Thursday, December 2, 2021

Game Review: Viking Death Squad

Viking Death Squad cover
Art by Hankerin Ferinale
©2021 Runehammer Games

Author: Hankerin Ferinale
Publisher: Runehammer
Marketplace: Mödiphius, DrivethruRPG
Engine: Custom Opposed d6 Dice Pool System

Full Disclosure: Hankerin Ferinale gifted me a copy of Viking Death Squad as thanks for my reviews and frequent praise of ICRPG on my platform. I do not feel that this has biased my opinion of the game; if it was disappointing, I would have said so. But I also feel, for the sake of integrity, that I need to put that up front. With that said, I will open by saying exactly what I said after I started reading the manual:

Where has Viking Death Squad been all my life?

Viking Death Squad is a science fantasy RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world inspired by one of my all-time favorite songs: "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath. The game is set in the 100th century, when the earth has been reduced to an ashen husk that is being fought over by the cyborg armies of a dying interstellar army, the Infinitum for their masters "The War Pigs" and the demonic legions of Hell itself.

Caught in the middle of this conflict are the last remnants of human beings, hiding in scattered underground communities and struggling for survival. A human rebellion against both invading forces, The Screaming Skulls have recently liberated the War Pigs' most dangerous weapon: the Immortals: cybernetically enhanced superhuman clones of 8th century Norse warriors that have been granted the ability to raise themselves from the dead a limited number of times.

The Screaming Skulls were only able to free a handful of these immortals before the Infinitum destroyed the rest rather than have them fall into rebel hands. Only ten currently wander the "Urth" working with the Skulls. But they, and the chance they represent is enough to give humanity an edge in the war for survival.

Players may choose either to play an exceptional human member of the Screaming Skulls or one of the Immortals. Statistically, the Immortals are much tougher than the humans, and may come back from the dead three times (with ways of gaining more resurrections available, but rare.) Should all ten Immortals die their final death, however, all hope is lost, creating a unique fail state for the campaign.

The game sports a unique 70's metal aesthetic and setting design, with a lot of unusual mechanical choices and experimental game mastering tools that make it a very different game from many that I have read.

The manual includes a starting adventure, several pre-generated characters, and detailed scenario prompts cribbed from Hankerin Ferinale's original Viking Death Squad campaign. It also has an ambient soundtrack free for download designed for background noise for play.

Viking Death Squad's core engine is a dice-pool mechanic. Players roll a number of d6s based on one of their character attributes (SPEED, WITS, GUTS, AIM, and POWER) rated 1-6, with a modifier of ±2 which can be augmented by a limited RESOLVE pool, which refuels as a reward for clever or dramatic play from the GM or when PCs rest. The GM has a pool based on the difficulty of the task at hand (or set by a monster's stat block). The player and GM roll off, with the roll being successful if a player matches or beats the GMs roll.

Critical successes happen if one side of the roll gets a total 12 higher than the other, or if a player's pool has three sixes in it. (A bonus is suggested if they sing a verse from Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" when this happens.) There are several results described for various situations when a critical is rolled.

Combat relies heavily on an initial SPEED roll which serves as both an individual initiative order, and a fixed "to hit" target number for all attacks made against that character in combat. Cover, high ground, and the element of surprise can all modify this roll, making your choice of battleground and tactics absolutely critical for success in battle.

All characters in Viking Death Squad die instantly if hit while unarmored, Characters can wear up to four pieces of armor. Each piece can take up to three hits before being destroyed. Field repairs and carrying spare armor are critical to character survival. Salvaging new armor is also possible. Critical hits and certain special abilities can instantly destroy armor.

Any piece of gear can take three damage just like armor. A player may choose to push the limits of their gear by damaging it in order to get amplified results. For example, they might deliberately damage a weapon to be allowed to cleave through multiple targets. Characters are limited to 10 substantial or magical items. (Small, light items are not counted against this tally.)

Characters possess a number of Skills that are rolled as pools of dice, but are often used with different mechanics For example, many skills activate a supernatural or special effect if one of the dice rolled shows a 6, 5-6, or 4-6 depending on the skill. These special abilities are selected at character generation. Any time a character uses a skill and succeeds they gain a point towards improving that skill rating by an additional die. Critical successes improve the skill faster.

Aside from improving skills, a character's RESOLVE pool increases by +1d6 after each successful adventure. Critical hits also spend a point towards mastering one of several "blood runes" a character may mark on their flesh. When five critical successes have been put towards a given rune, it grants a permanent increase to a stat, a new skill, or some other unique power. Choosing which blood runes to take and develop is a major means of character customization.

