By Oluwatayo Adewole
This feature is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #162. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Exalted Funeral. While Exalted Funeral puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.
“In the wondrous beauty of the aftermath, Golden tables found among the grass, Held by the gods in days of old. Then barren fields will bloom and grow, All harm shall be undone.”
– Voluspá 61-62
Norse imagery and specifically runes are extremely fraught territory, often co-opted by the far right to create an ahistorical vision of an eternal and powerful white masculinity. The Dark Souls games (and the “Souls-like” genre that draws from them) are also a fraught space (though with less immediately pressing consequences), subject to the misappropriations of people who seek to create hierarchies around narrow understandings of difficulty. Both sets of mis(understandings) rely on a fetishizing of masculine and individual power with its ability to dominate. In the midst of all this, it’s a bold move for Colin Le Sueur to make a Norse-inspired Souls-like tabletop roleplaying game, and yet he manages to avoid these landmines to create something very interesting.
In Runecairn, the player is a lone Adventurer in the wake of Ragnarok and the Warden (like a GM) creates the world around them. The realms are shattered. The gods are dead or disappeared. Magic still flows, but its rules don’t apply like they used to. This is not a place of glory and gods and wonder, but instead a husk of what used to be – and that’s what makes its approach unique. Norse mythology’s specific relationship with the gods as being complicated and killable was fundamental to Le Sueur choosing this setting.
“The concepts of the Norse gods as flawed and ultimately fallible makes them so much more interesting, along with the fact they’re doomed to die when Ragnarok comes. The idea of melancholy decline appears in the Dark Souls games, so the theme fits perfectly within Runecairn.”
Instead of the experience being about living as some sort of all-powerful badass, you are one person trying to make your mark on this world around you and carve something out of it. These aren’t the (semi-imagined) halcyon days of warriors going to battle day after day and coming out victorious, or dying in blazing heroic glory. Now, death is not the end, but it isn’t weightless either – each death saps vigor (a key stat in the game) as the decay of this fractured world eats away at you. Playing in this decaying world deftly subverts the grand and glorified notions raised by the fascists who seek to flatten the Norse myths and cultures into a paragon of whiteness – which reinforces Le Sueur’s statement that “bigots have no place around my table or playing my games.”
One of the principles for players in the book is as follows: “Fighting is a choice and rarely a wise one; consider whether violence is the best way to achieve your goals”. Building on the rules-light and fiction-first system of Cairn, Runecairn: Wardensaga is able to create more options for play which aren’t just reliant on having the strongest blade or maxing out your stats. You also cannot simply min/max your way to victory. If there is a situation where death is the most logical next step within the scenario you’ve created, that will be what happens – though this is counterbalanced by one of the principles for the Warden, being that when a situation is dangerous, that danger should be clearly communicated with the player. In this balance, the choice to face near-certain death for something you desire/believe in becomes a hell of a lot more interesting. Also, the real and present danger leans into the best parts of the Souls-like genre, encouraging you to hone in on specific tactics and strategies so that you make it out of an encounter with your souls (the main advancement mechanism) intact.
This isn’t Le Sueur’s first foray with Cairn, previously delving into the system with gunslinging weird west TTRPG We Deal In Lead, but he did things a little different this time.
“The hardest part was deciding what to change when adapting Cairn. Since it’s such a streamlined system, I didn’t want to add too much bloat to it; I had to find a balance of mechanics that were identifiably Souls-like while still keeping the game running quickly and smoothly (and making sure it was still fun!). With We Deal in Lead, I kept it closer to Cairn while still making some changes; one day I’ll do a straight Cairn adventure!”
With all this in mind, being a lone player making you some Rambo-like unstoppable force becomes a deeply isolating symptom of the world existing as it does. In the advanced rules introduced by Wardensaga, it is possible to bring in help during battle, but finding the effigy stone to summon an ally is no mean feat and the cost of the summoning itself is high. On the flip side, it is also possible to open up the game to invasions through “black fetches,” manifestations of the spirits of lost adventurers which can be slain for impressive rewards. However, most of the time you will likely find yourself fighting and dying alone.
Yet in this not-quite-dead world, it’s not all misery; with the right tactics and some lucky rolls, there is the chance to reach powerful heights. One particular feature that exemplifies this is the “dire strike” which Le Sueur highlights as one of his favorite additions to the Cairn system – “because there are no to-hit rolls in Runecairn, you lose the rush when you roll a critical hit. To replace this, a dire strike is when you roll max damage with an attack (so double 6 on a 2d6 roll, for instance). The dire strike triggers new effects or complications, for the adventurer or their foes.”
Much of the game’s text discusses using this moment defined by death to find agency. This can be seen in the descriptions of each of the classes, people once bonded to the gods and great wars now bear the burden and possibility of the endless futures ahead. The centering of choice here is also key in how the classes work. In the core of Runecairn players can be a Warrior, Skald (a communer with the gods), a Scout or a Seer (cunning magician seeking the secrets of the world). The advanced edition then introduces the Berserker and the Pyre (wielder of ancient flame magic). Unlike some other systems, classes aren’t something that you are forcibly tied to, instead the class is tied to a “key item,” which are the flame grippers for a Pyre or the linden wood shield for a warrior. There are some items/attributes which may align better with particular classes/play styles, but aside from the key item, different classes can use whichever item they wish. The system’s fluidity opens up a wealth of opportunities for players to really take their own path. But with this freedom there are still options for players who want/need some of the endless possibilities taken out of their hands, with Wardensaga’s introduction of the delve generator and oracle tables that help construct an adventure.
There’s something deeply resonant about the combined energies of the Souls games and a post-Ragnarok world with our current present, in which the world seems to end and then keep going over and over. In the midst of this miasma of death and loss this game presents the possibility to push forward and seize the future. That is core to what makes the Runecairn: Wardensaga fascinating.
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Stay up to date with Colin’s work on his site and via Twitter. The PDF of Runecairn: Wardensaga is available from Exalted Funeral.
Oluwatayo Adewole is a writer, critic and performer. You can find her Twitter ramblings @naijaprince21, his poetry @tayowrites on Instagram and their performances across London.