This is a bit of a long post, because it is the complete draft of the player’s guide for my Twilight of the Gods campaign that recently started. If you are interested in running a Norse myth game in 5E, though, I’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting for you, and this Player’s Guide shows a lot of that work boiled down.
Twilight of the Gods Player’s Guide
Using the 5th edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons
Twilight of the Gods is a campaign that takes the player-characters through the events of Ragnarok as they affect mythic dark-age Scandinavia.
Brothers will fight
and kill each other,
will defile kinship.
It is harsh in the world,
—an axe age, a sword age
—shields are riven—
a wind age, a wolf age—
before the world goes headlong.
No man will have
mercy on another.
–Völuspá, Prose Edda
Player-characters begin at level 3, already having established themselves as formidable adventurers in their own right. They have standing and recognition in their local community, and are looked to to solve problems that others cannot solve. Each PC will need to sketch out their own family connections and holdings (orphans and those who owned no lands usually ended up as thralls or vargr – outlaws).
Women and men are not equal in Norse society. Women have less social standing and authority, and usually cannot speak for themselves at an Assembly unless a man speaks for them first. On the other hand, it is illegal to harm a woman, even accidentally, unless she is a shieldmaiden, and in that case she can only be harmed if she instigates a conflict. Women can own property if they have no husband, or if they are powerful and have their own inheritance from their family holdings. A female player-character might have a deceased husband, training and standing as a shieldmaiden, come from a noble family as a second or third daughter, or be a non-human (alfar, dvergar, helmingalfar, huldufolk or trol).
Six races are allowed for starting player-characters: dwarves (dvergar), elves (alfar), half-elves (helmingalfar), gnomes (huldufolk), humans (volk) and half-orcs (trols). Among the volk, beliefs about non-humans vary wildly. Some view them as sacred, others as profane and demonic. In some communities, it is illegal to harm one, and in others, it is illegal to trade with one. For their own part, the non-humans each deal with volk quite differently as well.
Alfar are related to the divine Ljosalfar, or light-elves, who dwell in a blue realm in the sky ruled by their king and queen, the vana Freyr and Freyja. They are reclusive and prefer settling in hard-to-reach places. They guard their land jealously, and only reluctantly trade with others in the outside world. More like aliens from the sky than just humans with pointy ears, they are regarded with wonder and distrust. It is considered unlucky to kill one, and what the volk know about the alfar is more superstition than fact. Alfar use the standard PHB rules for high elves.
Helmingalfar are rare humans who were either born of an alfar parent and a human parent, or who have alfar blood that runs strong in their veins. Half-elves are seen as both outsiders and exotic. Some function as intermediaries between human and alfar settlements, and whether they have the knowledge or not, they will be plied with questions about the alfar and other non-humans. Among half-elves, the veneration of Loki is more common than most know. Helmingalfar use the PHB rules for half-elves.
Dvergar are acquisitive, vengeful and sometimes tricky. They are master crafters and jealously guard their secrets and their wealth. The mightiest of the dvergar forged weapons for the gods, and they remain both practical and deeply religious. They tend to be somewhat ugly, but they will hold to their oaths and are loyal allies (and tireless enemies). Dvergar might have standing in volk society, but will not normally get involved in their wars or raids. The dvergar use the standard PHB rules for mountain dwarves.
Huldufolk are little people, considered by most to be lucky but also treacherous. They are mound-dwellers who tend to live near human settlements and to have significant trade with them. Overall the huldufolk are benign, but they can have a strange sense of humor, or of what is appropriate behavior. Huldufolk are similar to gnomes and halflings in many ways, and use the standard PHB rules for forest gnomes.
Trols are feared and normally considered outlaws, literally outside the protections and expectations of the law. They cannot legally own property, vote in an Assembly, hold status in a Jarl or Thane’s court, and so on. This can change through play, but only an extraordinary trol would be granted any status. Those few who do function in or near volk settlements have to look out for themselves. Trols take the place of half-orcs, orcs, hobgoblins and bugbears, and are very diverse depending on their region of origin and tribe. Trols live much longer than PHB half-orcs, but are otherwise the same rules-wise.
