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.

Beowulf Playtest Complete!

IMG_0037Well, I completed my playtest for the Beowulf game using the Yggdrasill system. A quick note: since Cubicle 7 has let go of the license on this game, and since the game now is officially out of print, I see the price of the hardcover has been gouged on Amazon from around $50 to $250. I hope those sellers don’t get what they’re asking! I hope that Le 7eme Cercle republishes the game, perhaps with a new translation, and that those who missed out on it this time around are able to enjoy yet a better edition. One unfortunate gamer reported on the Cubicle 7 forums that his/her Yggdrasill record in his/her DriveThruRPG wishlist suddenly vanished. Now this person would be willing to purchase the entire line if only given the chance. I myself have wished that I hadn’t bought the entire line at full price but had been lucky enough to find this game while the Humble Bundle drive was going on! Argh! Oh, well. I guess I was able to directly support the game while it lasted.

Not unexpectedly, the Beowulf playtest was a bit wonky, but overall I think it worked out alright. This “wonkiness” was the reason why I initially had given up using Yggdrasill to make a con game and instead had devised my own Old Norse Old School Roleplaying system. It was much easier to grasp the power structures of the simulation using the lingua franca of the gaming community. But as you might recall, being perfectly satisfied with a D&D game being run by a friend of mine, I didn’t want to run yet more D&D with my home group, so instead went back to Yggdrasill when it came time to retell Beowulf. (Aside: my group has interest in playing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea when I get the hardcopy of the second edition expected to ship this October; perhaps that game is sufficiently different enough from D&D — at least in setting — to justify two of those games being run.)

In regards to the wonkiness of Yggdrasill, one of my players summed up the issues with Yggdrasill perfectly. At first glance, the core mechanic of the game is quite simple. Roll pools of d10s attributed to your Characteristics for any kind of skill test, add any relevant Skill if applicable, beat a Difficulty threshold. But, once you start manipulating this core mechanic in any appreciable way, as the game does, very quickly you are dealing with large numbers and math problems complex enough to slow down the simulation. Are you performing a Feat? Well, you have to take a negative modifier to your Test based on the level of the Feat — and, while you’re at it, are you sure the Feat’s effect is worth the penalty that otherwise might be just straight damage to your target resulting from an excess value required to make your test? And some Feats and specific attacks require you subtract or add your Characteristic value. And dice explode on tens, so sometimes the rolls are wildly (and lethally) successful, and sometimes they are pathetic. And sometimes, for some game applications, tens just don’t explode. And there are plenty of gaps and openings for interpretation for this rules set, either by design, by overlooked omission, or through ambiguities in the language translation to make this game (as I have described it in a different place) “old school” in flavor (as long as we focus on a definition of the old school that few groups of gamers played the same game the same way).

Anyway, thanks to this playtest I think I have the Beowulf game reduced to manageable parameters. Contrary to what I told Gaming and BS, I have generated pregens. The pregens might be a bit statistically powerful, whereas the characters in my homegame had a number of toys to aid them (i.e., buckets of healing unguents). When I initially drafted the adventure, I included a number of encounters and possibilities that simply have to be cut for a time allotment of 4-6 hours, and I believe this benefits the game, because it reduces the action and story down to (just about) the central elements in the poem. I think the session will be good fun, should anyone sign up, even if it might not make more game adherents–an ideal one-shot experience for a con. And potential consumers no longer are able to buy the game anyway (for anything less than $250, that is!).

Epilogue to a TPK: What Happens to the Hireling?

For the third time that night, still standing upright, Dollen jerked awake. The donkey again was stamping its hooves and emitting that low, unearthly whine. That sound made Dollen’s beard stand out like a weather rod. The night had grown yet colder, and now flurries were melting on Dollen’s cheeks. “There there,” the dwarf said, placing an attempt at a soothing hand on the donkey’s flank. “Your owners will be back soon, and then we’ll be out for a mite to drink.”

Yes, a drink. At this time on any other night Dollen would be in Rok’s Tavern hoping for beer charity from the more prosperous denizens of Black Rock. He had hoped tonight to be paying back his friends and making new ones with the fifteen gold this odd band of adventurers had promised him for one night’s service — yes, the onerous service of watching the cart and donkey. Cart Watcher, they had called him, and left him here with a new mace that they had purchased for no other reason than that he had said he wanted it and because he was expected to die while protecting the cart and donkey. But now the work wasn’t feeling as posh as it first had seemed. The valley below him was dark, so dark he believed he could see heat traces in whatever forest animals might now be hunting within those branches. It seemed unlikely, now, that the band would be making the trip back to Black Rock this night, once his employers came out of that hole.

Grunting, he went back into the old ruined Guild Hall, temporarily sheltered from the biting wind. If his employers’ absence kept up, he supposed, he should untether the animal and lead it in here. But he didn’t want to make too many decisions on his own. An odd group, they were. Scattering gold in their wakes as if they were kings. He stood at the top of the stairway again and peered down into its inky depths. Nothing. The pitch smell of his employers’ torches, by this time, had faded to the smell of a cold forge. He strained his ears. Did he hear something? Perhaps a distant cry? No, just the donkey again emitting its terror to the night. This was not how Dollen had expected to spend his night. Perhaps he should have been more specific in the terms of his agreement. It occurred to him now that he didn’t even have a contract.

He stepped back outside. “There now, Jasper. We’ll get ourselves out of this wind.” But the donkey couldn’t be settled. It seemed to want to bolt, and that would be bad with it still tethered to the cart.

