Anton: What about the Norse lore and mythos drew you to create an entire fantasy world based upon it?
Ian: Undoubtedly Ragnarök.
The Norse believed that to struggle against your fate was as foolish as sailing into a strong wind. The only thing that truly mattered was how you stood to meet the end. There is something truly inspiring about facing down the end of the world, of wondering which breath will be your last. That’s why the phrase “They will seem too few when the wolf comes” is so poignant and poetic.
Now, to truly appreciate how truly awesome – in the original sense of taking your breath away – the end of all things is, you have to read the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá. Stanza 41 is when the wolf arrives: It “sates itself on the life-blood of fated men, paints red the powers’ homes with crimson gore/ Black become the sun’s beams.” I mean, even in translation it makes your blood freeze.
Ironically, I think that Ragnarök has become the wellspring for all Western fantasy – everything from Tolkien’s Gandalf to Gorr the God Butcher owes something to the Völuspá. And that realization, that Ragnarök was both an inevitable doom and a creation myth, fascinated me. Out of every darkness, even the most soul-eclipsing, we find stories to tell that bring us light.
Incidentally, that last phrase, “black becomes the sun’s beams”, is what inspired the black hole on the RPG cover. The Vikingverse is set in an alternate timeline, where the Norse rule the sea and stars with restless fleets. I don’t think the wolf of Norse myth was ever meant to be literal, but rather a reminder that our doom comes in many guises. Wolves are a metaphor for the breakdown of society and the betrayal of bonds.
Anton: What came first, the want to do a TTRPG or the Fiction?
Ian: The novels came first, with the comics slotting alongside as a companion. The first novel was born of global warming, and insects vanishing, and nations howling in outrage at each other. I wanted to hold up a cracked mirror to the here and now and ask “what if we could have a do-over”? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a reboot? And so, that’s what I had the Norse Gods do: tinker with time.
The Vikingverse involves a retelling of our own past with a twist – what if the Vikings never lost a single battle? Imagine a world where the Great Heathen Army swept over the whole of the British Isles, crushing Ælfred of Wessex before he ever earned the epithet Great or where the mighty Byzantine city of Constantinople – Miklagard – fell not to the Turks but to the Norse.
I already mentioned the Völuspá. In the second book, I used Hrafnagaldur Óðins or Odin’s Raven-Song, another, much later Icelandic poem as inspiration. I try to find a key text as a mirror for each novel, to underpin the mythos. But the end times are always an ever-present threat.
Anton: What inspired you to want to do a TTRPG?
Ian: I used to play D&D as a kid in the Eighties. We’d bike between friend’s houses, roving over the fens and flats of East Anglia. Think Stranger Things, with more hedgerows and hay bales.
Just before COVID struck, I was in Seattle visiting a friend of mine at Wizards of the Coast. He gave my kids a Starter Kit, which they devoured on the ferry home. I started running campaigns for them, and through the pandemic, RPGs offered both escape and connection for us all – and a sheer joy and freedom that I’d almost forgotten.
Most recently, we ran through Curse of Strahd with all the twists and turns community heroes like MandyMod and Dragna Carta added to it. It rekindled my love affair with telling tales. Not just fanciful ones, but ones rooted in reality and plausibility. The Norse had a strong oral tradition too, and it is fascinating to not only describe worlds on a page, but to bring them to life in the theater of the mind.
Imagine for a moment that you are a Viking. You live in a world that you believe is coming to a fiery end: Ragnarök. Nothing will be spared – not hope, not dreams, not your culture, nor your children. Yet for the Vikings, the tale wasn’t suffocating. It was a call to action. The skalds told us that the gods will ride out and face their doom with courage and bravery, and so should mortal man.
The inevitability of our demise was our spur to great and noble deeds. And when you look at the crazy circus show around us, with global temperatures about to make Ragnarok a reality, the only sensible outlook is to act like a Norseman. Face the inevitable with courage and bravery and make a difference. That’s what makes them worth playing in an RPG!
Anton: There are quite a few playable species in ‘When the Wolf Comes.’ It’s a rather fleshed-out list. What do you think are two of the stand-outs from this list, and why?
Ian: When I was researching Old Norse for Modern Times, it became clear to me that the D&D fantasy archetypes we know and love are part of a long lineage, a family tree that stretches back to the Norse sagas. Dwarves, elves, giants, orcs – they were all mentioned in those tales. Admittedly, they often overlap in form and function, sometimes depicted as spirits of the land, sometimes as spirits of the dead, but that’s to be expected – the Norse myths have been pieced together by scholars from a few, often contradictory, fragments.
