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Yggdrasill» Forums » Reviews

Subject: First Thoughts: Critical review & Session Report rss

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Jonathan Rowe
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Since I appear to be the only person in Middle Earth (or the BGG part of it at any rate) who’s playing this game, I thought I’d contribute a review-cum-session-report on my thoughts so far.

It’s always difficult to create characters for a historically-set RPG, particularly when there are skill points to assign and feats/spells to choose from: you don’t know what’s going to be useful and you don’t appreciate which ones are important. So we went with the pre-genned templates but renamed them. Then, during play, we gradually tweaked them, moving skill points about, changing Gifts and Feats, even inventing a whole new Seidr path, as the characters came into focus. This proved pretty effective and the pre-genned characters offer a wide array. No one went for the Skald, I think because the picture makes him look like a jerk.

I GMed the rulebook scenario, “Offerings to the Great Winter”. It’s got a very strong start, with cinematic flashbacks that make a point of involving each of the main character Archetypes. Then, off to Norway to fight savages and mix it up with the Lady of Ice. There’s a nice blend of combat, spookiness and roleplay in all of this.

The first thing we discovered is how awkward the rulebook is as a reference tool. The core mechanics are in one bit, but the combat system comes MUCH later. The rules for Furor are in one place, the rules for spells somewhere else, Hit Points are in one chapter but healing is in a different chapter. One of the first things I needed to do was create a GM (and Player) cheat sheet.

The system is strangely clumsy. You roll to hit and work out how much you hit by… keep that number in your head, don’t forget it… now roll for the defender’s parry or dodge: did they exceed the first number? Did you forget the first number? Go back and work it out again: did they exceed it? No, OK, now work out the damage, that’s a new die roll the modified number they hit by, the number you started with adjusted by the parry… you’ve lost that number? OK…

Turning Power Attacks into a straightforward 1d10-per-10-points-of-Success-Margin does streamline things a bit, but there’s still a lot more numbers to write down as you go in this than I’m used to in most modern RPGs (yes, back in the late 80s and early 90s all RPGs were a bit like this, but then minimalism came along).

Then there’s the whole roll-your-dice-and-keep-the-best-two mechanic. That’s simple. But Gifts let you add an extra die and Runes let you keep an extra die… Or is it the other way round?

It took us several sessions to get combat straight and that’s way more time than I’m used to taking to get the basics of RPG combat down reasonably well. Even by session #3 we were forgetting to give NPCs their secondary actions, letting players keep too many dice, etc etc.

This wasn’t helped by a glaring omission in the rules for Extras (mook level NPCs) that appears as Errata in the “Kings of the Sea” supplement.

This is all a bit unfortunate because Yggdrasill is a combat-themed game. That’s partly because any Norse/Viking RPG is going to be pretty combat-themed, but partly because Yggdrasill doesn’t offer any mechanics for resolving things in any other ways. There are no ‘personality traits’ (like in Pendragon) or mystical traits (like willpower or spirit, other than the frenzying dice pool called Furor). The skill list is a strange selection: you get both Commerce _and_ Negotiate, but no Politics or Gossip; there’s Games but no Riddles; no skills for interpreting dreams or recognising magic. There’s a Renown trait, but it only seems to govern how likely NPCs are to recognise you, not how much influence or respect you can command. Renown values for NPCs in the scenario aren’t even given.

So the game feels a bit blunt: a combat-heavy RPG in which the combat isn’t that much fun. Yes, there are Critical Hit tables, but since you need to roll double your target value (Success Threshold or ST) to get a critical, they are very rare for starting characters, even with the exploding-10s dice mechanic.

The other thing this produces is a lack of differentiation in characters. Yes, you have your different Archetypes: Hirdmen are noble warriors, Volvur are sorceresses, Skalds are bards, Berserkers are berserkers. But within these Archetypes, there’s not much to distinguish one from the other, beside the type of weapon, Combat Feat or Spell they use. My players go to work using the Fate Runes to construct distinctions in background – Halfdan is a half-giantish bastard, Sigurth the son of the village smith with a chip on his shoulder, Ulfric the son of a whore who hates to see anyone in chains – but the game itself doesn’t support these interpretations with its mechanics. In this way, it’s a very Old Skool RPG. It’s all about the killing and the looting, roleplaying is optional.

Similarly, although the rulebook goes to great length to set out the world the Norsemen inhabit, with long chapters on their homes and religion, their families and their politics, no particular imagination has been brought to realising this world. There are no rules for riddle competitions or “Niths” (the insult-poems the Norsemen feared). Although Seidr magic is included, the designers fail to notice that Seidr was considered effeminate and unmanly for males: it’s a unisex Dark Ages on offer here where girls can swing swords and boys can sing spells and no one thinks the worst of anyone for it. Moreover, there are no particular rules for holy places, mystical energies, dragons, boasts, oath-breaking, human sacrifice, etc. For example, this is a world where the gods quite literally exist and the royal families are Scandia are literally descended from them. How does being descended from a god… or a giant or an elf… affect game play? It doesn’t.

This slightly dull approach to the game is evident in the scenario, which starts so well but deteriorates into a back-and-forth political plot in which the players get shuttled between different Jarls and petty Kings and end up being bystanders to a big battle. Yes, clever or bold players may affect the course of events, but they lack a strong reason to want to. A lot of effort has been put into giving the NPCs detailed and conflicting motives. At times, it’s like ‘The West Wing’ in chainmail. However, few of these NPCs have any reason or opportunity to share their fascinating inner lives with the players, so as a played-experience the scenario is rather flat, lacking drama or a real sense of accomplishment. Moreover, despite its spooky opening chapter, its relentlessly secular and un-supernatural in tone, despite the presence of sorcerers and an undead bear!

I get the impression the designers wanted to create the antidote to Viking RPGs: something sternly historical that takes Dark Ages politics seriously, something quite educational in fact, something that will cause us to say we all Learned A Great Deal by the end of the game. I’m surprised they even included rules for Sorcery at all! And that might work if the system was simple and intuitive and elegant. But in fact it’s clunky and confusing in places and it feels like hard work at times.

But I’m persevering with it a while longer. I’ve posted up a bunch of files on BGG with cheat sheets and house rules for riddles, insults, renowned weapons and atmospheric sorcery. I might give the skill lists and the Renown system a complete overhaul. There’s a great setting here and some nice character ideas, an OK rules engine and some detailed NPCs. It just needs some glamour, some pizzazz, some excitement. It needs a few spells that make you think “Oooh, I want to be a Thulr so I can cast _that_!” and some powers that make you think “Hey, I’ve never done _that_ in a RPG before!” But they’re not in the rulebook. Yet.
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Karl Larsson
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Great review, and not the only one to play this I would say. I reviewed the core book a little while ago.
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