Monsters in Viking Death Squad come with random (d8) tactics tables to take the decision making on monster behavior out of the GMs hands most of the time. They otherwise have a SPEED rating, armor, and a single die pool used for all other rolls, as well as a trio of special abilities and a unique special property.

What I Loved

The Aesthetic

Viking Death Squad takes the heavy metal aesthetic and cranks it up to 11. We have demons, we have horrible cyborgs, we have armies of skeletons, we have flying spaceships made out of stone, we have fantasy monsters and laser blasters, and battle ax wielding indestructible heroes. Because Viking Death Squad is built for one specific gaming experience in mind, it pays a lot of detail to things like the technology and materials available in the setting. It does a beautiful job of invoking the world of Black Sabbath lyrics and '80s heavy metal album covers. It does what brutal legend set out and failed to do a decade ago. To give you an experience of adventuring across an Iron Maiden album.

Each chapter is headed buy a short poem that fits the meter in structure of a black Sabbath song. In fact, I had to check the first one to make sure it wasn't actually lyrics to one of the alternate versions of War Pigs

Art

The artwork in this book, credited to Brandish Gilhelm (I believe that is a pseudonym of Ferinale's) sticks to the high energy comic book style of art that I've come to expect from a RUNEHAMMER book. The artwork inspires a sense of what the world is about and Sparks ideas for campaigns. It doesn't just try to tap anesthetic, it actually helps give shape to the game world. I particularly appreciate the use of black white and single color, as it really draws the eye and helps create a tone to a given art piece. By looking at the art you have an idea of the style of play that the game tries to create.

Music

Role playing games coming with the soundtrack is not new, but it's not something I have ever seen in an indie game before. I have appreciated some of Hankerin Ferinale'ss musical wanderings at the beginning of live streams before, and enjoyed them. I'm glad to see him taking this to the next level by including a soundtrack to his game.

This couldn't have been easy to pull off. I was, however, I expecting heavy metal, rather than mostly dark ambient. After listening to it while playing Valheim with my wife, however, it made sense. You want to listen to heavy metal to inspire, but for actual play you need to walk a line between evocative and something that fades well into the background.

Smart choice of Sonic design and an amazing achievement for a small Indie publisher.

Overall Setting

100th century Urth is an intricately detailed setting. There are around 25 settings on the world map that showcase the idea of a planet that has been ravaged by millennia of solid war, orbital bombardment, and successive alien invasions. You have twisted metal cityscapes, continent-sized fungal forests full of alien life, volcanic wastes, craters wear chunks of the Moon fell to earth when it exploded, and graveyards of gigantic war machines.

One of the things I really enjoy is the fact that we see both a demonic hell, but also references to the Norse gods, and hyper scientific aliens. No attempt is made to integrate these, or explain how Lucifer fits in the same world as Thor. They just are. Perhaps they're aliens who have taken on the names of gods in the vein of Stargate, perhaps they are both real as in The Saga of Bjorn, or perhaps it is something else entirely. It doesn't matter, because this world is so far removed from the present.

One of the biggest ideas in the setting is that people no longer understand their own technology. Neither the humans nor the War Pigs understand how to make money of the machines that power their war effort. They simply are there as relics from a more advanced past. Technology that relies on electricity or chemical fuels is gone, sometimes replaced by weird alien technology, sometimes purely forgotten. There is no telecommunication, vehicles are rare and valuable, and ranged weapons are a mix of bows and mysterious ancient blasters. It keeps the world feeling heavy, primitive, and strange.

Character Oaths, Codes, and Debts

One of them more interesting flourishes of the system is how characters are characterized. Rather than an elaborate personality profile, or an alignment, characters role-playing parameters are expressed by an oath the character has taken, a debt they owe, and a single thing that that character will never do. This is a quick and easy way to create an interesting three-dimensional character that actually serves strong role-playing purposes and needs very little of the way of mechanics.

Hooks and Leads

Viking Death Squad is absolutely peppered with ideas for adventures. Wherever the setting is being described there is no shortage of potential weapons one might use against humanity's enemies, strange things worth investigating, cool adventure concepts, and dense world building lore. There have been settings I've looked at in the past, such as over light, where it's taking me time to figure out what I would want to do with the setting. The setting of Viking Death Squad gives me almost too much to do.

Beyond the ideas scattered throughout the book in the lower sections, there are also a handful of scenarios outlined that one could use, and a solid starting adventure that I played through myself to get a feel for the engine and thoroughly enjoyed.

