The Independents: Snowhaven

“Snowhaven has hosted a theocracy, two civil wars, a magi uprising, been partially burned to the ground, and had one small bout of cannibalism, yet still, she shambles on.” As opening lines to a setting book go, you can do a lot worse. I came across Snowhaven on Kickstarter a while back. The authors described it as “snowpunk”, a new genre they were trying to make stick. The way that the authors described it, they wanted to take the steampunk elements of technology and apply it to a fantasy setting, but also keep the sense of “grim isolation” that winter brings. Rather than having your standard bright, optimistic theme of “gaslamp fantasy”, the people of Snowhaven dwell in a brutally harsh cold water port, filled with intrigue between the noble houses and the Illuminate Church. Technology has not been soaring by leaps and bounds because of a new age of whimsy, discovery and exploration; it has advanced because it is the only way for them to survive (they weren’t kidding about the cannibalism thing).

Originally a colony of a long since fallen Tellur Republic, Snowhaven was established as a port city and became a trading outpost. It eventually claimed its independence, and those with money and authority (the merchants) claimed noble status and set up a ruling council. However, left virtually unchecked, the nobility built an era of wanton decadence. A burgeoning faith, the Illuminates, provided a rallying cry for the people and deposed the Merchant Houses, but kept them around. The Illuminates would rule for centuries, until their decision to defray costs allowed the Houses to build their own militias. Infighting within the Church would weaken it, allowing for the nobility to stage their own revolution, placing themselves back in charge. The relationship with the Church has been tense ever since, as neither side has forgotten what the other has done…and which Houses had sided with the Church to save their own skin when it is convenient. It has been five centuries since the second civil war, and the region is beginning its own industrial revolution: Gnome-built steam engines are sputtering to life, driving factories powered by coal. Gunpowder is available, and leading to the development of cannon and the arming of House Guards with rifles. The Houses all snipe at each other and jockey for power and influence, which makes them very willing to hire out some adventurers.

Snowhaven is built as an alternate setting for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, and as such the general rules for character creation,and the way gear is handled are along similar lines. The game offers some light fluff as to the status of the different races within the city, and the general roles that certain classes take. That said, the book focuses mostly on world building, so having a copy of the 5e Core is absolutely necessary if anyone is interested in playing. The fundamental mechanics have remained the same, but there are some interesting features bolted on. There is a Cleric Domain for the Iluminate Faith, reflecting the rapidly growing technology level and history of church militant, the Gunpowder Domain. The Domain offers abilities based around fire, smoke, and explosions, making it an appealing choice for a player who wants to play a cleric but not be stuck constantly healing the party. There are expanded Patron lists, with whom Warlocks can make bargains. Interestingly, they suggest that players can make bargains with the Gods Above (the more benevolent pantheon) as well as the assorted dark creatures of the Gods Below, but the Gods Below offer additional powers to tempt the would be Warlock. But probably the biggest change is how they handle gunpower, both in its weapons and their version of the Fighter Gunslinger subclass.

I’ll say this: balancing gunpowder weapons in Renaissance/Early Industrial era games where there are still barbarians running around and warriors in full plate armor isn’t easy. Does the designer make the weapon do a lot of damage with a single hit, but make it expensive and difficult to reload? Do you, for the sake of balance, effectively nerf the weapon into a glorified crossbow? Do you allow it to bypass damage resistance? I honestly think that the developers settled on a pretty solid answer.

Flintlock Pistols and Rifles and Shotguns are all available to players as personal scale weapons. While their damage is nothing to sneeze at, it isn’t special and is tempered by the fact that they are slow to load. However, they have features that are very useful: the pistol is light, meaning that it can be dual wielded to minimal if any penalty. The shotgun deals out a 25 foot cone of damage and the rifle is “Armor Piercing”. Rather than bypassing damage resistance, it translates into provided the user Advantage on targets in Medium and Heavy armor. To me, it balances the reload time and moderate damage output, and it provides an absolutely logical advantage considering the time period. Heavy plate armor was still in use during the same historical time as flintlock rifles, but it was expensive, custom fitted and was beginning to be phased out and provided little protection from rifles. However, it is still just as useful for dealing with magic attacks and battling the various creatures that lurk in the wild. Light armor becomes slightly better for comparison. Siege level weapons exists, and are extremely potent, but they have huge limitations: they are hideously expensive and require two operators to use, meaning the “gank the glass cannon” strategy is still effective, and slightly more literal.

As well as I think the game handled the equipment rules, I am decidedly less of a fan of the Gunslinger subclass, mostly because after the careful balancing of gunpowder rules, the class is a nerfed version of a preexisting homebrew from D&D Beyond. That version offers decent combat buffs, and a pool of points that you can spend to augment abilities (Grit), but its specialty is the Trick Shot, where players can select from a list of special effects that their attack will have, similar to the Arcane Archer. It offers a nice bit of customization, and fits the trope of the Old West gunslinger or the jaunty pirate. Here, in spite of being in a setting with superior technology and weapons, the class is less effective. The Trick Shot selections have been removed and replaced with targeting specific body parts to force Attribute roles. To me, the Snowhaven version is less interesting than what was already available which frustrates me because the developers clearly make a point in making sure that the surrounding mechanics were sound.

The book does offer some nice story hooks between the overall history of corruption, feuding Houses, and general intrigue. There’s even an amusing hook about a strange being who is sneaking into homes and leaving presents (entitled “Jolly old fellow, or menace”). But there are some frustrating things as well: the “magi uprising” that was mentioned in the opening quote? I can’t find any details about it except possibly as the reason why there were government reforms. There are letters provided by fictional characters that make mention of magical crafting, which would be really interesting as a society faces industrialization. The fact that these aren’t delved into more seems like a enormous missed opportunity.

As to the design overall, the pages look a little unfinished. There’s something about the design and margins that makes it look rushed. The developers are already mentioning a second edition to be released in 2020, which makes me wonder why they chose to release a first edition instead of an early access to pull together some funding and beta test.

In the end, there are definitely a few spots which look messy and incomplete, and a number of things that I would have wanted the developers to expand on more. In spite of that, I think it’s a refreshing new setting, and the book does enough that I certainly think that GMs and players will enjoy it, so long as they know that they will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to writing the plot.


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