Jumping right in, the first chapter - Riddles of Steel: Roleplaying in the Frozen North - explains what's so special, what's so different about games set in harsh northern areas inspired by Norseland sagas and Viking lore. The familiar cod-mediaeval or renaissance fantasy civilisations of the majority of games is replaced with a bloodier and darker mindset, never mind that the place tends to be darn cold as well! Vicious monsters abound, and those which walk on two legs live life to the full in conditions that others may see as primitive, certainly more self-sufficient than their neighbours to the south.
But it's not just a lack of urban luxury, guards to protect you from thieves and villains, and lower temperatures: the whole mind-set is different, and to get the most out of such a setting both GM and players - particularly those whose characters are native to it - will need to start thinking in a different way. Curses and prophecies vie with an ingrained fatalism, and even luck is viewed as more than mere chance. Nature features large in everyone's life, just surviving in such lands poses a great challenge even before you throw in monsters and raiders. Glory, honour, revenge are often the causes for which you might take up your sword, rather than the abstrations of 'good' or 'evil' which may motivate other men and women. A lot of this background information is provided here to empower you to capture the 'feel' of the Northlands - with everything from customs and games to the nearest thing they have to a legal system and an array of deities to worship, or at least propitiate.
Next, Chapter 2: Thule, the Last Continent, presents a gazetteer of the Northlands, replete with history and mythology to help the locations described come alive to visiting adventurers. It's a mystical place, harsh yet rich and strange, a place where legends abound and new ones can be written by those with courage, endurance and daring. Stirring stuff, perhaps such tales as inspired many an adventurer to take up that profession, even those who stick to safer lands to actually practise it.
This is followed by Chapter 3: Heroes of the North, which describes the different peoples to be found in the Northlands: human sub-races, and other humanoids. Much of this is flavour, with the actual numbers you need unchanged from regular racial details, although there are specific traits you can build in, but this is the sort of flavour which can enable players and GMs alike create and play characters who fit in to their alternate reality as if born there... as indeed perhaps they were. The information necessary for local class variants is also presented, such as new abilities for bards (often called skalds) and new domains for clerics, based as always upon their choice of patron deity. Sorcerers get a couple of new bloodlines, and then the discussion moves on to new skills and modifications to existing ones appropriate to this particular setting. There is an impressive array of new feats as well. For those wishing to fine-tune their monsters there are some monster feats than can make them more suited to the Northlands, beings of legend about which adventurers can, if they conquer them, create legends of their own.
Characters built to suit their environment need equipment to match, whilst visitors from elsewhere will need to ensure they have all they need, so the next section provides all manner of things that you might need to live, travel or adventure in the Northlands. Whether you are after a few sledge dogs, a pot of honey to attract bears with, or a set of runestones to conduct your divinations in an appropriate manner, these and more are here. Consider portage ale, a brew so potent and flavourful that having once tasted it, the average Viking will do literally anything to have some more, very useful if you have some heavy work to be done! Preferable, at least, to troll whiskey, which has been known to make trolls ill, never mind members of less-tough races.
Next, Chapter 4: Magic of the North looks at the distinctive style and flavour of magic as it is practiced in the Northlands. Never mind ritual incantations, cast your spells with mocking rhymes and shout them as challenges to your opponent, for rough and vibrant are both the mages up here and the spells that they cast. Specific styles include grudge magic - which fulfils the old saying, 'When you go to seek vengeance, first dig two graves' as it causes harm to target and caster alike, and of course rune magic, bringing the power of the ancient carved symbols to play by use of the Rune Mastery feat and tracing the shape of the desired rune either by painting it or running your fingers over an already-carved or inscribed one. Mystic strangeness to bring a real distinctive difference to spellcasting up here in these frozen lands. Quite a few more conventional spells are presented as well, but all breathing the very essence of the North across your spellbook. Steal spells from your enemy's very mind, enlarge someone's weapon to giant-size, harness the very power of Loki himself to aid your lies or worm out embarassing secrets, ir just summon up a swarm of mosquitoes to plague your enemies, all these and more can be learned. There's even a neat Level 0 one to improve your snowballing abilities... after all, mages like to play too! The chapter rounds out with an impressive array of items... items about which legends will surely be written, if they have not been already.
Chapter 5: The Frozen Land contains a wealth of additional rules to make refereeing a game in the Northlands flow. Rules to cover chases over frozen terrain, rules for coping with the unique environmental hazards the location presents. To reflect its importance to the Northern psyche, there's a system whereby Fate can play a part in a character's life story, a neat mechanic which preserves player freewill whist trapping characters in the coils of destiny.
Finally Chapter 6: Bestiary presents some mighty opponents - or potential allies - for your characters to encounter. Beware, though, there are some such in the previous chapter, such as the Splintered Stump - tucked in with rules on the effects of cold, seeing that this wicked remnant of a tree that has frozen so much that it exploded now seeks to gull passers-by into thinking it is warm, and remove their heavy clothing to freeze as the Stump sucks up their life-warmth. The book rounds out with a fine map of the area.
Written in an engaging style, often reminiscent of the Norse Sagas and clearly influenced by them, this work provides an evocative campaign setting that gathers up much of the mythology and legends that spring to mind when you mention the frozen north, packaging them into a playable whole. A bit of proof-reading would improve it, but nothing that makes it incomprehensible, just mis-spellings and logic that jars on occasion. If you want to send those soft civilised characters somewhere that will shock them, or run a campaign wholly-set in the land of the midnight sun, this will set your feet on the path of legend.
Return to Northlands page.
Reviewed: 24 April 2011