The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I answer a knock on my office door, and who’s standing there?
A Viking. With a shield and an axe.
“Hullo,” the Viking says. “Andrew Peregrine, line developer, at your service. I’m here to tell you about Yggdrasill, the fantasy game of Norse adventure!”
Turns out he was a Viking with glasses and a Limey accent.
“Your helmet doesn’t have horns,” I point out. ‘Cause it didn’t.
The Limey Viking chuckles. “Well, two points: First, I’m dressed as a Norseman, but not as a Viking. All Vikings were Norsemen, but not all Norsemen were Vikings.
“And second, Vikings didn’t have helmets with horns. That’s a myth.”
“You mean like them worshippin’ Odin?”
“No, that was real.”
“Odin was real?”
“No, Odin was a myth.”
“…A real myth?”
“Yes. And in Yggdrasill, Norse myths are real.”
“So in Yggdrasill, Odin is real”
“But Vikings still didn’t have horns.”
“No. That myth is a myth.”
“…Okay. So Yggdrasill is a game of Norse adventure with myths that are real.”
“But Vikings were never horny.”
“That is not what I said!”
Sheesh. There’s no pleasin’ some people.
Anyway, here’s the review.
Yggdrasill is set in the period from the 4th to 6th centuries in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — collectively known as Scandia. This is the land of the Norsemen (but not exactly of the Vikings, who first set sail in the 8th century). Like many pseudo-historical games, Yggdrasill puts fun ahead of historical accuracy. Nevertheless, the game does a remarkable job of presenting a plausible and detailed world, covering everything from politics to personal hygiene. Into this setting, the game seamlessly weaves the beliefs of the time, making gods, magic and monsters a fact of life.
Frankly, there’s so much great information here that I can’t really do it justice short of providing an exhaustive and likely boring list of the contents.
If there’s any disappointment, it’s that the bestiary is a bit thin. Even there, though, the book covers the basics: giants, undead warriors, sirens, krakens, winter wolves, and, of course, trolls.
Yggdrasill uses a roll-and-keep attribute+skill system. When attempting a task, the player rolls a number of open-ending d10s equal to the relevant attributes rated from 1-5, keeping the two highest and adding the skill level. A critical success occurs on a result equal to or greater than twice the difficulty, and a fumble occurs when all dice turn up “1” when rolling 1-3 dice or when at least three dice turn up “1” when rolling four or more dice.
Aside from keeping track of the exploding d10s, this is an extremely transparent and manageable core mechanic.
Characters are built around nine characteristics grouped under Body (Strength, Vigour, Agility), Mind (Intellect, Perception, Tenacity), and Soul (Charisma, Instinct, Communication), between which players divide 19 points. That strikes me as being a bit low, especially for characters who are supposed to be bad-ass Norsemen.
The game uses a simple advantage/disadvantage system in the form of gifts and weaknesses. A character gets a single gift for free, with the option to purchase a second gift in exchange for accepting a weakness. It’s an easy way to tweak characters without number crunching and/or min-maxing.
Players choose an archetype representing a traditional role in Norse society. These in turn provide five skills that may be purchased for 1 point per level. Non-privileged skills cost 2 points per level, and characters receive 35 points total for skills. I like how this method encourages characters to resemble their historical counterparts without enforcing a full-blown class system.
Characters receive a Furor pool — the game’s spin on Drama/Hero/Fate Points — in a size depending upon the sort of character they are. Those with the Savage Warrior gift receive Furor points equal to Vigor + Instinct + Tenacity. Those with the Initiate (magician) gift receive Furor points equal to Vigor + Instinct + Intellect. All others receive Furor points equal to (Vigor + Instinct + Tenacity)/2.
All characters can spend a point of Furor to add a third die from their die rolls.
Savage Warriors can enter a battle furor that lets them spend Furor points up to their Tenacity score; however, they must then spend at least that many Furor points on subsequent attacks, and adding further Furor points in later rounds increases this minimum. The Savage Warriors will then fight until drained of Furor (and hence exhausted) or until they manage to calm themselves down. Failure to do that means that the berserker goes, well, berserk, attacking whatever’s closest, friend or foe. Savage Warriors in a battle furor also don’t suffer wound penalties and take a lot more damage to put down for good. This is one of the best berserker rage mechanics that I’ve seen.
For their part, Initiates can enter a much calmer mystical furor, allowing them to spend multiple dice from their Furor pool without the round-to-round minimum of the battle furor. However, they become much more vulnerable to physical and mental attacks while in this state.
Players also assign 12 points to levels in combat feats and spells. I like how this balances magical and mundane abilities.
Overall, the discrete pools of points assigned to different aspects of characters prevents a lot of number-crunching — something I always appreciate.
