Dungeon World is my favorite tabletop RPG. That’s no secret here on Adventure Rules – for a time after I first discovered it, every tabletop article on the site discussed only this game. For me Dungeon World is the ideal blend of the classic tabletop experience often associated with Dungeons and Dragons and the modernized, fiction-first mechanisms that make Apocalypse World such a hit. It is a game with strong design that can be expanded infinitely because of how easy it is to create additional content. And while in the past I have discovered plenty of creators who have added to the game in the form of custom classes or deeper mechanisms, recently I was contacted by a designer who is bringing something quite fresh to my favorite game.
Her name is Sam Gundaker, and she is one key piece of the larger operation known as Lost Dutchman Publishing. Lost Dutchman dabbles in both video games and tabletop RPGs, and right now they’ve got a Kickstarter funded for what can only be called an expansion for Dungeon World. This game, called The Wyrd of Stromgard, adds to Dungeon World not only a new set of playable classes, but also a detailed setting that is strongly inspired by Norse myth and lore. It comes packed with monsters, magical items, cultural descriptions, and an adventure front focused on that most memorable of Norse legends, Ragnarok.
This all sounds like a cool package, and fortunately for me Gundaker decided to reach out and offer me the opportunity to try out the game firsthand! The timing could not have been more perfect – I received the message one week before my next tabletop session with my gaming group, and we only meet once a month. This gave me just enough time to talk about the game with my players and come to an agreement that we would take a break from our current Dungeon World game to instead take a detour to the world of Stromgard. Having now played a session, my goal today is to share my first impressions of Gundaker’s current draft of the game.
For the game master, the first impressions of a game often come from the book itself. The Wyrd of Stromgard is a lengthy one to tackle at around 325 pages, but it’s chock full of good information. My personal favorite section is the first main chapter of the book: Concerning Vikings. Here we learn about the actual culture of the vikings. Or at least, what little knowledge there is available on the subject. Gundaker certainly did her homework and she does an excellent job of explaining how much of what we know is filtered through the bias of other cultures. This makes it difficult to truly know much about Norse society, but the nuggets of truth that are available provide fascinating lore for a tabletop.
Most of the games that I plan involve some degree of research. My first ever campaign as a game master sent me down the rabbit hole of 1920’s America to create an alternate history for a group of superheroes to explore. One of my favorite Dread sessions I designed led me to study unusual monsters that don’t typically make appearances in horror fiction in order to create a Mansions of Madness vibe for my game. When I ran City of Mist earlier this year, I not only read up on the mythoi chosen by my players but also the legends attached to characters around them in order to give me a large selection of stories to pull from when designing the mythoi of NPC characters. Wyrd of Stromgard takes all that pre-campaign research and puts it into one convenient location while also referencing its sources so that you can do more study on your own.
Even though my players didn’t read the book before playing the game, the feel that the research added to our session left a strong impression on them. There was one particular moment where I told a story from the book about how Odin once hung by a noose for nine days from one of Yggdrasil’s branches, and one of my players asked me if that was a real myth (one of my favorite oxymorons, PS). I had all kinds of opportunities to work these kinds of small details into the game because of the knowledge I gleaned from Gundaker’s research. It created a verisimilitude for the session that enhanced the enjoyment of everyone at the table.
This verisimilitude is possible because every detail integrated into Stromgard is built from the legends and history of one culture. This extends to aspects of the game such as monsters, gear, and the various playbooks. The monsters of Stromgard are massive, intimidating creatures and even just the monster descriptions give you interesting tidbits of history. I never knew, for example, that the word “dire” used to describe more powerful versions of animals in Dungeons and Dragons actually originates in Norse myth about “dyr” – ancient, primordial beasts which were more powerful than their modern day counterparts. Entire sessions can be built around the creatures in these pages. I tried it myself with the ljúga and had success with that, giving my players a scary but manageable giant monster to contend with.
Gear in Dungeon World is easy to look over because the mechanical effects are negligible – any particular weapon or item is more focused on its fictional applications. However, those fictional descriptions are important to maintaining the game’s atmosphere, and The Wyrd of Stromgard gives players a number of weapons and items that are suitable for a Norse culture, and the history for why those weapons might be popular or practical. For example, the bill hook is not only great for cracking skulls but also for climbing, a nifty tool for fighting on ships or in craggy environments. Or consider the popularity of stone weapons in the early viking era, a phenomenon born of the lack of available iron. This makes a typical Dungeon World iron sword a valuable commodity, more likely to be a gift from a grateful jarl than the starting gear of a lowly skarl.
Magical items in Stromgard are pulled from various myths, and they give all kinds of interesting options for sessions. I worked the Mead of Poetry into my game, using a single sip as a reward for the party for defeating the ljúga, and the knowledge that it granted each character served as a great way to set up story hooks for future sessions. There’s a good selection of weapons, but plenty of quirky and fun items too. My personal favorite magic items are goofy but situationally useful, so seeing tools like Gadfly’s Delight – a glass bottle with a gadfly which stings someone’s eye at the moment most likely to cause total chaos – made me quite happy. Of course there’s a great selection of cool weapons, too, so those looking for more epic quest rewards have plenty of material to work with.