Volk are relative newcomers compared to the other races of the north, but they have risen to power and prominence in these last days. Those who are not of the known peoples of the north are called by volk skraelings, which means something like ‘aliens.’ Volk trade with skraelings (as far away as Russia, Ireland and Constantinople) and raid their settlements, but otherwise they are a mystery. The common language shared, in some form, by most volk is Germanic.
All classes are allowed, with the exception of monk, which just has no parallel in dark age Scandinavia. When making class feature choices, also bear in mind that apart from dvergar lords, heavy armor is almost unheard-of. The finest warriors among the volk are equipped with chain and scale, and many only have leather or padded armor, if any.
Clerics, and any other characters, will likely worship either all of the Norse gods together, or revere one of the gods in particular, or they will have abandoned the old gods for the worship of the White Christ.
Odin (Knowledge, Trickery, War) the Allfather and master of the riddles and runes, old one-eye
Frigg (Knowledge, Life) Odin’s wife, goddess of foreknowledge and wisdom
Freyr (Light, Nature) king of Alfarheim, god of kingship, sun and fair weather. Closely associated with the Swedish royal family
Freyja (Light, Life) queen of Alfarheim, goddess of love, sex, beauty, fertility, gold, sorcery and sometimes death
Thor (Tempest, War) son of Odin…we all know what Thor is about.
Baldr (Light, War) also a son of Odin and Frigg, god of light and beauty. His is the greatest ship ever built, and the most beautiful hall in all of Asgard.
Tyr (Knowledge, War) god of law and heroic glory. When his right hand was bitten off, he trained to be even deadlier with his left. Magical weapons are often crafted and marked with his runes.
Loki (Magic, Trickery) with the jotun Angrboda, Loki is father of Hel, Fenrir and Jormugandr – and any number of other monsters. Shape-shifter and trickster, not all agree on whether he is even a god or jotun.
The White Christ (Life, Light, War) is a strange, southern deity. His followers wash themselves in running water and wear white, and have gained influence in the court of Harald Bluetooth. It is said that the Christ is the child of one god, or is perhaps the only god. Some of them are cannibals, and they revere books.
Sorcerers, warlocks and wizards will be viewed with suspicion, but respected for their power when they are needed. Those who are unable to physically defend themselves will be viewed with suspicion and even contempt by many in the north.
Languages: (simplified) Germanic is the equivalent of Common; Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, Gaelic, Rus, Frankish, Skaldic (a secret language known to bards), Sylvan (spoken in Vanaheim), Celestial (spoken in Asgard). There are also race languages like Alfar, Dvergar, Huldu, and Trol. Infernal is spoken in Muspelheim, Abyssal in Hel, and Giant in Jotunheim. Other PHB languages likely have places in the setting as well.
Alignment is customized for a mythic Scandinavian setting, largely because what the dark ages Norse thought to be good and evil, lawful and chaotic, are quite different from our view now, and even the view in a lot of epic fantasy. (If your character is a Christian and not a follower of the old gods, he or she will have a different alignment yet) The axes of alignment for this game different from the book’s good/evil law/chaos.
Rather than good and evil, Norse characters are honest or treacherous. The Norse did not have much of a problem with sometimes stabbing one another, but it was very important whether one was stabbed in the front or the back, so to speak. Honest individuals were respected and their word was trusted; the treacherous, on the other hand, were considered dangerous and cowardly.
Rather than law and chaos, Norse characters are civilized or wild. Civilized characters build towns and cities and engage in trade. They farm and fish and sell their produce. Wild characters tend herds and hunt and gather. They go raiding and worship at ancient, natural places rather than the temples of the gods.
