Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Mythic Iceland

When I was a youngster, my parents had the old Penguin paperback edition of Njal's Saga, the one translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson (there is a new translation in Penguin these days, I believe). I didn't read it until high school, after I had already read the Poetic Edda and the more sort of mythological works in general. And then of course I got into the sagas much more seriously at university, when I was studying the Viking age. I think you are generally an Egil's Saga guy or a Njal's Saga guy, and on balance I think I am a Njal's Saga. I like tragic heroes more than antiheroes, maybe? I think my favourite part of Njal's Saga is (spoilers for a story from the middle ages) the death of Gunnar:
Gunnar defended himself with great courage, and wounded eight more so severely that many of them barely lived. He kept on fighting until exhaustion brought him down. His enemies then dealt him many terrible wounds, but even then he got away from them and held them at bay for a long time.
But in the end they killed him.
Now obviously I know that the sagas don't have paragraph breaks, and this one is the work of some modern translator, but damn.

But it's not all the cosmic futility of heroism; there's lots of hacking and slashing and jumping over things and sliding on ice and catching spears in the air and flinging them back with deadly accuracy. But I get my cosmic bleakness fix.

During an age of great brokeness, I was in Forbidden Planet in London and I did a comical spit-take when I saw that there was a game on the shelf called Mythic Iceland. I put it on my Amazon wishlist, which is what I did in those days with things that cost money, and then I kind of forgot about it, so I was really pleasantly surprised when a generous friend got it for me for my birthday. I have the paperback, which retails for about £20, but you can also get the game in digital format for $19, which is around £11.20. Heck, at the time of this writing, it's on sale, but only for a few hours, so if you're reading this later you're out of luck. I should have done this last week, really, shouldn't I?

The only real weakness of the digital version is that you don't get a copy of this bitchin' map of Iceland:

That is nice. I would put that on my wall. Of course, my wall already has a copy of Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina Scandinavia, so it might be a bit repetitive, but I guess what I am trying to say is that I like maps and I like this map. So that's a good point right out of the gate. 

Now, when I tell you that this is a BRP game about playing saga heroes in 10th-century Iceland, I expect you're going to have some assumptions (if you're like me). You'll imagine that this book is going to be: 
  • very well-researched
  • a little stodgy in its presentation
  • nominally generic but with a slight tilt toward mystery and horror. 
And you would be dead right. But let's look into the book and break down the contents a little further. 

We start off with an introduction to Icelandic history and literature, as well as an intro to the world. This is going to be a fantasy setting based on the sagas, with some medieval Icelandic folklore thrown into the mix in the form of the Hidden Folk. 

Character creation follows the outline of BRP character creation, but removes some things and adds others. There are no specialised professions (which is in keeping with the economy of saga-era Iceland), and you have a fylgja (animal spirit, fetch) that represents you. Your wealth takes the form of a farm and certain types of trading rights, although all characters start as householders and have roughly equal wealth. I would have liked to see a little more variation here, although it is true that being a free landholder is pretty commonplace for saga heroes -- and is the only way you can participate in the oh-so-important lawsuits. 

There isn't a lot of advice, speaking of saga accuracy, on making female heroes. You can create them, and there's a female name table and all, but then the rest of the game doesn't pay much attention to what women might be doing other than things stereotypically associated with men (although the female character on the cover is preparing to do some magic, which I think is the right answer to that question). 

The character sheet, I am sorry to say, is ugly as sin: 

You have a god you're devoted to, and doing things to increase that devotion can give you bonus on relevant actions. Like Egil being devoted to Odin, I guess. 

There's a lot of really good material on the climate, landscape, society and culture of saga age Iceland, and a great visual explanation of the calendar. Mind you, I'm not sure who this is for. I already know a lot about the Viking period and the Icelandic sagas, but I still think it's great to have this all in one place. But this doesn't solve the problem of how you get players to enjoy the unique saga-ness of the sagas without just making them do a shitload of homework. Shitload of homework seems to be what this game is opting for. We're well over 50 pages into this thing before there's any hint of what the players might actually, er, do.

Oh good! Lawsuit rules. You can't do Icelandic sagas without those. And if you think I'm joking you've never read one. 

There's a good section on religion, emphasising its murky and variable nature but giving pretty simple and memorable rules for how to earn your god's favour. Do something your god likes, get a point in the allegiance-to-whoever score. Get your score over a certain level, get some bennies. But there's also a section on Christianity, including a legend about the Holy Grail being in Iceland. Get in! Viking things in games don't often pay enough attention to Christianity. Erik Bloodaxe was a Christian, y'know. 

OK, magic in this game is based on being a runemaster. Each rune has a meaning, which can have a narrative effect (for instance, Fe, which means wealth or cattle, has a narrative effect of bringing fertility or creating wealth) and a mechanical effect (in this case, adds 10% to Farming or Brawl skills). 

