Don’t Walk in Winter Wood is a game I’d like to play sitting around a campfire.
Billed as ‘a game of folkloric fear’, it conjures up whispered fears and bolted doors. Set in a purposely vague 17th-18th century village, the defining feature of the setting is woods to the East. This is no ordinary wood- it the place where men go missing, never to return. It is the place mothers threaten to send their children when they misbehave. It is the place that holds the stuff of nightmares.
After a brief introduction of the setting, the first half of the 44pg book holds the folklore of Winter Wood. Sixteen tales- varying in length from a few lines to a few pages- present enough ideas for a very terrifying game. Standouts for me were The Tale of the First Winter (by the game’s author, Clint Krause), The Grave Digger (by Daniel Bayn) and The Tale of Hart von Laer (by Jason Morningstar). I actually got creeped out reading these back to back and had to put the book down lest my imagination get the better of me. The last page of folklore details the charms, wards and superstitions the villagers use to keep themselves safe. Or so they think.
Character generation is simple and calls to mind Bret Gillan’s The Final Girl. You pick a name first (there is a reference sheet at the end of the book with ideas). Then your concept- examples include Child, Clergyman, Doctor, Algonquin Brave, Teacher, Witch or Woodsman. Last is your motive- why is your character willing to enter the Winter Wood? The person running the game is the Watcher. The players are the Walkers.
The mechanics of Don’t Walk in Winter Wood are dead simple. Whenever a Walker encounters something frightful or harmful- including enter the Wood- the Watcher gives them a Cold token. Whenever a Walker’s fate is left to chance, the Watcher asks a yes/no question. The Walker rolls one six sided die. If they rolled higher than the number of Cold tokens they have, the answer is yes. If they roll a tie or lower, the answer is no. Yes is always beneficial and no is always detrimental. Once you’ve accumulated 6 Cold tokens your character is taken out of the scenario- if they earned the sixth from physical harm they might actually die, whereas if they earned it from fear they might have fainted or gone mad.
And that’s it. There is no way to get rid of Cold tokens once you’ve gotten them, so an ugly fate awaits most people who enter the Wood. Legend and folklore have to come from somewhere, right?
One thing I absolutely love about Don’t Walk in Winter Wood is the narrative style. Rather than telling the Watcher-
“I walk into the fog and listen closely.”
You narrate your character’s actions in third person past tense, like so-
“Aldus walked into the fog and listened closely.”
This subtle shift is one detail that makes the game the perfect kind of creepy.
At the end of the book you’ll find instructions for building a scenario, as well as four pre-made tales.
The full page art in the book is haunting and beautiful- black, white and red. The layout is well done and made referencing sections easy. My one gripe- the pdf version of the book is not particularly print-friendly- the aged texture behind the text on each page adds to the feeling, but does little to spare ink cartridges.
I ran Don’t Walk in Winter Wood for five friends last weekend. We had John Smith- the fiance of the cursed NPC Laura, Patience Bailey- a gossipy housewife who wanted to send a letter into the Hell Hole, Benjamin Cooper- a huntsman who didn’t believe in curses or magic, Nathaniel Cooper (no relation)- a conman recently come to town and Thaddeus- a crazy old coot whose only company was a raccoon after his entire family had died.
They entered the forest in search of a way to break the curse on Laura. John accused Patience of being a witch after she admitted why she’d come along. Fog stole their tents after Benjamin had a very real nightmare. Patience was tied to a tree. Thaddeus was struck by lightning. In the end only John went on to break the curse- the others ran from the woods after the Devil’s Herd attacked them. The conman ran, as well, but he’d managed to sell a few of his tinctures, so despite the frightening surroundings, it was a good trip.
The narrative style ended up tripping us up- often. I found myself stumbling, often having to correct myself. I like the tone that it sets, but in order for this to work all players have to commit to it.
I have no doubt that a more experienced GM could scare the hell out of their players with this game, but I felt like I was not up to that task. I found myself thinking was how much creepier it could have been if the rules had allowed for player input into the story- though this is a campfire storytelling game, it’s also a 100% GM-led one. If I were to run it again I would definitely tweak it to encourage shared creation.
Still, despite my own stumbling as a Watcher, I find myself still thinking about this game. I’d love to see it played as a more bloody version of Red Riding Hood (an idea I had after I ran it). I think it’s a perfect game for Halloween or any time you’re in the mood to be creeped out.
Be careful- you might be the next to find yourself lost in the woods…
I’m giving away a print copy of Don’t Walk in Winter Wood along with a bag of glass Cold tokens over at my blog! Enter by leaving a comment there before 11:59pm CST 10/7/2012. A random winner will be chosen on 10/8/2012.
Jenn Martin is a stay at home mom who geeks out on the weekends. For more info, check out her blog at geekINcognito.tumblr.com.