Thursday, December 18, 2008

REVIEW: Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom

Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom is a 13-page PDF released by James Mishler's Adventure Games Publishing and selling for $3.00. Describing the worship of the Aesir (and Vanir) gods, this product is the first in the "Faiths of the City State" series for use with AGP's Wilderlands of High Adventure setting, but it's generic enough that it'd be useful in any setting that includes the Norse pantheon. Likewise, though Forn Sidthr written with Castles & Crusades in mind, makes no specific references to C&C's game mechanics, thereby making it easy to use with any fantasy RPG, old school or otherwise.

The product begins with a one-page overview of the religious life of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The overview gives a good sense of the riotous polytheism of the City State and, by implication, the Wilderlands as a whole by introducing five ranks to measure one's devotion to a particular faith: irregular, regular, semi-exclusive, initiate, and priest. What's nice about these ranks is that, in addition to providing context for the setting, they also include practical guidelines about what level of religious devotion qualifies one for each. It's a small thing, admittedly, but I appreciated it, since, as we'll see shortly, there are consequences to whether one is devout or lax in his observances.

Five pages are devoted to Old Custom itself, with information on the religion's history, deities, symbols, hierarchy, and so forth. There's also a section detailing the Forn Sidthr's beliefs and dogma. Again, this information is presented very practically, with eye toward how it can be used in play. This is not an abstract flight of fancy into fantastical theology but rather a brief but specific discussion of how adherents to the Old Custom behave -- or are expected to, at any rate -- and what this means. I also appreciated the way that these five pages gave a sense of the Forn Sidthr as being a unified pantheon with a proper "church." All too often, fantasy games have no notion of ritual, hierarchy, or doctrine, treating religion as individualistic and atomized, with no regard for how its various pieces fit together. Forn Sidthr nicely avoids that error, but without committing the concomitant error of getting bogged down in pointless detail.

The last six pages of the PDF are devoted to a discussion of the afterlife and the disposition of the soul of a follower of the Old Custom. In it, we're introduced to a new system that tracks the virtues and sins of members of the faith, so that the referee can keep a running tallying that determines the fate of a character's soul after death. The section catalogs the major and minor acts that earn one approbation or condemnation in the eyes of the Aesir and gives a table that enables the referee to see what happens to your character should he die at any given point. Depending on his faithfulness, he could be rewarded with a seat at Odin's table in Valhalla or cursed to wander the earth as an undead draugr -- or anything in between. The table also shows how effective raise dead and similar spells will be on a character whose soul is in each category, which I found to be an excellent bit of forethought on Mishler's part.

I can find almost nothing to dislike in Forn Sidthr: The Old Custom, except perhaps its somewhat pedestrian three-column layout, but that's a small quibble, because, boring though it may be, the layout is nevertheless easy on the eyes and free from errors. This is an excellent product and a good example I think of how much Mishler has learned since he began publishing his Wilderlands products. Earlier products tended to be a bit too "heavy" on minutiae for my liking, whereas his more recent endeavors have been eminently "practical" in their approach. They don't skimp on details by any means, but the details are carefully chosen for maximum utility. That is, they're useful in play and not just as bits of trivia that gamers can swap while talking about playing rather than actually doing so. For me, this quality is exactly what old school gaming products should possess and Mishler has shown he understands it well. I continue to be very impressed with AGP's PDFs and look forward to future releases with great anticipation.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 polearms

7 comments:

  1. Does it include the MOST practical bit of information, that is, how to bloody pronounce "Sidthr"?

    That's the kind of information I could really use, but that they rarely include.

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  2. I confess to being a little irked by this product, for the simple reason that it uses the name of a currently-practiced religious faith and goes on to describe that faith in fantasy terms. It would be the equivalent of naming a product "The Body of Christ" and then proceeding to detail the powers of the angels, combat bonuses from attending various forms of Mass, what happens when you cast Resurrection on someone whose soul is in Purgatory, etc. Not the end of the world, but at least a little disrespectful and tacky.

    When I remarked on this over at James' blog, he replied to the effect that it was a generic term, and just because the name is the same, the faith itself is different.

    I wonder, then, why he could not have come up with another Old Norse term that was not, in fact, currently being used by real-world people to describe their religion. A few minutes with Cleasby-Vigfusson's Dictionary of Old Icelandic could have yielded a half-dozen candidates that are not in current use today.

    Like I say; not the end of the world, but tacky and unnecessary.

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  3. One of the difficulties is that every god ever worshipped by man is probably worshipped by someone somewhere. Not only that, but people in real life sometimes worship gods made-up by 20th-century fantasy writers. There is at least one honest-to-goodness Cthulhu cultist that I know of, and there are some people who consider "Jedi" their religion.

    In short, no matter what god you give D&D stats to, SOMEBODY today in real life is worshipping that god.

    As a Christian, I would not be offended at all if someone were to give Jesus, Mary, the angels, and all the saints D&D stats. Sounds like fun to me!

    YMMV

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  4. Personally I'd be offended by anyone who took the Norse-Germanic pagan gods and claimed to have exclusive ownership of them. For us northern Europeans they're part of our common heritage, and I dislike any neo-pagan attempts to appropriate them. I'm not sure if this is actually a common attitude though.

    I certainly don't believe in respecting any religion just because people believe in it, some religions are highly unpleasant IMO, but that's a different issue.

    Re the product, the price seems a bit stiff for 13 pages, but if I were still running my C&C Wilderlands PBEM focused on Norsemen adventuring in the City State it'd probably be worth the money. Kind of a limited audience though. :)

    Re "It would be the equivalent of naming a product "The Body of Christ" and then proceeding to detail the powers of the angels, combat bonuses from attending various forms of Mass, what happens when you cast Resurrection on someone whose soul is in Purgatory, etc."

    Count me in as another for whom this would be cool. :) Or as a non-Catholic am I not allowed to say so?

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  5. Don't get me wrong-- it's not the use of the Norse Gods that I object to. They've been statted for D&D since Gods, Demigods, and Heroes.

    I only wish that a different name had been chosen for this particular product. Rather than the name used by a living, breathing group of people for their faith, there are a bunch of very suitable names in Old Norse that could have been used, but weren't.

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  6. Does it include the MOST practical bit of information, that is, how to bloody pronounce "Sidthr"?

    Alas, it does not.

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  7. As a Christian, I would not be offended at all if someone were to give Jesus, Mary, the angels, and all the saints D&D stats. Sounds like fun to me!

    One game I own -- Fantasy Wargaming -- does indeed include stats for the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, and many saints, in addition to the usual roll call of Hell. There are also rules for the salutary effects of attending Mass and receiving the sacraments, as well as what happens should a character sin against God and his Church. It all makes good sense within the context of the game as presented and I didn't find it at all offensive.

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