From a modern perspective, we see these otherworldly beings through the lens of Christianity – over the centuries since Ansgar preached salvation to the pagans of the North, spirits were demonized and quite literally belittled. So, what I tried to do when creating When the Wolf Comes was to strip them down to their roots. For example, the “elves” of the Vikingverse are neither Tolkien’s pointy-eared archers or Victorian faerie folk – they are the true scions of Yggdrasil, her bark and bough made flesh and marrow. They are spirits, pattern-welded into weapons – and for all their dazzling brilliance, they harbor hearts as cold as stone.
Menn, jötnar, dvergar and álfar are the most common ancestries in the game. The other six origins are considered hybrids – a species resulting from combining the qualities of two of the main ancestries. A hybrid origin may be the result of selective breeding, mechanical manipulation, or simple accident. For example, you might want to play as a “half-elf”. This is perfectly possible in When the Wolf Comes, but your origin depends on whether the other half is dvergr (which leads to a dökkálfar), jötunn (orcneas) or mannfólk (Wane).
So, other than the álfar, I’m a big fan of the orcneas. Popular fantasy has painted “orcs” as ugly brutes, or even as elves twisted by evil. But their origins go back much further than Tolkien too. The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf mentions eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, “ogres and elves and devil-corpses”. Devil-corpses! What a great foundation for a race! A lot of the Vikingverse is bound up in biology and the advances the alternate Norse have made in genetic science, when freed from the blinkers of Christianity thought. The orcneas take that to a whole new level…
Anton: The rituals and magics in ‘When the Wolf Comes’ really stand out as something fresh and unique. Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration of the magic in this world and as the book refers to it the “History of Fjölkyngi?”
Ian: The inspiration was, again, found in the sagas and in our own history. In the Vikingverse timeline, the Norse were never Christianised: there is no Catholic Church, pious witch trials, or reactionary Inquisition. No one was burned at the stake for claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds. “Magic” has never been banished from the world as the devil’s work. But neither is magic thought of as a strange, divine wind or chaotic vortex. In fact, the most common word for “magical” in the Norse lexicon is fjölkyngi, which means simply great knowledge.
Imagine the scene: longships course through showers of rain and hail, a chill darkness blotting out the sun. Lightning flashes as the sailors fight into the teeth of the storm. The unnatural wind throws all their missiles back into their faces, while their men fall to arrows flying from the fingers of spirits, beings only visible to those with the ability to see into other realms. The description of the Battle of Hjörungavágr in Jómsvíkinga saga shows just how tangible the spirit realm was to the Norsemen. This might seem “magical”, but for many cultures, this living, thinking world is second nature.
Norse “magic” is intricately linked to the manipulation of this conscious world. The wind, a longship, the land itself – they all possess a spirit, and are therefore subject to the workings of the Wise. This includes the spirits of the dead, who continue to watch over their kin, bound by invisible ties to warden trees and mountain slopes.
Magic in the Vikingverse isn’t a way to cheat or change the laws of nature – it is simply seeing the potential that resides in all things. Having the kraptr or power to do so requires study, discipline, and strength of mind.
That said, the great heroes of the North were rarely sorcerers per se and “magic” was treated with suspicion. I wanted to create a system where everyone could take advantage of supernatural virtues linked to the manipulation of a character’s essence or inner self. Any character can learn to harness aspects of their composite “soul”, and we’ve done that by providing a system of unique gifts. Old Norse literature is rich in stories of shape changing, tales that inspired a rash of geneticists to devise new and brutal guises for mankind. A high Shape means you can augment your character with powerful new splices, improving your physical abilities and fighting prowess.
Anton: I am sure a lot of people are excited about this system. While they are waiting to back the Kickstarter campaign, what other material can you guide them to, to get them prepared for this world they are going to be jumping into?
Ian: Other than some of the poems and texts I have mentioned above, I am a big fan of Lars Brownworth’s The Sea Wolves, which is great place to begin your Viking voyage. Like any good Norse raid it is breathtaking and action-packed. It has a wide scope, coloring in all the corners of the Viking world, from the Vinland to Byzantium. It is easy to digest, and as swaggering as it is educational.
The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth is a more scholarly tome but far from pedestrian. The book takes you on a tour of the life and times of a Norseman, describing not just how they fought, but how they lived – detailing their poetry, politics, settlements, and ships. The Vikings you think you know are paper thin, two dimensional caricatures – Winroth makes sure the real deal leaps off the page and disabuses you of stereotypes. Finally, the Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price. Price doesn’t just deal with the what and when of the Viking phenomenon, he seeks to understand the how and why. The result is a fascinating exploration of the Norse mind, that rivals any journey on a longship.
Anton: Thank you again for taking the time to talk to me in the midst of prepping for this launch. Where can readers follow you and keep up with the progress of this project?
Ian: I post frequently on social media @vikingverse where I am happy to answer questions! Of course, you can sign up for the Kickstarter preview page and get notifications and updates here.
Welcome to the table. My love for actual Norse mythology runs as deep as the roots of Yggdrasill, so whenCOMICONRead More