Honestly, I had kind of retired from investment in Viking-age rpgs. My home game hasn’t involved the Norse-specific setting for more than a year, my pocketbook doesn’t drip nine golden rings as Odin’s Draupnir does, and there isn’t much utility in owning much more, since I doubt I’d be able to wrest my gamers from my tabletop version of Fourth Age Middle-earth anytime soon. But the Sagas of Midgard Kickstarter advertised savage, fast-paced gameplay and rules for Raiding—an essential component of the northern milieu and one that I had not ever seen treated to my satisfaction. So I backed a PDF copy, mostly out of curiosity.
When I received it, I realized I was encountering something much more than a few interesting mechanics. This looks like a really good game! You’ll notice that I don’t precisely say that it is simply because I haven’t had a chance to run it yet. Character abilities originate from five separate Domains, and each Domain is governed by a Norse deity. At character creation (and during advancement) players spend points within these domains for specific powers and abilities. These are fueled by a currency called Favor, which characters can obtain through a variety of methods, many of them mechanical. The core mechanic is what the designers call the “Rollover System.” Every task and adversary has a “Rollover Score,” usually between 1 and 100, that a PC has to beat (with a roll of d100) to obtain the effect she wants. There are modifiers, of course, resulting from other game mechanics, and a core feature is that the GM never rolls the dice, something shared by a few other systems and (though denying the GM the pleasure of rolling dice) allows her to focus on storytelling and character interaction.
My main criticism, though, is that the rules explanations can be hard to follow (while recognizing reasons for the authors’ organizational choices). I contacted the authors about this, and they told me that they already had been drafting a “cheat sheet” that should be helpful even to new gamers. And, in the midst of my enthusiasm for their game, I succeeded in getting the creators, Nick Porter and Dominic De Duonni, to agree to an interview.
Routine visitors to this site might remember my survey of Poul Anderson’s works, a regular column that has been on indefinite hiatus for about two years now. Causes for this suspension have been 1. Anderson’s two-book Operation Chaos was an absolute drudge of a read, requiring a recovery period that only now might be over, 2. New responsibilities at home decreased available time for my recreational pursuits, 3. The time share for these recreational pursuits was almost wholly dominated by my weekly Pathfinder campaign, a campaign that now finally might be coming to an end.
It’s unlikely that, with increased time, though, I’ll be returning to the Anderson survey. This is because I’ll move onto running other games, one of which already is underway: Yggdrasill.
At first glance Yggdrasill caters to a niche crowd, and I’m certainly a member of that company. I am a Norse-phile. Within my close community, I am nearly alone in my passionate interest — but for one dear friend, who identifies as Norse neopagan. When I first learned about the game just over a month ago, I knew that this “blood brother” would play the game with me. I also guessed that some others in my community would try it out, as well, and they have.
But as I consider just how many other areas of the globe might have the dynamic of interest that I enjoy, I question how viable a business project Yggdrasill might be. Perhaps I shouldn’t: Vikings appears to be a popular TV show; perhaps that series inspired some gamers to go “full Viking.” The “northern thing” clearly is a mainstay of traditional fantasy gaming, an aspect derived from popular fantasy fiction. But in most games where efforts are made to make the northern atmosphere “authentic” — well, they’re not actually “games,” per se, so much as they are campaign settings and supplements, productions such as Lands of the Linnorm Kings in Pathfinder’sInner Sea setting for Golarion, and The Northlands Saga in Frog God’s Lost Lands setting, and both of these properties actually are about single regions within much larger campaign settings. But with Yggdrasill the northern thing is the whole thing, and that’s catering to a specific taste indeed!
As in The Golden Slave (and to lesser degrees in Three Hearts and Three Lionsand in Virgin Planet) the major textures of Poul Anderson’s Rogue Sword sketch a love triangle. But at first our hero Lucas Greco’s love is not confined to only two women. No, he is a philanderer, a gallant, and the prologue establishes this as Lucas escapes the rage of Gasparo Reni, a jealous husband. This also shows Anderson’s impressive ability to construct symmetrical plots, for Gasparo and another in the prologue, Ser Jaime, shall be around for the duration of the novel.
