By Thilo Graf
This pdf from Open Design is 114 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC , 1 page patron list, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving a whopping 109 pages for the Northlands, so let’s check it out!
Disclaimer: I was a patron for this project and contributed my fair share of material to the book. Additionally, I’m working with Scandinavian literature and culture as one of my day-jobs, probably not making me the most unbiased of potential reviewers in this instance, but I’ll try to remain as critical, nitpicky and obnoxious as in my other reviews.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s check it out!
Northlands is a sourcebook for the North, to state the obvious, but from the very beginning you’ll realize that it goes above and beyond what you’d expect of e.g. an environment-book like e.g. 3.5’s “Frostburn”, which will serve as my point of reference for this review. You have to know that, while I did like Frostburn and consider it to be one of the finest publications for 3.5, I was also sorely disappointed by its lack of true understanding about what makes the North compelling as both a cultural backdrop and a setting and this is where Northlands gets it right: It starts off with not only an introduction to the climate, but more importantly, how both religion & harsh climate have shaped the social order and mindset of the people of the North: Shaped by relentless, deadly yet beautiful environments, a hard and gritty breed of men (and women) emerged from the climate, depending on strength of both sword-arm and wits and defined alignment-wise by what is considered honourable and what isn’t. We’re not talking chivalry in the north, though, as honorable is a relative term and reputation is a precious good not to be tarnished by excessive displays of mercy – being “good” or “evil” is much more relative in these regions. The semi-democratic social order and the differences from feudal, traditional fantasy settings is also extensively and comprehensively covered, providing for a concise and aptly-written introduction to culture and land for just about anyone – for scholars, it offers the basics to add fantasy elements to what they already know, for novices it provides a compelling read that conveys the necessary mindset to plunge into the north and get the most out of this book.
After these explanations on feuds, hospitality, tafl games and social drinking rules, the pantheon of the north and their implementation in the setting of Midgard, we are introduced to the continent of Thule and with it, one of the very best gazetteer-section I have read in all my years of roleplaying – from human-centric jarldoms and their feuds, the conflict-laden history of reaver-dwarves and men, the animal kingdoms of bear and wolf and the cthulhoid-threatened/pulpy lost lands of Hyperborea, we get insane amounts of seeds capable of sparking of whole campaigns and a stunning map of the continent.
All right, you say, but what about the crunch? Well, 4 human ethnicities are provided as well as a set of alternative racial traits for Reaver-dwarves. Hyperborean Day-and Nightborn (influenced by the strange energies of the Hyperborean aurora borealis) and Trollkin are presented as new races that serve their niches and have a definite reason for existence and go beyond the “X with arctic abilities”-races I’ve come to despise in 3.X. There are also new class features: Barbarians get 10 new rage powers and 2 alternate class features, ranging from sheathing hands in boreal cold to becoming so bear-chested that one counts as a size-category bigger. Bards get a whole alternate class variant with so-called Dróttkvætts (lordly verses) and a focus on fortitude rather than agility. I won’t comment on this one, as I was the one who designed it. Clerics get 2 new domains and there is even a monk-variant, the Glima Master, who focuses on rather worldly pleasures, serving as a nice counter-point to all the ascetic monk types out there. Oracles get some love in the form of a new mystery (fate) and 11 associated revelations that make you an arbiter or fickle fate and the norn’s destiny-weaving, serving greatly to enhance the theme of stoicism in the face of fate. Sorcerers get the new giant and hyperborean bloodlines and 10 new familiars, which should also interest teh witches, who get two new patrons. We also get expanded information on skills as well as a plethora of new feats, among which there are some awesome achievement feats – which are hard to do, at least in my opinion. They have to be hard to get, but not too hard and their benefits have to reflect that and if that’s not enough, we get a huge amount of cool traits to customize characters from the very start.
As economy in the north is based on gifts and favours rather than monetary rewards and both sample rewards, new equipment and alchemical items are provided – Remorhaz fat and honey that makes the consumer easy to track being examples as well as prismatic steel and berserker iron as materials
Of course, magic is also expanded upon and in a very interesting way: Rune magic grants bonuses for both knowing them, mastering them and scale in benefits with gained levels. Additionally, we get 4 new incantations, a LOT of new spells and magic items. Let me talk a bit about the magic items. You probably know that I’m not that into boring magic items or magic items as commodities. What can I say? I love the section. It’s glorious, the items rock and are EXTREMELY iconic – what about snopw shoes that can make snow powdery and ice crash, for example? Or a kind of large ski that unerringly can lead you toward your destination, over both water and ice? Returning, yet jealous arrows that despise each other and are each other’s bane? Or the incarnation of legendary, doom-bringing Tyrfang? I was drooling over this section and look forward to inflicting these upon my players!
The next chapter provides all the environmental hazards, haunts, rules for coastal, ski and ship chases, rules for altitude, boreal chill, midnight sun and boreal dark, frots bite and so called fate afflictions, a mechanic loosely tied to hero points, serving to further underline the feeling of preordained destinies and entwined fates woven by the norns. Sounds boring? Well, they’re not! There are, for example, rules to escape the legendary maelstrom!
The final chapter of the book is the bestiary, detailing an avatar of Boreas, the master of the northwind, whose living glaciers slowly seek to bring the fimbul winter, a song of fire and ice-style, to the world. The Jotun, most powerful and ancient foes of the gods are given stats and some truly disturbing creatures are also found: The Krake-spawn (somewhat cthulhoid creatures) and the Nightgarm, the champions of wolves and worgs, who can give birth to falsemen-duplicates of people they devoured. The unearthly Liosalfar, a kind of creature that feeds on the mystic rays of the northern lights, Valkyries and the Son of Fenris – each and every monster in this section is a winner, has unique abilities and some kind of angle/ability I haven’t yet read in any other sourcebook – top-notch material and each critter gets its own, cool artwork to boot!
Layout adheres to the two-column standard and is clear and simple/easy to print out. The artworks, while a bit sparse for my tastes, are top quality. Formatting is top-notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Editing could have been better, though – I noticed more than 10 glitches over the 114 pages. That being said, artwork is rather sparse and while the pdf is more printer-friendly than Sunken Empires, the book is not as beautiful as SE. It’s longer though, and while I would have loved to see it full color, I recognize the limitations of the format. These are the only two points of criticism I can muster – in all other respects, this book is VASTLY superior to Frostburn and thankfully gets the topic right – I am passionate about Scandinavian mythology and mind-set, subsequently being rather picky about “my” north. I hate books that add [environmental descriptor] to nations and cultures and leave it at that and this book does the entire opposite: It does more than an awesome job of providing a backdrop that is not only easy to scavenge from, but rather should be considered THE resource for just about any adventure/campaign set in the north. Even better, for those of you out there who are interested in the topics, the book contains some nice insiders and new takes on classic tropes – if you’ll excuse me now, I’m off to Holmgard and beyond. I forgot my rating? Well, due to the editing glitches and the rather plain and boring layout, I’d settle for 4.5 stars, but this is too much up my alley, too great a book, so I’ll settle for 5 stars. Detract a star if you’re very nitpicky about layout and editing and if you care to, drop me a line how you liked e.g. the introductions to the chapters and the skald.
Thanks for reading my review,
Midgard – Northlands is available from: