Friday, February 17, 2012

The Northern Reaches: RPG Items I Like

WHAT IS IT?
Classic TSR region supplement covering three Viking-like nations in the north of Mystara.

AAAAAAAH-AH
So Vikings. There's a strange thing happening in my my project to review all of the items in the TSR gazetteer series (for more on that see here). I find myself encountering and thinking about my gaming bias. For example, I'm not fond of jokey versions of real world things which pop up throughout the Ierendi book. And I talked about my feelings about elves when I reviewed Alfheim, and we'll see that again when I hit the hobbit book, GAZ8: The Five Shires. Today's entry with its adaptation of the ancient and rich culture of the Norse (in the broadest sense) confronts a basic problem I have. Vikings make me go meh. I've picked up a number of Viking supplements and games over the years: Rolemaster's Vikings, Vikings: Nordic Roleplaying for RuneQuest, Rune, Ultima Thule: Mythic Scandinavia. And I appreciate the deep history of those peoples- with fascinating tales and a much more complex relationship to their neighbors than simple tales of pillage would suggest. D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths remains one of my favorite books- mythic ideas that informed my vision of fantasy for years. And I love Thor from Marvel, especially when it ventures into the epic. But Vikings in my games...not so much. My favorite vikings would be these.

VALHALLA, I AM COMING
That being said I enjoyed reading through GAZ7: The Northern Reaches. As you might guess, it is Viking book for Mystara- something it explicitly addresses in the introduction, a first I think for the series (breaking the fourth wall?). It is a fantastic treatment of those elements in a mish-mash which ignores the various differences often lumped together under the 'viking' term. As usual you have two divergent approaches to the gazetteer series. The first would be for those TSR aficionados or those playing in Mystara campaign- what does the book offer for their play. The second would be more my approach: is the book an amusing read and more importantly what can I steal from it to use in my games? I know the series sometimes gets a bad rap for certain tics (like third person narrator text before sections). But the useful stuff in these books makes working through those tics valuable.

THE BOOK ITSELF
Ken Rolston returns to the series (he also did the excellent GAZ2: The Emirates of Ylaruam). You may know his name from his work on Morrowind, Paranoia and a host of other gaming legends. This time he's joined by Elizabeth Danforth, one of my favorite illustrators, as co-writer. We get another excellent Clyde Caldwell cover and Stephen Fabian interior illustrations. I have to admit that this is one of the few gazetteers I've only seen in pdf format- so I can't comment on the quality of the map- which has the hex version on one side and a great hall on the other. The supplement includes four pages of cardboard stand-ups to help simulate that hall. Probably the most notable shift in this gazetteer is the splitting of the interior booklet into two separate booklets: a 64-page DM book and a 32-page player book. Other items in the series have had pull-out sections, but this one finally formalizes the split. That's a great move- and some of the earlier booklets could have benefited from this approach.

THE DM BOOK
After offering some general comments on real world vikings (including a bibliography), the booklet heads into the history of the region. It provides details on the three kingdoms of the Northern Reaches- sharing common cultural traits but with differing rulership and history. Vestland is the northernmost of these, situated on the mainland and having a strong feudal monarchy. They have a more dangerous and frontier lifestyle- facing monsters like trolls at regular intervals. Just to their south lies the the Soderfjord Jarldoms (so just above Ylaruam). The Jarldom has a war leader, but is nominally ruled by a council and by the agreement of the various jarls throughout the territory. The third nation, Ostalnd actually lies on a set of rich and fertile islands off the coast. The Ostlanders once ruled Vestland, but lost control of it. Ostalnders seem to the most classic vikings, with a life of raiding and piracy. They trace their rulership to King Cnute (a pretty literal lift from rw history). I wish I knew more about far Northern European history and culture, as I'd probably be better able to pick out which details have been drawn from which cultures (Norse, Lapp, Icelandic, Finn, etc). After the general history, the book spends 4-5 pages on each nation in turn describing politics, current events, cultural roles, and key themes. These sections are really well done- and compress the information tightly,. GM's skimming through these few pages should be able to come up with at least a half-dozen interesting hooks immediately for each.

The Northern Reaches also spends time considering the significant non-human groups within the region. While the other gazetteers covered covered those before, that's been in passing, representing foreign interests, or as factions within the power structure (ala Glantri). Dwarves get particular attention, with a section of emigres from Rockhome and on a new group of dwarves, the Modrigswerg. These exiles answer to darker powers. They're wild, passionate and unpredictable dwarves, much more akin to those shown in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The GM's encouraged to create an air of threat and mystery around them. Around four pages cover this new group, with suggestions for unique magic and traits. Finally, two monstrous humanoid races get a more civilized write up, the trolls and the gnolls. The cultural details and npcs suggested here make them more than just battle fodder.