Probably the most unusual aspect of Yggdrasill character creation is the casting of runes. As befits a game about Norsemen, characters are pawns of Fate. Three separate 1d8 rolls identify the three runes that govern Fate for an individual character. These runes may have only positive aspects, only negative aspects, or both, and for the rolled runes, the player must select two of one type and one of the other. Once per encounter, if a player realizes that one of his character’s runes directly relates to the current situation, he may keep an extra die on a roll — a very slick way of simulating the influence of Fate without railroading the character.
If all of this sounds too much for you, the character creation chapter wraps up with six fully developed PCs.
Characters have a Reaction score equal to Intellect + Perception + Instinct and add a roll of 1d10 to determine Initiative. Combatants can take a maximum number of actions equal to their Agility scores: One penalty-free primary action and secondary actions with a penalty that increases per action. All primary actions are resolves first, then the first set of secondary actions, and so on. This may not be the most realistic way of resolving multiple actions, but it does prevent slower characters from being immediately overwhelmed.
Melee attacks use the standard skill roll but with the associated attribute varying depending on the type of attack. Agility is used for basic attacks that don’t add Strength damage. Strength is used for attacks that do add Strength damage and for clumsy-but-devastating attacks that incur a penalty equal to Strength but that do Strength x 3 damage. Perception is used for attacks to avoid armor and for aimed shots with a penalty equal to Perception but a damage of Perception x 3. Ranged attacks use these same basic options, but with Instinct replacing Strength for bows using power-based attacks and optionally replacing Strength for devastating attacks.
The difficulty of hitting an opponent is 14 + Physical Defense +/- modifiers, with Physical Defense being equal to Agility + Vigor + Instinct. If the defending characters have actions remaining, they may choose instead to make an active parry or dodge.
Damage is determined by the margin of success + weapon damage bonus – defender’s armor value. Personally, I always prefer systems that directly reward skillful attacks and armor that reduces damage, so this is right up my alley.
Criticals and fumbles can either have results adjudicated by the GM (e.g., double damage or a broken weapon) or may be determined by a roll of 1d10 on a simple table for each.
Characters have Hit Points equal to (Body Attributes x 3) + (Mind Attributes x 2) + (Soul Attributes x 1). The system has a simple wound system based upon whether the character has more than half, less than half, or less than a quarter of his Hit Points remaining; however, a single blow that does more damage than the character’s original Hit Point total puts him at risk for a major wound.
Overall, I love the way in which the system makes all aspects of the character matter in combat without resorting to the sorts of holistic attributes that annoy me (e.g., “Body” for both strength and dexterity).
Magic in Yggdrasill comes in three forms: siedr (sorcery), galdr (incantation), and the runes. Spellcasting in all three takes some time, and only the most basic of spells go off in a single action; however, spellcasters can increase the difficulty of spells in exchange for shorter casting times. Alternatively, spellcasters can make spells easier to cast by taking even more time. In this manner, the game maintains the ritualistic feel of magic while giving magicians the ability to function effectively in combat.
Sieder requires complex rituals and includes spells of divination, protection, healing, mastery of the elements, and curses.
Galdr uses the power of the voice, making it popular with skalds (Norse bards). Its abilities fall in to the broad domains of curses, illusions, and charms rather than specific spells.
Runes are engraved on some surface, be it skin, clothing, wood, stone, metal, or what have you, with the speed of the casting, the duration of the spell, and the difficulty of the casting based upon the substance in question.
Yggdrasill uses simplified stats for NPC extras: Conflict, Relationships, Physical, Mental, Mystical, and Vitality. The first five serve as penalties to actions taken against the NPC and as a bonus to a roll of 2d10 when the NPC takes an action. Vitality acts as a threshold for the NPC to take damage in a simplified format of Unhurt, Wounded, and Dead. Damage from NPC attacks is likewise simplified, without modifiers for specific weapons. However, the rules include traits that tweak NPCs in order to make them more specific, like cowards, brutes, or mystics. I like these shorthand stats that are nevertheless meaningful.
The game includes an adventure that is surprisingly intricate, involving (among other things) star-crossed lovers, political intrigue, pirates, a magical ice lady, and a huge-ass bear. If anything, it might be a bit too complex for inexperienced GMs, featuring as it does a large cast of NPCs with varying and conflicting motivations. Of course, given the complexity of the setting as a whole, I doubt that the game itself would appeal to new GMs. (And just to be clear, that’s a feature, not a bug.)
The text managed to keep me engaged while delving deep into both the setting and the system and seemed error-free, as far as I could tell.
The book features excellent black-and-white art (with full-color archetype pictures) and an appropriate parchment-colored background with an attractive scrollwork border.
Finally, like all good RPGs, the rules include a sizable index.
The system has a simple core with just the right amount of crunch for spice. The setting is finely detailed and flavorful. Overall, Yggdrasill is a fine example of game design, and I can heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Norse fantasy.