Greenland Saga – The Lost Norse Colony (2001)
Dr. Mike Benninghof PhD (Avalanche Press Ltd)
Levels 2 – 4
Oh yes children. It’s one of those again. Grandpa Prince has been hitting the government heroin again. Unlike my posts about OSR shit or Warhammer or even AD&D my d20 reviews barely get any views, and why should they? D20 is dead holmes! Pathfinder wears its skin and 5e carries on its legacy. I give zero shits. This one is for me.
We’ve all been down this road before. Avalanche. D20 system. Historical fantasy. By the same guy who did the excellent but fatally flawed The Last Days of Constantinople. As should be a suprise to absolutely NO ONE, I love it, but this time I can disguise that love into the form of a semi-objective review because Greenland Saga is overal a much better work then the Epic but uneven LDoC.
It all begins with another great premise. See Greenland once had a colony of Norse along the southern coast, but they dissapeared and no one really knows why. In this adventure we discover the reason (and murder some pagan scum while doing so!).
It is the year 1454! After the Turks have sacked Constantinople a year past, your old pall Monsigneur Marcello calls you together in an Italian shipping house in Norway to discuss another mission on behalf of the Church and all of Christendom. The christian Greenlanders are being assailed by an unknown menace. Pope Nicholas V has received a plea for help, but sadly, the Church is broke and the lords of western europe are more then a little hesitant to start another crusade on behalf of a bunch of converted bear people from buttfuck nowhere. As an added problem, the Greenlanders have been without religious comfort for decades and there is some serious spiritual reconsecration work to be done (the game suggests one of the players plays a catholic priest  if possible). It is your job to scout what the shit is going on in these dark times.
As an optional objective (I fucking love optional objectives and so should you), the merchant house that is actually financing the expedition (by providing you with least seaworthy ship and scabbiest sailors in all of christendom) wants a return of interest. You are to find out some financial information on the codfish and falcon market there, and possibly retrieve a bunch of stolen paintings for the King of Norway. In addition, if you can get one unscrupulous merchant by the name of Eugen the Preacher to stand trial in front of the king there is a thousand gold pieces in it for you .
And we are off. This adventure is great. It does historical adventure well. A good OSR adventure tends to be loaded with weird or fantastic shit. Wonder. Whimsey. A good historical adventure does things differently. You embed the adventure firmly into an interesting historical event or mystery. You build up the atmosphere by paying attention to the time period and making sure everything is seamless. If you bring something magical at some point, it will be amazing because of the contrast, and if you write well enough you won’t actually need magic. This adventure does that almost perfectly.
This thing is the opposite of what I want in my OSR but I love it here because it is neccesary. You don’t need to tell me how elfland works because it is imaginary and I just want gameable details but short, vivid descriptions on life and culture in Greenland evokes images of wintry pine forests and rugged men who have adopted the cross but still retain some characteristics of their Viking ancestry. They wear colourful clothing to offset the dreary landscape. They have fought off raiders many times and do not fear death in battle. They fight Walruses and Polar Bears and they laugh at the contemptible Skraelings (the Innuit). Iron is too precious to be used for weapons.
There are some annoying omissions here too but they are trivial. The adventure mentions the Flux and other dangers like typhus or Walrus sickness but there are no stats given. Likewise, I would have liked Walrus statts for the random encounter table (I mean its not in the MM is it?). There is a rule where women have considerably less strength then men and one point of dex and con in their favor because “life isn’t fair deal with it’ but it just comes off as needlessly complicated. I liked the repetition of the rule for making Prayer A Thing that actually gives a minor mechanical benefit as long as it is not selfish or UnChristian to cement the VAST influence religion must have played in the life of medieval europeans.
Like its predecessor, one of this adventure’s strengths lies in its NPCs. Almost no one has spellcasting levels or other crutches to make them interesting. The majority of interesting NPCs are commoners or experts. Everyone has motivation and personality. You gain your first hook from an incontinent lunatic who will starve in his cell because he can’t pay for his food. After that this adventure has it all. A Hard-bitten Nordic maiden who may or may not be a Valkery. Eugen turns out to be a demagogue and a charlatan leading a creepy cult known as the Five Hundred and is (possibly) aiding whatever is attacking the colonists. A ruthless Finnish merchant and rival to the guys you are working for. A stinking degenerate and his lice-ridden wife (who cleans up nicely) who is motivated by the desire to sleep with anyone who is not him (incidentally a means to get some information). I love it. You get a real sense of isolation, hardship and depravity in this forlorn place.
The structure is great too, in the free-flowing inter-related fashion of the intrigue based adventure. Several locations with interesting NPCs are given and it is left up to the players to explore them. The GM is given full discretion on when their terrible navigator will crash their boat, forcing them to walk from place to place instead. And the atmosphere. Abandoned farmsteads. All the church bells have been smashed. The one monastary is run by an illiterate runt that used to do manual labour for the brothers.
