Mike Benninghof (Avalanche Press LTD)
It is the end of the week, a big review is coming up, but before that happens, let’s take a break from settings set around rpgs based on the idea of ceaseless struggle against an inevitable doom set in a fantasy setting to review Ragnarok, an Avalanche supplement for D20 set in the pseudo-historical Age of the Viking that is centered around the idea of ceaseless struggle against an inevitable doom.
I am fascinated by Avalanche products. Everything from the cheesecake covers to the wide margins gives them that cheap grindhouse feel, while the hints of quality or brilliance that manage to come through despite their base origins make one almost root for Avalanche Games. At the time the price would have been too steep to justify a purchase (12 dollars for 48 pages? with wide margins and no art? Eat shit Avalanche) for anyone but a fanatic, but this time Avalanche Press rolled a 17 and the quality table said: It’s Alright!
Ragnarok is a campaign setting seed, a fully functional skeleton for a campaign that requires your active investment of time and resources to flesh it out but that is basically functional, meaning most of the work you will be doing is coming up with cool locations and making fun adventures. It cannibalizes enough of the D20 core rules and content to deliver value with only 48 pages but the main cause for its overall quality is its complete lack of padding. No bullshit extra classes, pages of feats, nonsense prestige classes or other mandatory shit that was par for the course with D20 supplements of the era. Instead it hurtles along with breakneck speed, delivering enough info to get the point across before then sprinting on to the next section, barely stopping to take a breather since it only has 48 pages to get its point across.
The central conceit of Ragnarok is that Ragnarok, the Viking Apocalypse, is not that far away. It is 5 minutes to midnight. The players play the lesser deities beholden to the Aesir and Vanir and must carry out quests to forestall the inevitable doom for just a bit longer. The game gives you the option of playing as Greater Deities (the Aesir and the Vanir we all know and love), the more obscure (and thus customizable) Lesser deities and even their mortal servants. The assumption is that you play primarily as the Lesser Deity servants of the chosen Greater God but that you can occasionally break out your Greater God for a truly epic smackdown (with the exception of Odin, whose control is the sole province of the GM).
This premise could have easily died on arrival if there was any reference to the completely superfluous and utterly asinine Deities & Demigods supplement for 3e but fortunately Ragnarok is just not that fucking stupid.
Deities have been reworked to fit both the universe of Viking legend and to close the power gap between mortal and deity. In Ragnarok, Lesser Gods have the abilities of extremely powerful mortals, not walking nuclear deterrents that can obliterate armies with a single blow. Gods are represented as high level characters (Greater gods are usually 15-18th level) with huge stat modifiers (Lesser Gods get +10 to every ability for example), the ability to walk between worlds and some SR and damage resistance, but nothing so ridiculous they would be utterly impervious to any nondivine threat (a major flaw of the Deities and Demigods supplement). Each Lesser god must start out with the same classes as the chosen Greater Deity, albeit at a much lower level. In addition, with a successful Charisma check, Lesser Deities can draw upon the patron’s might a number of times per day, granting them a small but significant boost to their abilities.
Though deities have portfolios, they cannot automatically use all the spells of that domain at will (a ridiculously OP ability that made no sense). Instead gods have knowledge of the Runes, giving them a variety of spell-like abilities to choose from as they level up, as well as something to separate them from the lowly mortals. As a last conceit, each god receives a number of Fate-points (Divine points in this case), that allow him to change a single failed check into a success or a success into a critical success. You can use one per quest and they are finite and almost impossible to replenish. The setting is meant to be low magic, but since you play deities you are allowed to purchase a single magic item upon character creation (or 2 with the GM’s discretion), with any weapons restricted to +2 or below.
For the non-divine muggle characters Ragnarok does have a little bit to offer. First the bad stuff: Paladins and Monks have been removed from the game, along with the anticipated equipment restriction list we have come to expect in these types of games. Elves and Dwarves do exist but only as NPCs, and in case you absolutely MUST play a Half-Orc the game provides the Trollborn, the only race that feels shoe-horned in. It is infinitely more likely you will simply go with human PCs. Two feats are given in the side-bars to Nordify (or Vikify if you will, I certainly will) the game somewhat, but most of these are flavorful trick pony abilities at best; Shield-catch a weapon if your opponent rolls a natural 1, throw two spears at once at the cost of reduced range and the Barbarian may throw Hand- and Battleaxes at 3rd level as an extra feature, but otherwise everything is kept more or less the same. Arguably, Wizardry should have merited at least a paragraph of flavor text so we understand what it is in the context of Viking Myth and the inclusion of both a sorcerer and a wizard class feels redundant but whatever, we are rolling with it.
