Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tommy's Take on Valherjar: The Chosen Slain

This game wasn't even on my radar until a few days ago, when a friend of mine asked about it on a message board and I discovered I had acquired it during the Haiti Bundle. So, since he was asking about it, here I am reviewing it.

Valherjar is a "modern day Ragnarok"...an urban fantasy game with a distinctly Norse bent. It was released in 2004 and has its own game system, as well as a d20/OGL appendix. To set the stage, the cover is a guy standing in an alley wearing a trenchcoat over chain mail, holding a shotgun and a glowing ax.

The PDF is 233 pages, black and white, and pretty bare bones. It IS searchable and copy and paste enabled, at least. It also includes a table of contents and appendix.

PROLOGUE: MORTAL FEARS

This is pretty much intro fluff game fiction. Honestly, I skimmed this...I usually do, unless it's short and sweet or hooks me pretty quickly...and this didn't hook me, and takes up most of seven pages...of double columns of text.

CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION

The first part of this chapter starts with a crash course in Norse mythology, and hits most of the points I remember. It talks about the major Gods in very loose terms, the Nine Realms, etc. This game focuses on Ragnarok, and the idea that it is drawing close. The Jotun are corrupting basically everything, while the Aesir are moving to end Ragnarok before it can begin, and that's where the Valherjar come on: The Valherjar are valiant warriors plucked from death and given Rune Stones that restore them to life as elite soldier tasked with stopping the Jotun before Ragnarok.

This section talks about Valherjar Year Books that were apparently meant to update the world annually, but I can find no record that they were ever released. There is also a section on inspiration, citing such sources as Frank Miller's 300, Saving Private Ryan and The Crow, as well as a smattering of historical/mythological sources.

We also get a very basic "what is a role-playing game" section, and an overview of the dice used in the AOR system, which are soley six sided dice.

CHAPTER 2: THE VALHERJAR

Here we learn just what the Valherjar are. They are handpicked by "The Valkyrie" from the ranks of the Einherjar, who are deceased mortals that have a profound sense of duty and perserverence.

We get a nice, basic description of how they are picked, with The Valkyrie appearing to the warrior at their death and asking, simply, "Was it enough?" If so, they move on...if not, they get to join the ranks of the Einherjar and, perhaps, the Valherjar.

This chapter also delves into the psychological ramifications of returning as a warrior in Ragnarok, especially since the warriors are drawn from all walks of life and belief systems. There is no hard and fast rule here: Some break...others just suck it up and go on.

There are rules that the Valherjar must follow, and punishments if those rules are not followed. They can range from getting crap assignments to having their status as Valherjar removed.

The Valherjar are divided into six groups, each serving a Patron God, and it is noted that there are common stereotypes among the six groups, related to the temperments of the Patrons. The six Gods are Frigga, Heimdall, Odin, Sif, Thor and Tyr. From there, they are typically placed in roles as either spies or shocktroopers. They are then assigned to squads, where the squad members are linked through their Rune Stones for added effect. Finally, they are ranked by battlefield prestige, making an unofficial chain of command.

We get a rundown of the types of bases the Valherjar will call on, which range from Leyline access points to processing plants where the Valherjar can dispose of bodies in order to keep their cover.

The mechanics of HOW the Valherjar work is explained, starting with the five runestones that animate the body (one in each limb and one in the sternum), plus the 6th Rune Stone implanted in the head. We also get the rundown of their abilities, from Rune Magic to Accelerated Healing to no longer requiring food or drink. However, physical trauma will still kill their mortal form...(their bodies burn up after a day, and they are reborn).

There are nine distinct types of Jotnar, and this chapter provides the common stereotypes tossed about regarding them.

The chapter ends with a section on the psychological ramifications of "dying" and being reborn again...as many Valherjar experience odd dreams and visions during the process (plus, leaving a body around makes keeping secrets a problem).

CHAPTER THREE: GAMING SYSTEM

Valherjar is powered by the AOR Gaming System, and it's a nice little system. In pretty much every roll, you roll 3d6. You pick two of your dice to add to your relevant abilities or attributes, and you take the third die to be your Action Opportunity Roll, which basically dictates how quickly you act.

Characters have eight Attributes: Dexterity, Agility, Strength, Endurance, Intelligence, Perception, Charisma and Will, ranked from 0 to 6 (though scores of 3 are getting into extreme mortal limits, with 4s maxing out mortal limits...5 and 6 are definitely supernatural).

Rolling higher than the Target Number invokes Degrees of Success, with each point being a degree.

Rolling all 6s is a critical success, all 1s is a critical failure.

EVERYTHING uses the same basic mechanic: Combat, Rune Magic, Everything else, that's pretty cool, especially since I like the mechanic. Combat is modified a bit, as you have an Initiative rating, and your AOR die is added to that, rather than used by itself.

