This Player’s guide for the massive Northlands Saga Player’s Guide clocks in at 50 pages if you ignore SRD, advertisement, editorial, etc. My review is based on the dead tree version, which comes as a nice softcover. I was a backer of the Northlands Saga kickstarter, but other than that not involved in any way with this project.
So, how do we start? We start by contextualizing the Northlands and their myths – inspired by real life mythology from Scandinavia, a central leitmotif and proposition of the series was to get the feeling of the Northlands right – and, indeed, flavor-wise, the pdf begins pretty much from the get-go to do just that, presenting us with an angle that is certainly inspired by the traditional myths from our very own world, but which, at the same time, takes a different approach, putting the cultural implications and ramifications into a fantastic context, namely that of the Lost Lands, Frog God Games’ evocative own setting.
This process is achieved by first discussing mentality and races, or rather, ethnicities: There are two basic human ethnicities within these realms, the Northlanders and the Seagestrelanders. Beyond these, a quasi-Inuit theme is transported via the race of the Nûklanders, the elves of the frigid tundra, who also have their own traditions and culture – from religion to daily life, the realities of the life for people in these harsh climates are explained to the players, their stances towards adventuring, religion, etc. generating a sense of familiarity while at the same time estranging the reader from them. It should be noted that the strong emphasis on theme and culture, on the roleplaying aspects of the game, is very much crucial for the enjoyment of the series. In the case of e.g. Nûklanders, we have minor variations of the racial abilities the race would otherwise receive.
Once we take a look a the new races, this aspect becomes immediately non-optional. The first would be the giant-blooded, who gets +4 Str, +2 Con, -2 Dex and Cha, is Large, has a movement rate of 40 ft., low-light vision, +1 natural armor AND a reach of 10 feet. This makes them, in particularly in the gritty playstyle championed by the environment, utterly OP. The troll-born share a similar fate, gaining +2 Str, +4 Con, -2 Cha, gain ferocity, 2 1d4 claws and the ability to eat anything, which can be rather potent in sch an environment. Sure, they take +1 fire damage per die, but yeah. Compared to the standard races, they share the fate of being lopsided, geared towards martial traditions and exceeding the power-level of the base races by quite a bit.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I understand it. Our very own lore is saturated with beings, ostensibly of these bloodlines, committing great deeds and their themes are deeply ingrained in the cultural context. Similarly, it is made very clear that they pay for this power by simply not being accepted by regular folks; by being ostracized and stigmatized. And that *can* work to reign them in. At the same time, what would usually balance these guys is simply less pronounced in the frigid north, namely a prevalence of casters. You see, this PG does an amazing job of establishing a cultural context and as such, does not shy away from banning some options, from telling groups what its intended feeling was supposed to be. Paradoxically, these limitations actually help reassert the potence of these two racial options.
That being said, if you’re playing the saga via Swords & Wizardry-rules, that won’t be a problem. Why? Because the pdf does not provide OSR-stats for them, which is a somewhat unfortunate oversight in my book.
Where races are that important for the flavor, the same holds true for character options, and thus, we get 5 new archetypes, two of which are intended for the barbarian class. The first of these would be the bearsarker – on an aside here: Nomenclature is following the lead of our own world as well, but, once again, spins it slightly, creating a sense of familiarity and estrangement at the same time, breeding the same sense of the fantastic. The common language of the north, for example, would be “Nørsk” – one umlaut away from Norwegin, or “norsk”, as we know it. In fact, that is perhaps how I’d sum up the whole feeling of the culture and lands – very close to our own, but distinct – an umlaut away, if you will.
But I digress, back to the class options: The Bearsarker and Ulfhander barbarian archetypes, the skald bard, the huscarl fighter and the spear maiden paladin, as well as the cunning woman sorceror bloodline have three things in common: 1) They represent the social and cultural norms of the respective environments, representing the default variations of the professions in question. 2) They thematically provide perfect fits for the respective campaign environments and 3), froma pure crunch-analysis point of view, you should not expect too much from them. While not bad per se, they do not radically change the playstyle of any of the classes they modify…and could even be considered to be somewhat subpar in some instances: The skald archetype, for example, loses spellcasting in favor of some bonus combat feats and the very limited ability to grant allies affected by bardic performance some feats instead of inspire competence. Similarly, the spear maiden loses spells and mercies in favor of better spear-fighting. From a min-maxing point of view, you probably won’t consider any of these archetypes worthwhile, but to an extent, that’s their goal – if anything, these class options are in service of the theme and aesthetics the saga tries to evoke, which kinda makes this okay for me. Kinda. I still wished the options were a bit more mechanically interesting.
I am significantly less divided on the subject matter presented where it comes to the variety of traits presented – these include more votes at the Thing, latent taints in the bloodline, local tricks by region, etc. – their potency and benefits generally make sense and add a nice narrative angle in most cases. The book also features 7 feats and sports some interesting modifications of spear fighting, allowing for the 1-handing of longspears, breaking Shield Walls and the like. While not necessarily mind-blowing, these feats add some combat options to the campaign that make sense, even if their ruleslanguage is not always pitch-perfect. The book also sports the greathammer weapon, the sunstone recently popularized by the TV-series Vikings and rules for trodnheim ponies.
Beyond these, we also are introduced to concise rules for death speeches…and fate. The latter can only be invoked ONCE PER CAMPAIGN by a player, but it basically guarantees an epic blaze of glory, including final death – not even the gods can prevent that! These variant rules fit the tropes and theme perfectly and receive a big thumbs up from yours truly.
