Valravnar for Ásagrimmr

Odin son of Bor, Lord of the Æsir, father of Balder, God of the Runes, Author of Victory, Foe of the Wolf, Ruler of Gallows – he is a well-known figure of myth, I’m sure, in his grey robes and greyer beard, one-eyed and stave-leaning. Odin Allfather (for he begat this age as surely as sun begets day) rules from his silver-roofed house in Valaskjálf and sits every day on Hliðskjálf, the seat of the gate, upon which he perceives all of the worlds. Odin’s sight is, however, fleeting (not to speak of one-eyed), and that’s where we meet the heroes of our play, Hugin and Munin – those two ravens who toil faithfully every day as the messengers and spies of the Wanderer, going whence he bids them, flying over the highest of mountains and deepest of seas, crossing under the branches and over the roots of Yggdrasil with equal ease.

Every morning Odin turns out his ravens, sending them where his own sight does not penetrate, or where the will of the gods needs to be made known. Every night the two ravens return babbling news, knowledge and lies, which they speak to the Allfather, perching on his shoulders, whence his kenning of Raven-god. Thanks to the faithful service of his winged friends, Odin is rarely surprised and always knows how to judge and what steps to take in the matters of Midgard.

Premise of the game

The game is for 4+ players. Two of them take the roles of Hugin and Munin, the ravens in Odin’s service. The ravens fly over viking age Miðgarðr as Odin bids them, going into the steads of men and spying upon them. The rest of the players get assigned various roles, playing the mortals and other beings the ravens encounter. One game session takes a hour or so, as the ravens need to haste back to Ásgarðr before sun sets upon the halls of Valhalla.

The enjoyment of the game resides in creating small stories of the mythical viking age world, viewed from a curious avian perspective. The ravens Hugin and Munin are merely viewpoint characters, the players of which are mostly concerned with traditional GM duties. The other players get to make snap decisions about how the lives of the northmen go down when the ravens come upon them in their decisive moments of strife.

Munin is responsible for keeping the lore on the setting backstory during play. He is Memory, and thus answers any questions the group may have of viking age lore of any sort. He is good at remembering what he sees, answering questions, knowing secrets and being wise. He sits on Odin’s left shoulder.

Hugin is responsible for chairmanning play, framing scenes and coordinating drama. He is Thought, and thus arbitrates the rules for the group. He is good at perceiving things, making decisions and solving riddles. He sits on Odin’s right shoulder.

Together, the two ravens respond to Odin, who is not at the table of play at all; instead, the players consult with Odin before the session to find out the scenario of play. The success or failure of the ravens as agents of the Allfather depends on how coherent and complete a report they can make on the going-ons of Miðgarðr in an actual play report filed after play. Thus their first priority in play is to make the proceedings of story-telling efficient, colorful and coherent.

The rest of the players play mortals, which covers anybody the ravens meet on their travels. Munin as the keeper of lore will assign roles as necessary, allowing the other players to make choices for the people espied by the ravens. Hugin will frame scenes so as to enable these people to resolve their conflicts and provide the ravens with the knowledge they seek.

Set-up

Before the session, go see what concerns worry Odin today. Odin will describe the scenario of play, pretty much, hinting at some of the main characters in the day’s story. He will also make it known how he’d like to see things happen in the world of men. Print out the day’s scenario if a computer is not available at the location of play.

Next, assign the roles of Hugin and Munin to two of the players. The best bet is to pick two players who want to report back to the Allfather later on, considering that without a report, Odin won’t know anything of the exploits of the ravens. At least one raven should, therefore, report back in a timely manner.

You might wish to tell Odin at this point that you’re on the job and he shouldn’t need to worry about whatever it is that is worrying him anymore. Or you might decide to just sneak out, do the job and then report back when the deed is done. This is mostly pertinent in that some other group might also decide to play the scenario simultaneously; more on that later.

Other required tools of play include a big pile of six-sided dice. After the group has decided who are going the play the ravens, you’re ready to start playing by describing how the ravens wing it out of Ásgarðr. (The missions the ravens go to do not usually concern Ásgarðr itself, which is ruled and regulated quite capably by the Æsir themselves.)

Basic concepts

Hugin and Munin are valravns, supernatural ravens of the slain, drinkers of king-blood, and all-around influential guys, at least as far as birds go. They’re probably smarter than you or I, although in a bird-brained manner that might lead them to some errors in judgment now and then. They’ve been doing this job for quite a while, so usually they know which direction to fly to get to, say, Muspelheim. Everybody who is not completely clueless will recognize the two ravens as Odin’s messengers, which means that they might even get out of Muspelheim on a bluff without singeing their tailfeathers too badly. Hugin and Munin can speak intelligibly with most any kin of the age and most things out of Midgard as well, mostly because they’ve spent quite a while eavesdropping to everything from beasts of the wild to men in their high halls to even stranger things.

