Sunday, August 7, 2022

Review: Wolves Upon the Coast


Wolves Upon the Coast is a “grand campaign” written by Luke Gearing—of Gradient Descent, Fever Swamp, Acid Death Fantasy, and many others—and is, basically, brilliant.

What is Wolves Upon the Coast? What it says on the tin. Wolves is a giant campaign, one that has everything you need to sustain sessions for months or years. 

The slightly longer answer is that it’s several things: an oddball D&D clone, a vast semi-fantasy-historical viking hexcrawl, a boatload of magical items, a very clever magic system, and a fascinating monster manual. We’re going to talk about each of these in turn, as they come.

(I should mention now that I’ve hung out with Luke once or twice on a couple of discord servers, a lot of our RPG-friends overlap, and I’m generally a fan of his work. He gave me a code for Wolves.)

Wolves is also simultaneously a deeply idiosyncratic piece. It rejects modern design trends. It’s rooted in the old school not just in highbrow philosophy or design ethos but in the way it presents itself and its rules. It’s not uninviting to play, per se, but it has a kind of baroque jank that has largely been scrubbed from most modern OSR-ish work. It reminds me of OD&D and B2; it reminds me of the original GLOG. It’s a work that is invested in procedure (as distinct from rules), and in being actively played. 

In general, Gearing’s work consistently shows a high words-to-game ratio: a sentence of his prose can fuel a scene, while a page of it can fuel a session. Wolves, like The Empire of Texas before it, is full of extremely terse, extremely usable text. That’s not to say there isn’t flavor and prose and richness—there certainly is, not just mere descriptors—but it’s never empty metaphor. Everything Gearing writes is there for a reason, and typically that reason is to be put into your game.

Like I said: it’s brilliant. Let’s talk about it. (Apologies for formatting weirdness, blogger didn't like me trying to copy-paste from gdocs.)

Part 1: System

Wolves does come with its own built-in system; it’s basically just D&D, with a few key changes and lots of small ones. Key changes like:
  • No mental or social stats.
  • No classes.
  • Advancement based on boasts: make a boast, gain +1HD. Fulfill that boast, keep the bonus; fail the boast, lose it. Chicken out on your boast, and you can never boast again.
  • Hireling rules based on the amount of wealth you own—not spend, but own.
  • Lots of little niche rules for random bits and bobs: sinking boats, wind speed, ripostes, ransoming ships, and so on.
Two things really strike me about the core system of Wolves as a D&D system: first, it’s got a lot of neat structural tricks to allow players to set their own goals and pursue their own paths. The boasting-as-leveling system is the cleverest, I think—it allows players to essentially determine their own milestones for advancement (with a kind of soft GM-veto for acts deemed not “suitably heroic” enough). Want to go kill a dragon? Boast about it. Want to steal ancient treasure? Boast about it. Want to explore new lands and meet new people? Boast about it. It gives players all the tools they need, and turns them loose.

My second major impression is that there’s a strong sense of, for lack of better word, fiddliness to it all. Listen to this:
When a vessel may begin sinking, roll 1d6 - on a 1-3, it is fine. On a 4-6, it begins sinking. This process takes 3d6 Turns. If half the crew works to save the vessel, it might (70% chance) avoid this fate. This takes 1d6 Turns, and cannot be done if under attack. 
Any further Sinking result halves the time left before the vessel sinks.
Very niche, very specific, and very non-generalizable. You can’t use these rules for anything other than the deliberate use-case they were created for, and no other rules would or really could be used in place of them. They’re fiddly.

On the one hand, these kinds of rules require a non-zero quantity of rules-checking; these are complicated enough that, for probably the first dozen times a boat started sinking, I’d have to look these rules up at the table. On the other hand, this is an extremely useful rule for a game using Wolves—island-hopping and ship combat is quite common, and so ships will sink in your campaign. When that happens, you need to know how a ship sinks, how long it takes, how it might be saved, and what happens if it’s damaged again: all of which these rules provide. This has everything I’d want to know if and when my naval battles begin.

