City of Winter

Created at
22 October 2023
Last modified
10 January 2024

City of Winter is a storytelling game/RPG from Heart of the Deernicorn (“We make beautiful games”), and spiritually/mechanically/semi-narratively a sequel to their smash-hit Fall of Magic. The project was released on Kickstarter, launching in February 2021, funding on its first day, and fulfilling earlier this year (2023). This is a bunch of notes on my first playthrough of the game.

Context and environment

We played this game as part of my regular 2023 gaming group, consisting of a bunch of local friends. We’d just played through some GMless story-game favourites1, <a href=“/g/societyofdreamers” class=“internal-link garden-link stub-link”>Society of Dreamers and <a href=“/g/fallofmagic” class=“internal-link garden-link stub-link”>Fall of Magic. Following the wrap-up of Fall of Magic, we shifted immediately into City of Winter, with the agreement that even if this game were thematically similar we wouldn’t be immediately linking it to the previous game.

The group itself is pretty well-formed - through a year or so of play we’ve worked out how to be on the same page, what we want from games, how to be creative together, etc. Which is both a blessing (pretty much any game will work with us) and a curse (it’s hard to evaluate games on how well they play, because pretty much any game will work with us).

First session

Setup, character creation, and first scenes. I hadn’t pre-read the rules, so we got to discover things together. This was a conscious choice on my behalf - I wanted to discover alongside the group.

We started at the Cloud Citadel, with Zeal (he/him) the champion (a duellist who represents someone in our society’s trial-by-combat based legal system), Harmony (he/him) the apprentice musician, and a set of teacher twins Clarity (she/her) and Alacrity (she/her). By coincidence we were all in our twenties or thirties - it feels like the game expects your group to be more diverse in age, and the bonds offered felt like they were lacking in non-familial, non-romantic options beyond the few we took. Nonetheless we ended up with a tight-knit group that still had some interesting dynamics.

Fall of Magic‘s scene selection system runs as follows:

  1. Pick a place related to your current location. That place has a title and a prompt.
  2. Describe the scene, inviting others into it as appropriate. At some point in the scene, address the prompt.
  3. The scene ends when you wish it.

In contrast, City of Winter relies on a set of tradition cards which you hold in your hand. On your turn, you pick a location and choose to either share or witness a tradition. If you share, you:

  1. Pick a place related to your current location.
  2. Pick a card from your hand.
  3. Describe the scene, using the name of the place for inspiration and setting.
  4. At some point in the scene, address the tradition you’ve picked from your hand.
  5. End the scene when you wish it, passing the card to another player.

If you witness, you:

  1. Draw a card from the local deck (or the Umbra deck, which represents a creeping force that uproots you from your homeland) and pass it, face-down, to another player.
  2. Describe the scene, using the name of the place for inspiration and setting.
  3. At some point in the scene, the player with the card will introduce the new tradition (or the threat from the Umbra) into the scene.
  4. End the scene when you wish it, receiving the new card.

Theoretically this is interesting, as it means we’ll see the same traditions come up over and over again, probably changing as we move from location to location. At this point in the game, we haven’t seen anything come up more than once.

One other element to City of Winter is the passage of time. When you feel it’s appropriate, you can “close out the chapter”, causing time to advance and everyone to age. This seems like a system full of potential, as people develop, deepen their bonds, have their life experiences change, and eventually die (allowing you to bring in a new character). The book is not explicit about how often you should aim to close out a chapter - the writing in a couple of places implies that the designers expect you to close out a chapter every session or so, although following one session’s worth (about three hours’) of play, I feel like we’re about halfway through our current chapter. In saying that, our group is prone to sidebars, long rambly scenes, lingering, and the like, so we’re probably likely to spend several sessions on each chapter.

Overall, I like the freedom these axes of play give us. As with Fall of Magic, when we’re ready to leave a location we can move along the map to somewhere new, but we also have the freedom to stay put for a decade or so and let our characters mature a bit. There’s something maybe worth writing here about how GMless games manage/constrain narrative.

Third session

By session three, we’d closed a chapter (that is, advanced time) once and migrated once. Migration (changing locations) happens by the following process:

  1. First, on your turn you can choose to hold a migration scene, where you show what causes your character to decide to move on. That knocks you out of the usual rotation of scenes.
  2. Then, when everyone has had a migration scene, the whole family migrates.

The first migration definitely felt like a big thing, as a bunch of folks (both PCs and NPCs) all decided to up stakes and leave their ancestral home. There’s a little bit of a tension here between the narrative (it takes a lot to cause a whole group of folks to leave their home) and the mechanical (after several cycles of turns, we felt ready to explore the rest of the game), but drawing from the Umbra deck and gently introducing weirdness helped in that respect.

The first location we hit from our home location was a giant flying ship. What’s interesting is that our voyage on the ship is treated in the same manner as any other location - it has a local tradition deck, which implies the inhabitants of the ship have their own distinct culture, and the rules allow us to close chapters (and thus advance time by a decade or so) while on board the ship. Moving off of the ship requires a migration (as above), which almost suggests there’s a need for something to push you from the ship (as opposed to just going “well, we’ve reached our destination, time to disembark”).

Not that any of this limits the story in any way - if you want to treat the ship as a transitional area, it’s easy enough to spend the minimum turn per player sharing or witnessing traditions on the ship, and then have everyone stage a migration scene as you get off at the other end. But it feels a little wild that you could also just have your family spend years travelling on this ship while they work out where they want to go next.

One other point of friction I’ve found in the game is what to do when your hand is full of traditions that just don’t resonate with you. At the start of the game I picked cards I felt reflected my character, and through my initial scene I eagerly shared them to help develop their personality. But now I find myself with a bunch of cards from other folks that I’ve collected, but just don’t feel reflect my own character. It’s annoying because I see why we want to pass cards around, to have conversations about traditions and see how different characters interact with them. And it’s not the end of the world because I can just spend some time witnessing traditions instead. But it’s just a little rough edge.

Fifth session

By this stage we’re deep in the game - we’re within sight of the City of Winter itself, having advanced time by around twenty years since we left our home. The time jumps have allowed us to explore shifting dynamics between our group, which is something I don’t think I’ve really seen other games have the scope to explore. That’s pretty cool!

I’m still lukewarm on the concept of using the traditions as our prompts, unfortunately. When we played Fall of Magic there was an excitement to exploring a new location, finding what the new prompts were (especially the game-changing prompts that had you roll a dice and/or add to or modify your character - I note that the second printing of Fall of Magic had a couple more of these, which was a welcome addition). Sure, each new location in City of Winter will normally expose you to a new people and new traditions, and witnessing a new tradition is basically the same as coming across a new location with a new prompt. But it just doesn’t hit the same way as it does in Fall of Magic.

If I have to guess, I think it’s probably due to one of two things:

  1. By randomly assigning scenes and prompts, you’re kind of hoping that the scene’s name and prompt will align. When you publish a prompt for each scene, you can craft it for maximum creative tension.
  2. Alternatively, I just like seeing the array of prompts and picking from them. Sometimes when you witness a tradition, you just get one that sucks a bit.

In our next session I expect that we’ll be pushing towards the City. This is exciting to me because the City has its own rules that I haven’t touched yet. I’m also keen to see how things play out as characters age and die, and as new characters come to the fore.

  1. ¾ of the group being parents, we weren’t necessarily in a great place for any one person to invest time in prepping sessions every week, so GMless was the way to go for our first year or so.