The first chapter jumps ahead fourteen years. Lucas, with his friend Brother Hugh de Tourneville, surprise encounters Gasparo again, this time in the streets of Constantinople. Exhibiting rage apparently beyond all reason, Gasparo orders his men to fall on Lucas and to slay him on the spot. But, assisted by Brother Hugh, Lucas defends himself and escapes. During his escape, however, Gasparo’s slave woman, a woman who had been destined for a lord’s harem, joins herself to Lucas.
This slave, Djansha, becomes Lucas’s first love. It is notable that Lucas is not aware of this at first. He takes for granted Djansha’s complete faithfulness and service to Lucas. Lucas perhaps thinks that she is so into him because he is kind and supportive of her needs. Perhaps he believes that she would behave the same for any man who treated her in this manner. He also probably takes her for granted because she is a slave. Lucas cannot be blind to the strict social classes of 1306 A.D. (using Anderson’s signifier for era). And, naturally, he aspires for the heights. He actively pursues this state when he meets the lady Violante, a sensual and cunning member of the aristocracy married to the savage warrior Asberto.
Before briefing the reader on this third part of the triangle, however, we should pause a moment to focus on Anderson’s initial description of Djansha. I am struck now how, in a number of novels, Anderson has presented the reader with two female body “types.” What we read about Djansha also could describe Alionara from Three Hearts and Three Lions and perhaps Barbara from Virgin Planet and of course Phryne from The Golden Slave. Generally, this type is slim, childlike, and “boyish.” Here’s a description of Djansha.
The Odin’s Day Poul Anderson work scheduled for discussion this week is The High Crusade. But, since I find that I have very little to say about it, I’ll focus instead on Violette Malan’s The Sleeping God.
Last week Elizabeth Cady asked Black Gate readers what she should read next. I would never deign to give her an answer. As a reader and a scholar, in general I find that book recommendations more often curse than bless. Here is my simple reasoning for this: There simply is too much to read already. I don’t even want to think about accommodating every well-meaning aunt, mother-in-law (notice the gender bias here? I’ll let it stand: I infrequently receive recommendations from men in the family), neighbor or co-worker who says, “Oh, I see you like to read. Well, you absolutely must read FILL IN THE BLANK.” These recommendations are all the worse (I’m sure many Black Gate readers can testify) when the recommenders are pushing a book on you for no other reason than that they have noticed that you read at all in a culture wherein so many don’t. As such, they often don’t recognize the fine distinctions of what genres or periods in which one might prefer to read.
On many occasions I have thought about and discussed reading through food metaphors. The title of the lengthiest work from food thinker Michael Pollan frames this discussion perfectly. The title is The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In that work, Pollan argues that a modern Homo sapien in what are considered “developed” countries is confronted in the supermarket with a similar complexity of choice that his or her distant ancestor experienced. In a state of nature, the human must choose amongst a variety of foods that grow in the wild. What is nutritious? What will make you sick? What should be sampled in moderation? Now, Pollan argues, the food system has processed these foods into – in some cases – potentially lethal formulations. In the supermarket, Homo sapiens face similar challenges that their ancestors did: What is good for me? What will make me sick? What might cause cancer?
But first, I’d like to ask readers a very important question:
Do Tolkien’s Elves have pointy ears?
This came up after my last post, in which I wondered why Anderson and Tolkien (and many other fantasy writers) agree that elves are tall and have pointy ears. After reading this, Frederic S. Durbin contacted me to say,
Does Tolkien ever say that the elves have pointed ears? To my knowledge, he never does. Please correct me if I’m wrong! This is a bone I had to pick a few years back, when some writer somewhere described hobbits as having “hairy toes and pointed ears.” I think this misconception about Tolkien’s elves and hobbits has come from artwork. Artists need to have a way of making magical races look different from humans, so they go for the ears. We need Spock to look different from humans in a cheap and easily-reproducible way from day to day in the studio, so we give him pointed ears. People have been seeing illustrations of pointy-eared elves and hobbits for so long that they’ve begun to believe Tolkien described them that way. I don’t think it’s true. (Again, I’m willing to stand corrected if someone shows me a passage!)