This kind of design crops up again and again in Wolves: highly specific rules that feel sort of vaguely rough-edged and harsh, but actually remain exceedingly usable at the table in play.

Specificity of this particular kind stands in stark contrast to two broad trends I see within RPGs as a whole: first, it’s very anti-universal-resolution. In 5e they literally assigned the six stats to boats and said “yeah, just run ‘em like monsters I guess.” (Bizarrely, Games Workshop decided to do the same thing with later editions of 40k vehicles.) While I do get the impetus—learning new rules is hard and not fun—it leads to a genericization, a kind of middling vanilla milieu that renders new and exciting things into saminess. Fiddliness like this means that specific situations can herald deliberately designed outcomes, ones better suited than generalized mush.

While there are a lot of hyper-specific rules in here that remind me of some of the old AD&D and GURPS manuals, there very clearly aren’t rules for everything. Lots of the stuff you’d normally find in a system like this (in-depth combat rules, advancement, character archetypes, genre info, anything social) just aren’t present.

Which, despite what Forge and post-Forge types like to say, doesn’t mean that Wolves isn’t about combat or advancement or characters or genre or social stuff—quite the opposite. As someone cleverer than me once said, “rules elide.” Rules exist to take away the responsibility of players and GMs so you can focus on everything else. While the rules are very fiddly, they’re fiddly so you don’t have to think about them: you can look them up, roll a few dice, and get back to the meat of the game—that is, everything other than the rules.

Also, there’s a postscript I’ll include in its entirety: “The great tool of Creation is the knife.”

Part 2: Hexcrawl

Here are the raw specs: it’s a 51 × 32 hexcrawl of 6 mile hexes detailing a Northern Europe-ish region that’s about half ocean. It’s still a work-in-progress: at time of writing, I’d guess that currently it’s about 80% of the way to completion; it currently has north of 250 keyed hexes. I don’t know the exact word count, but I’d guess it’s more than 75k words but less than 100k (though the other chunks of Wolves, the system and items and magic and monsters, probably boost it above that). 

Currently, the hexcrawl is divided into five sections, based on five of the major-ish landmass-ish sections: Ruislip, Albann, the Mid-Isles, Faroe, and Noos. Here’s the map. Each has their own PDF, weather tables, and encounter tables (sometimes multiple). There’s seven or eight dungeons scattered across these, each with a couple dozen rooms. I’d guess there’ll be six or seven major sections once the project’s finished. 

A confession: I have not read 100% of the hexcrawl. I’ve read most of it and skimmed through all of it, but I haven’t read everything in total. It’s huge.

Again, the short version here’s is that it’s all just really fucking good. Gearing’s got this terse, direct style of writing: it’s written to communicate to the GM. It’s among the clearest, least-fuzzy adventure language I think I’ve ever read. It tells you what you need, and little more.

That’s not to say it isn’t evocative or engaging—it absolutely is. Gearing has these little dramatic flairs he inserts in from time to time; they’re not overbearing or distracting, but they add spice. 

Here’s a short example, from the northern coast of Albann:

12.03 Crabs

Thousands of crabs in a small set of rockpools. They move in circles, dancing, locking claws with one another. If disturbed, they all scuttle into the ocean.

You see what I mean? It’s such a simple encounter, one of the shortest in the whole hexcrawl, but it’s delightful. It’s the dancing that makes it—a thousand crabs is one thing, but a thousand crabs dancing in circles to music none of us can hear? Fascinating.

Here’s a longer one, from central Noos:

37.16 Pyramids

Between the trees, small pyramids of clay-brick stand amongst their collapsed siblings. Most are no larger than 10’ square, vegetation crawling over their surfaces, their peaks 12’ in the air. Open doorways allow access to the interiors - most now home wildlife, their nests filling the enclosed space, hiding old firepits.

Hundreds cluster - closer the centre, they increase in size and ruination, some showing signs of burning long ago. Presences still lurk in these despoiled homes - denied the sun, they wait in the deep shadows until night lets them creep forth and devour the living.It has been centuries since they saw humans not descended from the invaders of so long ago.

