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.