So there you have it, folks! Please help! Is there a passage anywhere in Tolkien’s writings that suggest that Elves (or even Hobbits) have pointy ears?
And now let’s turn our attention to Poul Anderson’s Virgin Planet.
Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword originally was published in a different form in 1954, which is why I’m discussing it at this time and not later. It is important to note that in Anderson’s introduction to the 1971 edition, he refers to his earlier self, the writer of the 1954 version, as if that person were not himself but in fact a different writer with the very same name. Anderson’s 1971 introduction also specifically takes into account J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Anderson asserts that, like Tolkien, he has mined the rich veins of the Northern fantasy tradition, but he claims that, unlike Tolkien, he has found riches of a slightly different hue, perhaps gems with deeper or gloomier lusters. He writes:
In our day J.R.R. Tolkien has restored the elves to something of what they formerly were, in his enchanting Ring cycle. However, he chose to make them not just beautiful and learned; they are wise, grave, honorable, kindly, embodiments of good will toward all things alive. In short, his elves belong more to the country of Gloriana than to that house in heathen Gotaland. Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it was necessary to Professor Tolkien’s purpose.
I was at first horribly confused by this reference to Gloriana, able to uncover at first only a post-dated work by Michael Moorcock of that title. Until I realized that Moorcock’s novel borrows from the very thing that must be Anderson’s reference – Gloriana, or the Queen of Faerie in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (a work of whose ending I have not yet got to) who is herself an allegory of Queen Elizabeth.
What a very puzzling suggestion. Of course we know, from Tolkien’s own introduction to The Lord of the Rings, that Tolkien detests allegory, so this certainly isn’t the point of comparison that Anderson finds. So it must be Gloriana’s character, and in Spenser’s medieval reconstructionist tradition Gloriana must of necessity stand as the ideal form of every human virtue. But does this truly characterize Tolkien’s Elves? One may even become incensed when Anderson appears to make a slightly disingenuous comparison by claiming that he harks “further back” than Tolkien, to medieval Europe in which “cruelty, rapacity, and licentiousness ran free.” Um. Tolkien’s Elves lived in a vanished Earth Age, not in Spenser’s proto-Romanticist reimagined “Arthurian” England. If we’re talking in terms of scope, Tolkien’s setting might have more to do with Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age than even Anderson’s Middle Ages.
I’m willing to bet that Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions published in 1953 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and Anderson’s close friend and frequent collaborator Gordon R. Dickson’s St. Dragon and the George, published likewise in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at about the same time – later republished as The Dragon and the George) owes quite a bit to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And Anderson doesn’t disguise this, for he at least once overtly references Twain’s historical romance when he has his protagonist, Holger Carlsen (a “Carl” again!), unconvincingly scare away a band of barbarians by using his tobacco pipe to blow smoke out of his mouth. The work further encourages comparisons to Twain’s book through Holger’s use of other “Enlightenment” tricks in a secondary world, and Anderson uses bookends reminiscent of Twain’s. Anderson’s bookends here are worth a closer look.
Holger Carlsen’s history, as relayed by an unspecified narrator, funhouse-mirrors Anderson’s personal history. In a book profiling Supernatural Fiction Writers, Ronald Tweet reports that Anderson was born to Danish parents and lived in Denmark for a while previous to WWII. Holger of Three Hearts and Three Lions is a Dane who, after wandering Europe, starts attending an Eastern university in the U.S. When WWII breaks out, he goes back to Denmark, where, through fairly compressed and elliptical telling, the narrator says that Holger eventually ends up in a pistol fight with Germans. At this point, “all his world [blows] up in flame and darkness.” And Holger finds himself in a fantasy world.
In light of Anderson’s own biographical information, one is tempted to believe that much of this work is the result of a highly personal fantasy, a kind of daydream out of which many fantasies certainly must arise. I’m sure that most of us have fantasized about being an important person in an important place – If only we could get there, somehow!