Wolves of God is something rare in RPGs. It attempts to really immerse the players in the culture and mindset of another time, one quite unlike the industrial modern world of the average RPG player. In this, the only real point of comparison I’m personally familiar with is King of Dragon Pass. I will say upfront that I have only read the rulebook and not yet had a chance to run it. Nonetheless, I am quite impressed with what I have seen so far.
Mechanically, the game uses a familiar OSR framework. It has the same six basic stats you know and love, and a setting-appropriate skill list. Combat proceeds in six-second rounds and uses a D20. As you read though, you start to notice subtle additions. For example: every PC possesses three traits called wyrds, from the word for fate. Two are positive (“Relentless in battle”, “Skillful in Speech”) one is negative (“Quick to Anger”). Players, once and once only, can invoke an appropriate positive wyrs to nullify undesirable results i.e. player who fails a critical speech check might choose to burn “Skillful in Speech”. GMs, on the other hand, can invoke the negative wyrd to make their character’s lives more interesting. Thus, a GM might use “quick to anger” to turn a chance meeting hostile, with potentially tragic consequences. The rules state that no PC will die until he has fulfilled his wyrds. When I read this, I was struck by how such a simple mechanic captures the heroic pessimism of so much dark-ages literature, from Beowulf to the death of Cuchulainn.
It gets better. If you turn to the spell descriptions for the Galdorman, one of the game’s magic using classes, you won’t find fireballs or invisible mage hands. You will find spells for cursing an enemy’s crops, or for preventing a miscarriage. Concerns alien to your average band of dungeon-crawlers perhaps, but near and dear to iron-age peasants.
Likewise, the experience system. Players have “shames” and “glories” appropriate to their class. They advance by accruing “glories” and (hopefully) avoiding shames. These shames and glories reflect the character’s role in Anglo-Saxon culture. A saint, for instance, can acquire glory by converting a heathen leader to Christianity, and can acquire shame by wielding heathen magic.
The game provides an abundance of guidance on the social and political life of the period, touching on legal disputes, rulership, organized religion, economics and warfare. Incredibly, it does all this without becoming overwhelming, providing just enough information for players to work with. This leads into my next point: Wolves of God offers the most compelling domain system I’ve seen in a game.
Domain-management can be a tricky thing in RPGs. The business of running an empire can easily overwhelm the business of adventuring, and the perceived need for realism can lead to endless amounts of crunch. Wolves of God gets around this by virtue of the fact that polities in 8th century Britain are very basic. Even a powerful ruler is unlikely to control an area more than a few day’s ride from his home base. Leaders lead by virtue of personal charisma and effectiveness. The apparatus of the state that we take for granted today simply does not exist. Thus, it makes sense for a petty king to be personally involved in solving the problems of a small village of a hundred people. That king’s entire kingdom may contain no more than a dozen such villages, and if he doesn’t deal with the problem himself, probably no one will.
The core of the domain-game here is a simple economic system, allowing the players to calculate their income and expenses based off of lands held and how many retainers they support. This is combined with a domain events table; every season, players calculate their income and expenses and roll on the events table. The events roll then forms the basis of that season’s adventure; players may find themselves fending off raiders from a neighboring lord, or adjudicating a dispute between their vassals, or any other number of things. Thus, the adventure game and the political game are seamlessly integrated. I see a lot of potential here for a strategy-rpg hybrid reminiscent (again) of King of Dragon Pass.
Not everyone will buy in to the premise of the game. The values of the 8th-century Anglo-Saxons were not our own. PCs are assumed to be at least nominally Christian. Female leaders and warriors are not inconceivable, but they are certainly unusual. Slavery is common (though the institution of Thralldom is quite different from the mass racial slavery of the American South). You are of course free to take what you want from this game, but Kevin Crawford presents all the prejudices of the era (correctly, IMHO) without either praise or condemnation.
All in all – if you are interested in something different, and particularly if you consider yourself a history enthusiast, the game is well worth your time and money. I hope to see more games in this vein.