Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Exploring Exploration

Firstly, there's an interesting discussion occurring in the comments ofyesterday's Worldblogger about the Norseness and inclusion of arcane magic and specifically the wizard in the theoretical campaign setting. Please, share your thoughts on the matter down there!

A few ideas simmered overnight. In no particular order:
  • The random Yggdrasil idea has been growing on me; that the celestial heavens are actually composed of Yggdrasil's branches. I like the stars as glimmering fruits, maybe even have day-stars or something, as opposed to one centralized sun, that wilt or close at the onset of night. Maybe the tree's trunk stands over the northern pole and its boughs reach out and encompass the entire northern hemisphere or something. There might even be a way to combine this with the Ymir's skull myth. Maybe the gods planted Yggdrasil's seeds in dead Ymir's skull?
Obviously lots of things to be hammered out, but I think that's a big, mythic, obviously fantastical set piece that could be interesting to explore further.

(A hasty Wikipedia search has revealed the existence of Sól, the Norse sun deity, that striking the sun would probably remove the need for. She doesn't seem super relevant, from a cursory glance, to the machinations of men or the pantheon.)
  • Not a huge revelation, but I think despite prevailing cultural thought about how the gender politics during the Viking Age might have been, I'm gonna continue Mooncrash's 100% random sex assignment. No trumped up “historical accuracy” is gonna justify sexism here. Plus, this.
  • The big thing that's been percolating, I think, is more a setting theme than anything else. I want this setting to focus on exploration.
So much of what we perceive of the Viking Age is dominated by images of plunder and rapine. I'd be lying if I said that's not one of the main attractions for me, at least initially, to the aesthetic – bold, barbaric warriors, pillaging the fat lands of Europe and being compared unfavorably to sea-wolves – but that's a very shallow read into the accomplishments that Dark Ages Scandinavia gave European culture at the time.

Trade is such a huge part of the Viking's contribution – interconnecting nations and peoples that never would have had any contacts, shipping goods and slaves along these routes, inter-populating the world. Sure, they were raiders and slavers and bloodthirsty conquerors at times, but the inroads the Vikings carved, with their superior seafaring technology and far-ranging exploration, is way, way more culturally significant than horns on helmets and bearded axes.

I mean, to get technical, I think the first real “adventurers” in the medieval period, as a D&D player would think of an adventurer were Norse and Germanic mercenaries, like Harald Hardrada or the Varangian Guard.

In short, I think I'm going to place a greater emphasis on the Norse people striking out and making contact with other cultures for the first time. Rather than extensively mapping the entire world, I think I'm gonna map the region or small continent than the “Vikings” originate from and imply, via the salty rumor of mythical sailors, the distant lands and strange peoples that can be found far and away across the ocean. In the way that previous Edge of the Empire assumes your party is the rough-and-tumble crew of a smuggling vessel, I feel like this setting can be constructed, assuming your the rough- and-tumble crew of a Viking longship, bound for trade, plunder and exploration across the sea.

More as this stuff trickles in. Thanks for reading and lemme know – do you think I should use arcane magic in my fictional, fantastical Scandinavia?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Everything's Better With Vikings

Frost giants are cool. Vikings are cool. Norse mythology is cool.

How come there's no truly Norse campaign setting? Least case, not one I've heard of.

Worldblogger to the rescue!

The advantage of creating a themed campaign setting comes from how limiting I'm allowed to be. One of my biggest pet peeves with most modern campaign settings (Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, even Eberron) is how many races, classes, pantheons and whole magic systems that're shoehorned in, to allow the widest possible option base for the potential PC. These worlds invariably end up feeling like insane grab bags, with hundreds of sentient species, five or six competing layers of contradictory magic and a video-game-esque sense of geography and worldbuilding – here's the desert place, here's the snowy place, here's the forest place, etc.