All of these buildings have been emptied of their contents long ago. A single, smaller pyramid towards the centre is made of red bricks, the top brick missing. 121 bricks were used in its construction, and the top 60 contain a rod of gold worth 100sp. 

The spectral inhabitants consist of families of 2d6 Wraiths, the lower d6 of which are armed with bows.

There’s so much packed into just a few paragraphs: raw description, yes, but also bits and pieces of history and nuance, not to mention the immediately-gameable content between the loot and the wraiths. 

It’s this kind of design, I think, where Gearing truly excels: layers of potential energy wrapped up in each other. Every sentence in Wolves is there to add more to your game. A sentence can sustain a scene of play; a paragraph might give you enough for an hour. 

There’s a common trend I’ve found in RPGs to lean into tighter and tighter designs. Design as a tool for the delivery of an intended experience: something the designer as author is placing upon you, the player as audience. It’s easiest to see this, obviously, in post-Forge games of the past decade or so: look at any popular PbtA game (e.g. Masks, Bluebeard’s Bride, Monsterhearts) and there is a strong sense of designer intent: you play the game as the designers intended, and you have fun in that experience. Yes, there are strong elements of improvisation and expression, but everything the designer gives you is clearly structured for a specific outcome. (A harsher critic might describe those games as feeling like they play themselves.)

Wolves is antithetical to this ethos, this kind of intentionality of design. Obviously, Gearing writes with purpose, but that purpose is almost always to be expanded upon. Everything across the hexcrawl begs to be played with, to be investigated and tinkered with and added into the players’ own self-determined path forwards. As players cross the vast miles of land and see, every group will encounter different enemies, different villages, different quests, different treasures. By playing Wolves—no matter how you play Wolves—you will come away with your own unique, engaging tales, ones specific to your table and your players. 

I could gush on and on about this, but I’ll keep it to three last points:

First, the semi-historicity. Wolves is more “historical” than most D&D content: for example, characters don’t speak Common or Dwarvish, they speak Pictish, Brythonic, Latin, or Noos. The names for people and places often (though certainly not always) draw from actual northern European history and folklore. It gives the hexcrawl a strong sense of place and time, a kind of groundedness that’s rare in RPGs—and, critically, it does it without ever dumping on pages and pages of lore.

Second, Wolves is huge, but it understands how to use that scope and scale effectively. There are definite lows and highs to the crawl: there are tiny shitty villages with tiny shitty problems rubbing up against dragon hoards and sunken sea monsters. Raiders and monsters prowl across the landscape, defining chunks of the map by their own unique dangers. Languages force cultural divides. As players travel across the map, the political, geographic, and cultural barriers can all be felt. You could run Wolves for years probably, and I’m sure your players would notice the shifts as they did. The sharp contrast between regions and locations is impressive, made all the more so by the fact that it remains tonally and simulationally consistent.

Third, Wolves is weird. It always creeps up on me: in between the vikings and giants and dragons, it will drop something totally bizarre: a 9-foot human skeleton with an elongated skull inside a giant crustacean shell that’s worshiped by the locals. An avatar-incarnation of some ancient chthonic god wrapped in its own myriad tongues. A chain-gang of mummies with their lower jaws removed, tongues swinging with golden weights. A merperson pregnant with a thousand eggs, each with a prophecy inside. I could go on and on and on, but I am consistently impressed by how Gearing can, over two pages, swap from intense feudal politicking to describing horrific ritual—and all still have it work.

In short: the hexcrawl, the bulk of Wolves, is just phenomenal.

Part 3: Treasure

Wolves includes a separate document for its treasure titled &&&&&&&& Treasure, usually shortened to & Treasure, or just &T. &T, like Volume 2 Monster & (see below) is also available as a separate release in a charming A6 spiral-bound format.

The content of &T is as follows: 120 magic items, 20 less-magical artefacts, a d100 table of trade goods, and 12 varieties of coin. 

