Yggdrasill Invades Keltia

KeltiaSometime ago I participated in a Bundle of Holding drive concerning Cubicle 7’s translated game products. I went in for the first tier alone, because the majority of the Bonus Collection contained the entirety of the Yggdrasill line which I already owned. I was interested in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, however, because of an idea I had to run Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a game. What I missed out on by avoiding the Bonus Collection was the only existing English-language supplement to Keltia, Avalon. For some reason, it wasn’t till recently when I sat down with Keltia and read it in its entirety.

Of immediate use to Yggdrasill gamers is what Keltia has to say about its relation to its progenitor. Keltia shares the Yggdrasill game system, with some modifications that it details in an appendix. But I sense that there might be even more changes than what are specified therein. The Yggdrasill player benefits from a close reading of the entire text, including the rules section. Perhaps because of the fresh format, rules seem clarified. And I believe that there are some additions (a bonus to damage from a head butt as given in the weapons chart, for example, or weather modifications on movement).

This might be an error, but I noticed there still are some copies for sale on Amazon. I’m testing the waters and fishing for one: I ordered a copy, just to have a second physical rules manual at the table. And it of course would be more thematically appropriate to have available to the group if I ever were to run that Gawain game. But it has been a few days now and the book has not shipped. I suspect that Amazon will learn that they need to update their files, that they might no longer have the authority to sell such a thing.

The campaign material is a pleasure to read, in tone and content reminding me very much of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. As with the “nations” of Yggdrasill, the well-known knights and nobles of legend have been rearranged and occluded so that GMs and players should feel empowered to explore and create their own Arthurian canons. Granted, I would have found most of this entirely unnecessary if I hadn’t recently experienced myself using the campaign materials in Yggdrasill as background for even my Beowulf campaign! One would think Beowulf would provide all that is required. I guess it does, but I appreciated what the backdrop of Halfdan, Frodi and jarl Regin did as far as deepening the story–at least for campaign play.

As I might have mentioned in a previous post, my Yggdrasill players are interested in exploring the official campaign, and I’m willing to run this for them. However, as was pointed out in my favorite review, large portions of at least the introductory adventure seem really boring, particularly the second movement, which appears to be entirely subsumed in investigation and politicking that is unlikely to interest any player. A new experience for me will be the experience of adapting this material for use at my particular table.

If I anticipate the need to revise this Yggdrasill material, I expect it will be downright essential were I ever to run the introductory “adventure” as presented in Keltia. I imagine that the game designers test out their material on someone, and if the Keltia play test was well received, I would value the opportunity to get a sense of the culture of that gaming group. The reason is because the adventure appears to ignore many pieces of advice or guidelines that GMs have received over the years.

The pieces of advice that most prominently spring to mind are three: players tend to enjoy physical conflicts, ideally in the form of combats; players aren’t very good at internalizing or comprehending a large amount of information; and players need to be the heroes — or the main point — of the story or adventure. The problems with the Keltia scenario are 1. There are only two conflicts, maybe just one. There are some bandits that need to be chased away from a princess at the beginning of the adventure. And there are some guards or spies that perhaps must be engaged at the end of the adventure (ideally, though, the PCs and the one whom they have in their charge at that time should sneak by these people. 2. There is a lot of information in this adventure, and it’s difficult to determine how any of it really is relevant. The heart of the adventure is a council in which Arthur is proclaimed the new High King of Ynys Prydein. The adventure goes to great length to explain just where a multitude of noble characters are seated, who they are, to whom they are related, what their interests are, and just what their seating says about their power and positions. Exhausting! I’m not sure what player can comprehend it all — especially after getting through the already formidable obstacle of the Gaelic/Welsh names — much less care! To add to this, the adventure provides a chart of Perception STs and what PCs will recognize about the NPCs based on NPC reactions to a number of things that are said at the council. And this brings up a tangential and foregone objection: this scene is very much railroaded. The PCs aren’t at the council to do anything. They are there as spectators only. Arthur is going to be proclaimed High King, and some nobles are going to be angry about it. That’s it. 3. This third point has already been begun. The PCs are not the point of the adventure: Arthur is. The PCs have no further role other than to witness Arthur’s ascension to High King and then to protect him and smuggle him out of the Caer and away from his enemies. The adventure is open about how this is a “railroad” and that players must either “buy in” or be tricked into this scenario or that there is no adventure; the campaign is already over. This is at odds with the only way I know how to run a game: set up the scenario, the environment, the factors, the powers at play, and see what happens. Because, as many GMs other than me have said, you never can predict what a player will do.

So, even though I’m not going to be running this official Keltia adventure anytime soon, I am encountering similar formulations in the proposed Yggdrasill material. The experiment for me will be to adapt the “adventures” into “starting scenarios” and “see what happens.” Anyone familiar with the Yggdrasill official campaign might be interested in what I discover.

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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.