The nine alignments, then, are as follows for the Norse: honest and civilized, always honest, honest and wild; always civilized, balanced, always wild; treacherous and civilized, always treacherous, treacherous and wild.
An honest and civilized character is a stalwart of society, trustworthy and dependable. Her word is heard and respected, but she is uncomfortable when far from a town or city. One who is always honest is a truth-teller, perhaps a bard or a prophet, who is hardly afraid to tell the uncomfortable truth. An honest and wild person doesn’t pull punches and has no time for social niceties. They are generous to allies and harsh to enemies.
One who is always civilized is eager for urbanization and increased trade. She dreams of a return of the order and glory of ancient Rome, and might be very open to Christianity. One who is balanced tries to be wise and to consider all angles before making a decision, and does not declare allegiance to any particular cause. A character who is always wild is in many ways more like an animal. She lives by her instincts and immediate needs, is fiercely loyal and fiercely territorial.
A character who is treacherous and civilized is often influential and feared. He plays politics very effectively and always seems to come out in top despite being reviled by some. One who is always treacherous is just what you’d think – untrustworthy in all things and utterly selfish. Finally, a person who is treacherous and wild is like a wounded animal, just as likely to bite you as help you, delighting in undermining community and society.
Baldr is honest and civilized. Thor is always honest. Freyja is honest and wild. Heimdall is always civilized. Odin is balanced. Surtr is always wild. Hel is treacherous and civilized. Loki is always treacherous. Fenrir is treacherous and wild.
Equipment is more limited than it is in the core rulebooks. There are no non-western items and no pseudo-technological items – even crossbows are almost unknown outside of east Asia at this time (though higher level characters might meet dvergar who can make them). Alchemical items are restricted, particularly at the start of the game. Heavy armor is very rare, available only from dvergar. Even a breastplate is beyond the average armorsmith of the time. Chainmail and leather are common. Where this affects starting proficiencies for different classes, consult the DM. Crosbow proficiencies can be replaced with javelins, darts, or slings.
We don’t need to track encumbrance, or even specific equipment, if we don’t want to. Daily cost of living covers all food and lodging, whether meals in inns or rations and tents in the wilderness. Every class starts with some kind of pack, and we can just want’s in each of them as we go – whatever makes sense to have. Obviously you have any tools with which you are proficient.
Prices for heavy armor (and breastplates and other armor that requires large pieces of shaped metal) in the Core Rulebook are doubled. Heavy armor is almost unheard-of in the north, and is only available from some master dvergar crafters. This game has more of a dark ages feel, and the only heavy armor in the dark ages would be a Roman-style breastplate, but there are more options because this is still Dungeons and Dragons, not history. They’re just more expensive.
Finishing touches include the crucial step of determining your household. Either you have your own household, as a free man or free woman, that includes your own family and lands and possibly thralls, or you are connected to a more powerful person’s household, like the local Thane. You might be a religious leader, a seer or priest or sorceress, who is responsible for a shrine or holy place, and receives sacrifices and offerings from the community. Anyone not connected to the community in these ways will be viewed with suspicion and taken advantage of – orphans and outsiders do not usually flourish.
Parents (alive or dead), siblings
Name, spouse’s name and family, children, especially firstborn son and daughter
Type of holdings: trading vessel, shop in town, herds, farmlands, access to streams full of fish, fur-trapping lands, a share in the spoils as a Thane’s hirdman, etc.
Who is responsible for your holdings when you are away?
Rival: for a bonus point of Wyrd, describe a rival who would like to control your holdings (a jilted suitor, a jealous younger sibling, etc.)
Names should come from Skandanavian languages like Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, or directly from the ancient sagas and eddas. Assume that alfar, dvergar, huldufolk and trols use Skandanavian names and also have secret names in their own tongues. Dvergar names tend to be short and hard, like the dvergar themselves, and trols favor epithets that tell of their exploits and victories.