It also comes with some fast-but-robust tables for different sizes and scales of loot: for example, you might roll for “Tomb III” and determine that a given loot cache has 1d12 × 100sp, 1d4 × 100sp worth of trade goods, a 70% chance of an artefact, and a 10% chance of a magic. Meanwhile, “Magic-User I” has 1d4 × 100sp, 1d6 × 100sp worth of trade goods, 20% chance of an artefact, 20% chance of a map (to more treasure), and 1d4 magic items. 

I love these tables. They’re way, way more intuitive to use than Treasure Tables A–J while simultaneously expanding on the reasons to use those kinds of. The hexcrawl of Wolves makes direct mention of both individual items and treasure tables: it’s pretty common to see a dungeon’s main cache have both a few individual items, plus a roll on the tables. 

&T is, I think, probably the weakest point of Wolves as an entire project. That’s not to say it’s bad—it isn’t, it’s good—but it struggles in unusual ways. 

Part of this is that Gearing’s normal style has been turned up a few notches on the poetic scale, often at cost to its usability. Here’s an example from the weapons:

18. Red-Pouch

A generous sling, made all of one continuous piece of oxblood leather. The cords whip the slinger upon release, always drawing blood and spraying it about.

Adds 2 to damage. Pursuers can always find your trail of blood.

When the ransom was not paid for the Red Bull, it’s [sic] captors chose humiliation. They castrated the bull and made weapons of its scrotum. The river of blood from this castration led the rightful owners to the camp of the raiders.

Like, it’s a cool item, right? Bull testicle sling that gets significant bonus damage draws trackable blood whenever you throw it. Fun item. 

Then, Gearing adds the extra paragraph at the end, some snippet of lore or history; almost all items in &T have a description like this, sometimes more than one. 

I don’t think they work, really. That kind of prose really adds to a hexcrawl because it informs how you as GM describe the encounter: it clues you into the tone, the vibes, often a smidgen of backstory you can have NPCs reference or explain. With a magic item, the prose just kinda… sits there. I don’t know how you’d communicate to players, and I don’t know how it’d influence them even if you did. Most of the prose in &T feels empty; it doesn’t need to be there.

That said, a lot of these items are pretty rad. The armor pieces in particular are a high point. Check this out:

14. The Bearskin

It smells like the forest. The scent fills your head - soil on the tongue, moss tickling the roof of your skull. Twigs scrape your throat. Walls offend - ursine eyes and ursine paws are not made for containment. Drop down on to all fours and wander outside...

Unless you learn to control it - tame it. Throw the pelt around your shoulders slowly. Do not let the smell entice you. Do not drop down onto all fours. Stride like human. Two legs, hands. Draw the head, eyes hollow, up over your own, but do not close your jaws around salmon or the invaders of your forest realm.

Always take it off as soon as you are finished spilling blood.

AC as Leather. The wearer rolls damage dealt twice and takes the best result. Warding Save once a week or become a bear for 1d6 days.

A very fun item, very cool, very evocative. I would love to give this to my players, and I would love to wear it as a player.

But also—I think you could trim down the first two paragraphs into one. I get why Gearing split them, there are two separate concepts being communicated, but even still: it’s one magic item, I don’t think it needs four paragraphs to describe what it does.

At the end of the day, &T’s issues are just bloat: that most common, endemic, and forgivable sin of RPGs. Bloat is everywhere, we’ve all gotten used to dealing with it. Nothing in the book will actively ruin your game, all of the treasure and items are still extremely usable. It’s just got too much fat around the edges.

And honestly, &T is still one of the best books of just treasure I’ve seen; a sub-par Luke Gearing project still stands head and shoulders above almost all other RPG books.

Part 4: Magic

Wolves packages its magic in a separate document, which has two things: a list of spells, and a list of charms.

There are no classes in Wolves. You don’t play a Fighter or a Thief or a Wizard, you just play a dude. Because of that, spells have different requirements: there are no slots or mana points or whatever. Instead, every spell has a specific ritual associated with it: to cast the spell, you need to perform the ritual. 

