The Ninth Year After Ragnarok

My buddy Thomas (who blogs at Augury Ignored) and I played four sessions of Runecairn. We’re playing online, and we’ve previously played Burning Wheel and a single session each of S/Lay w/Me and Cold Soldier. 

Runecairn is a two-player Norse fantasy game set after Ragnarok. It is inspired by the videogame Dark Souls, of which I played a very little bit about twelve years ago (I haven’t been a player of video games for the last decade or so, though I played a lot growing up and am conversant with the tropes–or maybe at this point with the old tropes).

I GMed. Thomas played Alvar, the rugged, honorable warrior who lost his faith in the gods when they lost the war.

I wanted to play this game because it has a few intriguing “open” concepts. They’re not really delineated as such in the text, but as I see it one must define them in order to have a coherent situation when using the tools and inspiration the game gives you. Intentionally or not they are indeed fruitfully open.

First, Ragnarok has happened, the gods are dead, the world is shattered, weird new titans roam. So, the world has ended and we have a new world. What is the new world like? Open concept #1. I decided that after Ragnarok, all the traditional nine realms of Norse myth got chucked together on a single plane—literally. The world is flat, uncountable islands linked here and there by the spine of the dead Midgard Serpent. Niflheim is the icy center of the world, Muspellheim the fiery regions where the sun rises and sets, Asgard an empty chain of glass islands, etc, etc. Just a vague kinda map in my head, lots of space to explore and interesting things that can be occurring.

The second open concept is the bonfires. This is a thing taken from the videogame—these magical never-extinguishing bonfires exist in the world, and when you die, you wake up at the last one you rested at, fully healed. You can rest at them to heal yourself. When you rest, enemy creatures you’ve killed come back to life—except special ones. The book doesn’t define this very well, but essentially it’s “bosses don’t come back to life.”

So like, for videogame logic, all well and good. But what does this mean for a roleplaying game? You have to decide. What if the player character gets into a drunken brawl with another actual real person (not just an “enemy creature”) and kills them? Can they rest at a bonfire and bring the person back to life? Can just anyone rest at a bonfire? There are heavy situation implications here, if one is going to treat the world as full of real people as well as fantastical creatures trying to suck out your soul.

The decisions I made:

  • The player-character is special. He (in this case) died in Ragnarok, fighting for the gods, and now is somehow by a spark of god-soul brought back to life, and able to use these bonfires. He’s outside of the common skein of fate. No normal person can use them. Why and for what purpose is he outside the skein of fate? I avoided coming up with some grand reason or mystery to find out, because the idea of doing that unilaterally seemed un-fun. Even more, it seemed a burden. I figured it was something we could discover in play if we discovered it, and not if we didn’t.
  • He can indeed resurrect a person he killed by resting at a bonfire. In fact he has no choice in the matter, it’s just how it works. Only other creatures (like himself) that are imbued with the essences of the dead gods will not resurrect. Yes, there is a contradiction here. No, it did not bother me.
  • What are the bonfires, anyway? When the world shattered, the stars fell, and where they landed a bonfire was created. God-soul-magic-stuff. This never came up in our game, as we never got to a night outdoors, but I needed some color to explain this to my own satisfaction.

The basic mechanic the game runs on is the save, rolling under one of the character’s stats. “A save is a roll to avoid bad outcomes from risky choices and circumstances.” I wrote that in my notebook and did my best to hew closely to it. I tried to ask two questions when Alvar was doing something: 1) can he do it, y/n? He can or he can’t, based on the particulars of the fiction. Then, 2) is this a risky choice or circumstance, y/n? Roll a save or don’t. For me this was easy and kinda freeing in play, as if I hadn’t paid such close attention to what a save actually is for, I would have probably just used it like a skill roll. As it was, it made certain things feel less fictionally wobbly. Near the end of our game, Alvar came across a giant sword stuck into some flagstones—a berserker sword with some interesting abilities, as he may have found out. As it was, the sword was stuck too fast for the strength of one human, no matter how strong, to get it out. I determined this when I put it there–not to block him, but because I thought it might be interesting. Some things a person can’t do, even if they roll great on their strength check. He tried to pull it, the answer was “no”, and he decided to devote his attention to more important matters.

Our first two sessions were the intro adventure in the book—a little dungeon set in the no-man’s land between realms. In this game, all character “class” abilities come from equipment, and characters have ten inventory slots. In the dungeon-between-realms, the character starts with none of their equipment and has to find it. There’s a giant stone demon right outside the first room, guarding the way out, and Alvar ran around ambushing hollowed-out people and learning the mechanics of fighting. I guess that’s the big selling point, that the mechanics are based on Dark Souls. The PC always acts first unless they are surprised, and depending on the items they have, they have certain actions and reactions available to them, along with a resource (fatigue) that fills up inventory slots as it accumulates. 

After he got out of that dungeon, which turned out to be up in the sky, he was flown by a giant crow down to an island whose terrain he recognized. This was home, if home had been broken off from the rest of the land around it and set adrift. 

