Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/03/15/tabletop-review-vikings-of-legend/
Before author Pete Nash gets terribly far into his Legend supplement Vikings of Legend, he spouts some errant nonsense:
“Remember that this supplement is designed to help set roleplaying adventures in the Viking Era, it is not a work of scholarship.”
I say errant nonsense because, while the book may be filled with game-specific rules to facilitate Scandinavian-themed Viking adventures, it’s also a terrifically well-researched book, with more depth than many GMs would ever need on many aspects of life as a Viking.
The first chapter alone, The Viking Age, is ten full pages of historical overview that never really feels all that tiresome to read through (though the names, unconventional to my American ears, do tend to blend together), followed by eight more pages of timeline for quick reference. This is a solid building block for getting your brain, and that of your players, wrapped around the events, people and places that will be important in a historically accurate game.
From the first contact with the British and Irish, through to trade with Byzantium in the far south, the chapter is full of places and times in which to place your adventurers, with a wide variety of campaign types supported. Want to be raiders? That’s covered, in spades. Maybe you want to be traders, dealing with the more urbane Byzantines – if so you’re all set. You might even have a group that wants to be explorers, leading the first ships to Greenland or Iceland. It’s a broad swath of history, with many options for action and intrigue.
The chapter on Viking life gives you a good deal of detail of the various social classes present in Viking society, and touches on slavery as it was practiced. A sub-chapter on the traditional role of women in society, and the power that they wielded, is followed by a section telling you how to throw it all away and play a game with warrior maidens, either in a semi-realistic way or more fully fantastical.
If you’re unfamiliar with Vikings, there’s a good deal of discussion of Personality and Beliefs – not so much religious beliefs as societal values – that will flesh out what you know and what you think you know going into the game. It’s all too easy to come up with a character who is in fact more caricature instead, and this gives you solid insight into possible ways to play a character of some greater depth than simply drinking mead and travelling in long ships to do battle and bring home loot.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…
Law, punishment, marriage and death, duels and how they’re handled, lawsuits – all of the elements that will add realism and depth to your world, are handled in short sections, with enough detail to allow you to insert them into the game without overburdening anyone with undue realism for what is, after all, a game.
The section on farming and farmsteading is the first time – 48 pages in – that you start seeing Legend-specific rules being applied, with a table of skill penalties to your faming lore rolls. Up until this, the book could apply to any game system at all. Sports and sportsmanship, gambling, hunting, poetry, singing and dance – the section that just gives you ideas for the sorts of challenges that you might find yourself facing as a Viking round out the section, a solid sixty pages of background material.
Finally, armed with all of that knowledge, you get to the meat of what most gamers are looking for in a book like this: rules on how to roll up a Viking!
The assumption in Vikings of Legend is that characters from different cultural backgrounds are like the alternative races of other games. Different dice and modifiers are used for different characteristics, to represent the phenotype of the peoples they are modeling. Scandinavians are bigger and stronger, while Eastern Europeans and Asians (including the folks from Byzantium) are weaker and smaller than average, with Western Europeans being the default standard against which the others are measured. The fact that the bonuses given to the Scandinavians are not offset with any characteristic penalties might be seen as a bit biased, but the book is called Vikings of Legend after all.
Not satisfied playing a mortal, you may also roll up an Aesir, Vanir, or Jotnar – divine races and giants, respectively.
Whatever you choose, this background – with some specificity for location – will serve as the generic Legend equivalent of your cultural background, granting you skill bonuses, advanced skills, and your starting money.
On page 70 is a sidebar about Combat Styles – a very sticky subject in Legend as the system assumes that your GM has made some decisions about this, and understands the nuances of those decisions. Here, the game deviates from the core Legend rules suggestion of grouping one-handed weapons with shield for a single skill. Instead, an older idea of making shield a separate skill is implemented, and I think it’s a generally smart idea on their part.
A random table is offered to generate your social class, but I think this might be a little too far in the direction of random character generation – imagine how it might skew a party, and ruin the plans of the GM, if everyone rolls up a noble – or a slave! Instead, I say let the GM decide how the party is broken down in terms of their roles, to suit the campaign he intends to run.
Professional backgrounds come next, in a fairly standard way, with the addition of some descriptive text for each of the professions. Pay heed here – if you’re looking for a strictly historical game, you’ll want to reconsider the Shaman and Sorcerer roles, as they are the first introduction to magic in the game. The descriptions are very helpful, especially for roles that might not be familiar, like Huskarl and Skald.
Family ties and extra skill points are straight out of the Legend core rules, but the background event table has been replaced with a Viking-specific one that can also help to lend some flavor to an otherwise unremarkable Viking warrior, or can change the nature of the character in an unintended way – I recommend being flexible about allowing re-rolls here.
This section ends with a valuable resource – a lengthy chart of Viking names, suitable for random rolling. It’s broken down into male, female and nicknames for convenience.
The section on gear provides the expected lists and charts of weapons, armor and other gear, but also gives you information on trade and bartering, on magic items from Viking lore, and even some new combat maneuvers, which I think is great as they’re one of my favorite aspects of the game’s combat system. The Shield Bash and Shield Twist (a disarmament move) are great, but the Cast Back maneuver is the real gem here, with warriors catching thrown weapons in mid-air and turning them on their owners. That one’s going to be a big hit.
The chapter on religion is partly what you’d expect – a fully fleshed-out description of the standards of Norse mythology. But it also contains information on the integration of Christianity into the beliefs of the Vikings, and how the two moved together in an uneasy peace. This starts out solidly in the real world, and moves directly into gifts from the gods and other magical topics that again lend a real flavor to the game.
That dovetails nicely with the next chapter, on magic. The systems are broken down into Sorcery, in the form of rune magic, and Shamanism, with spirit powered magics. Divination is also covered in some detail, including tools to keep it from being game-breaking, which are handy and could be applied to any game with magical divination or the like.
Because you can’t have an adventure game without them, the kinds of animals that a Viking might encounter are detailed next, giving you what you need to run a mundane or historical campaign. In addition, you get supernatural creatures as well. This was a sore spot for me, with the core Legend rules not even including non-magical animals, and will help fill the gap even in games set in a non-Viking world.
The book closes with a chapter on Viking campaigns, with tons of hooks tuned to the world in question, from combat-focused games to those more interested in politics, intrigue or even the affairs of the gods. This, again, is a system-agnostic chapter, equally useful for Legend GMs as it would be for any other system you might want to use. I find this to be the sign of a really good “world book” – when it has utility in and of itself, divorced from the game system it was intended for.
As a “generic” world book Vikings of Legend does a nice job of providing you a fully formed world, with lots of cultural hooks that your players are going to be able to leverage right from the start. If it has a drawback, it may be that it’s too in-depth for some gamers, with entirely too much detail about things they won’t care about. That said, for twelve bucks, you can’t really complain about getting too much for your money, and the other information really can be disregarded entirely without damaging the parts that you do keep.
In my opinion, Vikings of Legend is an excellent blueprint for someone else to follow when coming up with a world book of their own for Legend, or any other game honestly.