Here’s an example (slightly edited for formatting):
Anti-Magic Shield
Achieved by: A circle described with ‘chalk’ formed from diamond-dust and dragonbone (One Use).
Effect: No magic may pass through, under, or over this barrier - those within are utterly immune to magic. 
I really love this kind of spellcasting. This structure—ritual and effect—is just fantastic. It’s such a good way to do quiet backdoor worldbuilding, to build in little mini quest-hooks for your players, to make spells a big important deal without needing mountains of mechanics.

Basically all of the spells in Wolves are pretty standard D&D spells: you’ve got your polymorphs and fireballs and dimension doors and so on. Most are “One Use:” you do the ritual, you cast the spell, the ritual components are spent or gone, and you need more to cast them again. Some, though, are 1/day, meaning if you achieve some very difficult task, you can cast them once per day forever. A very few are permanent, requiring monumental, borderline-impossible tasks to achieve.

I do think some of these ritual requirements get a little ridiculous and out-of-scope—to get the permanent version of Comprehend Languages, for example, “the caster’s tongue is split open with a golden sickle beneath a moon hidden behind the Tower of Babel.” Like, come on, how the hell are my players supposed to get the moon to hide behind the Tower of Babel? On the other hand, the One Use version is pretty reasonable (swallow a poisonous snake local to the region you want to learn the language of) and permanent spells are pretty powerful. But I digress.

The hidden detail here, the one that Gearing never mentions in the text but is very compelling, is that these rituals are an excellent kind of reward for players. Put the ritual for some spell carved onto an ancient rock buried in a dungeon, and that’s just as valuable as any gold or weapon. Have a Druid offer to trade magical secrets as reward for some task, and players will genuinely be tempted. These kinds of spells feel more spooky and mysterious and actually magical. 

By default, Wolves has three saves, only one of which is used against magic effects: the eponymous Warding Save. Whenever you make a save against magic, it’s Warding. By default, the chance of success against Warding is very low: you need to a roll a 17 or higher to succeed.
After the spells, the book also has a section of Warding charms, small ritual elements that can be used to protect you against ill magic. Here’s an example:
Yew - Another storied tree, the berries used to avoid capture - the eaters escaping into death. It has authority over the dead, and demands they remain asleep. Shields of yew carry this charm with them. 
+4 Warding vs effects from the undead beneath a Yew tree. +3 Warding for a yew-shield bearer.
It’s simple: stand underneath a yew tree, resist the undead; carry a shield of yew, carry some of that protection. Here’s another example:
Pocket Figures - Carved figures of saints, gods and heroes are widespread and multivarious. Each has a story, and are said to protect from that which they overcame.
Heroes and Saints grant +2 Warding against that which they overcame in their stories. Gods grant +0 Warding against things within their dominion, and against anything they opposed.
It’s brilliant. These charms add so much depth and color and texture to the world. Every plant, every animal, every item has the possibility of carrying some small magic inside of it, something you might be able to use on your way.

These, too, like spells, make for powerful treasures. Either the items themselves—you could imagine finding a yew-shield or carved icon in a treasure trove—but also the information and means to create them. Each charm is its own little micro-quest, something to look forward to on your main journey.

I love this magic system so much. Wizards are no longer just “the people that can cast spells,” but the people that fundamentally understand the rules of magic, the hidden secrets that ordinary people never learn. It’s amazing; I don’t really know what else to say. I want to hack this magic system into every game I play, with custom-tooled spells and rituals and wards for each setting. It’s fantastic.

Part 5: Monsters

Alright, technically, the stuff I’m about to review isn’t part of Wolves. Last year, Gearing released a short A6 zine titled Volume 2 Monster &. It was given away as part of Exalted Funeral’s Free RPG Day. It’s not officially part of Wolves, you have to buy the $5 PDF separately, but all of the monsters in Wolves come out of V2M&, the treasure rolls in &T reference it, they’re all tonally part of the same package. (It’s also got some absolutely ripping layout by international man of mystery, Bonito—seriously, check out the screenshots on EF.)

Volume 2 Monsters & is one of the most fascinating pieces of RPG work I’ve ever seen.

