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.


  1. Sir, you have made a grave mistake. You have opened yourself to a very real danger.

    I have a passionate paean dedicated to discussing how the modern fantasy wizard is ENTIRELY an extrapolation of Norse/Germannic traditions. You, sir, have thrown down a glove, and I must accept.

    Please have your second communicate to me the best time and medium for this exchange of ideas.

    1. Please, I feel my blog could benefit from the dispensation of your wisdom on this matter. Enlighten us, if you will.

      I feel confident in my decision to exclude the traditional spellbook-carrying, spell-memorizing wizard from this setting, but am curious to hear your more reasoned argument.

    2. Vancian wizardry, it is true, is not particularly Norse - but daily spell slots and clerical-style spell prep aren't either. It's not the mechanic, it's the flavor. Pre-Christian Norse society didn't distinguish between arcane and divine magic - you're right about that much! That particular distinction is inherently about divine casters who work godly miracles (clerics) versus Merlinistic pagans who dabble in the dark arts (wizards).

      But I think it's safe to say that the modern wizard is based on Gandalf. And the wizardly archetype of Gandalf is based on Odin! Hat, robe, beard and staff, all were hallmarks of Odin as he traveled in disguise. The Norse regarded runic magic as male, and Odin was a master of that. What we call sorcery, they called seidhr, a "feminine" magic of deception and enchantment - and Odin was a master of that as well, as Loki pointed out in the Lokasenna, history's first rap battle. Seidhr also gives rise to perhaps the most badass wizards of all time - the SITH, in appearance, practice, and name, are derived from Norse mythical archetypes as well.

      Odinistic wizards are a strong component in Germannic fairy tales, and they share certain attributes. Like Odin, Gandalf, and Merlin, they rarely practice spells, although our notion of ritual chanting for spellcasting is ALSO a Norse derivation. They have certain traits in common: a mastery of disguise, appearing in different roles to different people. A broad body of lore - first and foremost, theirs is the power of wisdom (hence the word wizard). The ability to speak to almost any creature or object, from which they derive their wisdom. The ability to produce light, and, more rarely, flame. And finally, the ability to circumvent forbidden barriers - doors, locks, walls - and travel where they will.

      These wizardly traits are held in common by all wizards of the Norse archetype, and also by the Doctor in Doctor Who, which is why I insist on calling him a wizard as well. Notably, they are ALSO all abilities which a 9th-level 3.5 wizard is capable of. Some wizardly abilities in myth overlap with the archetype of the druid, because that sort of distinction is modern folly, but I promise you, if you replace their books with runic staves and wands (which might explain the Vancian casting, if spells are stored in such items, and the release of the spell shatters the stick), there is NO D & D class more Norse than a wizard.

      Except a barbarian, because, c'mon.

    3. As I anticipated, you make a convincing argument.

      You covered my rebuttal – I'd sorta assumed the Odinic, shamanist wanderer to fall in line with the druid – with the shapechanging and the weather-magic and what not – but I hear what you're saying about the legit Norse nature of the "wizard." I think, at the very least, the re-flavoring of spell books and ancient texts for runic inscriptions and standing stones would be required before I'd consent to a wizard class. The sorcerer and the warlock, though, are right-out, no matter how Teutonic Faust might appear.

      I think making a clear distinction between masculine and feminine forms of magic (or rather, runic and seidhr) would be the way to go. Do you think it would be too simple to call runic magic "divine" and seidhr "arcane" magic, for the purposes of clarity in the setting?

      Similarly, I guess I'm not wild about the idea of wizards running around willy-nilly in this setting. Perhaps it's too much to preclude them entirely, but I feel it should be strongly implied that wizarding PCs are the exception, rather than the rule. You wouldn't find wizarding colleges, for example, but you might have a few old masters, in remote locations, that could teach you a few charms or curses, Odin-style.

      If we incorporate the wizard, though, it does maybe orphan the druid. Possibly make a distinction between a monotheistic Christian-Jewish-Islamic cleric versus a polytheistic pagan druid? Would you make a cleric of Odin or a druid of Odin? Questions, questions.

    4. I definitely think rune-sticks rather than spellbooks is the way to go, and yes, they should be rare, figures of some superstitious clout and omen - "Gandalf Stormcrow," etc.

      I don't feel it orphans the druid, either - the traditions have things in common, but a seidhr-man has less care for nature, or the seasons. That magic is acquisitive, not balancing.

      I am not sure either runic magic or seidhr are clearly one or the other. Norse myth suggests seidhr is originally the magic of the Vanir, and runes are lore of the Aesir, both powers united in Odin. The arcane-divine divide simply isn't appropriate. You could, perhaps, say that clerics and wizards are servants of the gods, and wizards, using runes or seithr, are selfish, free agents, but the power is rooted in natural understanding, passed on by the gods but not innate to them. To the Norse, as with many "pagan" people, magic was a science of the hidden world, and the distinction is illusory. Personally, I would simply stress that whether cleric, druid, or wizard, the difference was one of attitude and aim, not of essence. Any of the three could be godi or seithr.

    5. I think that makes the most sense, yeah. Focus on intention, rather than source of power.

      This'll teach me to worldbuild from the hip, without doing my proper research.

  2. I actually played, a few years back, an illusionist who was focused on the idea of being a classical wizard - slipping past boundaries, hiding himself, speaking to things, and making light - and I have to say i've never been more satisfied with a caster, not even my mongolian taoist halfling wolfrider druid whose gambling and fortunetelling were more important to him than adventuring.