Both ravens have a Tide Pool, which is a pile of dice that represents the time that is left of the day, before the sun sets in Ásgarðr. These dice literally represent time in that when they run out, the game is done. Also, when one of the ravens has more Tide Pool left than the other, the game always focuses on him – the other raven is forward in time, so he needs to wait for this one to catch up.

Cosmology of the Nine Worlds

Because the ravens need to travel the worlds quite a bit, a few words on cosmology: the creation mostly exists on and in the world tree Yggdrasil, which is perched in the Ginnungagap, the fruitful void in between cold Niflheim and hot Muspelheim. The other seven worlds (and some places outside them) are situated on the branches, trunk and roots of Yggdrasil.

The high realms are Ásgarðr, Álfheimr and Múspell, up on the branches of the world tree. Ásgarðr is the familiar home of the gods from whence the ravens leave every morning; Álfheimr is the world of the elven folk, while Múspell is the upper edge of Ginnungagap, the eternal world of flame.

The middle realms on the trunk of the world tree are Vanaheimr, the land of the earth gods and Jötunheimr, the land of giants. Miðgarðr, the world of men, is the third world here, and the most important one for the ravens, as most of their travel happens there. The trip between Ásgarðr up on the branches and Miðgarðr down here is very familiar to the ravens.

The low realms down in the roots, which the ravens mostly need to visit in crisis situations, are Niflheimr, Hel and Svartálfaheimr. The first one is the bottom, northern edge of Ginnungagap, eternally encased in ice; Hel is the land of the dead, a rather bleak place. Finally, Svartálfaheimr is the land of the dark elves.

In addition to the nine worlds there are other, minor realms on Yggdrasil. Think of the nine “worlds” as extended realms of political influence – their metaphysical significance is a shadow cast by the unity of purpose exhibited by the dominant powers of each. Other, minor places include such as the Three Wells around the roots.

Tide Pool

As intimated above, the ravens each get a pile of dice in their Tide Pool at the beginning of the day in Ásgarðr. Odin determines how many these are according to the campaign rules (of which more below).

As the ravens spend tide dice, they move in time in relation to each other. Thus the ravens can only ever appear in a scene together when they both have the same number of tide dice left. If one has more than the other, then that raven needs to wait up on the other if they want to meet up and do something together.

Whenever during the game one raven gets ahead of the other in expending his tide dice, the focus of play shifts to the raven with more dice left at the end of any scene. In other words, play always focuses on the raven whose scene happens earlier than the next scene of the other raven would.

Travel rules

When the ravens are going from place to place, they need to expend some tide pool to do it. This is done by rolling dice against the travel profile of the journey, like so:

Travel between the worlds
Rows are starting points, columns destinations. Múspell Ásgarðr Álfheimr Vanaheimr Jötunheimr Miðgarðr Hel Svartálfaheimr Niflheimr
Múspell 5 5-1 5-2 5-2-2 5-2-3 5-2-3 5-2-4-4 5-2-4-4 5-2-4-5
Ásgarðr 1-5 1 1-2 1-2-2 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2-4-4 1-2-4-4 5-2-4-5
Álfheimr 2-5 2-1 2 2-2-2 2-2-3 2-2-3 2-2-4-4 2-2-4-4 5-2-4-5
Vanaheimr 2-3-5 2-3-1 2-3-2 2 2-3 2-3 2-4-4 2-4-4 3-4-5
Jötunheimr 3-3-5 3-3-1 3-3-2 3-2 3 3-3 3-4-4 3-4-4 3-4-5
Miðgarðr 3-3-5 3-3-1 3-3-2 3-2 3-3 3 3-4-4 3-4-4 3-4-5
Hel 4-5-3-5 4-5-3-1 4-5-3-2 4-5-2 4-5-3 4-5-3 4 4-4 4-5
Svartálfaheimr 4-5-3-5 4-5-3-1 4-5-3-2 4-5-2 4-5-3 4-5-3 4-4 4 4-5
Niflheimr 5-5-3-5 5-5-3-1 5-5-3-2 5-5-2 5-5-3 5-5-3 5-4 5-4 5

As can be seen, the travel profile is a list of numbers. The player picks however many tide dice he wants and rolls them, trying to score at least one die equal to or higher than each number in the travel profile. Thus, as an example, travelling from Ásgarðr to Miðgarðr, which is usually the first trip the ravens need to take during the day, requires the player to roll one 1, one 2 and one 3. Another typical trip is when the ravens need to move around in Miðgarðr, which always requires rolling at least one 3.

