Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Go Berserk! Burn, Pillage and have non-consenting sex in Midgard by Ben Redmond

Midgard Ben Redmond is a Viking Hero roleplaying system where you perform epic quests in a mythic-historic theme. There's no setting but you're probably the sort of GM who writes one for each campaign anyway. It's got a system that will give you the same face you had on when you found out Obama had become POTUS. You might be confused but you won't be disappointed.

Character Creation

Character creation follows a familiar (if a little obfuscated) set of stepping stones. The first step is to choose your Birthright and your Legend. Birthright is your background. It can either be Godly type or a bog-standard human. Both types get different bonuses and are equally worthwhile. Like all good systems, the choices you make throughout character creation really sets out the kind of character you are. The Legend (like class) determines the types of skills you get and as such suggests a sort of specialisation. Legends include Berserker, Chieftan and Trickster.

Next, you select your God Runes. God Runes are a generalised type of statistics. Rather than split things up between Strength, Intelligence and other ethereal measurements, he's gone native and chosen traits that are associated with the setting - each one representing the rune of a God. Freyja is concerned with living things and the natural world, including your constitution. Thor is about hairy-chested manly things: strength and machines. Odin is all about lobbing spells hither and thither. Heimdall is for the talky-types and pacifists and Tyr is about repeatedly mashing anyone who gets in the way. Probably the first thing you thought when you saw Vikings mentioned. You start with two points in each rune, 4 in the rune that your own special god is associated with (from the Bithright, remember?). You get 14 points to pump up your runes, with a maximum boost of 4 in any given one. Enough room for customisation.

Step three is where you work out your Qualities. Qualities are derived from your runes. They cover all those things that are difficult to pin down in an RPG - such as how much health you have or resistance to things. You add together a couple of runes and compare with a table for each result. It's all pleasantly explained.

Skills are based on your Legend (your class) and your gender (oooh, controversial). Of course, gender stereotyping worries should be cast aside to allow for a gentle lean toward historical accuracy (without inequality in history, there would be no feminists - discuss). The skill increase system is steeply non-linear, the first level costing one point but the rise from 3 to 4 costing a whopping 8! There are good range of aptly named and well described skills from Berserker (Clerks, anyone?) to Navigation (the art of not stopping to ask directions when you're lost). Some are a little weak and might be open to abuse; Luck being described as:

This skill can be used whenever you want a lucky break. Its effects are varied and often minor.

You might think that's ok but if you are blessed with a group of swap-their-grandmothers-for-a-snickers-rules-fascists like me, you'll not be able to hear yourself think with the sound of clattering Luck skill checks. Of course, the wording suggests that the GM should retort a fail with: "Oh, a fail, shame. You're not lucky. Your arm falls off and... my goodness, that is bad luck, it's the one you wank with." That can turn any RPG into a sub-genre of "Who can be the biggest git". There are a couple of skills like this that send the spine tingling with cold sweat GM fear. A bit of tightening or house rules would be advisable for those.

Stuffs (a non-word I can't help but to use for equipment, weapons and armour) is dealt with on a what-is-reasonable standing. A lasse-faire approach which suits some but I prefer a little guidance. What is too much? What is too little? The characters are heroes, so bollocks to encumbrance and the limiting penalties they incur.

Gift Runes are where the real action is at. These are special heroic powers that you can purchase to allow a huge array of feats. There's lots to read and plenty of hidden rules inside but as each character only has a few, they're worth pouring over.


The system appears quite involved due to the Midgard lexicon. However, it is quite simple and works for just about any action. A dice roll is called a Cast as you are simulating drawing runes from a bag. Therefore, the dice become runes. You're given a handy cast sheet with five stones on it: Tyr, Frejya, Heimdall, Merkstave and the special Cast Runes stone. The Cast Runes stone is a pool from which you can distribute between other stones.

For any given action, you pick a skill that matches it. You get a Cast Rune token for each rank you have in that skill. You can add Wyrd (naturalistic magical power) to that if you like. Then roll the same number of d8s for the associated God rune (that you chose right at the start of character creation in your Birthright). For each 6,7 or 8 you roll, you add a token onto the Cast Rune stone. For scores 3 to 5, you add tokens on different stones. Rolls of 1 give you a token on the Merkstave rune stone. You then distribute whatever you have on the Cast Rune stone around on the other runes depending on what you're trying to achieve.