The Rune sub-system is very interesting, and a way of differentiating deities from their mortal counterparts while not making them overpowered as fuck. Each rune is a supernatural ability that may be cast as a standard action, around 2/day, which makes it a potent, but hardly overpowered ability. The only problem is the DC, which is fixed at 11+ability score modifier, making any ability that requires a saving throw fucking useless at higher levels. A simple DC = 10 + 1/2 class levels + ability modifier would have sufficed. You get a new rune every level, and only Odin knows all of them. Effects vary greatly, and each rune can be both beneficial as well as harmful. Anything from conjuring up hail to a minor stat increase/decrease is provided, fairly basic bitch shit. The ability to smite people with hailstones or conjure up a ray of frost that deals your leveld4 damage is appreciated though.
After this the book spends a considerable time giving you a crash-course in what Vikings were both historically and mythically, wasting not a single word in conveying the essentials. Vikings are this and this, they waged war so and so, these are some ships, this is what Viking naval warfare looked like, a note on Beserkers (for some reason labelled as Women Berserkes even though the topic of gender does not come up in this section) and here are some notes on worship. After that considerably more time is spent on the Viking world of Myth, including Midgard, a sort of quasi-historical fantasy Europe where most of the action is to take place.
The Viking worldview is kind of awesome, but then again if you are familiar with it as I was before you read this all of this serves merely as a welcome refreshing course, and therefore perfect. In the beginning you had Fire and Ice, from which was born Ymir, the first Giant, bringing forth children who knew not Good and Evil. Odin and his brothers decide they can do better and kill Ymir and most of the other giants and use his body to create the world (fucking awesome). Thus the cosmos, many strange realms tied together by Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
Dwarves and Elves in Norse mythology differ from their Tolkenian counterparts (to be expected, as I understand Tolkien took the mythological antecedents and injected Christian themes and symbolism into it) and are considerably less benevolent. Elves are the creations of the God Frey, whimsical child-snatching sorcerers and warriors, bereft of morals or organization, often the pawns or servants of the Gods. Dwarves are skilled craftsmen of sorcerous objects, born from the blood of Mimir, the prophetic severed head that sits under Ygdrassil (someone needs to write a setting where the Evil empire has this as their patron god and all the other gods are considered usurpers), ugly and self-loathing, capable of working great wonders for the right price (usually a human bride, or something worse). Woe to anyone who tries to cheat a dwarf. Both races live in their own realms, though they may certainly be found outside of them.
The big baddies of the setting are of course the Giants, hailing from Jotunheim and fiery Muspelheim, ceaselessly working to bring evil upon the world. Giants have been given a bit of a power boost (Most giants are clever and wily and a significant percentage has sorcerer levels), making them a challenge for even the gods. In addition to the Frost and Fire Giants we are by now quite familiar with, Ragnarok gives us the Sea Giant, which is a nice if forgettable addition. The chief badguy among the Giants is Utgard-Loki, a 15th level fire giant sorcerer, who is sadly not worked out beyond this simple description.
What remains to be described is the land of Niflheim, a sort of limbo for girlish men who die unheroically of old age or disease, ruled over by Hel, Loki’s half-hot, half-repulsive daughter, destined to will lead an army of the dead in battle on Ragnarok. It comes with Garm stats (viking Cerberus), but sadly not with Nidhog (great serpent gnawing at the roots of Ygdrassil) stats. Agains, essentials. Niflheim also happens to be the place where many exiles of the Lesser races flee, filled with the odd rare herb here and there, making it a prime location for adventuring and giving you a good reason for why the fuck you would actually want to go there. Adventuring in Niflheim for mortals is fucking dangerous, as each day you must pass an increasingly difficult saving throw or go insane. More could have been done with this, but I get the gist.
The descriptions of Vanaheim and Asgard are fairly well done, making the place feel wondrous and alive, with its roofs of silver shields, rainbow bridges and its endless boars and whatnot. Since this place is going to function as a homebase for any PCs, these descriptions are appreciated. Rules on exactly what kind of holdings each Lesser Deity should be expected to have would have been nice, but is ultimately not really necessary to run the game.
On to Midgard. In order to simplify the setting so as to make it digestible within 10 pages, Ragnarok has opted for a sort of island-continent not too dissimilar from central Europe, consisting of 5 kingdoms and an Island nation. Each has a short description of its political situation, culture/religion and military might (including the equipment and expected levels of its soldiers).
All kingdoms worship either the Vanir, the Aesir or both. Kingdoms in the North, Middle and West seem roughly analogous to Norway, Denmark and hypothetical pagan western-Europe. Odd ducks out are the kingdom in the South (vaguely modeled after Byzantium), which has a sort of fundamentalist Odin-as-christ religion, complete with missionaries and worship of other gods being banned, and the Eastern kingdom; a Hel/Loki worshipping Mongol/Islam smorgasboard, serving as the likely antagonists.
The NPCs that are actually statted out are sparse, and not the most inspired I have ever seen, but they are, at the very least, serviceable, and each serves a distinct role should they be used in a campaign. While lacking a backstory for the most part, each is given at the very least a motivation and a modus operandi to help you use them. They run the gamut from a helpful bard to trollborn chieftain to arrogant high priest of Odin. Some of the kings are fairly well done, nuanced and with believable motivation, and it warms my heart to see that among the most politically powerful characters in the setting is a 15th level aristocrat with no magical items.
