magical elements they are based in the magical customs and folklore of early human cultures. One of the coolest instances of this is the book’s bestiary of mythical creatures, where Nocturnal Media takes many well-established mythological creatures which appear throughout various cultures like dragons and giants and recreates them in a more grounded form which could easily have inspired the larger-than-life tales we know today.
At the end of the day, Würm is a great game that really manages to do a lot with very little crunch and it’s a ton of fun to run.
Buy Würm - Roleplaying in the Ice Age from Zatu (UK) and Chaosium (US).