How Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok came to be, and why the tabletop world needs Vikings
Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok is an engrossing, exciting tabletop roleplaying system, and Fafnir’s Treasure, the first of three books celebrating the game’s 20th anniversary, is a joy to run through. It’s highly-polished, well-written, and gives off an air of professionalism to rival products from Paizo and Wizards of the Coast.
It’s also largely the work of one man: Andrew Valkauskas.
A Viking’s journey
Fate of the Norns turns 20 this year, but Valkauskas explained that it wasn’t until 2012 that he knew creating games was something he wanted to take to a professional level. He grew up playing AD&D, as well as several other roleplaying systems, and when the game he grew up with made the transition to digital versions, he wanted to follow.
“I created a few simple RPG games for DOS 6.2,” Valkauskas told me. “One of the most ambitious games I was working on was a Viking based RPG called Fate of the Norns. It had some pretty extensive mechanics and vast content so I decided to test it via tabletop, using dice, to ensure it would hold up before committing it to code. After a year or so of testing, all the players wanted it to become a table-top RPG.”
The game stayed a homebrew-level creation for many years, passing from player-to-player largely via PDFs and word of mouth. Valkauskas said he didn’t even realize how many people had been playing the game until the concept of a 20th anniversary edition was announced.
“Players were asking if I had any plans for going mainstream, and if I’d entertain the idea of a new edition. So my plans were simple: to release FotN 1st edition, from 1993, into print and see how well it would do,” Valkauskas said. “A print run of 500 was snapped up almost overnight, and I looked into what we could try next. Pinging the fans for ideas, the consensus was a polished commercial release of the latest rune-based offering of Fate of the Norns called “Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok”.
This led to Kickstarter, which Valkauskas called “a godsend.” It showed Valkauskas a legitimate audience – much larger than he had anticipated – was interested in the game, and that they were ready and willing to support it with their wallets. The Kickstarter met and exceeded its goals, which allowed Valkauskas to bring on talented illustrators, add a game master screen, even a third book, Denizens of the North, to accompany Fafnir’s Treasure and the game’s core rulebook.
“I don’t know if we could have come out from underground indie without it,” Valkauskas said.
Viking lord Valkauskas
I asked Valkauskas what the draw for him was in using a Viking-flavored setting for his game. In a genre dominated by orcs and elves, what made Vikings stand apart?
“I’m not into generic fantasy. Rather, I am drawn by the uniqueness and distinctions different cultures have brewed in their collective primordial consciousness over thousands of years,” Valkauskas told me. “Viking culture creates the right atmosphere for some great epic adventures. If you ever had the pleasure of reading the sagas, they are as exciting as your most over-the-top Hollywood blockbusters. The history and mythology are ripe with great imagery and story arcs that can be used in creating very memorable RPG campaigns.”
Valkauskas explained that the historical sagas provided most of what was needed to create an exciting setting for the players who wanted high fantasy adventures, but occasionally he had to fill in the blanks. “If you ever read the Edda or the sagas, usually the side of the gods will be well described, but you’ll get some tempting morsel of information about the Dark Elves or the Fire Giants and nothing more. In the spirit of presenting a full complete and breathing world, we fill in the missing parts with stories that match the style of the sagas.”
“I think what is presented takes the players on a fresh new journey that shatters conventional fantasy stereotypes and has them explore the genre anew. I prefer to call it ‘mythology RPG’ rather than ‘fantasy RPG.’”
It’s fair to say Valkauskas is a little more than a casual history fan. “I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to the subject,” he said. “My most prized book is an original “The Rhinegold & the Valkyrie” from 1910.”
The new runes on the block
Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok was introduced in 2006, and not much has changed since then. The 20th anniversary edition, however, throws some new rules into the mix. One example is the Void rune, a special piece that acts similar to a wild card in a card-based game.
I asked Valkauskas where the idea for the Void rune came from, and how it fit into the most recent edition of the game. He explained that initially, the Void rune was just an annoyance, something that bugged him. “It came with every set of runes you buy, but for FotN:R you didn’t need it,” he said. “My design philosophy has always been about keeping a core system clean and simple.”
Feedback showed Valkauskas two areas he could improve: item powers and character customization. In the original Ragnarok edition of the game, players could use any rune to activate a magical item. Give a player an item too powerful and they became overpowered, or a one-trick pony that relied on the item all the time, every time. Characters, on the other hand, started to blend together as they leveled up, becoming more homogenized and less unique. Valkauskas wanted to address these problems, but didn’t want the solution to feel forced. “I wasn’t going to add the blank rune as a mechanic if it didn’t bring something,” he said.
The Void rune solves both of these problems. Magic items can only be activated using the Void rune, which limits abuse of an item’s abilities to once per turn. The Void rune can also grant your character increased personalization, and the justification even fits within the Viking lore. “It represents a dweller’s life choices and sits apart from the runes in Essence. It is ‘imprinted’ during dweller creation with custom powers/skills just for you,” Valkauskas explained.
While Valkauskas had nothing bad to say about the more familiar games in tabletop gaming, he said people appreciated the breath of fresh air Fate of the Norns brought to the playspace. “When we started to promote FotN:R on the convention circuit late last year, we’d be in RPG halls that ran 25 Pathfinder games, three D&D 4th edition games, and two tables for indie games,” he told me.
“I’d say the time is right for a shakeup in the monolithic RPG market.”