Don’t get me wrong, the open endedness of the adventure can sort of piss me off too. Multiple instances happen when the Party is being offered “gold” but the amount is not even specified, which kind of grinds my gears. In addition, the sloppy stat blocks that persisted in the previous game are back, albeit it in diminished force. It feels less like Benninghof just had an intern convert his home-system to 3e and more like he actually read the player handbook but just couldn’t be bothered with all the fine details. It is a lot less grating here because interaction and clever tactics are far more likely to solve the bulk of the encounters then a misplaced numerical modifier here or there. For what its worth, encountering an almost divinely handsome level 4 ranger with 20 Charisma is actually kind of refreshing. But why does Rütger the Forger, lvl 1 expert, have a +8 to hit with a club?
But hey! Instead of an event based railroad you are given THE OPTION and I repeat THE OPTION of using random encounters like a polar bear or a murdering eskimaux warband to shake things up or serve as a red herring for the real threat. What is the real threat you ask? Now here is where it gets complex my lovelies.
Much like LDoC, GS gives you multiple resolutions for the same adventure. Minor details in the adventure change but the core remains fundamentally useful. In this case the GM can choose to run an entirely historical adventure (the Greenlanders are being abducted by Portugese Slavers who need them to process the rich harvest of codfish. They will be killed afterward because they don’t want to feed them during the winter) to an adventure that is entirely fantastical (the real culprit are the Unipeds, monstrous one-legged humanoids of savage nature yet with an unnatural aptitude for insults). There is even a possibility that Sigurd the blonde-hot Valkyrie babe is leading all the non-degenerates to a more promising place in Vinland. Hell, the adventure gives you increasingly elaborate means of combining the three, which can generate interesting synergy or moral dilemma’s(4).
This adventure has no magical items and IT DOESN’T NEED THEM. With its kickass eerie atmosphere, possible Uniped monsters drawn from the Saga of Eric the Red and its open-endedness, Greenland Saga is still flawed but makes it much easier to overlook those flaws. It makes me want to run it, and that is high fucking praise for a d20 adventure (why couldn’t Benninghof do a Runequest or even 2e adventure instead?). The use of some sort of medieval equipment book would also be helpful to fortify the adventure’s relatively sparse sections thus far. The book recommends Ragnarok for its take on Rune magic, but that is actually a remarkably useless addition because the Rune Magick rules are in no way integrated with the Sorcerer class that is used to emulate Sigurd. It is a pity Benninghof would only pen All for One and Black Flag a year later, when it would be too late.
The layout is not terrible but I am not writing it any christmas cards either. A map of the place with major locations statted out allows you to make some sense of everything geographically (though there is no scale), and you might have to read through the adventure a few times before you know every location by heart. To make things easy though, only the settlement of the Five Hundred has more then 2 significant NPCs.
As a final critique, the Sigurd option is by far the vaguest one, although the moral conflict between letting the settlers escape the gradually cooling coast versus following the dictates of the pope should be interesting. Either way, Eskimo’s are going to get murdered.
In final analysis, none of these are dealbreakers, and Greenland Saga even makes me want to give Last Days of Constantinople more slack because it is followed up on the beaten path so well. No more railroadery bullshit, just good writing, roleplaying and killing people with iron. If only Benninghof gave a shit about stats or even d20 in general (though I have no doubt the man knows his DnD). If you are one of that weird, semi-psychotic sub-cult of historical fantasy roleplayers you might just get a kick out of this one, and it really should not be hard to convert to any other system AT ALL.
Pros: Historical as fuck. Great premise, atmosphere and NPCs. Open-ended nature allows for actual play and not railroading like a bitch. Great follow up on Last Days of Constantinople.
Cons: Maddeningly vague at times. The statblocks still look like they were made by a drunk man. What the fuck Mike? Get new interns!
I can’t stay mad. Greenland Saga is a terrific little adventure with an intriguing premise, great customization, awesome characters and all in a wonderfully desolate, atmospheric environment and I don’t even care about the habitual Avalanche gripes (hideously wide margins, 11 pages of introduction in this 47 page adventure) to be mad. This thing is cool. Not your grandfather’s DnD and DEFINITELY not standard d20 fare but fuck I like this. 7.5 out of 10 (and I am boosting Last Days to 6.5 retroactively).
1 = The first fucking problem of the adventure that is easily fixed. The adventure expects you to play a Catholic historical cleric class, which is to function like the cleric only without weapon or armour proficiencies and no magic unless they are literally miracles. Pardon my french but that is retarded. The problem is easily fixed by simply introducing the Catholic Priest class from Black Flag, or All For One, but it makes running the adventure as intended without any of these supplements a lot additional work for the GM.
2 = I assume the world of historical europe has vastly less gold pieces in the hands of commoners then would be the case if one were to follow the wealth by level guidelines given in the 3e Dungeon Master Guide. Thus 1000 gold and 500 for each painting is a pretty hefty sum.
3 = Probably not helped by the inbreeding. Low population count in isolated location equals lots of Cousin marriages.
4 = If, say, the slavers and the retreat are combined then it is portrayed as a battle between the Catholic Portugese Slavers (who are still infinitely more virtuous) and the hideous Pagan apostates who deliberately smashed the Church Bells. In this instance, Sigurd is an actual Valkerie of demi-god like ability. Though this might not be proof against crossbows, cannon and arquebuses.