Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Retrospective: The Northern Reaches

I mentioned, in last week's retrospective on The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, that I didn't own many modules in the D&D Gazetteer line, in part because of my disappointment with its inaugural release. Despite this, I did own the seventh in the series, The Northern Reaches, released in 1988 and written by Ken Rolston and Liz Danforth – and, to this day, I consider it one of the most interesting things ever published for the D&D game line. 

Like all the other entries in the Gazetteer line, The Northern Reaches is, first and foremost, a detailed examination of one of the regions of the Known World setting (soon to be known as Mystara). In this case, the region in question covers three realms, namely Ostland, Vestland, and the Soderfjord Jarldoms, all of whom share a culture that resembles that of the Norse peoples of medieval Europe. However, The Northern Reaches is more than that. In presenting these three nations, including their histories, societies, and major NPCs, the module also presents several new optional rules for use with D&D and it's these rules that, in my opinion, make the module so fascinating.

Co-author Ken Rolston was already a veteran RPG writer by the time this book appeared (as was Liz Danforth). Among the many games on which he worked was Chaosium's RuneQuest, for which he'd eventually serve as developer during the all-too-brief "RuneQuest renaissance" of the early 1990s. I mention this because, in my opinion, Rolston brings to bear many of the skills he no doubt learned working on the mythical world of Glorantha. The Northern Reaches is a remarkable product that takes inspiration from a real world historical culture to present a fantastical version of the same, without forgetting that this is a module for Dungeons & Dragons and should, therefore, be both accessible and fun. 

By and large, Rolston and Danforth succeed admirably in this. One of the ways they do so is through the use of four different NPCs whose viewpoints on various matters of interest can be found throughout the 32-page Players Book, which, along with the 64-page DM Book, makes up the product. These NPCs – three humans and dwarf – all have unique voices and areas of expertise. Consequently, when they describe aspects of the Northern Reaches, they do so with varying degrees of bias. While this means not everything they say is wholly reliable, it also gives players and DM alike a sense of how the people in this region view the world. It's also a terrific guide for playing Northmen either as player or non-player characters. 

The DM Book, though larger, is the least interesting of the two. This book is written in a matter-of-fact way, presenting the history, geography, society, and current events of each of the three realms, with emphasis placed on those that are most useful for adventuring in them. We also learn about the unique nature of certain nonhuman races here, such as the dwarves and trolls, which are based a bit more on their Norse mythological equivalents (though not too much, lest this run counter to the expectations of standard D&D). There are also extensive treatments of the major personalities of the three realms, in addition to multiple adventure ideas and campaign outlines. Interestingly, there are also brief guidelines for converting the module to AD&D and even making use of the material in campaigns set in either Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms. 

The Players Book presents the three realms of Ostland, Vestland, and the Soderfjord Jarldoms as potential homelands for player characters. To that end, there is a section devoted to generating Northmen, starting with an optional personality traits system that's more or less identical to the one in Pendragon, albeit with slightly different sets of opposing traits (no "Chaste/Lustful," for example – this is a family-friendly game product!). There are also optional systems for determining a character's reputation, background, family status, past experiences, skills, and more. None of these systems is mechanically complex, but they're all sufficiently flavorful that I think they'd go some way toward marking a character from the Northern Reaches as distinctive.

There's also a section on the godar, as clerics are known in this region of the Known World. These Norse priests have different abilities and obligations based on the deity – I mean, immortal – they serve. These immortals should be familiar to anyone with knowledge of our world's Norse mythology. Odin, Thor, and Loki are all here, along with several others. Runes and rune magic also get their own treatments here. Again, the new systems associated with these things are fairly simple and don't deviate much from standard D&D, but they do so just enough that the end result is something flavorful and fun.

I'd be exaggerating if I called The North Reaches revolutionary or even groundbreaking. In many ways, it's a fairly ordinary transposition of the historical Norse to a fantasy setting, with almost no changes to differentiate them from their inspirations. Yet, in the context of late 1980s Dungeons & Dragons, that's more than enough to mark it as worthy of praise. That Rolston and Danforth do so in a way that simultaneously conveys the spirit of its inspirations while never losing sight of its purpose as a D&D supplement sets it apart from many similar products in the history of the hobby. That's probably why, even after all these years, I still retain a great fondness for The Northern Reaches and wish I'd paid more attention to the Gazetteer series at the time.


  1. Nice write up. The Northern Reaches is one of my top favorites of the "Known World" gazetteers (the other two being Ylaruam and Glantri) and I designed some fun adventures in the region.

  2. This was the first of the Gazetteers that I bought back in the day, and still my favorite.