If the player’s roll succeeds in matching the travel profile, discard the rolled tide dice – the raven arrives with due haste and safely to wherever he was trying to get.

If the roll fails in matching the travel profile, leave the dice on the table and frame a travel scene as per the rules below. The ravens are curious creatures, and they have standing orders to investigate anything of interest to Odin, so it’s far from exceptional for them to wander a bit on the way to their actual goal.

Companions, shortcuts, detours and other strangeness

If the raven needs to take a companion with him, the journey will be significantly more difficult: add +1 to the journey’s profile (each number) if the raven needs to travel with non-flying companions.

The two raven players may decide to travel together or independently if they start the journey in the same place and time (ie. they have the same number of tide dice left). If they travel together, the ravens have to roll the same number of dice (so as to arrive together), but they can combine their results and only need to match the target profile once.

The raven might find a shortcut or detour thanks to events in the fiction. The raven player can declare the shortcut or detour if his raven has travelled this way many times in the past (both ravens know the way between Ásgarðr and Miðgarðr very well both ways, but any other geographical knowledge has to be earned in play), or he can gain knowledge of the shortcut or detour from other characters. Here’s what shortcuts and detours do:

  • A shortcut allows the raven to combine two or more numbers in the profile into one: take the highest of the numbers to be combined, and add +1 for each other number. The values to be combined have to be next to each other in the profile; the character who knows the shortcut chooses the values to combine.
  • A detour is the opposite, allowing the raven to split a high value in the profile into several low ones: lower the number by one and double it into two numbers in the profile. Repeat to lower the numbers even further. The new numbers always stay side-by-side in the profile; the character who knows the detour chooses which number to split from the profile, and how.

Sometimes a journey involves extra impediments, such as especially high mountains, long distances or bad weather or hostile natives or whatever. When such comes up in the fiction, add a die in the appropriate place in the journey’s profile:

  • Add a 1 for long distances, such as flying to the far eastern steppes in Miðgarðr. Add two 1s for really onerous trips, such as the other side of the world or that place east of the Moon and west of the Sun.
  • Add a 2 for places the ravens don’t know how to find. Add two 2s when there are many places to look in, such as when the ravens know that the guy they’re looking for is in a desert, but don’t know which desert.
  • Add a 3 for potentially distracting places on the way, such as large cities with other birds and good food. Add two 3s if the distractions are actually planned to mislead the ravens.
  • Add a 4 for serious trouble, such as huge mountain ranges or large swatches of desert or ocean crossings that affect a flying bird, even. Add two 4s if there are several such impediments.
  • Add a 5 for specific, concerned efforts at foiling the Allfather, such as raven traps made by cunning Jotun sages from gild and honey. Add two 5s only when somebody is trying to instigate Ragnarok.

Making a travel plan means pre-describing some of the places the raven needs to fly over to get to where he is going, and requires the raven to consult a map or somebody especially familiar with the area, the same as with shortcuts and detours. The disadvantage is that whatever impediments come up in describing the journey, those are added to the travel profile. The advantage is that the raven player gets to roll the dice before actually embarking on the journey, and can potentially apply shortcuts or detours before leaving. Furthermore, the raven player may opt to discard one tide die to take back his rolled dice and try a new roll.

When a trip is complex due to various factors of this sort, it’s a good idea to use dice to track it: simply put dice in a row to represent the current travel profile and knock them off whenever the raven manages to progress in his journey.

Travel Scene

When a travel check is failed, the raven ends up stuck midroute. First, match however many numbers from the beginning of the travel profile you can, and discard the matched dice. Track the remaining journey with dice as per above – that’s what the raven needs to match if he wants to continue his journey later on.

After matching the partial route, set aside the rest of the dice the raven used for his travel – these dice become the stakes of the travel scene, as explained below.

Travel scenes, unlike location scenes (explained later), are framed by the non-raven players. The first one to have a good idea for some weird shit gets to describe what the raven spies while flying through the worlds. Where the scene happens depends on how successful the travel check was: if the raven got only a little bit of the way, then he’s only travelled a bit, but if he got almost to his destination, then the disturbance strikes correspondingly. Remember that the middle part of the journey in cross-world travel happens outside the nine worlds, on Yggdrasil.

The first non-raven player to get a good idea takes the floor and frames the event the raven witnesses. The raven player decides whether he’s sticking around to investigate the situation further. The framing player should try to entice the raven’s curiousity and greed to get him to stop here.

