Monday, 7 September 2020

Review: Skaldic Sagas

Disclaimer: Note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you or the publisher).

James M. Spahn's Whitebox Viking game was a-coming well before the demise of Google+ - and now it's here! Powered by the same engine as The Hero's Journey 2nd edition, Skaldic Sagas is a tight little fantasy game focussing on community and kinship and viking shenanigans.

System Summary
  • The classic six attributes are given new names and are slightly rearranged: Might (strength), Finesse (dexterity), Resolve (constitution and willpower), Insight (intelligence and awareness), Bearing (charisma), and Weal (luck). Attribute scores range from 3 and 18, while modifiers are between -1 and +1 (only 3 and 18 grants -2 and +2, respectively).
  • Weal doesn't actually modify any roll directly. However, a character can declare Advantage on a number of rolls equal to their Weal modifier per session if positive - or the Narrator (GM) can declare Disadvantage a like number of times if it's negative.
  • One of the attributes is declared Primary and roll on 2d6+6. Another one is Diminished and rolled on 2d6+1. The rest are 3d6.
  • Each character has a random trade they perform in their community between adventures (e.g. beekeeper, sailmaker, or smith). It is assumed that characters are competent in their trades and have all the necessary tools and equipment in their homestead.
  • Characters also have a random Family Legacy, such as Blood of the Gods (+2 to a chosen attribute) or Foreigner (speak +3 languages).
  • Every character gets an Urðr, an immutable destiny, based on one of the 24 runes. Each comes with a distinct mechanical advantage as well as a more narrative description hinting at possible disadvantages. For example, the description of Uruz (health) reads: "You are hale and hearty, and few illnesses or ailments can touch you. Those you hold dear may not be so gifted and you could be fated to watch your loved ones wither and die."
  • There are four Archetypes described: Dregnr (warrior), Lendr (leader), Skald (storyteller/poet), and Vitki (sorcerer/shaman). They have their own Glory requirement (for advancement), Key Attribute, attack bonus, Endurance per level, and Saving Throw (unified as in S&W). Starting equipment is also somewhat based on Archetype.
  • Encumbrance uses the significant item rule: any item larger than a knife counts as 1 significant item. Characters can carry a number of significant items up to their Might score without becoming encumbered; they are lightly encumbered up 1.5 times that number, and heavily encumbered up to twice their Might (so for Might 10, the thresholds would be 10/15/20). Armor is an exception by default: it counts as many significant items as its Reduction Value.
  • Instead of money, the worth of items is measured in Trade Cost.
  • Exploration turns aren't used. There are 10 combat rounds in a minute. There's normally a fixed 1-in-6 chance of a random event while travelling (rolled on a 2d6 table). Seafaring is handled similarly.
  • Dungeoneering rules are present: doors, listening, traps, secret doors, illumination - all largely similar to S&W.
  • Initiative is rolled on 1d12 + Finesse modifier per player character and adversary group, re-rolled every round. Surprise occurs on 1-3 on the first round of combat. Non-surprised combatants may swap their own initiative with an ally's.
  • Endurance (basically hp) is generally lower than in S&W: first level you get the maximum for your "hit die", then 2nd and 3rd level you receive another die (so far modified by Resolve as usual), but after that only 1 to 3 points are gained each level (which isn't modified by Resolve).
  • Defense ("AC") is generally 10 + Finesse modifier + shield (+4) + helm (+1). Attack rolls (d20 + modifiers) that meet or exceed this value hit and deal damage. Damage values follow the variable damage pattern (d4 dagger, d6 dlub, d8 longsword, d10 two-handed sword); however, armour provides Reduction Value (fur 1, leather 2, mail 4). Even then, a successful hit delivers at least 1 point of damage.
  • Natural 20 attack rolls inflict a critical hit: maximum damage that ignores Reduction Value (it was merely an optional rule in The Hero's Journey 2E).
  • At 0 Endurance, the character falls unconscious for 1d6 minutes (and then wakes up with 1 Endurance). At negative values, make a Saving Throw (penalised by current Endurance). They are merely knocked unconscious on a success; however, a failure leads to a roll on the Grievous Wounds table (1d6, penalised by current Endurance, and possibly modified by Weal): 1 or lower means instant death, 2-4 some sort of injury, and 5+ a grazing blow (unconscious for 1d6 minutes, as above).
  • After battle, medicinal herbs may be used to bind wounds for 1d4 Endurance; otherwise, restore 2 points per day (if properly rested).
  • Despair (fighting a powerful evil foe or seeing a comrade fall in battle) requires a Saving Throw. Failure imposes Disadvantage on all attack rolls and Saving Throws as long as the source of Despair is present. Every creature in the book comes with a Despair Rating (if higher than character level by 5 or more, it counts as an overwhelming foe).
  • Frith measures a character's bond with their community. It starts at 1 + Bearing modifier (at least 0). It is increased by helping the community (assisting the Althing, donations, hunting down outlaws, and acts of heroism), while hindering them reduces it (whether by needing constant help from others, not marrying and having kids, stealing, or murdering).
  • The basic assumption is that there is a single adventure every year, with an Althing held between adventures.
  • For each Althing an Annual Event is rolled (such as Mild Winter or Unsolved Murder) that affects Frith, Income, and other aspects of the characters. Then, players roll their Income (based on their trade) and pay their expenses. After mandatory events (Recounting of Deeds, Community Council, and Community Trading), the players get to take one action each.
  • Instead of XP, characters earn Glory through heroic deeds. After adventures, characters recount their deeds at an Althing, and they earn Glory equal to their current level + their Key Attribute modifier (but at least 1 Glory). Then, the players and the Narrator vote in secret for their favourite recounting: the winner gets +1 Glory. Alternatively, Skalds can tell the party's tale as a single saga, further granting Glory to all party members equal to their Storyteller ability rating. There's an option to hire a skald, too.
  • Either the players bring up an issue that the community needs to address, or the Narrator may randomly determine one (such as a petition, criminal accusation, or a challenge).
  • Trading also takes place during the Althing.
  • Individual actions include assisting the community (to gain Frith), binding a runic item (to gain its rune-based advantages), petitioning the jarl, or courting someone. Skalds can also compose a ballad, Dregnr can craft weapons, and Vitki can enchant items.
  • 36 creatures (including 6 human opponents and 12 normal animals) and 16 treasures (powerful magical items, such as Brísingamen, Hringhorni, or Svalinn) are described.
Things I Liked
  • I like the comeback of dungeoneering rules - they were weirdly missing in The Hero's Journey 2E -, even if the turn structure is missing..
  • Nautical combat rules (pretty simple stuff).
  • The Althing rules were a little hard to follow at first (partly because the heading hierarchy was ambiguous), but the rules are fairly simple overall.
  • Frith is a great concept and ties in well with the focus on community.
  • Oxford commas.
Things I Disliked
  • A few more typos and other small errors than I expected.
  • No explicit rules for morale (there is a codified option to intimidate foes, but it's to impose Disadvantage on their attacks rather than forcing a retreat).
  • I like the thematics of regaling tales of adventure to advance (and the added benefit of having a Skald do the heavy lifting), but I'm generally in favour of group advancement (i.e. dividing XP amongst characters equally, whether from combat or treasure or accomplishing goals).
  • I wish a little more material was presented regarding the culture. I didn't expect Vikings of Legend level of detail, but since the game seems to be more grounded in reality than Vikings & Valkyries, I think it needs a little more meat.
  • No bookmarks, hyperlinks, or index (but at least we get a page and a half about how this game doesn't endorse nazis).