Drawing on Playtest Campaign

I enjoy the occasional peak behind the curtain as to how a developer arrived at the setting or system they developed. In the case of Viking death squad, it is laid really bare. The adventures and scenarios presented are taken straight out of the original Viking death squad campaign hankering ran in 2019 to 2020.. the pre-generated characters are slightly tidied up versions of the original player characters, and in several places, hankering talks at length about his own play experience and how it's shaped the campaign, and ultimately the game.

It has been a philosophy in the past when releasing professional TTRPG products that you shouldn't let the players know how the sausage is made. In retrospect, however, I think there's a lot to be gained in learning about original campaigns and their design process. Consider how enlightening it is to learn about Dave Arneson's Greyhawk campaign and how it shaped Dungeons & Dragons.

The amount of transparency about the original Viking Death Squad campaign gives players and potential GMS food for thought when designing their own campaign.

Experimental Adventure Design Advice (the Good)

Hankerin Ferinale is already a pretty noteworthy writer about running a good game. ICRPG Core is replete with good ideas and advice. Viking Death Squad is more abstract than the concrete ideas he has presented in the past. It is more geared towards using music to inspire creativity, and taking a loose, intuitive approach to GMing rather than going for traditional adventure design. Many of these are techniques that I use, and it was edifying to see someone put it down and express it clearly. It is very reminiscent of applying The Art of War to GMing.

Amazing Monster Selection

The monster selection in Viking Death Squad is just freaking cool. The monsters are varied, strange, flavorful, and do a lot of heavy lifting for the world building in their short descriptions and backgrounds. They are anything but your generic selection of goblins and trolls.

Blood Runes

The blood runes mechanic in Viking death squad is an evolution of some of the systems we saw in the ICRPG Core 2E magic source book. It is clearly being refined since it's inception.

As player characters gain critical successes, they may select a rune and begin checking off points. Once they have gained five critical successes, that Rune becomes a part of the character, granting them and increased ability score or new power.

This allows the character to evolve new and unusual powers as the game progresses as a reward for critical successes. By the 20th critical success a player character is rolled they can peek at four runes. It makes the game less predictable in character progress, and makes critical successes really exciting.

However, it is very chaotic. In the first and second encounters  of the demo adventure when I played it as a solo character, the dice were extraordinarily kind. The enemies attacking my player character rolled only a three on their initiative/defense test. Meaning my character, rolling 4d6 for melee attacks against a replenishing horde of cybernetic dogs, was scoring critical hits almost every round for an extended battle. By the time I finish the second encounter, my character had mastered nearly all four runes.

On the other hand, I nearly identical encounter later provided my character with no critical hits, simply because of a different initiative roll. The system really can be very swingy. And, it is definitely not designed to let a Solo character hog all the glory.

Perhaps the rapid advancement of my solo play character also indicates an unintended equalization mechanic. The fewer player characters in the game, the higher the chances that a low level encounter will provide many critical hits to anyone character. Meaning that small groups will have a better chance of progressing fast. Had I three characters fighting for those who had made such abysmal rolls, the odds would be that every player character got two or three critical hits rather than one character getting nearly 20.

Growth Points

Very Swingy, Adversarial Engine

Because everything is handled as a set of opposed rolls, it is hard to predict exactly how a battle would go. For example, most of the difficulty of the given battle is based on the initiative role of the enemies. At the beginning of every battle everyone rolls their SPEED and that sets both their order in which they act and the to-hit number when they are attacked. When I rolled a three for a group of monstrous dogs, the battle was fast, easy, and let my player get more critical hits than I knew what to do with.

When I rolled in 11 on 2d6 for monster initiative for an identical encounter later in the adventure, the same dogs nearly tore me to pieces simply because they were so many of them in my character was having trouble hitting often enough to clear them.

An exceptional high roll for the final boss of this dungeon was a nightmare: I rolled a 20 for the villains' attacks, and was nearly killed outright. I had my character sacrifice gear and armor to escape him and rejoin the fight again later. Otherwise, it would have been a tragic end.

Hyper-Specific Design

Viking Death Squad is intended to create a very specific experience. Its engine is built to create a furious, swingy, unpredictable, and combat-heavy story. The stats, skills, and character design do a great deal to support the narrative structure. While it might be adapted to another game with work, it would be a fair amount of labor relative to creating a less specific system like ICPRG Core.

Some Fat Could be Trimmed from Character Generation

Character generation includes a section that breaks characters down into the rolls that have become conventional in brawl and death-match: Tank, Support, DPS, etc. These don't really add anything to the character generation or conceptualization. Likewise, there are treasure tables in the character generation that are not going to be used until into play, and then for the GMs as much as the players. It could be moved to the appendix to tighten up the section.