Now, the player’s guide also sports a selection of pregens, all of which come with nice b/w-artworks and complete stats for both OSR and PFRPG-gameplay. A total of 8 such pregens are included in the deal and their character angles and general build strength once again fit the vision of the campaign rather well. In case you were wondering, 1 pt.-buy is the way to go here, and I personally welcome the characters following this more down to earth fantasy approach.
This, however, is not where the book ends – quite the contrary. Instead, we begin what you could consider an absolutely awesome way of introducing players to the themes of the north: That mordbrand is not something to be tolerated, that good and evil, valor and foolishness are not always clearly separated, and that fate is…you get the idea. We basically receive short stories set in the campaign world, which further elucidate the respective aspects – the background story of certain characters, world-building – you name it. Each story is prefaced with a GM warning that allows the respective GM to determine whether or not to hand it out to the players, with potential spoilers being clearly depicted as such.
Now that being said, even in the one story that *is* somewhat spoiler-heavy, it does not wreck the module per se, just provides the exposition of the tragedy that kicks it off – using it after the introductory scenes is very much something I’d encourage. But what are the stories about? In Jeff Provine’s “Harsh Wyrds”, we can witness a mortal challenging Donar, taking his first step upon a path determined by will and wyrd to power. Kenneth Spencer’s “The Brothers of jarl Skur Skulisdottir” helps highloght the prejudice towards the giant-born and also mentions the slåtten, a horrid beast bred from the madness of a bearsarker. Kevin Wright’s “Fadr” deals with a humble man’s quest to save his kith and kin…a humble man who once was a great hero, who also happened to have several quasi-mythological and extremely powerful females at his side. The aforementioned spoiler-heavy story would be “Ten Cowards” by John Bennett, depicting the horrid impact of a mordbrand, a vindictive hall-burning. Nathan Shank’s “Endless Ice” is an amazing tale of one of the Nûk, delving into the tradition of shamanistic visuals and symbols and arctic horror, whereas the final tale, Kevin Wright’s “The Sword of Kings”, depicts a well-known legend, of how the sword of kings, Kroenarck, was won, adding a subdued fisher-king resonance to the whole proceedings.
These stories have multiple things in common: They are expertly written, compelling reading material, highlight and further emphasize mentality and mythology, should make fans of low fantasy and sword and sorcery grin and do an amazing job of further showcasing the wonder and splendor of the north. Those wishing for crunch in a player guide may dismiss them, but personally, I adore their inclusion in the book – they are inspiring from both a GM and a player-perspective.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level – while both sport minor hiccups here and there, the material, as a whole, is professionally presented. The b/w-artworks deserve special mention: Chris McFann, Terry Pavlet and Artem Shukaev did an amazing job visualizing the harsh beauty and majestic nature of these realms. In fact, I was pretty surprised to see three artists credited, for while there are variations in individual artstyles once you look for them, the book still manages to evoke a concise visual identity. As mentioned, the softcover is of the usual high quality we expect from Frog God Games.
A look at the authors shows us why this book is worth getting: With Kenneth Spencer, Jeff Provine, John Bennett, Nathan Shank, Kevin Wright and none other than Greg A. Vaughan, we have assembled a number of authors that are great story-tellers here. Whether you’ll enjoy this player’s guide, then, hinges on your personal priorities. If you expect a series of specific, crunchy tidbits that drastically change the playing style, then this will probably leave you underwhelmed. If, however, you’re looking for a book that takes the exposition aspects, the explanations of mentality and the like off your back, that establishes a firm cultural and thematic baseline and ensures everyone’s on the same page, then this is pretty much what you want. The stories are fantastic and worth the asking price, as far as I’m concerned, at least.
That being said, I can’t really rationalize away the fact that the new races only work with copious social penalizing by the GM, particularly considering the otherwise low power-level of the 15-pt.-PCs. Similarly, OSR gamers get a bit less out of this book, sometimes unnecessarily so, so that may be a downside for some of my readers as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore this booklet. I love its flavor and how it “gets” what makes Northlands tick; I like its defiant, old-school style, its courage to say “NO!” to totally inappropriate characters. I like that it says: “This is supposed to be gritty!” In short, I like that it emphasizes a believable component and doesn’t try to depict “superheroes with a viking coating” – sure, you can play that way, I don’t judge. Personally, I very much adore that plausible, more subdued fantasy this presents. How to rate this, then? See, here is where I encounter the big issue as a reviewer. The crunch, frankly, left me less than impressed and…I don’t know, thing-mechanics for players, a reputation system (*cough* Bard’s Gate *cough* Rhûne*/cough*) and the like would have added some serious oomph here. In fact, I’ll be scavenging from both of these sources.
At the same time, the short stories have entertained me significantly better than the last 4 sword & sorcery anthologies I’ve read, drawing me perfectly into this harsh and majestic realm. As a person, I’d say “Substitute the crunch you don’t like, scavenge and enjoy the amazing prose!” As a reviewer though, as much as I LOVE the flavor, culture and stories, I have to take into account that the book comparatively falls slightly short of its own promise. Rhûne handled tying the Norse flavor/reputation to rules better in my book – don’t get me wrong, that setting’s crunch (Rhûnes class options aren’t all that amazing…) isn’t perfect either, but honor, runes etc.? Heck yes, I consider them to be better.
Thus, even though I love this as a person, I can’t go higher than 4 stars here; if you’re looking primarily for crunch, you may have to detract one more star. Similarly, OSR-groups may be disappointed that they don’t get giant/troll-blooded characters or variations of the base classes/kits and should detract half a star. At the same time, I try to rate books for their intent, and the intention of this book clearly is to establish the region, the culture – to provide the lore to the players. And here it excels, which is why the 4-star-rating remains my final verdict, in spite of the book’s flaws.