I was really looking forward to James's treatment of viking adventures, especially because the intentionally pulpy and romanticised Vikings & Valkyries is one of my favourite games (see some old session reports here). Skaldic Sagas, on the other hand, aims for the realistic - not necessarily historic, because of jötnar and magical creatures and runic items, but definitely low fantasy. Spellcasting, in the traditional sense, isn't even covered in the book anywhere.

However, the game falls too short for me. The rules are okay, I guess, simple and straightforward. The cycle of adventure-Althing-adventure-Althing reminds me of Pendragon (in the sense that it enforces the advancement of time and thinking in the long term), and the Frith and Althing rules facilitate the same sort of community building you can find in Mythic Iceland. The GM advice section is nonexistent - basically a page of "advice" that boils down to (1) make up rulings on the spot, (2) map the local area, (3) you can set the game in someone else's Norse-themed fantasy word, (4) you can allow advancement past level 10 at your own peril. Procedural generation and heavy use of random tables seem antithetical to the ethos of the game, so maybe the inclusion of a sample settlement and its surroundings, small adventure locations, and a handful of NPCs would've improved my overall view of the product. As it stands, I'll only adapt bits and pieces of it to other games.

Skaldic Sagas was written by James M. Spahn and published by Gallant Knight Games. It is available on DriveThruRPG in PDF format.

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