Book Review: Northlands by Dan Voyce and Open Design

What is it about the frozen north that has always been so enticing to explorers? The danger? The sense of the unknown? The fact that you will die unless you keep your wits about you and prepare for the worst? Or could it be myths and legends of the Norsemen who not only survived, but thrived in that unforgiving environment?

Personally, I think it’s the challenge of going where humankind obviously isn’t made to survive easily. And in roleplaying terms, there’s a lot to be said for the allure of places we’re not supposed to go. In a fantasy or pulp setting, there’s that need to be the first to discover some new place, beast, or item, or rediscover something ancient mankind has forgotten about.

Northlands by author Dan Voyce captures that sense of frozen mystery beautifully, weaving in myths and legends of the Norse traditions and adding plenty of magic. But what’s always kept me curious is the dagger dangling above the heads of gods and monsters alike… Ragnarok. It’s an apocalyptic event where many major gods will die and a new world with new and reborn gods will be left in its wake. I was very interested to see how this book took that into consideration.

The Northlands is not a kind place. You either fight for everything you need and want or die trying. Even good and evil are mostly set aside for the “might is right” philosophy, and yet the boundaries between order and chaos must still be maintained. The gods know this and are watching. As a result, there is a place for heroes and villains both grand and terrible. I can’t imagine a world that contains the wisdom of Odin, the strength of Thor, and the trickery of Loki without PCs and PCs fighting for the very same things.

The amount of research that went into the writing of Northlands is impressive. The background information alone, from the customs of the North and a discussion of the sagas and stories to draw inspiration from to the little things like a sidebar discussion of lucky Norse numbers – Threes and Nines showing up as lucky and powerful throughout the mythology. It’s a stunning amount of useful information to fill the gaps for players and gamemaster’s alike.

The bits integrating the Northlands with the rest of Midgard is similarly impressive. I love the “Twenty Reasons to Go Raiding” section, which offers quotes and adventure fodder to take Northmen to the rest of Midgard and back again. An enterprising GM should be able to easily mine Northlands for a variety of adventures to keep even the parties with serious wanderlust busy for quite a while.

And here’s the thing. That’s just the first chapter. Other chapters dive into the legends and details of Thule, the continent detailed in Northlands. From the Bleak Expanse of the far north to Krakowa in the south and the Uttermost Sea to the Plains of Rhos Kurgan, I think adventurers will have more than a little traveling to do.

Once you know generally what lies on the map, you must have information about the people who occupy those places. And it wouldn’t do to have regular humans and other races just wandering around untouched by the landscape. No, these are a people built to live in these harsh conditions. From the Kazzakhs wandering free to the Donneren seeking trouble wherever they land, from the small bands of Skraelings alone on the ice to the Trylleri worshiping the Vanir from the forests, fjords, plains and valley safe from attack from their seafaring brethren. And then there’s the Hyperboreans who are either Dayborn or Nightborn, depending on when they were born in their lost tropical world at the north pole, and the Reaver Dwarves or Trollkins…

Rune stone, Jursta, Södermanland, Sweden

Image by Swedish National Heritage Board via Flickr

Like the races available, the major classes available have also been tweaked somewhat to suit the setting. Barbarians, Bards, Clerics, Monks, Oracles, Sorcerers, and Witches gain new class features and powers to befit the frozen north. I especially appreciate the tweaks to the Barbarian class to include more totemized abilities. For instance, a Barbarian may follow the “Bear Shirt,” “Wolf Berserker,” or “Raging Rider” Rage Paths
to grant them abilities from their particular totems. The “Bear Chested” power lets the Barbarian swell in size to be one size larger than they are normally. I’d hate to run into one of those guys in a fight!

If you prefer spellcasters, don’t worry there’s plenty to like there as well. For instance, in a world as harsh as this you’d expect a NPC or PC to carry a grudge wouldn’t you? Grudge Magic embodies that tit for tat approach to banes and hexes as taught by the old gods and creatures of the wild. But don’t get too comfortable using it, as it involves some interesting twists of fate for the caster as well as the target. Also included is Rune Magic, which is awesome. Runes can be invoked to do provide a variety of bonuses to statistics, skills, and temporary abilities. These work something like Clerical magic, but can be used by any class.

Also included are new incantations plus quite a few new spells and magic items. A good friend of mine could have used “Not This Day!” back in college (he was famous for shouting “NOT TODAY!” and then failing to do whatever it was he was crowing about such as scoring in foosball or pool). The idea of preventing a particular type of harm for a single day so that any damage taken becomes nonlethal is brilliant. The downside is that you can only have one of these spells active per day, so you’re still affected by everything else – but it might just save your life! Or it might not. It’s a “fickle finger of fate” kind of thing.

Ultimately Northlands provides everything you could possibly need to play a campaign (or just an adventure) in the far north of Midgard. Though there are plenty of seeds for adventures, I would have liked to have seen a potential starting point for a game somewhere on the continent of Thule. And a larger glossary of Norse terms such as Vanir, Norns, Ragnarok, and such would have been useful as well. There is a short “Northern Glossary” in the first chapter, but it didn’t hit everything I was looking for. That said, I was able to find the rest with a trusty dictionary and a link to Wikipedia, so that too is a minor nit.

The artwork and layout is again stellar from Open Design. From the gorgeous yet intense ice maiden with her polar bears on the full color cover from artist Aaron Miller to the crisp black and white images scattered throughout the book by W.G. Collingswood, Rick Hershey, Arthur Rackham, and Carl Wahlborn, my only wish was for more art between the covers. And Crystal Frasier continues her streak of beautiful, clean layout design from cover to cover.

Though I didn’t learn much more about Ragnarok in this book, my hope would be that we see smaller adventure books (and hooks) start to surface as Midgard continues to take shape. Though I love these big books from Open Design, I’m addicted to the backstory behind these places and want to know more. Adventures or even some fiction set in the frozen realms of Thule would be a great addition to help flesh out some of these broad areas we’re learning about.

If you’ve ever wanted to play a Viking, now is your chance. Northlands by Dan Voyce and the Open Design team has opened up an entire world of cold, unforgiving gods, monsters, and environment. Can your characters survive? Or will they become giant fodder or humanoid ice cubes? Check it out at RPGNow or DriveThruRPG today!

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