For example, I want to beat someone's face in. I've got a skill of rank 3 in Axes (a Tyr skill, he being the god of making faces concave). Therefore, I start with 3 tokens on my cast stone. I'm no magical fellow, so no Wyrd for me. During character creation, I selected my God Rune as Tyr (naturally) and I've pumped him to be my bitch God to the tune of 6 points. So I get to roll 6 dice. I roll 1,3,4,5,6 and 7.

The 6 and 7 give me two tokens on my cast stone, now up to 5. The 1 gives me a Merkstave stone. This is bad, we'll come back to it. The 3 adds a token on a Heimdall stone. The 4 gives me a token on Frejya's stone. The 5 gives me a token on my Tyr stone. That's more like it. Now, as I'm just giving some poor Saxon some more fashionable face slots, I only need Tyr, so I take the 5 Cast Rune stone (think of it as a pool) tokens and put them on Tyr, giving me 6. Which is compared against the difficulty table. The difficulty was 5, so I manage to give the Northumbrian an incurable case of axe-face.

Merkstave Rune stone effects are for the GM to do nasties to the outcome, by slowing time down, making a failure critical and so on. Letting the GM be foul and cruel, a nice touch. There are other complexities, where one stone or another does not count for certain actions but that's pretty much the whole system. Combat has a few additions (initiative, wounding and the like) but you're still casting, which is all rather neat. The language might seem a bit daunting at first but you'll get over it, as I did.

Other sections

A reasonable bestiary is included with some additional information for GMs before a fabulous character sheet. I'm something of a nut when it comes character sheets. I can often be found perching on a rock in the high street babbling on about the horror of character sheets that look like spreadsheets. The Midgard one does not. A little rough around the edges but exceptionally well thought and laid out.

I don't normally put in big images but just take a look at this corker of a character sheet!

The book

At 26 pages, it's no hefty tome and (with acknowledgement from the author) it does not include a setting per se. Why include a setting when you can plunder Wikipedia? Well... because it's easier to run. Easier to sell to the players. Like many free games out there, Midgard nearly has a setting. The rules and the lore which it obeys sets up a setting - it's not generic. For example, not suited to Space Opera. It is such as a shame that Ben chose not to go further and write a good setting for it. The layout is good, language could do with another read through and the front-page is a toner killer. There aren't any graphics beyond the character sheet and the odd rune but with clever use of typography and few pages, I don't think it needs them. The layout butts a little close to the left edge, making binding a little tricky but I can forgive that as no text is obscured.

What I would do to Midgard

I'd add a setting, please Ben, create the setting it deserves! The rule explanations could do with some fleshing out with examples and the order of explanation should begin with a rough description of the topic - relating back to well known roleplaying concepts (statistics, feats and so on). This is done in some places but not others. The book is really the result of someone trying to get the rules out of their head and onto paper; rather than a long-playtested game where you've had to explain things 200 times and so the best way to do so comes more naturally. I wonder if the casting mechanics could be simplified a little, the act of casting is non-trivial and I think quick combat sessions could turn needlessly epic in terms of time required. Qualities too could be collapsed into something simpler, based on the God runes themselves, perhaps.

Support and Community

It's all very well having these good ideas about making Midgard more playable but is anything likely to get done? Some games, sadly, fall off the radar as their writers leave them to gather dust. However Ben appears to be still playtesting, toying and suggesting improvements. They're not the busiest forums but some activity is better than none! With fellow cohort Nigel McClelland, the worryingly entitled Black Orifice appears to be new and active. I'm going to take it upon myself to badger them into producing another version. I'll keep you informed.

In conclusion

If you like the Vikings. If you like burning, raping and pillaging Northern Europe. If you like to pooh-pooh other Viking settings for being too thick or thin and having no heart, then Midgard is for you. You can make the setting as thick or thin as you like and from there, Midgard will give it a throbbing heart. It's not perfect but then neither is my arthritic, mongrel dog and yet there is lot to love about her. There is a lot to love about them both.