Women: Adis/Adisa, Agatha, Aldis, Anna, Asa, Ashilda, Astridh, Ashilda, Bara/Bera, Bersa/Birsa, Brana, Brigida, Buna, Cecille, Dagny, Dagrun, Dalla, Dana, Dis/Disa, Dyrfinna, Edel, Edhna, Elena/Ellin, Elli, Embla, Finna, Folka, Fridha, Fonn, Geira, Gilla/Ginna/Gunna, Gisla, Gylla, Hallabjorg, Halley, Hallotta, Hallvor, Helga, Hilda, Holma, Hulda, Idhunn, Iorunn/Jorunn, Isleif, Jora, Kadhlin, Kara/Kata, Katrine, Lif/Lifa, Mabil, Magna, Nanna, Oda, Otkatla, Rathgrid, Ragna, Ran, Randalin, Ranka, Rannow, Rinda, Runa, Saldis, Signy, Sif, Skathi, Soma, Staenia, Svala/Svana, Sunnifa, Syn, Solrun, Tekla/Thekla, Tonna/Tora/Tola, Ulfrun, Una/Unna, Valborg, Valdis, Vedis, Virun, Ynghild, Aessa, Aetta, Olrun, Thora, Thordis, Thorunn, Thorvi, Thyri
Men: Athill, Agthi, Alarr, Albjorn, Aleinn, Alvin, Aluko, Alwe, Anarr, Anager, Andres, Ansvarr, Ari, Arndor, Arnis, Arnulf, Arnkor, Arvithr, Aski/Askr, Astrathr, Aurnir, Audunn/Audon, Avaldi/Avaldr, Bathi, Baltr, Bari, Bergr/Birgir, Biarni, Biorr, Biorn, Blainn, Bothi, Borr, Bragi, Bruddr, Brunn, Balki, Dagr, Dainn, Domi, Ebbe, Eggert, Einarr, Elias, Engill, Erlendr, Eyarr, Fainn, Falki, Fari, Fengr, Fjallar, Floki, Frathi, Gakki, Gamall, Garthi/Garni, Gegnir, Geirbjorn, Gildi, Gothin, Garmr, Grammel, Grimarr, Griss, Sandarr, Sigarr, Sigfrid, Sigmarr, Sigvald, Simeon, Snorri, Steinarr, Stali/Svali, Solvir, Tumi/Tuni, Ulfarr, Valbjorn, Valter, Varinn, Vani, Vidar, Vignir, Vikarr, Vigmarr, Olvir, Thorald, Thorn
Either: Agni, Alli, Anki, Atti, Auni, Elis/Elli, Finna, Gunni, Haera, Kalli, Karli, Kori, Magni, Mar, Mattis, Miki, Nanni, Odleif, Nagni, Stygg, Trana, Udhr
Here’s a site with a huge searchable list of Norse names. (When in doubt, pick one you can pronounce.)
The game begins in the coastal town of Vastervik, a western colony of the island of Gotland, which lies on the Swedish coast. The people of Vastervik answer to the Jarl of Visby, a center of sea-trade famed for, among other things, a guild of craftsmen who are able to produce crystal lenses that are useful for navigation. Visby is the capital of Gotland, and the Jarl of Gotland has sworn fealty to the King of Sweden.
Vastervik is a human settlement of perhaps a thousand people. Alfar, dvergar and huldufolk are not unheard-of, but they are far from common, tending to stay in their own settlements in hard-to-reach places. The alfar are said to have come from the sky, while the dvergar and huldufolk are known to live underground. Some people speak with them and even trade with them, but they are not volk. Trols live in their own settlements, mostly in stony country inland, and they and volk have a history of raiding one another.
From the south comes the creeping threat of followers of the White Christ. They are said to be cannibals, cowards, thieves and generally do not behave like people. The faith of the White Christ has taken hold in the Kingdom of Norway to the northwest, but has not reached Gotland, though groups of Christ-followers can sometimes be seen in cities like Visby, their clerics attended by strange southern men-at-arms.