In short, it’s a monster manual: it has some very short stat blocks for all of the classic monsters, and then a short bit of text. I say “text” because it ranges between prose and poetry and just kind of open-ended vibes. Here’s an example:


HD 1†



The body is as loyal as the mind, 

unwilling to die despite horrific wounds.

All took the mask willingly. To those not

understanding what it entails, the mask is inert.

It is made of thick stone. It depicts a snarling dog.

Once donned by the willing, it cannot be removed.

One wearing the mask is utterly loyal to the one who

offered them the mask. If this chain is broken,

they are free but retain their subordinates.

All await this day, but are powerless to hasten it.

Domesticated animals and crops despise them, and

wither in their captivity.

This is but one of the paths a man may walk to

leave mortality behind. 

And here’s another one, just to see the full range:


HD 7








the horse is in two halves


and away

the eyes of a bird contain only flat madness.

The horse continues to scream.

There are about 50 monsters in V2M&, and all of them are like this. A very short but complete stat block, and a bizarre bit of writing based on it. 

With one exception—the juggernaut, basically a colossus from Shadow of the Colossus—all of these monsters are classic D&D monsters that’ve been around forever. (A couple got renamed, like ennts and gothrogs, but you can figure them out instantly.) You know these monsters, you’ve stats for them a dozen times, you could run them in your sleep.

What makes these monsters so interesting, then, is the absence of the traditional “monster explanation.” It gives snippets and slivers of a much wider world—there are like a dozen monsters that end with “This is but one of the paths a man may walk to leave mortality behind.”—but never elaborates. Every time I read one of these monsters, I come away with new ideas and views and angles about how to run them in my games. I don’t always like these new visions of monsters (though I often do), but they’re always thought-provoking.

If V2M& hadn’t had the stat blocks, if it was just a list of monster names and associated vibes, I’d take it as a pretty interesting reflection on monsters: a book of poetry, basically, specifically on the topic D&D and monsters. But it does have stat blocks, it is inarguably a monster manual—I’ve used it in my games! But it’s more. And less. Somehow.

Here’s a tangent: my preferred definition of lyric games—that nebulous category of art-game RPGs—is a piece of writing, a game, that is fundamentally more about the act of reading it than it is actually “playing” it at the table. Biswas’ You Will Be Liquid is, like, the premiere example of this kind of game. 

This leads a lot of lyric games to deliberately be pretty light on mechanics: their rules are way more about the vibes they instill in the reader than how they literally play out at the table (because, you know, most lyric games never see the table). Evocative prose matters a lot more than clarity of design or balance or whatever. Some people really don’t like lyrics games because of this; I think they’re mostly whatever. 

Regardless, I bring all this up to say: V2M& isn’t a lyric game. It’s playable. It’s usable. It’s meant to see use at the table, and to have players interact with the content it provides. Despite being so poetic and romanticized and lyrical, V2M& is a stolidly useful tool as a GM. It has hooks. It has mysteries. It expands your view of the monsters you know and love and recontextualizes them with less than a paragraph apiece. 

I don’t think this would work with new monsters, or unfamiliar ones. The books works specifically because it’s playing in a familiar space, taking age-old monsters and doing something new with them. For my money, pretentious as it sounds, V2M& is a genuinely postmodern piece. 

It’s brilliant. It’s fascinating. It’s the most interesting monster manual I’ve ever read.


Wolves Upon the Coast is among the most ambitious and impressive RPG projects I’ve ever seen. It gives itself a huge goal—rewrite OD&D and then write the best hexcrawl ever—and then hits it near-perfectly. Every page is new and exciting, bursting with content and ideas and things for your players to do. I could run a dozen campaigns in Wolves and not grow tired of it.

Wolves is simultaneously a meditation on 50 years of RPG design and history, a groundbreaking piece of writing and design, and a genuinely delightful campaign. If you want to delve into its mysteries and complexities, you totally can; if you just want to run a good old fashioned Viking campaign, you totally can. It’s gargantuan yet intimate, sweeping yet personal, conceptual yet tangible. It’s Gearing’s best piece of work to date. 

A masterpiece.

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