Combat does confuse me, and I've re-read the damage system multiple times, but something isn't "clicking": You have wound boxes of different levels, from Light to Moderate to Serious to Critical, and you compare the damage rolled to either Fortitude or Vitality (depending on the type of damage suffered)...and that determines the type of Wound. The problem is that I'm not seeing HOW it's calculated. For instance, if all your Moderate wounds are filled up, you get a Serious wound...but in their examples, the character is taking Moderate wounds without suffering any Light wounds. I haven't dug around on their website to see if there is any clarification, but if it is explained in the book, I am completely missing it.

Rune Magic generates Fatigue, but there was no example supplied, though if you understand the combat damage, you will understand the fatigue.

As characters gain Prestige, their Patron will give them Boons, which are kind of like Rune Magic, but don't incur any fatigue. Prestige can also help you find "black market" items to help you on your missions, which is kinda cool, and makes Prestige valuable.

OH, WAIT...okay...here it is...I had to skip ahead to the Character Creation to see it, but there is a chart there that shows you how to determine Vitality and Fortitude, and sets the thresholds for the types of Wounds taken. So it's an organizational issue, not a true writing issue. Good to see.

A number of optional rules are included if you want more complexity in your combat, and many of these are old standards in other RPGs, such as concealment ratings for weapons, recoil, off-hand fighting, dual wielding and so on. You can keep it fairly light and free flowing, or you can add on complexity until you hit the sweet spot for your group.

CHAPTER FOUR: CHARACTER CREATION

The six "splats" are set up similar to how the World of Darkness splats are set up in their books, although there is no splat to splat fighting like you see in WoD. You have 12 points to Prioritize over four categories (Attributes, Skill, Rune Magic and Prestige), and this provides a recommended spread for each group (you can further customize within that spread, so even if everyone uses the recommended spread, no two characters of the same type have to look alike). It also lists the available Starting Magics and available Booms for each group.

Heimdall's Gjall are more modernized, tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, and keep a close eye on humans.

Tyr's Gleipner tend to be valiant knights who have to be kept away from humanity, or they will be sidelined with trying to save the poor and downtrodden from every little thing, in addition to fighting the war against the Jotnar.

Odin's Grimnir are focused on subterfuge and guile, and will try to maintain the veil of secrecy among the Valherjar no matter what.

Sif's Gyllen tend to be a bit more optimistic than the others, in the sense that they think the Ragnarok prophecy can be altered, rather than everything being doomed and they are just playing their parts.

Frigga's Hlin, on the other hand, think the war can be averted altogether, and a peaceful resolution struck. They're the hippies of the Valherjar.

Thor's Mjolnir (named after his hammer) are ferocious warriors who would just as soon fight in the open as battle in the shadows.

When Prioritizing, each level gives you point spreads to use. For instance, if you put 4 Priority Points on Attributes, you can put two Attributes at 3 and six Attributes at 2 or three at 3, four at 2 and one at 0, or four at 3, one at 2 and three at 1. A final option instead gives you a number of Veteran Points (think experience points) that you can spend to buy up your Attributes (or Skills or Rune Magic) instead.

32 skills - combat and non combat - are included, with the encouragement to use those as a base, if a player wants something new. If you have a Skill of 3, you gain a free Specialization. Specializations are listed for each Skill, with their benefits, to give you some idea.

14 Rune Magic powers are listed, with each having three Foci. For instance, Wrath of Thunder is a straight up damage dealing power. It has three Foci, including Ball Lightning (which inflicts area damage), Chained Lightning (hits multiple targets) and Jolt (inflicts damage through a solid object).

30 Boons are included, for those with a high enough Prestige. These include things like Unbreakable, which provides several rounds of immunity to most damage, once per day. Other Boons include Thrust of the Spear, which allows the hero to turn their fingers into blades and Familiarity, which allows heroes to immediately set those they deal with at ease, improving social interactions with them.

Pages of armor and weapons are included, pretty standard stuff. Given that it is a modern weapon, there are plenty of hand guns, but they don't skimp on the melee weapons, given the Asgardian roots of the game.

CHAPTER FIVE: NARRATING

The first part of this chapter is some good, but basic stuff: The three act structure, ten tips for GMing, and so on. Stuff you've read in a hundred RPG books by now.

It gets a little more useful with about a dozen game-specific plot hooks, and there are some interesting items here: Like a string of youth related crimes, all incredibly violent, and spread out across the map...with a single thread: Each mother visited the same chain of fertility clinics in order to get pregnant. Or an obnoxious celebrity type has targeted certain Jotnar concerns with their rhetoric, and the Aesir are finding this to be decidedly beneficial - so the PCs are dispatched to protect this windbag from assassination...(depending on your political leanings, your PCs could find themselves protecting a Glenn Beck or a Keith Olbermann, for instance).