Runemasters start with knowledge of only one aett (set of 8 runes), based on the god they worship, and have to learn more in play, either by studying with runemasters, "sitting out," "going under the cloak," etc. Rune lore and seidr seem to be being collapsed into one here (not that I think we can systematise early medieval magical beliefs that easily, but for gaming purposes, why not, right?). Procedurally, it's pretty straightforward. You choose the runes you want to use, carve them into whatever, "dye" them with blood, speak a targeting phrase (better if it's a poem) and roll the dice. More complex rune "phrases" have more potent effects but take longer. Talismans are much the same but you burn permanent points of POW into them, so you can't make too many. All makes sense. 

This is a nicely detailed little system, and frankly you could drop it into most other games that have a skill system or equivalent thereof with next to no effort. There are good little summaries of the runes for players that you could copy or print out for the runemaster to have. I think this system would work best when encouraging runemaster-like play, by which I mean that it should require the player to do a bit of reading and think about the rune lore (stipulating the usual, that most rune lore is ahistorical nonsense, blah blah). 

Then you gotcher guide to the setting, with every location having some little adventure seeds in it. Of course, saga hero PCs aren't just troubleshooters for hire or murder-hobos, so a lot of these fall into the old CoC structure of the PCs having some kind of uncle on the spot. Mind you, this is essentially the plot of Beowulf, so whatever. 

Next up are elves and the Hidden People. These are very fairy-tale like. For instance, children can see them, but adults can do so only rarely. They do give that Scandinavian folklore sense of this kind of parallel society of weird people who are still essentially farmers and hunters and so on. The backstory explanation is that these guys are elves who basically self-exiled from Alfheim to live out their lives in peace. Proper elves from Alfheim sometimes turn up, and they are arrogant, belligerent sonsabitches while the Hidden Folk are mostly pretty chill, just a little shy. 

The next section is about the rest of the world, with the usual Northern Europe stuff, plus good sections on Greenland and North America. The Wineland stuff has some Native American monsters (Uktena, Thunderbird, Wendigo, that kind of thing), plus the monopods from Eiriks Saga. There's a section on going Viking, with ship stats, weapons, rules on random generation of raid targets, and a useful monastery map. 

One thing I thought was missing from this section was something on plunder. If you've ever read the sagas, you know there's a lot of coveting of items, a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of objects (particularly weapons) with histories. So it would have been cool to see the loot described in terms of the kinds of things you might find rather than just X amount of wealth, particularly when the game's already done such a good job of explaining the importance of gift-giving in the cashless Icelandic economy. 

But I am not one to complain! Instead, watch this space for some cool examples of Viking plunder and perhaps a random loot generation table. 

Lots of good stuff on running a game, with some discussion of Luck in its confusing Norse sense. 

Then you get some critters, ranging from the usual suspects like trolls and frost giants to selkies, krakens, draugar, and even more mundane opponents like polar bears. 

Then there's a scenario, which as far as I can tell is the devil's own railroad. This kind of thing is very common for intro adventures in games where the adventuring premise needs to spring from who the PCs are. The other alternative would be the old Vampire: the Masquerade intro scenario, in which approximately nothing at all happens. They're just there to give you the feel of it, even if in this case the feel is attached to "go here, fight this guy."

There's an appendix which is basically a little Iceland supplement for Cthulhu Dark Ages: some history, monsters, spells, and a scenario. Nice! I was not a big fan of the game, mainly because it didn't feel well-adapted for what I wanted to do with it (it was very focused on running scenarios set on Continental Europe, which, I mean, I get that it's a German game, but you'd think that the English-language version would talk about England a bit more). But here in combination with the Icelandic setting material it's pretty good. Plus, volcano cults!

The wrapup

I think Mythic Iceland is pretty good, even though I absolutely cannot see myself running it as written. It's dense with stuff, which is good, and it shows knowledge of medieval Iceland, which is also good. It's kind of weird, in that it's neither a balls-to-the-wall Norse-themed fantasy setting nor a game in which you play out some variant of the Iceland sagas. It's kind of somewhere in between. Still, I think it has a lot of use for people who a) want a bunch of info about the sagas in an easy-to-use gaming form or b) are already running a historical-fantasy campaign they could slot this into. There is already an Iceland sourcebook for Ars Magica, but I assume it's high-medieval. 

In terms of stuff to idea-mine for another fantasy game, I would say that the magic system is usable, the gods system is a pretty neat idea for putting religion into the lives of non-cleric characters, and the map and location guides are good too. 

I think I would definitely run it as some kind of Cthulhu Dark Ages thing, but that might be because I have all the necessary resources easily to hand. Kind of a cold, bleak, damp and relentless Norse horror thing. I could get behind that. 

Next in this impromptu series of things about Viking age Iceland, I'll do that treasure table thing and I'll also take a look at the Sagas of the Icelanders RPG, which I picked up ages ago but still haven't even read. 


  1. "But it's not all the cosmic futility of heroism; there's lots of hacking and slashing and jumping over things and sliding on ice and catching spears in the air and flinging them back with deadly accuracy."

    This puts me in mind of a line from Odin in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul:

    "There was constant talk about hewing things and ravaging things and splitting things asunder. Lots of big talk of things being mighty, and of things being riven, and of things being in thrall to other things, but very little attention given, as I now realise, to the laundry."

    1. As it happens, the Old Norse name for Saturday is "laundry day!" Or maybe "bath day."

      Quite fastidious, your Vikings.