I’m returning to Journey to Ragnarok to take a look at the campaign arc and setting. Last time, I looked at what player options were in the book and concluded that there was a fair spread. Now I’m looking at whether the campaign holds up and whether you can use this as a full campaign setting independent of the adventure series.
The Journey to Ragnarok campaign is more than just a name, it’s literally the PCs walking through the Nine Worlds and getting closer and closer to the Twilight of the Gods. The journey starts with level 1 characters in Midgardr and gives them a chance to be big bad heroes in the mortal realm before heading to frigid Niflheimr around the time they’re level 7. From there it’s on to Helheimr around level 8, then a quick check-in at Agardr before heading to Svartalfheimr to advance to level 10.
Things begin to come to a head over the next three levels as the heroes go to Ljosalfheimr and then Vanaheimr after which they should be level 12. Then it’s time to challenge frost giants in Jotunheimr and at level 13 to move on to fire giants in Muspellsheimr before meeting Ragnarok itself for levels 14 and 15. You don’t quite get up to what most people would call “epic levels” but (being the GM of a 15th level campaign at the moment) I can tell you that at level 15 player characters are pretty substantial.
Now let’s take a look at each of these lands to see how much meat is on their bones.
In the mortal realm, things are pretty much what you’d expect from a D&D setting, though there are weather conditions thanks to the Great Winter of Fimbulvetr. A map of Scandinavia is provided and the various lands are presented along with towns and sites (maps included). It’s a good setting but not quite an open sandbox since few actual personalities are given to interact with: mostly it’s just “1d2 Berserker” and “5 Commoner servants” inhabiting these places. The other hang-up is that the areas are all staged by level to get everyone to 7th by the time they’re ready to start plane-hopping. This makes it seem like an MMORPG, which is open-ended enough for a personalized campaign but if you’re a GM it means you’re limited by PC level in where you can set a story.
The adventure portion itself is excellent and clearly laid out with advice on getting started (including parties of mixed clan PCs and one-clan parties), starting above first level, and some short paragraphs on expanding beyond Midgardr to Europe, Britain, and farther. The NPCs that do appear here have good roleplaying notes, clear goals, and even interesting mechanics. They are mostly clan leaders but there are also draugr, trolls, Norse-specific NPCs (like berserkers and shieldmaidens), and even an awesome rival adventurer. There are fantastic maps of towns and interesting random encounter tables. It wouldn’t be that hard to make this into a true sandbox setting since it’s already compelling and exciting, but it’s not there right out of the box.
By the time they’re 6th or 7th level, the book tells us, the PCs should feel “drunk on their accumulated power,” and they attract the attention of the gods. They fall asleep after a victorious mission and have visions of Ragnarok, then awaken in Niflheimr. It won’t surprise you that this land is cold and dangerous, but there are all sorts of hazardous areas for PCs to charge blindly into. They get their comeuppance for thinking they were anything special and struggle through the area until they discover a way out. Unfortunately, that way out leads to the River of the Dead.
Heading into the caverns of Gnipahellir, the PCs are likely to realize fairly quickly that things have gotten worse. Like a Ravenloft adventure, there are lots of choices to explore here but they are all a bad idea and I think it could easily feel to players like things are fairly hopeless. Not every suggested encounter here is combat but all of them are potentially deadly and you have a chance to meet the goddess Hel and the great worm Níðhöggr, so it’s not like there’s nothing to write home about. The party should head towards recovering an important artifact and then traveling via Bifrost to the realm of the gods.
The locations and opportunities of Asgardr are pretty impressive since they get the chance to meet the gods (though only Baldr, Heimdallr, Loki, Odhinn, Thor, and Týr are statted out; for the rest there’s a generic “Æsir” stat block) and to get some clarity on what’s going on. Odhinn gives them a nice little fetch-quest and sends them on their way to Svartalfheimr… though if your players are anything like my players they will likely try to find anything else to do at this point.
This is easily remedied since these adventurers are talking to the most powerful beings in their worldview, but this hinge-point in the campaign is certainly the most railroading. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that but it does make Asgard the least flexible place in this arc, which is unfortunate because players will certainly be excited to go there.
Now we’re into lands with near-human peoples that players might want as characters! The svartalfar have the stats of drow (though they are “lawful dishonorable” instead of evil) and I imagine at least one player would want a dual-wielding svartalf, preferrably with a cat companion… But if you want that in your campaign, you’ll have to come up with that yourself. There are no stats provided for the denizens here (even the dwarves of Nidavellir) and certainly no mention of whether they might be willing to leave their home. I would say that these could be intriguing replacement characters, but you’ll have to pull from other D&D sourcebooks.
I don’t want to spoil any of the events for players, but I will tell GMs to flip to this chapter of they’re considering this campaign arc and aren’t sold yet. The written encounter for Nidavellir is a succinct encapsulation of the epic and lore-driven mix you can expect from Journey to Ragnarok.
How do you follow up a trip to the home of the dark elves? Why a trip to the home of the light elves! I was speaking purely mechanically before when I said that the svartalfar were pretty much drow but in this chapter there is a section explaining that the Elves and Dark Elves used to be one but then a civil war wracked the land and the Dark Elves left for the lightless Svartalfheimr… Somebody out there correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think this is actually part of any recorded Norse legend so it seems like a bit of D&D creeping in. Not sure how I feel about that…
Again, no stats or anything for the elves but there is plenty on their palaces and politics. The party will be caught up in said politics and also in a frosty disagreement between Odhinn and Frigga. If they can navigate this sticky situation (mostly roleplaying which is great) they gain the trust of both gods and can continue on the next step of their journey, to the strange lands of Vanaheimr.
The main goal here is to learn some information about the events of Ragnarok from the Vanir god of the sea Njordr. This truly massive realm, comparable in size to Midgardr and with lots of interesting places to potentially explore, is sadly a quick trip. They need to convince the locals that they are on the up-and-up, then head to the land of the giants and see how imminent the invasion is. I wish there was more to this section, but then again there isn’t much on it in the source material so I can understand. One thing you can look forward to, though, is the strange shrine-constructs called hörgr which are scattered around the land. These things are complex, variable, and creepy as hell so watch those players squirm.
Jotunheimr and Muspellheimr
We’re getting into the thick of the adventure here so I’m going to combine these two to reduce spoilers. These two realms have some interesting locations but mostly they are full of huge, terrifying giants with different personalities and some complex motivations. In Muspellheimr there’s also a cool subsystem of sliding lava creating a continent-sized realm which is constantly shifting and potentially screwing the PCs over.
Conclusion and Thoughts
Following this is Ragnarok itself, which I obviously can’t talk about without giving away the ending and giving up information GMs would rather keep quiet. This is a long series of battle encounters which aren’t very usable outside of the specific campaign arc, and that’s sort of the trend in the book. Midgardr is set up to travel through in a particular path (advancing by level-appropriate areas) but each land after that is successively less sandbox-like.
There’s not as much to explore in Niflheimr or Helheimr but players at least move through it in their own way. After that, though, there’s a pretty clear path and fewer and fewer options to stop and smell the roses along the way. There’s an appendix of magic items and an interesting section on casting runes as a game mechanic, but by and large this is a campaign arc for players to follow.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s a fantastic campaign! The encounters are varied and interesting, they provoke players to think and to immerse themselves in the world. I’d love to get a group together for a long-term campaign in this world but not everyone will feel that way. So that’s my advice: if you are very interested in exploring Norse mythology and (more importantly) your group is too then pick up this book immediately. If you’re interested in a Norse-themed world, or a section of your game world, then you can also get this book for the class stuff and items, but just know that two-thirds or so will be mostly for inspiration.