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.

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Yggdrasill Meets Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design

IMG_0027Elsewhere I have expressed my admiration for Matt Finch’s writing, especially for his work on Swords & Wizardry and his Tome of Adventure Design. I’m about to get back into the GM driver’s seat this coming Monday, and I decided it was time to generate some ideas — some adventure hooks and possibilities in case I needed something quick if the action were to grow stale. So I reached for my Tome of Adventure Design (rather, I opened up iBooks) and drew a handful of dice out of my dicebag.

What I’m running next Monday is Yggdrasill. Yes, the plan had been to playtest ONOSR for the Beowulf campaign, but no matter how much you modify Swords & Wizardry — as I did to create ONOSR — it really is a form of D&D. And my group is playing a very fine D&D game on alternating Mondays. I myself am “polygamerous”: I simply didn’t feel like running yet another D&D game. I also sensed that my players were missing Yggdrasill, so…

I originally designed the Beowulf campaign for Yggdrasill. The trouble occurred when I began to imagine possibilities for broadcasting my work beyond the confines of my blog and my home game. I’m guessing Yggdrasill is a fairly protected intellectual property, so I felt creatively challenged in the event that I were to invest considerable time and energy into it. Swords & Wizardry, alternatively, as I’m sure no one need be reminded, is within the wide umbrella of the Open Game License. I also found Swords & Wizardry attractive when I started to scale the power structures of, say, PCs versus Monsters like Grendel. Thus ONOSR was born.

Nonetheless, Yggdrasill is a very fine system. It was my first love when it comes to Norse-themed rpgs, and it remains my favorite, so I decided to, after all, try to run the Beowulf campaign as originally conceived. We’ll see how these Yggdrasill characters do against Grendel, his Mother, and, perhaps eventually a Dragon!

But, as I said at the beginning of this post, I needed some ideas for what might occur to the PCs on their way to Hleidra, wherein is the Golden Hall cursed with Grendel. So, as I said, I reached for the Tome of Adventure Design.

The Tome clearly is most particularly designed for traditional fantasy rpgs such as D&D, but my recent experience with it showed that it can, to a considerable degree, be “system agnostic.” The Scandian world of Yggdrasill departs from traditional frpgs through its particularly naturalistic tone. It is what can be termed a “low magic setting.” Yet some of the tables in the Tome suggest towers of high wizardry and entire nations of bizarre creatures living right next door to the humans. Nonetheless, what follows is a list of what I generated using Finch’s adventure idea tables and then how I interpreted my results in consideration of the Scandian setting.

Skeleton-Cairn
Location – Stage raid upon Docks
Individual – Guard/protect Messenger
Puzzle-Tomb
Living Asylum of the Gluttonous Horde
Below ground Fane of the Master Wasps
Contaminated Mill of the Carnal Father
Fossilized Pyramid of the Vampiric Demon
Spider-Garden
Storm-Harbor
Event – Escape from Duel (Addict-Music)
Location – Capture and hold Docks for Ambassador

I crossed out “Puzzle-Tomb” and “Capture and hold Docks” because of redundancy, preferring, for my purposes, “Skeleton-Cairn” and “Stage raid upon Docks.” This also brought my results to a neat ten, a simple ten-sided roll if I wanted a random result. Of course, there is no reason I couldn’t roll a d12, but I liked the sense of appropriateness, Yggdrasill being a game that uses almost exclusively d10s. Then came my favorite part of being a GM and writer — the “dreaming.” Yes, what I rolled are, in essence, “writing prompts,” but what is most exciting about these is that I might actually get to use them rather than scribbling about them in my garret of an indifferent world. Here’s what they became:
1
The PCs are told of a “Dvergr Haug.” It might contain dwarf weapons. (It does not, just the smallish bones of a man and a woman in garments of desiccated hides. Beside them are bone and horn weapons and utensils.)
2
In Klepp, someone approaches the PCs inviting them into a raid on some ships loaded with local timber. The aim is to steal the ships and drive off any pursuit. “It’s not right that all of that costly timber should be leaving the area to build a foolhardy hall on some bit of rock of an island!” Will pay in silver.
3
An individual wants to be protected from a family who does not want him to bring word to a new wife’s family that she is being mistreated. Husband doesn’t want to lose the dowry. Messenger has been followed into town.
4
In one of the towns, more and more people are being infected with gluttony. It is a curse that is spreading into the town because someone shot a stag out of the nearby Alfwood. Some human sacrifices need to be hanged in the wood for propitiation.
5
Beneath a field of clover is a massive bee hive, tended by Volva who brew from it mead that augments skills of prophecy and poetry. The local jarl wants to export it, and there is increasing tension between the jarl and the Volva.
6
A mill (and the grain it grinds) has been cursed, because the miller had relations with his own daughter. All the grain makes people sick with morbid hallucinations. An evil spirit needs to be driven out of the mill.
7
In the center of a forest is an ancient, petrified ash tree. In its hollow core lives a troll that is said to flap out at night and suck the blood from sleeping people.
8
It is said that a Volva harvests the webs from a thousand spiders that visit her garden each night. From them she spins garments of supple but strong fiber.
9
It is said that a hammer fell out of the sky one night and broke a hole in a longship returning from a raid. The ship was loaded with silver, but divers have not been able to find it (nor the hammer — or the meteorite — that punctured the hull of the ship).
0
A young man who absolutely loves poetry and music asks the PCs to help him sneak away from a duel. He offended, in his drunkenness, a massive Viking who believes his own verses are the best ever. In the young man’s drunkenness, he agreed to holmgang, but now he admits he is a coward and will pay anything to be helped away.

This experience caused me to ponder just how far the Tome can be stretched into radically different genres. So far I’m certain it can be, because the results of course are about what the entries might evoke rather than the literal interpretation of the readings. If I ever create my “Diver” campaign for the Traveller system, it will be fun to use the Tome’s location and Dungeon Design tables to generate abandoned spacecraft. I’m certain the entries will translate beautifully.

Postscript

Incidentally, restarting my Yggdrasill campaign brought me by the Cubicle 7 forums, wherein I learned that Cubicle 7 no longer will be supporting Yggdrasill nor any of the other games it has had in English translation from Le 7eme Cercle. There is a suggestion that the Cercle might find its own means to translate its games into English and thereby continue its lines. But in the meantime it appears likely that Yggdrasill and some fantastic others (Keltia and Qin, for example) might be going the way of the Dead Games Society . Get your copies while you can!