Even a villainous god daughter of Loki (Aeksa Lokisdotter) is statted up, the book making it very clear that it is in fact her on the cover, this single fact presumably serving to stave off shrieking gender-fluid wrath by the POWERS THAT BE because she does indeed have agency and a motivation or something asinine. If you are going to pander at least do it with pride. The Goddaughter antagonist feels a bit like page-filler, Viking myth is so badass any new addition should try to live up to that standard. And more tits on the cover.
The campaign format itself is interesting. The party has a number of Fate Points (actual Fate points meant to stave off Doom). Each successful quest increases your fate points, each failed quest means the points go down. If they hit zero, RAGNAROK AWAITS. Dying during a quest does not mean your god is dead, interesting enough, but it does mean loss of Fate points. Only dying in Asgard will ensure the permanent death of a deity. The book has a big weakness in that it does not give you any guidelines on what to do once Ragnarok kicks off, but presumably, you can figure something out with lots of violence and a giant, blood-soaked, impossible and epic battle stretched out over all of creation. Gaining Fate points is one of the few ways of getting more Divinity Points, but there is a hard limit how many you can get over the campaign, and eventually, Ragnarok will presumably arrive. Losing is far more costly then winning, and losing an adventure as say…Tyr is far more devastating then losing as a mere mortal.
A few variant rules and extra systems are described in sidebars. Mortals can try calling upon divine aid 1/week, but this is unlikely and success means only a small blessing. A variant rule system even allows Mortals to earn a so called Glory point, which you can use just as a Divinity point. This system is open ended (interesting), and requires you to accumulate points by defeating powerful enemies and keeping to oaths (while breaking oaths or fleeing from combat means you lose points quickly).
What few sample adventure seeds that are given are fairly good, and diverse enough to make most of them memorable. Loki has tricked your deity into a wager to brew an ale to satisfy Thor’s thirst and now the Lesser Deities are tasked with figuring shit out before your Deity looks like an idiot in front of all creation. Political infighting and religious maneuvering means a clusterfuck of different objectives whilst an asshole sorcerer in service of the Loki-worshiping Mongol-Caliphate foments dissent with tricks. Great hooks because they don’t actually require you to beat the shit out of anyone. The third one is a boring quest but the Viking feel still makes it kind of badass. A Svartalf has opened a gate to Svartalfheim and monsters are pouring forth, murder the shit out of them! Meh. The suggested Greater Deity quest is spot on, with a band of Fire Giants stealing Asgard’s infinite Mead-cow and the Gods on a mission of vengeance to get it back and beat the shit out of anyone who interferes, which takes them into Niflheim unfortunately. Oh shit.
The last section of the book consists of a list of gods, with a few descriptive sentences and even more abbreviated stats, just enough so you can use them. Odin is expanded upon, and while Jormundgandr and Fenris Wolf are mentioned, they are sadly not given any stats (a lamentable omission that could possibly be corrected in the supplement Doom of Odin, which I might cover at some point). Each deity just has class levels, at maximum one unique special ability, occasionally a unique magical item (with the exception of Frey, who has like nine), a note on whether they are part of the Vanir or the Aesir and a list of domains. In an incredibly sloppy move that would have been fixed had Avalanche paid the 35 dollars for 2 hours of editing by a highschool student, Vanir is described but not given any stats. Overall, the information provided is just a quick primer, but anyone with a knowledge of Norse mythology should be able to cope. A last note is the lack of resurrection magic, which they make abundantly clear. Death is final. I approve.
Pros: Neat premise. Interesting take on deities. Sufficient information for both mortal and supernatural adventures. Adequate mechanical support for campaign framework.
Cons: It’s very short. No stats for divine antagonists (i.e Jormundgandr, Fenris Wolf, Surtur). The other realms need fleshing out.
There is something very anachronistic about Ragnarok. I almost feel it could have been or indeed should have been a supplement for AD&D 2e. Rather then the insane stat-obsessed hackathons 3e would eventually degenerate into, ideas are presented with a minimum of fancy-pancy mechanics, given just enough rules to be able to function within the framework of D20. The focus is on genre emulation and roleplaying as Norse gods, and the mechanics are meant to support that and that alone, balance be damned. It is pretty obvious William Sariego was not exactly a d20 veteran or even a fan, but it is equally obvious the guy does know how to convey a fun and relatively simple idea with a minimum of cumbersome crunch or bullshit fluff. Ragnarok is ultimately a workmanlike but perfectly inoffensive campaign setting for DnD, with some good ideas and very simple, easily implementable rules systems. Everything has a rugged sort of functionality to it that I almost admire. While it is by no means brilliant and probably not even the best Viking game out there, you could do a lot worse then Ragnarok if you want to take your d20 game to go A-Viking. Short and doesn’t motherfucking waste your time. The original cover price of 12 bucks is on the pricey side for the amount of content, but still, well done. 6 Eihnherjar out of 10.