By creating a campaign setting influenced exclusively by Norse mythology, I can crack down on the free-range nature of races, classes and redundant story elements – such as both divine, primal and arcane magic – under the auspices of adhering to my Norse theme. Not that I can't deviate here I wish, defy expectations a little, but anyone who willing runs or joins such a campaign knows what they're getting into and doesn't seem as likely to demand to play a tiefling sorcerer or whatever the fuck.

Races: D&D campaign settings have this tendency to value race as a key determining factor in a player character's identity. Going off the Tolkien model, that's understandable, but there's plenty of rich and vibrant fantasy that utterly eschews this philosophy. Two of my favorites – A Song of Ice and Fire and the Gentlemen Bastards sequence, in particular – are populated pretty much exclusively by humans. Monsters, beasts and magical elements are still prevalent in both, but there's no shortage of invigorating characters or cultures because there's no cat-people, bird-people or dog-people.

On the one hand, the tradition of elves and dwarves actually originates in Nordic cultures and I think it would be totally justified to include them. On the other hand, very rarely are Nordic elves and dwarves the protagonists of the great sagas. They're frequently side characters and quest givers, in most myths that I've read, and I think that's where I'd slot them.

The only playable race will be human, with elves, dwarves and giants relegated to non-player character status. I think the bigger question, in a Viking-themed game, is one's cultural background – what kingdom, village or culture they hail from.

Class: Let's look at the 5th edition class list and see if there's anything especially un-Norse that leaps out right away.
  • Barbarian: Absolutely. Berserkers all day long.
  • Bard: The tradition exists, but is much less arcane trickster and more heroic skald. Could use a little re-flavor, possibly even a name change.
  • Cleric: I think so. The schism exists between the pagan-feeling druid and the traditionally Christian-influenced cleric. That being said, I think lumping the entire Norse religion into one class, along with nature worship, feels off. I think a distinction could be made. Hell, maybe even the Christianization of Scandinavia could be explored.
  • Druid: Druids have a place, I think, in a setting based on northern Europe.
  • Fighter: The fighter and the rogue work everywhere.
  • Monk: This is the first one that really seems to clash with the aesthetic. I think monk's are getting the axe, but like, a cool Viking axe, though. This axe.
  • Paladin: This one's a toss up, too. The cleric makes sense to me, assuming they're less the “power-of-Christ” cleric and more the Norse godi, but there's practically no tradition of the crusading knight, the blackguard or really even the Green-Knight-esque warden. Like, if the Christian influence becomes a real thing, I could see something like this, but I'm leaning towards “no.”
  • Ranger: I think so. Not a huge tradition, but I think the hunter/tracker is generically European enough that it could fit here.
  • Rogue: Absolutely. The rogue fits everywhere.
  • Sorcerer, Warlock & Wizard: The elephant in the room. I don't think arcane magic's got any place in the setting at all. The existence of clerics & druids predicates divine magic, but magic deriving from somewhere besides from the gods feels strange and un-Norse to me. It may grieve some players, but I think I'm gonna lose arcane magic. Maybe reflavor the bard as a divine caster, as a skald?
That being said, I don't think that necessarily means this is a low magic setting. The Norse actually have one of the few mythologies that stipulates extraplanar travel. It might be cool to have the Nine Realms more accessible – have the world speckled with portals to Jotunheim, Muspelheim, Alfheim and such. Maybe that's the justification for monsters and magic in the world?

An unseasonal winter can sweep over a country because a gate to Jotunheim was opened nearby? A mountain becomes a volcano when a gate to Muspelheim opens beneath the range? Elves and dwarves have only entered the world through these gates and trade and war with mankind?

I mean, this could be extended even further. What if the sky is actually Yggdrasil's branches, the stars are fruit, dangling from those branches? That's going a little nuts, but would defeat the idea this is a fiercely historical world and embrace the fantasy nature of the setting.

That's not bad for a lunch break's worth of worldbuilding, I think. Who knows if I'll ever return to this, but now I'm gonna be thinking about vikings and frost giants and shit all during my afternoon shift.

It's a well-established fact that everything's better with Vikings.