Repetition and Implied Setting Info

There are a lot of  nuggets of information laced all over the place. It is clear that a lot of this was written in fragments as facts established early in the manual, such as who the War Pigs and Screaming Skulls are is defined and redefined multiple times throughout the manual. It becomes noticeable how piecemeal the setting documents were written,

And while we see some of this info repeated frequently, other information is implied. We hear Thor and Odin mentioned a few times. it is clear that Thor is a prisoner and driven temporarily mad by the spores of the Great Forest, which is mentioned with slightly different context in three places, and Odin is mentioned as well, but no details are offered. How the Aesir figures into the setting is thus left completely implied.

The Magic System Could be Fleshed Out

I have no disagreement with the magic system in the game in principle. It is light and simple: spell stones can be found that are damaged by casting spells and may be restored only in specific circumstances. Carved runes can create one-shot versions of them. And some skills can use them without damage.

I would have loved to have a better idea of where these come from, where they can be found, how common they are, etc. Especially whether they have a connection to Hell or Odin or what have you. And whether the Infinitum can or do use them.

We also hear mention of demon summoning, but get no details.

ICRPG GM Advice Could Stand Some Repetition

ICRPG Core 2e had the best GMs sections ever written. Much of which could be condensed and modified, and would be worth sharing with the new Viking Death Squad audience. Especially material like timers.

Experimental Adventure Design Advice (the Bad)

While I love some of the advice offered in the GM section of Viking Death Squad, I found that it needed a little more practical and actionable help. Hankerin talks extensively about trying to balance out the five factors that go into a session of VDS but he does not give a great deal of advice on how to make sure they all work together harmoniously.

A large chunk of the GM section focuses on tactics that PCs can use to handle large hoards of dangerous enemies or massive super-weapons. However, the book ultimately recommends that these tactics be suggested, learned, or studied by the PCs rather than being useful to the GMs directly. I suspect it might have been better placed in the "Roll the Dice" section of the game.

Conclusions

Here's the thing: I am the target audience for this game. I grew up on the old Heavy Metal that this game is inspired by. My parents played Deep Purple and Black Sabbath to help me sleep at night as a toddler. I am also a viking-crazy Heathen. And I love me some blackened-Earth science fiction. It is like Hankerin opened up my brain and scooped out the daydreams I have while listening to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath on lazy vacation days and spread it over the pages of a gaming manual. it is hard for me not to love this game. And I know all the metalheads in my three gaming groups (and all the groups I played with in school) would also love it.

That said, I know there is a significant audience that will find this game just too weird, too bleak, and  too violent for their taste. This is not going to appeal to fans of Blue Rose or most PbtA games. And like Hankerin Ferinale's other work, it brings in a heavy video game influence that may well turn off some of the purists who might otherwise be interested.

It is a game which is driven by heroics and an implied plot. It does not offer a free-wheeling sandbox style of play. Instead it firmly straddles the line between old-school TTRPGs and new-school story gaming experiences. It is driven by a pre-determined heroic endgame: destroy the War Pigs and Banish Lucifer to save Humanity. While you can throw a mountain of hooks at players about how to accomplish that, it is a game where each hook is going to put the PC on a slightly rail-roady plot arc. And players are going to need to willingly play along with that, It is not a game well-suited to player-driven West Marches play.

This is a game designed to let the players have the joy of diving deep into hardcore Heavy Metal (and Metal Hurlant) inspired and gore-soaked science fantasy heroism. You are likely going to have to be a fan of that sort of material to see the appeal. Not everyone is going to enjoy playing space vikings wading through legions of demented cyborgs with magic axes. But there is a big chunk of the Grognard crowd who sure as hell will. It is especially suited for short campaigns and palette-cleansers between longer OSR campaigns.

As for mechanics: the game's engine is one that really only works for the scenario Hankerin is aiming to create. I can see most of its ideas coming out of games I am already familiar with. The die pool mechanic and RESOLVE pool reminds me a lot of early Shadowrun. The skills that grow with successful rolls is something I have seen in games like Cyberpunk 2020. Skills being effectively special dice pools for unique powers are certainly not a new concept. What it does best is take ideas from a lot of older TTRPGs and modernizes them for a more modern "rules lite" approach.

The Blood Runes system, on the other hand, is quite fun. It is a great evolution of some of the supplemental material we saw for Index Card RPG Core 2e, and feels much more fleshed-out and fully realized. Although Hankerin takes it even further in Index Card PRG Master Edition.

In other words, this is a game best played as is, rather than being treated as a resource for hacking.

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