Next the book details the people and relationships of the Court of Cnute in Ostland. Rather than detail all of the important NPCs across the region, it focuses here as a detailed and concrete example. Those of the Northern Reaches worship figures from the Norse Pantheon, with Odin in particular regard. In fact tension between court and priests shows up as one of the main levers for conflict. It took me a bit to reconcile the actual use of the Norse names, but apparently in Mystara, a number of the Immortals go by those names. I'm unsure exactly how that works- it had been my impression that the Immortals were ascended figures in the world- somewhat different from conventional multiversal gods. The discussion of the Court covers the key figures, detailed discussion of the physical settlement itself, and an outline for how a campaign could be run there.

The second half of the DM book, pages 37-59, covers specific adventures in the North. The first nine+ pages provide extensive discussion of the Falun Caverns, an underground complex for exploration. It includes a ton of detail, from artifacts to the cultural history of the kobolds. Several other scenarios follow, each with a great deal of detail. The book avoids story “seeds,” instead giving a DM fewer scenarioes, but with those fairly developed and ready to play. The section next offers four pages on running a Northern Reaches campaign. This includes discussion of the new options presented in the Players Book, population distributions, new magic, travel and even otherworld realms (like Asgard). Finally the last page of the booklet offers a conversion guide to AD&D- a slightly condensed version of the one presented in GAZ6: The Dwarves of Rockhome. The rules notably suggest ways in which this material could cross-over into the other TSR realms such as Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. That cross-over could be figurative, using this region material for a like place there or literal with adventurers passing through gates like the World Ash to reach other lands.

THE PLAYERS BOOK
The smaller 32-page players book follows the design used previously in the series- taking a lighter shade of the primary accent color as a screen behind the text, in this case a shade of rust. It's a decent visual cue- but the split between it and the stark white of the watermark on the page causes some problems in a couple of places. The first eight pages of the booklet cover “What Everyone Knows” about the different nations and the culture of the Northern Reaches. This is presented as first person narration from several different characters. Most of the time that doesn't get in the way- the perspective isn't intrusive. But in many cases, I'm not sure what this approach gains. Most importantly, it does offer the non-mechanical basics players need to run characters from there. It does assume that you have players willing to read through that amount of dense material- which isn't always the case.

The mechanics of character creation comes next, pages 9-22. The classics mechanics are covering- rolling methods, Northlander names, and statsus for example. But The Northern Reaches also adds several new concepts and different takes on older concepts. Skills reappear here- but with a much less fuzzy approach. Specific skills common to the region appear under each characteristic; other can be chosen but the book offers a fairly definitive lists. Classes gain different background skills and the rules for skill use have again been consolidated and tightened here. PCs can gain or lose reputations based on the interventions of Skalds, a nice nod to the setting. The book offers ootes on obtaining dominions for higher level characters are given. An entirely new concept is the idea of players rolling for background incidents- rolls on the Afflictions & Accidents, Important Past Experiences, Character Building and Combat Experiences table help flesh the PC out- mostly in the form of stat bonuses or penalties. But the lengthiest treatment is given over to the idea of PC Traits. I've you've played Pendragon or early Ars Magica, you'll recognize this approach. Twelve trait pairs are given, with the player assigning scores to each of these- that score representing where the character lies on the continuum. These traits include Loyal/Unreliable, Peaceful/Violent, Cautious/Reckless, among others. Rolls are made against traits to see if a player undertakes or avoids a particular action. There's also a system for generating these traits for NPCs (with national, class & alignment modifiers). The trait concept is interesting, and for some DMs might be worth taking out into Mystara more broadly. But your reaction will largely depend on how you & your group feel about mechanics for personal decisions- rolling for what could be important choices- without any other benefit. Other systems (Exalted for example) offer less intrusive takes on this. For my two cents, I like the idea of having something that helps a player recall their character's distinct approach, but I don't care for that having a mechanical impact.

The rest of the Players Book covers Northmen Clerics, with lots of details on the different Immortal Cults of the region. It offers some nice notes about the role and rituals of clerics in the setting, and how those differ. Each cult has some specific benefits and abilities, including unique spells. The various clerical magic discussion then moves over to the idea of Rune Magic, which is another clerical resource. This offers a number of new spells, plus a set of 24 example runes with their various powers and effects described. The system's interesting, but a fairly radical shift from standard D&D magic.

OVERALL
So I'm not interested in Skyrim, primarily because of the Norse-esque setting. It doesn't grab me. But I had a really good time rereading this supplement. It gave me a number of ideas, and certainly made me think I could do something in that genre. There's a lot to like here- though the Players Book has a lot of mechanics which are less interesting to me. In the DM Book, the adventure section feels a little bloated. I would have liked to see more background and NPCs, especially for the other two major nations. Still I enjoyed and got a lot more out of this than some of the other Viking supplements I've read, like Ivinia and GURPS Vikings. And I suspect I'll be tracking down some more history of the region, to help me put everything in context. Bottom line: a great gazetteer for people who love Mystara and a good gazetteer for GM's looking for Norse-esque fantasy material.


I want to point out the image of the Northern Reaches map here is taken from the excellent Mystaran map resource at mystara.thorf.co.uk