If the raven player decides to continue on his way and ignore the event, he loses the stakes of the scene and has to draw on his pool for new dice to try to match the rest of his journey’s profile. This might lead into another travel scene if the raven again fails in getting to his destination.

If the raven player decides to investigate the situation, run the scene as a normal location scene. The framing player gets to have content authority and frame the scene for the first scene in this location; if the raven decides to stay for a longer while, the new scenes are all location scenes as per below, and follow all the normal rules therein.

The stakes of the travel scene are the failed dice from the raven’s travel attempt. The raven player has an opportunity to win them back by following the lead of the framing player in the situation: the player can offer to give one or more of those dice back to the raven player in exhange for the raven turning his attention to the situation. It’s good form to give out the dice in exhange for the raven finding food, treasure or, above all, news for Odin. The framing player has claim on the stakes dice as long as they last, so he can potentially string the raven along for several scenes. When the raven leaves this place and abandons the storyline in question, however, any stakes dice left are discarded.

At the Location

The purpose of the game is for the two ravens to fulfill the mission Odin gave them, which usually involves finding one or more places in Miðgarðr and spying or advicing people therein. When the ravens reach a place of interest to the Allfather, they can start running location scenes:

Munin is responsible for distributing roles of people to the other players. Whenever significant mortal characters come up in the backstory or in the middle of play, Munin gives the role to some non-raven player, perhaps with a short explanation of why the character is there, who he is and stuff. Munin also answers any backstory questions, such as “did I already know that she’s pregnant?” or “does this tribe hate this other tribe?” or whatever else the group might need to know about the world or the past.

Hugin is responsible for framing the location scenes, which means that he can skip over the dull stuff and make sure the ravens see the important things. The scenes always have to be framed such that one or both of the ravens can witness the events. Hugin also calls conflicts and cuts the scenes.

The two ravens pretty much set the stage at this point, so it’s up to them to decide what sort of scenes are played through (although they can’t control the people they observe). The framework for this is the ravens’ duty towards Odin, being that he’ll feed the birds to Sleipnir if they goof off too much and spend the whole day observing something secondary and non-important.

When on location, the ravens need to continue spending Tide dice to observe things: Observing a new scene costs one die from each raven present in the scene, as they spend time there. Remember that at least one raven needs to be there for the scene to be framed in the first place. Also remember that the focus is always on the raven who has more tide pool left; the ravens cannot be together in the scene if they have different amounts of tide pool.

Apart from observation, the ravens can also advice people and influence conflicts and such. More about them below.

Mortal characters

All characters are played by the non-raven players as distributed by Munin. Each character is assigned 1-3 rank according to his importance:

  • 1 rank characters are extras with little importance to the events. Usually these do not actually need to be assigned to anybody, as they don’t really do anything too important. They’re mostly important when they side with a more important character in some conflict or such.
  • 2 rank characters are supporting cast. They often have a name and at least one motivation that does not directly follow from their role in society. Munin will usually assign supporting cast to somebody to play.
  • 3 rank characters are protagonists, the important folks the ravens are actually interested in. They always have names and, what’s more, conflicting motivations. Munin always assigns them to somebody as soon as they’re introduced, and the ravens usually follow them around because they’re the ones who do all the important stuff.

Munin determines the rank of any mortal characters on a case-by-case basis as necessary. Munin can also promote (but not demote) characters if they prove more important later on.

Mortal relationships

Munin will, as necessary, enumerate mortal relationships as well:

  • 1 rank relationships are expectations, with merely social mores backing them up. Munin often doesn’t need to mention these, as most characters have some expectation of each other if they’re not total strangers.
  • 2 rank relationships are duties, backed by personal commitment. Munin makes mention of these often enough when introducing characters, as they affect the decisions a character might make.
  • 3 rank relationships are passions, backed by genuine wants of one or the other character. Munin always introduces the possibility of passions where relevant, but he cannot really enforce them; the player of the passionate character has to decide that the passion is still current.

Two characters might well have several relationships of different strength towards one another, especially if one is a protagonist. Munin determines and enumerates the list of relationships as necessary, although obviously the players of the characters can then change the relationships around by having their character sever or create new ones.

Resolution

There are several different types of conflict situations that might need to be resolved. Call on these rules when the fiction permits: Hugin referees these processes if necessary.