The cart. He thought he heard a sound come from within it, something like the exhalation of great nostrils. They had seen a great cat earlier that day, during their climb. It made sense that cold wooden cart walls would occlude the heat signature from Dollen’s darkvision.

Poor Dollen. As his grip tightened on his brand new mace, glowing green eyes rose up from within the cart and looked down at him from behind a wide mouth of sharp, feline teeth. The donkey tried to run, the great cat leapt into the air.

Reading the Runes: In Praise of RPG GM Mechanics

IMG_0031If you have been following me at all, more than once you have heard me whine about all the rules crunch in games like Pathfinder. You’ve heard me complain about how some rules and too many rules tend to allow minmaxing players to ruin games. But today I’m singing a different tune. Today I’m praising game mechanics, and I’m lauding the type of game mechanics that are made available to gamemasters.

What got me thinking about it was my last session of Yggdrasill during my return to the GM chair (my I had missed it!), and how something I had done had felt a little bit off. I need to foreground some of the following considerations by giving some background about just how much, for a Norse-themed game such as Yggdrasill, I have made Runes a mechanical aspect of my game. Well, let’s start with how Yggdrasill, rules as written, uses the runes. At character creation, players roll three times on three tables that each contain a set of eight runes. These results are recorded on the player’s character sheet and serve two functions. The first function is for roleplaying: the runes help the player determine a background story and personality for her character. The second function is for mechanics: during gameplay, if the player ever apprehends a moment wherein a particular rune attached to his character might serve as a benefit for that character, the rune translates into a mechanical bonus to a skill test or action; likewise, the GM might invoke a negative rune as a penalty to a character’s test. That’s about it for Yggdrasill’s rules as written. I expanded this aspect by introducing a bag of actual runestones to my table. When the Seidr-using character (a type of magic-user) “throws down the bones,” she draws three runes from the bag and interprets the results in any way she wants, and, depending on her skill test roll, this might influence game narrative. For my very first adventure using the system, the adventure called “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” I decided to draw runes out of the bag, one by one, at significant “beats” during the story. If the rune Thurisaz ever was drawn, the undead giant in the cave complex would make his appearance. I decided to expand on this principle during later free-form sandbox campaign play. At the beginning of each session I drew three runes, and I “interpreted” these runes to aid me in determining what elements should be involved in that night’s session. Finally, I have incorporated the runes into random tables and even a mass combat rules system, which, for the curious, can be reviewed here.

Last session I had decided to skip the custom of drawing runes for narrative beats or elements, even as one of my players, by now habituated to the custom, offered me the bag. Perhaps that should have been a clue that I was neglecting a worthwhile ritual. Now, after the session, I think I should have been thinking about the runes more as I plunged my characters directly into the action.

Having been away from the campaign for so long, I started the adventure in media res. Thunder boomed. Lightning sizzled. The PCs were trying to rescue their jarl from being the victim of human sacrifice to a land spirit. They had to battle a necromancer who was being assisted by a fair number of hirdmen. The PCs chose, for the most part, to focus on the “Extras,” the “henchmen,” who were screening the necromancer from the PCs. This went on for a bit, and, in time, I decided that the villain should plunge his knife into the jarl’s breast.

I made my NPC make a Very Difficult Seidr test, and he succeeded. A major, recurring NPC, an ally of the PCs, was abruptly and spectacularly dead. In fact, this was the third major NPC to die during this fittingly brutal Norse campaign. But, unlike the other deaths I had impelled, something about how I had conducted this one felt “unfair,” not quite right. And it wasn’t until the calm reflection of postgame analysis that I understood why this was.

My action hadn’t been determined in any way mechanically. Now, there are many gamers in the OSR community who argue for a concept referred to as “GM trust” and that these kinds of arbitrary decisions are entirely fair. In many cases, I presume, they are. If PCs don’t manage to do something, then a consequence should result. And in this case my PCs hadn’t managed to get to the most threatening target in a suitable number of rounds. Nonetheless, it was me who had determined how many “thugs” the most dangerous NPC would have on hand to function as shields. And I hadn’t even concretely decided beforehand how many rounds this NPC would need to complete his dire ritual. My rulings all were quite arbitrary, and I wondered if I had unwittingly set up my PCs for failure, if I had in fact “railroaded” the situation.

In hindsight I realized that I had had a device — a very fitting device — for playing this scene out better: the Runes. As with the undead giant in a previous adventure, I should have begun drawing runes out of the bag and interpreting them in light of the ritual being performed and the PC actions. Yggdrasill considers many Runes indisputably negative in relation to the PCs, some positive, and others ambiguous. This would have seemed more fair, even more dynamic. Now I wish I had remembered it in time, and I’ll purpose to keep it in mind going forward.

One of the games I’m very much looking forward to running has a similar mechanic baked right into its core rules system. This is Modiphius’s Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. In that game the GM has a resource called Doom, and these points can be used to complicate the narrative and buff NPCs. Now, the PCs also have their own resources — Momentum and Fate. Having recently run Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rpg, which is designed by the same person who crafted Modiphius’s 2d20 system, I experienced a bit of the interplay between these kinds of GM resources vs. PC resources. In the case of Star Wars, these resources were Light Side Points (for the PCs) and Dark Side Points (for the GM). As I’ve indicated above, I think I tend to enjoy these kinds of mechanics because it gives the GM some justification for bringing the hurt to the players. The dual resources are part of the game. They make the storytelling appear much less arbitrary or mean-spirited.

So next time I’m at the Yggdrasill table, I’ll be sure to be drawing more often from the rune bag. Skol!