The Surprising Tenacity of Yggdrasill

Some time ago I wrote for Blackgate magazine that GMs must be very careful about what games they introduce to new rpg players, because (and I especially liked this image) players will chew into a system and live there like termites. I expressed this because of all the other games that I was buying and wanted to play while my players remained perfectly (and perhaps stubbornly) content with Yggdrasill. And lately I’ve come to wonder if I, too, need not run anything else for a long, long time.

I ran Swords & Wizardry for a few murderous sessions, then was perfectly happy to let a friend run an AD&D 1e game instead. I alternate, week by week, my Yggdrasill game with his. I belatedly helped Kickstart Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of and backed Jeffrey Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (as of this date expected to ship in October). And, after reflecting on how deeply meaningful Tolkien has been for my entire life, and remembering how formative MERP was on my younger gaming self, I ordered the hardback of The One Ring. I’ve been reading reams of stuff that Modiphius has been loading into my backerkit during this First Wave of Conan merchandise, and slowly I have moved from anticipation for running the 2d20 system, from envy for those who are already playing it, to casual indifference as I turn, again and again, to this somewhat odd, now-out-of-print game called Yggdrasill.

I think I’ve determined three reasons why Yggdrasill just won’t let me go. The first is my players. They genuinely like the game. They also like making sums out of large numbers. They don’t mind mechanical wonkiness. Yggdrasill is not the cleanest, most streamlined game out there. Read this hilarious review about the mechanical imperfections (and ignore the bit about how the game ignores the historical, cultural aspersions cast on males who practice sorcery — it doesn’t!). What is described in this review is very close to the experience we have at the table. And we like it. I’ve started to bring cheap calculators to the table, scratch pads upon which to write every number we generate just in case we need it for a secondary action or to refer to how much we exceeded a success threshold. I now hand players glass beads to keep track of weapon and armour damage. We still don’t use combat Feats all that often. And yet I like it. And I still find the mechanics inspiring and creative enough that I continue to tinker with them. I continue to write new things for this rules set.

The things I like about the game aren’t radically different from many other systems. My players like the exploding dice. Other games, of course, use exploding dice. It’s perhaps not necessary to explain what we like about this feature: most probabilities can be anticipated, unless a die explodes, and especially when an exploding die explodes (and then even explodes again?). This allows a person of nearly every power level to sometimes, unexpectedly, land a particularly vicious blow or achieve a spectacular result.

Other mechanical features seem more nuanced. Let’s start with the Characteristics. We all know these. I think the six of them in D&D typically are called Attributes. It’s slightly interesting to compare how many Characteristics, Attributes, or whatever other synonym various games use to determine what these say about the “head space” or the priorities of the game designers. What qualities are left out, for example, or what qualities are included? What is the ordering of the qualities? I happened to notice that the ordering of Attributes in D&D changed from AD&D to 3rd ed, clearly a progression from the core stats of the Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric, Thief archetypes being listed first to the privileging of all stats related to the body and then all of those related to the mind or soul.

Yggdrasill makes use of nine stats! This is the largest number of core stats that I’ve seen in a game, and I’d be curious if there is any other game out there that uses this many or more. I must emphasize that I’m talking about “core stats” and not the various derived stats that many games use — and Yggdrasill uses a fair share of these, as well. Of course, the number nine in a Norse-themed setting is poetical, a powerful number that, at the very least, stands for the Nine Worlds clustered around the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasill, which is the title of the game, after all!

These nine stats also are conveniently organized into three macro-stats — Body, Mind, and Soul. It would be tedious, I suppose, for me to elaborate on how powerfully a game’s mechanics have spoken to my meditative life — I truly believe that my absorption with this system has caused me to pray and exercise more, because I realized that I was quite developed in the Mind but heroically lacking in the Body and in the Soul. But a more relatable observation is how versatile these nine Characteristics are in gameplay.

In OSR styles of play, a lot is supposed to be contingent not so much on what a PC is doing but on how that character is doing it. This allows the player to convince the GM to allow the resolution to occur or allow, at the very least, a bonus of some kind on a roll. The nine Characteristics in Yggdrasill provides players some guidance and inspiration, allows them to play to their characters’ strengths. As an example, a character might be searching for tracks in a forest glen. The character might use her Perception, obviously, or the character might use his Instinct (to become aware of her surroundings, to guess or “feel” where a person passed recently), or the character might use his Intelligence to deduct where the creature might have walked through the glade, ideally with some knowledge of the creature. Of course, Perception is the most applicable here, but this gives some versatility and depth to different kinds of characters and how they might do things. Even in combat the game makes use of Characteristics beyond the usual contenders of Strength and Agility. These approaches to combat provide further demonstrations of this kind of application.

The third reason that I keep coming back to this game is because of its content. I keep reading Viking Age literature, and it’s no surprise that this keeps me constantly in the spirit to run this game. When I was excited for Conan, I was reading a lot of Conan and found adventure-worthy content in nearly every thing I read, including non-Conan material! Now, as I finish The Longships and Gunnar’s Daughter and A Gathering of Ravens, I’m looking for passages that I can mechanize and drop into my campaign.

My Norse-related reading is not only novels and histories but other game systems and settings. Recently, finally, Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland reduced in price during a July sale on DriveThruRPG. Now I understand why it’s one of the more expensive supplements, and I’ve been having fun pondering what elements I can steal and adapt for Yggdrasill. I still have to give Sagas of the Icelanders (a PbtA game) a closer read, and Troll Lord publishes a fairly inexpensive adventure path to accompany its Codex Nordica that should make interesting reading as soon as I feel the spirit. Even reading Modiphius’s Conan the Barbarian got me energized for Yggdrasill — it was difficult to get excited about running Conan adventures set in the Hyborian North while I’m running essentially that already! With this wealth of material and inspiration, I should be gaming with Yggdrasill for a long, long time.