Violent conflict

Whenever two or more mortals are ready and willing to hurt each other in a fight, we have a violent conflict. The steps are simple:

  • Each participant takes dice equal to their rank (1-3). Extras usually just give their dice to their leaders.
  • Everybody rolls their dice. If two parties are allied in the fight, their dice will be considered together for the next step.
  • Look for matching pairs of dice from opposing sides. Any player can look and pick a pair of dice of the same value, each from different sides – those dice are removed. The player who removed the dice describes how the fight hurt one or the other side. Losing one die is fatal to an extra, while it’s just a nasty wound to a support or protagonist. Losing another die would kill the supporting character, while losing three kills even a protagonist.
  • The players take turns picking out pairs, starting with the party with initiative and proceeding clockwise around the table. The ravens pick too, and may assign the hurt in their narrative to either side of the conflict.
  • Continue picking matching pairs from the dice until either no more can be picked or everybody passes.
  • The winner of the fight (the side who retains the field at the end) is the side with the longest series of the same die value showing at the end. Higher value trumps between two equally long series.

If the fight includes too many dice per side due to, say, Harald the Red fielding 1,000 extras, just roll what you have (or care to roll) in roughly the correct proportion of the strengths of the forces. Each protagonist always rolls their full dice, though.

If characters get injured in a fight, they’ll be rolling less dice in conflicts until they recover. Characters who die go either to Hel or Ásgarðr, depending on whether they attracted Valkyries with the tumult of their battle and valor of their action.

Social pressure

When mortals who have relationships with each other try to convince each other of things, this is the procedure.

  • The participants start their argument, and start rolling dice. Each player gets to roll a die into their argument when they throw out some quality dialogue or refuse to listen to the other side. Multiple characters on the same side combine their dice. Take turns rolling dice.
  • When the two sides roll a match (two dice with the same value), those dice are immediately removed and the player who didn’t roll the last die describes how the relationships between the characters suffer: a rank 1 expectation shatters with one removed die, while duties and passions can be strained by one and two removals respectively before breaking down.
  • The players continue the argument until either there are no relationships left or both sides agree to end the conflict. If the conflict ends due to all relationships breaking down, there is no winner; the characters cannot influence each other anymore.
  • The side with the longer series of the same value wins. Higher value series trumps a lower value series of the same length. The winner has convinced the loser, at least temporarily, to follow along with his demands.

Characters who do not have relationships cannot exert social pressure against each other, and are most likely enemies of the most bitter sort, considering that they lack even the basic ties of kinship and loyalty. Damaged relationships will only heal if the characters console their relationship. Destroyed relationships are gone unless rebuilt.

Ravens and conflict

The ravens cannot participate in the above procedures directly. However, mortals can harass the ravens by throwing stones, setting traps or otherwise being a nuisance. A mortal who makes a point of trying to drive away the ravens gets to threaten them. If they do not escape, the mortal’s player rolls one die – the target raven removes that many dice from his Tide Pool. This can be only done once per scene per raven. If neither raven remains, the scene ends immediately.

Either raven can influence all resolution procedures directly by offering advice to either side: they can provide however many Tide dice they wish to the conflict.

Spoils of conflict

The ravens can recover their Tide dice by partaking of the feast of flesh left after a battle. More generally, either raven can choose to benefit of dice discarded as pairs in the above resolution procedures: such dice are set aside to wait for the end of the conflict.

If a raven decides to feast, he spends one Tide die and rolls a die, taking that many dice out of the spoils for himself. The rest of the spoils are discarded. Both ravens can feast on the same spoils, with whichever rolls his die first having privilege.

Returning to Ásgarðr

A raven automatically return to Ásgarðr when their Tide Pool runs out. Alternatively, either raven may choose to return before sunfall; the difference is that returning under your own power means you’re not late, while waiting for your Tide to run out means you’ll come back tired, in the middle of the night, and without Odin being happy at all.

After the session ends, the raven players take their time to post actual play accounts to Odin. Odin praises the ravens, especially the one with the better report. Some special considerations:

  • The raven with more Tide dice left at the end of the session is considered to have arrived first in Ásgarðr; if the accounts of the ravens contradict, Odin is most likely to believe the first account.
  • Odin values all news, so the raven bringing in more information about the goings-on in the nine worlds is favored, whether those news have anything to do with the original mission or not.
  • The more entertaining and coherent the account of events, the better; the ravens are supposed to be the eyes and ears (and occasionally mouth) of Odin. Thus the old guy tends to appreciate penmanship in reporting.

It is far from given that the ravens succeed in bringing in a complete and cogent report, considering that their time in Miðgarðr is limited.

Campaign play

Odin will give new missions to the ravens after they report back on the old ones. Any news brought of the world may become seeds of new stories, and any stories left incomplete due to the incompetence of the ravens may be remedied.

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