Forget Skyrim, play Fate of the Norns: Fafnir’s Treasure to roleplay as a Viking hero
Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok Saga: Fafnir's Treasure
It is the Sword Age of Ragnarok, the second of four such Ages. These are my peoples’ prophesied end times. I am Sigyn, a Maiden of Ratatosk. Muggers approach. Time to pull runes from a bag and place them on a player mat to determine how I attack.
Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok is the third edition of Fate of the Norns, a tabletop roleplaying game by Andrew Valkauskas set during the apocalyptic age of Ragnarok, a mythic time described in real-life Viking lore. It’s also turning 20 years old this year. There will be three books released in 2013 to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary, the first of which is Fafnir’s Treasure.
What is best in life?
Fafnir’s Treasure is a pre-generated adventure, complete with characters, history, and revamped third edition rules. Think of it as an introduction to Fate of the Norns in the same way that games like Pathfinder and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire have beginner boxes. Fafnir’s Treasure, however, is far more exhaustive.
The book is available in both PDF and physical format, and while I used the PDF version, you owe it to check out the physical book if you can. Not only will it be easier to follow along and flip back and forth between pages, but Fafnir’s Treasure boasts some incredible art, and it fills almost every page.
These drawings aren’t the crisp and ultra high-resolution images of modern day, but are instead stylized to look like medieval carvings or simple wall paintings. They also go a long way to absorbing you in Fate of the Norns’ world; it’s one thing to tell readers the signs of the end times, but it is another thing entirely to depict a cosmic wolf devouring the sun in a style evocative of an ancient civilization.
The game doesn’t use dice like most tabletop RPGs, but instead utilizes proprietary designs for Viking runes. You still look to these to determine outcome of events just as you would a d20, but the rules are more complex. Each rune is linked to a different stat of your character: red for physical, blue for mental, green for spiritual. Your character sheet will determine which and how many of the runes you’ll use.
The difficulty of each task is determined by the Game Master, or Norn, on a scale of 0 to 5, 0 being a success and 5 labeled as “unlikely.” A player pulls from a pile of runes to determine success or failure, and the number of runes associated with the task determine success. For example, let’s say the character I played, Sigyn, wants to jump from rooftop to rooftop. The game master declares this will be a physical challenge, determined by Athletics, with a rating of 2: an “easy” feat for her.
Sigyn has a destiny value of 2; destiny is the stat which determines how many runes you can draw to determine success or failure, so Sigyn can draw 2 runes. I pull two runes from my bag and reveal them; I’ve pulled one red rune. Sigyn has an Athletics rating of 1, which reduces the rating from 2, “easy,” to 1, “trivial.” The red rune, which is associated with physical feats, further reduces the rating, this time from 1 to 0. It’s determined that Sigyn has succeeded in her jump.
My favorite skill though? Drinking/Wenching. Yeah, it’s a real stat. Use it to drink your buddies under the table and cause a ruckus at whatever tavern you come across.
To crush your enemies, see them driven before you
Combat works in much the same way. Again, you’re using runes, not dice, to dictate your actions. You draw from the player bag to determine your hand, the same way you would a deck of cards. Each character can do different things depending on their available runes and the combinations you want to play.
Sigyn, for example, can do specific actions when she draws the rune that looks like a capital N. She can still make basic attacks even without that rune, but her unique abilities are tied to six specific runes, as are all the other characters’ unique powers.
So let’s say I do have the N rune. That means I can perform Sigyn’s “Satisfying Attack,” which allows her to perform an Attack action and Heal +2. If I add a physical rune to this play, I’ll double the numbers so that my attack does twice as much damage and I heal for 4 instead of 2.
The system is also particularly brutal and stressful, in a very good way. In D&D, when you get hit, you lose health, and that’s it… unless you apply special rules. In Fate of the Norns, taking damage means you move runes from the “in-play” pile downward, away from you. This means that if you take enough damage, you might not be able to pull off that sweet attack you’ve been planning.
The fact you can always be set back forces you to play smart, and not go rushing in, swords and axes swinging. You want to be careful about how you attack, and the sense of loss when you’re hit feels more damaging than losing 10 hit points out of 176.
And hear the lamentations of people confused by the rules
It’s a complex system that will take some study, and honestly, this is just scratching the surface. A lot of tabletop games are focused on making the rules easy to learn, easy to pick up, and easy to dive into. Fafnir’s Treasure, for better or worse, doesn’t. Even after playing out several scenarios from Fafnir’s Treasure, you may not be completely confident in your understanding of the rules.
My group, for example, spent upwards of ten minutes just figuring out how to utilize the Void rune, a special rune that acts as extra destiny or generic rune for whichever character is using it at the time as a sort of wild card. There will be many “wait a minute"s and “hold on, can I re-read that"s being said around the table the first, second, or even third time you play. Keep in mind Fafnir’s Treasure is meant as an introduction and even simplifies some rules.
The good news is that pulling runes from a bag is absorbing, and when combined with the art and flavorful text of the book, it makes for a deep and engaging experience. Once you start to feel more comfortable with the game’s rules, things flow quickly and keep you on your toes.
I was skeptical of a Viking-based RPG, and Fate of the Norns has had several changes over the years, from a system which used dice to one which featured a distinctly low-fantasy, history-oriented setting. The third edition, Ragnarok ups the stakes by making the game high fantasy during an apocalyptic time period, and everything fits together in a wonderfully cohesive package. The art, text, even the rules feel like something mystical and ancient.
Fafnir’s Treasure serves as a fantastic introduction to the Fate of the Norns game, if not a thoroughly complex and borderline confusing one. Don’t worry, this game isn’t as boring as your history class on Vikings, nor is it stale and lifeless like a museum exhibit. This game makes Vikings… well, pretty damn cool.