Ben Redmond said...

Thanks for the review, Rob.

Midgard is still very much under playtest - we're just about to start a medium-term campaign, so expect some system updates soon.

As for a setting, I'm just not confident I'm the man to do it the justice it deserves. Maybe I should find an expert on the history who could help me out.

Cheerio for now,


Rob Lang said...

Many thanks to you, Ben! Thank you for sharing a great game.

I think you're perfectly placed to write a good Norse setting. It doesn't have to be particularly accurate, it just needs to be fun and accurate. You might like to include:
Basic description of the lives of Vikings and Heroes
Description of the World at that time.
The Gods and what they might get up to.
Some NPCs and an example adventure.

The reason it should come from you is that if you get someone else to write it, there will be a jarring difference between your intriguing and slightly irreverant style and the style of another author.

I you really can't be persuaded, you could try advertising on 1KM1KT or some of the other forums but I would imagine many creator do things for cold hard cash these days.

I'll keep this conversation going on your site too so that we can keep all the thoughts (and nagging) in each place!.

Kiashu said...

Some great lines in there, Rob. I especially liked the distinction,

"The book is really the result of someone trying to get the rules out of their head and onto paper; rather than a long-playtested game where you've had to explain things 200 times and so the best way to do so comes more naturally."

That's an important one.

Pity you can't even spell the game's name, though :)

David Macauley said...

It's not only the front cover that's heavy on the printer ink, each page has a large black border, which is enough to put me off printing this game. I would love to see a version produced without the border, or at least with a border of some other colour.

Ben Redmond said...

David - no problem, I'll get on to it right away. Printer-friendly version comig soon.

Ben Redmond said...

printer-friendly version now available, plus a few rules tweaks included based on feedback from here and recent playtesting. Go to my blog for more info: webjam.com/the_black_orifice

Brunomac said...

Come for the rape, stay for the great character creation system!

Um, seeing as all that rape is mentioned, are there rules for that unwholesome passtime, or is it simply a matter of role play?

I was curious, would it be fairly simply to inject fantasy elements into the game? I know that might not be the intention of the makers of the game, but throwing in the occasional ghost or troll or some other time period-specific monsters might give the game longer legs for us D&D type dorks...

Rob Lang said...

@Kiashu - Thanks for the proof read! I have fixed it. Although I read through the post several times, my brain just saw what it wanted to see, rather than what was there. That's my story and I am sticking to it! ;)

@Ben - Nice work on the printer-friendly version. It's that sort of fast turnaround response that makes me glad I put in outrageous claims about you supporting it.

@Brunomac - Midgard does have fantastical elements in it but they are not from the Germanic-Celtic type myths that Tolkein borrowed from but instead from Norse legends. There is plenty of scope for the ghosts of past warriors, horrific sea beasts and the like. Midgard is written very much from the historical point of view of the Vikings themselves. Therefore, all the things the Vikings believed are real in Midgard. It's a popular and well-conceived way of making historic games have a fantasy edge.

As for rape, that's very much up to your sort of gaming group. There aren't any rules specifically for it. I added that into the title to mock the stereotype. I'd imagine you'd have no problem playing a suitable-for-young-teens game as well as a hard-bitten gruesome game for evil adults!

Thanks for the comments everyone!

David Macauley said...

Thanks for the printer-friendly version Ben, that's much appreciated.

Badelaire said...

Printed and ready for reading. Looks great, and I'm interested in seeing how the nontraditional stat/skill mechanics will work out. It's always nice to see a game that avoids the traditional stat & skill idea but doesn't take it to a level of navel-gazing that some "out there" lite systems go with.

Will try to pass along some more feedback as soon as I give it a read-through.

Ben Redmond said...

We've started a playtest discussion about some rules mods and things over at our blog if anyone is interested, you can help us develop Midgard - feel free to chip in with suggestions.

Link: http://www.webjam.com/the_black_orifice/forums/$the_black_orifice_forum/~ViewTopic?id=df3056d2-b46d-4faa-b289-7a2c8cb17d43&page=1