I was excited for this next part, because we had some Situation going on. We had established that when Alvar left for the war he left his parents behind as well as a woman, Sigrun, he had planned to marry when he returned. Unknown to him, during his little jaunt in the spirit world after the war, 9 years had passed in the real world. It was obvious everyone was going to think him dead. I prepped that Sigrun would have never married (there not being any marriageable men left after the war, anyway), and would be overjoyed to see her love again. His parents, not so much—they wouldn’t be able to trust that it was actually him. 

I had this seed in my mind and then decided to roll on some tables in the book. The text has solo-play rules and a “solo delve” generator. I rolled on this a number of times and got a bunch of monsters and treasures, as well as a “goal”, which is specific to solo play but was informative for me: “defend your father’s remains from a vengeful rival”. Oh! So Alvar’s dad is actually dead. He stayed back during Ragnarok to protect the village and died doing so. The village was a farming village, but now since it’s a tiny island it’s a fishing village, so the old granary was hollowed out and used to honor the war dead, with his father most honored at the bottom of the tomb.

But the dead in the tomb are coming back to life, and that’s what Alvar finds out as he returns home and reunites with Sigrun. Why? In the backstory in my head, it’s all related to Alvar’s return, or this mysterious god-essence return 9 years after Ragnarok, that further play may have revealed more about. I discarded or rather downgraded the vengeful rival. The boys of the village who were too young to go off to war are now coming of age, and they resent this return of Alvar since it threatens their social power. The prep is attached below.

We play a couple sessions getting through the granary/tomb. There are some deaths, and some frankly tedious re-dealing with enemies that Alvar had already killed, but had to negotiate again after either dying or resting at the bonfire in the tomb. There were a couple times where Thomas, getting Alvar up from the bonfire, was like, “Ok, so I go back to where we were…” and I stuck to the guns of the game and said, “no, remember, there’s a bonewheel here you have to deal with, alive again…”

About that bonewheel: it’s a skeleton riding a razor-sharp wheel of bone, and when I described it coming at him for the first time, Thomas began laughing: “is this a bonewheel? From Dark Souls?”

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. It was just an enemy I had picked out of the book, not knowing it was a straight rip from the videogame. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it felt like a corny nudge from the designer, a little like when someone makes a movie reference and expects you to laugh because you recognized the reference. If one is not familiar with the Dark Souls material, fine, it’s just fantastical material that may be inspiring or not, but if one is, what is one to do with this stuff? Point at the reference and say, “look!”?

There was a big boss in the tomb that Alvar fought three times, a giant skeleton melded with a room. I believe Alvar died once and rested at the bonfire once (both of which metaphysically “reset” the boss). He actually got past it to a small room where his father’s remains were, and recovered the broken Valkyrie helm his father inherited from Alvar’s grandmother, and he was going to leave the granary/tomb but decided for one more foray and finally took the boss out. 

He leaves the tomb and reunites with his love and is hailed as the new Thane by the entire village. He accepts this responsibility. There’s unfinished business with his mother, but as we end the session we look at each other and decide that yeah, that’s basically it, isn’t it? I had other stuff prepped, and the inspirational material I spun out of the open concepts of the game was enough for me to stay interested, but I couldn’t really see a way forward with this particular fictional situation using this particular game text without resorting to force.

That is, “something attacks,” or “you hear rumors of the gods/fantastical wealth/Hel opened up on some other island”. You know, HOOKS. No, I’m not interested in doing that shit. You can see what else I had prepped above, based on the Grottasöngr from Norse myth, but that was predicated on Alvar wanting to go out and do things, figure out what the hell was going on in the world, or with himself, or something. And he didn’t want to, and I was not interested in controlling my way to some other outcome.

Ultimately we did play a situation we both became invested in, but after it resolved, the tools at hand did not continue to be an inspiring prospect for exploring the new situation we found ourselves in.

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4 responses to “The Ninth Year After Ragnarok”

  1. This is perhaps a little bit of a trivial comment, but it’s mildly surprising to me that Runecairn reuses its terminology so freely from the Dark Souls games.

    Maybe less trivial than I thought. The interesting thing to me here, just off the face of it, is that while Runecairn as a text seems to present itself in a way where it “should play” fairly tightly aligned to the video games, (right down to the sample dungeon/adventure nearly directly mimicking the Undead Asylum from the first Dark Souls game) the procedures themselves, when you carried them out and respected the Situation, pushed play outside of that alignment and then fairly quickly to a point where the procedures became inadequate or unsuitable for further play.

    So I have a question- was Alvar’s background, or character backgrounds of that kind, something which the text directly prompted the players to make or develop?

    • The answer to your question is no.

      The book has a few appearance tables and a virtue table and vice table, but nothing about developing where the character came from or how they are currently oriented to the world. That’s all stuff we came up with ourselves.

  2. I’m curious what, if anything, the resurrection contributed to the game, beyond giving more tries to get through danger. It seems like the setup of the situation, which relied on the player having been dead for 9 years, did not actually require repeated resurrections.

    It might have been interesting to see if people remembered their deaths and had opinions about them, learning new tactics, feeling happy or sad to be resurrected.

    • That (potential) aspect of the game never ocurred in our play. I agree that it could have been consequential in all sorts of ways, which is one of the reasons I made the bonfires work like they did. Another is just that it would have felt so videogamey to me otherwise–it works one way when you’re fighting monsters and another when you’re dealing with people. No thanks.

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