As the game begins, it is the end of the longest winter in living memory. Hunger and banditry are widespread, and distant villages and settlements have not been heard from since the autumn long ago. Thane Fathir of Vastervik has called a spring Assembly, or Thing, and will be calling for brave men and women to travel the paths of spring and bring news..
Norse culture in the dark ages is a culture that values heroism, independence, and a prickly sense of personal honor. It is relatively easy to provoke a duel to the death by implying that a man is cowardly or effeminate. (In fact, insulting someone without getting into a fight you requires a Charisma (Deception) check, and there are complex systems of kenning and innuendo for just that purpose). There is a very powerful stigma attached to behaviors that are selfish, fearful, or whereby men behave in stereotypically feminine ways. (Women who act in stereotypically masculine ways have a place in society, often as shieldmaidens) If you are accused of being selfish, cowardly, of using poison and so on, the only way to retain your standing is to be exonerated at an Assembly, or to defeat your accuser in holmgang – a personal duel that can last until shields are shattered, until first blood, or until death.
Without written records, and living in a warrior society where hunger is a constant concern, it is crucial that people be trustworthy and that they not act against their community – their village, clan, etc. Every free man or woman is responsible for themselves, and what laws there are exist to keep people from meddling in others’ affairs or failing to live up to their responsibility. Generally speaking, women make decisions about the homestead and men make decisions outside of it.
Spring is for planting and reconnecting, summer is for raiding and crafting, autumn is for harvesting and storing, and the long winters are for crafting, stories, and learning (this campaign may have a winter phase). In summer there are only about four hours of relative darkness in the far north, and in the deep winter the sun doesn’t come far above the horizon. People gather in the largest longhouses, living in close quarters along with their animals. Privacy isn’t a high priority for the Norse, in part by necessity.
It is illegal for a man not to own a weapon – at least a spear – and almost all people, men and women, carry a seax, a long knife or a short sword, as a tool and for protection (treat them as a shortsword). Because of this, all (non-thrall) Norse are considered to be proficient with the shortsword, as men and women are both taught the basics of fighting with a seax from childhood.
Slavery is common in Norse society (and slaves, like children, do not carry the ubiquitous seax). Slaves taken in battle are brought back to the homestead to work. They can buy their freedom in time, and might be treated well or cruelly depending on who owns them. This is not like chattel slavery in the U.S. – slaves are people, they’re just people captured in war and raiding. Most of the knowledge that the Norse have about outside cultures comes from their slaves – when raiding, they rarely bother to ask. Thralls might come from any society in the known world – from Ireland to Russia to the Byzantine Empire.
Here is a list of possible house rules for Twilight of the Gods, in addition to any listed above.
At level 1 you receive 1 point of Wyrd, and each time you level, you receive another point of Wyrd. Wyrd functions a bit like inspiration in the core rules, but you can save up more than one point of it and it is a bit more flexible. How to gain and use Wyrd is explained in the Obsidian Portal wiki, behind this link.
The players roll all the dice if they want (all players need to agree). What this means is that a character’s AC is reduced by 10 and then you add a d20 roll to it, and an NPC’s attack has 10 added to it and is treated as a target number. NPC and monster attacks will deal average damage rather than rolled damage. This is also a way to keep players engaged when it is not their turn, but isn’t necessary.
Let It Ride. This is a rule from Burning Wheel that I use in every game. You roll once for a given task, and deal with the consequences. Players cannot ask the DM for lots of re-rolls, and the DM cannot demand roll after roll until you fail.
Winter phase. Winter is a time to repair, re-equip, recover and reconnect socially. It will probably be a time during which PCs can swap out a proficiency, or put time toward learning a new proficiency. It might also be a time when PCs can solidify their reputation and standing.
It sates itself on the life-blood
of fated men,
paints red the powers’ homes
with crimson gore.
Black become the sun’s beams
in the summers that follow,
weathers all treacherous.
Do you still seek to know? And what?