Like the monsters and the gear of Stromgard, the character playbooks are inspired by various Norse legends. There are ten custom playbooks for this setting, five of which are classes for characters of the mortal races (elves, dwarves, humans, etc) and five of which are members of immortal races which have supernatural powers based on their heritage. My players tried out a mix of both, and the playbooks I got to see in action in preparation for this article were the bearskin, the stormcaller, the crone, the fae, and the dvergr. It was with this aspect of Stromgard where we began to have some struggles.
Before I go into detail about what didn’t work for us with Stromgard’s playbooks, I want to point out that a single session is not indicative of the overall quality of any RPG. My players all wanted to emphasize for this first impressions piece that we had a good time and that one session is not enough evidence to make a final decision about any aspect of a game, let alone a piece as complex as the character playbooks. This is particularly true because we had some extenuating circumstances which colored certain player’s impressions of their class – an airborne boss battle isn’t ideal for the bearskin, for example.
On a general scale, the playbooks in Stromgard don’t feel like they are combat-ready at first level. Our crone and dvergr both felt as though they didn’t have any abilities that were truly useful for combat scenarios – for the crone in particular, the player felt a bit helpless as the playbook’s weapon options are limited and the HP is low. Conversely, the fae’s Attune move has as many practical applications as the imagination of the player – this allowed her to pull off all sorts of magical stunts while our crone and stormcaller both felt that their characters were a bit impotent when it came to the arcane. This isn’t because the moves for the playbooks are bad; they simply fit other scenarios more than they do combat.
Let’s continue with the crone as an example. At first level he had the ability to create arcane effects through rituals (similar to the vanilla Wizard in Dungeon World), the power to curse someone who insulted him, the ability to temporary influence someone’s actions, the ability to create a phantom limb away from his body, and the power to absorb damage as kinetic energy to be released later. Many of these abilities – Curse and Jedi Mind Trick in particular – are all about wielding creepy magic to gain social power. The crone didn’t excel because he wasn’t on the right battlefield. His specialization is not combat, but the manipulation of others to get what he wants.
This was a trend for a couple other players, too. In a session focused on battle, these socially-adept characters didn’t feel as if they had much to contribute to the game. This could be a one-shot problem more than a game design problem – in the future I’ll certainly be aware that some of the classes at the table don’t function well in combat. My concern, though, is that Dungeon World very much demands combat. Defeating notable monsters is one of the key ways in which characters gain XP and level up; in the vanilla game, even those classes whose main skills operate outside of combat still have at least one ability meant specifically for battling enemies. If Stromgard is going to focus more on social interaction, this may need to be incorporated into the End of Session move so that working towards interesting social situations is also mutually beneficial to the whole party.
The other concern I’ll note is about the stormcaller playbook. When I read the playbook I immediately became concerned that the promise of the class wasn’t met by the starting moves available. The player who chose the stormcaller felt the same way at the table. Reading the description of the stormcaller, it is stated that “few who call themselves wizards or mages can conjure up so much power at their fingertips.” The stormcaller is described as being able to command the primal elemental forces of the world, holding storms at their fingertips and being so wild that trying to keep one on retainer is compared to keeping a cataclysm in a wineskin. Yet the stormcaller starting moves don’t live up to this description – rather than controlling the weather, the stormcaller simply makes weapons out of ice and turns objects brittle with cold. This isn’t exactly the arcane power promised by the description, and it doesn’t match how the base classes are designed. The starting moves for a class are the moves you’ll be using the most often – they are the core moves for that character, and all of the advanced moves build off of them. With the stormcaller, this seems to be the opposite – these characters start out with the filler and gain their core abilities after leveling up a bit.
Although my players and I felt that the playbooks themselves were the weakest aspect of Stromgard, we still had fun trying out these classes. My wife in particular enjoyed her fae character, and even those who struggled like our stormcaller and our crone still had good things to say about the game. Our impressions of the setting material – the items, the locations, the monsters – were all unanimously positive. This is a well-written book with evocative designs that serve as the perfect spark of creative inspiration for a Dungeon World campaign. And while the mechanical aspects of the game are currently the weakest in our view, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re playing the first draft of the game. With the Kickstarter now fully funded, those mechanical aspects of the game can be refined through further playtesting. If you’re not accustomed to the tabletop world, this is a pretty normal way of doing things – Blades in the Dark and its various hacks were already out in the wild long before their “final drafts” reached completion. I imagine that after a bit more time, the playbooks of Stromgard will reach a level of quality equivalent of the other setting materials in the book.
At the end of it all, my players and I had fun with The Wyrd of Stromgard and we’re excited to try out future drafts as they become available. As a GM, I appreciate when an RPG book fills me with inspiration and story ideas. Stromgard is a compelling location tied together by a single mythos, allowing you to think creatively and create a sandbox experience while still maintaining the consistency of the game world. One of the designers of Dungeon World, Adam Koebel, often refers to RPG books as a toolset: the equipment the players and GM use to create something together at the table. The Wyrd of Stromgard is a set of high-quality tools that I believe can help you build an exciting campaign with a unique feel compared to the vanilla experience.
If you’re interested in keeping up with The Wyrd of Stromgard after reading this article, you can click this link and go to the bottom of the page to sign up for the mailing list, where you’ll be informed of the game’s progress as well as when it is available for purchase. I want to once again thank Sam Gundaker of Lost Dutchman Publishing for reaching out to me and allowing me to check out the game – my players and I had a blast and we’re looking forward to trying out more! I certainly plan to continue covering the game as I get more experience with it and as new updates become available, so be sure to look out for more Stromgard content here on Adventure Rules.