Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Augury - Northlands


 
Northlands, Roleplaying in Winter’s Chill, is a Pathfinder sourcebook for the Midgard setting that support adventures in the frozen north, based on scandinavian, slavic and even greek mythology, as well as the classic viking legends from Medieval Europe.  Northlands follow the design principles of Wolfgang Baur’s new campaign setting, with a darker, more primeval and mature approach to well-known themes of fantasy, besides drawing inspiration from lesser recognized sources (like german myths).

Northlands is a B&W softcover with 110-pages. This book is, literally, full of material. It also has, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful color covers so far for the Pathfinder RPG (yeah, I’m comparing it with Paizo’s top-notch art).

Northlands’ first chapter is also the most conventional. In approximately 10 pages it neatly condensates the classical elements of what most gamers would call “viking culture”. It may not be a history class, but it certainly has enough material and information to start a campaign and impart the local culture and society to your players (in fact, I would use Northlands, at first, as a foreign culture in my campaigns).

Chapter Two details the north continent of Thule, in the Midgard setting. We get information on its most common races, a little bit of history and legends, and a general description of the main regions.

Northlands describe places full of references to myth and literature, like the Phantom Isles, Jotunheim, the Plains of Rhos Kurgan, the Kingdom of the Bear (a realm of bears!), Trollheim, Hyperborea (one of the book’s best ideas, with inspiration draw not only from myths but also pulp fantasy) and the Land of the Falling Wall (I don’t know if it is a homage to Jack Vance, but I surely love it!). The book also details traditional races of Pathfinder, incorporated in the northern mythos, like the sea-faring reaver dwarves and the cursed elven domains of Thorn.

Chapter Three is for player characters. We have new human races (Kazzakh, Donneren, Skraeling, Trylleri and Hyperborean – the last one with new stats), one new dwarf race (reaver) and the trollkin (a catchall term for the monstrous offspring of humans with trolls, fey and ogres).

The Pathfinder classes all gain new options, like rage powers, domains, bloodlines and even material for the Oracle and the Witch. Some of the classes have an entire new flavor, like the skald (for the bard) and the excellent and original glima masters (the brutal monks of Donar). We also have new feats, character traits, equipments and special materials

Northlands introduces achievement feats – stronger talents that can only be bought after some great deed is accomplished and, most important, recognized by the council of the character’s village or location. It’s a nice way to tie a setting element to the rules. An example: the Giant Killer achievement feat grants an insight bonus to attacks against giants proportional to their size in relation to your character (“the bigger they are…”) and also treats you as a size larger for the purpose of combat maneuver checks. However, it requires that you survive 10 awesome blows, bull rushes, overruns, or similar manuevers from giants (of at least two size categories larger than the character) and that you deliver the killing blow to 10 giants.

Chapter Four is about magic. Beyond detailing new spells and incantations, Northlands also introduce rune magic. Rune magic is based on feats and can be used by any class. A rune gives a base bonus, the ability create certain magic items and access to three thematic powers (almost like a domain). Each step requires a feat. The Rune of Travel (“Raido”), for example, increases your speed and always let you know which way is north (base bonus), let you manufacture (for example) items that improve speed and, finally, grant to powers the deal with movement (beginning, at 1st level, with a situational bonus to checks involving ski, sleds and similar ways of transportation). The most interesting aspect of Rune Magic is that these feats require a symbolic quest to be acquired – like slaying a magical beast associated with the rune. Again, an intelligent application of the rules.

One particular aspect of Northlands that I enjoyed is its magic items section: it has 9 artifacts, each one inspired in northern mythology and a campaign in itself.

The next chapter is devoted to campaigns, with specific information about survival, weather, encounters, chases, foods & drinks, hazards, magical locations, haunts and a variant rule for hero points, called Fate Afflictions. This last one is a rules-light attempt to simulate the way that Fate (through the mythological Norns) interferes in the lives of northern heroes. Wisely, it let the choice of accepting the limitations of a fate to the player.

Chapter Six is the bestiary and opens with the avatar of Boreas, God of the North Wind, a CR 17 monster and the first deity with stats for Pathfinder that I’ve seen. While some may object, I enjoyed the new approach and scale, much more useful to the majority of the campaigns that I know. There also new types of giants, magical wolves (and similar beasts), ice maidens and (of course) valkyries.

What I can say? After Zobeck with its delicious simplicity and originality, Northlands is by far my favorite sourcebook from Open Design. It is, without a doubt, at the same quality level of Tales of the Old Margreve. It has a great deal of mechanical content, but its worth remembering that Northlands is the equivalent of the “regional sourcebooks” for campaign settings like Forgotten Realms or Eberron.