The book recommends setting up your game in Campaigns, which consist of eight or nine individual Operations, with multiple Campaigns making a Saga.

A helpful section is included on making the best use of the AOR, including some tips on how people can regret just ditching their lowest die into the AOR, especially in non-combat situations.

The chapter concludes with a section on Player Rewards which, somewhat unhelpfully for some people, is basically "Find your own pace and stick with it." The faster you want the PCs to be movers and shakers, the more Veteran Points and Prestige you should give them.

CHAPTER SIX: THE JOTNAR

This amounts to the Bestiary in the game.

Instead of Rune Magic, the Jotnar have Ritual Magic, which isn't just the same thing re-skinned. A few "schools" of magic are provided, with descriptive effects of some sample effects, but - for better or for worse - actual mechanical effects are left completely up to the Narrator's interpretation.

From there, we break down the individual types of Jotnar, most of which have an image to go with the statblock and background.

The Boda are cat-ladies who try to avoid conflict.

The Garm are brutal warriors who are smarter than they look...(they look a little like classical orcs).

Jormun are reptilian creatures, little more than animals.

The Nidhogg are creepy boogeymen.

The Surtur are big, ugly, scare demons who are not meant to be fought by beginning characters at all.

Ymir are second only to Surtur in sheer, horrific strength...and have less restraint that Surtur. In fact, it is the Surtur alone that keep the Ymir from waging open warfare on the world.

Ratatosk are a catch-all for a number of freakish creatures, and an excuse to concoct just about anything and dump them into the front lines of Jotnar combat. Land Sharks, Felhounds, Grendels, Squids...many of these are not much more intelligent than animals, but there are a few...but yeah, these are just an in-game rationale to bust out whatever beast you feel like.

Thokks are kinda like Ratatosk...except they are harvested entirely from the dead, and are almost uniformly unintelligent. The most frightening of these are the Draugr, which are magically corrupted Valherjar...complete with Rune Magic.

The last major listing are for Muspells...who are mortals that have joined the Jotnar and have been given power similar to the Rune Magics employed by the Valherjar!

A basic statblock is also provided for generic thugs.

CHAPTER 7: OGL APPENDIX

You can tell this came out in 2004...the obligatory d20 tie-in. Unnecessary, really, since the game is perfectly fine without it, but at least it's an appendix and not dominating the book. Counting the OGL license, it is a full 35 pages, with Feats, Powers and Jotnar. The six splats are given the full character class treatment, and Prestige is now tied to class level.

That's all the space I'm devoting to the appendix. I don't know if it's top quality conversion work or not...I did d20 for a while, and I didn't care for it (although Star Wars Saga Edition is the tremendous exception to that rule). Just know that the option is there in the book, but it's just that, an option.

CHAPTER 8: QUICK REFERENCE

It starts off with a glossary and moves to the index, which seems fairly comprehensive. A list of Norse runes with names, pictures and meanings are included as well. Several quick reference sheets are included, covering just about everything except Boons for some reason.

The book ends with an NPC sheet followed by a (non-d20) character sheet.

THOUGHTS

The first two chapters of the book were hard to get through. WAY too much in-character fluff. I found it hard to read. From character creation on, it was a breeze. I don't mind in-character fluff, but we're talking in-character quotes about topics taking up a page, while the topic itself is a paragraph. It was patently ridiculous. After that, my only real complaint was the chart for determining damage being in Chapter four, while the combat rules were in Chapter three, and there was no indication that you needed to skip ahead to see the chart.

I was concerned with the bestiary...until I saw the two categories designed to give you free reign to do with as you will, basically. Frankly, the stat blocks look simple enough that I could mine old D&D bestiaries for fodder with minimal problems. That's always cool.

I really like the core mechanic of rolling three dice and picking one for speed and two for effect. It seems like I've seen a mechanic like that somewhere, but I can't place it. Normally, I would complain about the size of the skill list, but for some reason it doesn't feel too excessive. I also love that the game has a built in "This is why you're a team" bit, so everyone can play their chosen character type, whatever it is, and then you just say "And the Aesir bonded you together". If anyone decides to be a game wrecker? In-game punishment from the Gods.

The plot seeds in the Narration chapter show a surprising amount of depth in the types of Operations that can be played, and I'm honestly a little sad that the company apparently died after this book came out, because none of the promised support materialized, though their website is still up with character sheets and a preview of the game system (taken directly from the book).

It's a pretty cool little game, that probably deserved more attention, and a better editor on the first two chapters. I'm not HUGELY into Norse mythology, but I do like the concept of "...and then you found out that Ragnarok is real, and these guys want you to help try to stop it".

Recommended, even if there are some organizational issues.