Askur Yggdrasils is the only Icelandic roleplaying game ever published. The game, designed by the brothers Runar Thor Thorarinsson and Jon Helgi Thorarinsson, is set in the nine worlds of Norse Mythology. Askur was published in 1994.
Iceland is probably not the first country that comes to mind when you think about roleplaying games. The small island in the North-Atlantic isn’t what you’d call a big player in the roleplaying field. Still, the roleplaying scene thrived in the last decade of the 20th century and with the release of D&D 5E, roleplaying is once more gaining momentum.
Askur Yggdrasils, a roleplaying game set in the nine worlds of Norse Mythology, is the only game ever published. Granted, there were two board games published later that contained roleplaying elements (Fraeknir Ferdalangar and Adventure Island), but nonetheless, Askur Yggdrasils is still considered the only Icelandic roleplaying game.
Askur was published in 1994 and designed by the brothers Runar Thor Thorarinsson and Jon Helgi Thorarinsson. Runar Thor also created and designed the two board games in team with other designers. I think it’s safe to assume, that almost all Icelandic roleplayers tried and played Askur Yggdrasils. We decided to reach out to Runar Thor and learn a little more about Askur Yggdrasils.
Askur Yggdrasils uses the Norse Mythology, one that has been quite popular among both fantasy writers and game designers, e.g. lately Neil Gaiman published his Norse Mythology and God of War video game. Why go for that setting instead of creating one from scratch?
Nordic myths and legends contain everything you need for a great fantasy setting. We knew it and it is open-ended, we could add and alter it as much as we liked. Besides, the nine worlds are great and with just a small amount of added imagination they become awesome.
In Askur players take on the roles of persons living in a world where the aesir, the old norse gods, are very much alive, just as the trolls, frost giants and wyrms. Characters could be of many races, most of which are common in every fantasy setting (humans, elves, dwarves) but also races like the Vanir.
There were only two books ever published for Askur Yggdrasils, a player’s handbook and a game master’s handbook. Along with a map, character sheets and a game master’s screen, both came in a boxed set, which also included a set of dice.
The system of Askur Yggdrasils
Askur Yggdrasils was a skill-based percentile system, much like Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. However, unlike Call of Cthulhu, instead of distributing skill points as you wished, every character in Askur Yggdrasils had a certain skill modifier and each profession had a predetermined number of skills and a size of die which you rolled and multiplied with the skill modifier to see how many points you started out with in that skill, e.g. if you had 4 as skill modifier and had d6 in botany and d4 in poetry, you’d multiply the results from those die rolls with 4 to see your starting skill points in these two skills.
The combat system wasn’t turn based. Each weapon had a certain speed factor, your dexterity also played a role and so did your armor, which combined resulted in your action number. You acted on your action number count, e.g. a dextrous, light armored, dagger wielding character with action number 3 could attack 3 times before the heavy armored, low dexterity giant-club wielding character with action number 11 did.
Almost all actions needed skill roles, e.g. if you wanted to cast a spell, you needed to pass a skill test. The system was, much like many other games from that era, often complex and combats could get complicated, especially since there were many tables to consult.
Finally, the system included subsystem for the gods’ grace. Since the Aesir, the norse gods, were a living part of the setting every character could get in the good books and receive certain boons. The gods’ grace also affected other things, e.g. spellcasting and skills.
Designing Icelandic roleplaying game
Lately the rise of Swedish roleplaying games has been evident and probably not gone unnoticed by many roleplayers. Roleplaying games have been published in Sweden since early 80’s but Askur is the only Icelandic roleplaying game ever published. Chaosium published Mythic Iceland by Pedro Ziviani few years ago, Pedro lives in Iceland but the game was published in English, while Askur was published in Icelandic. Creating and designing roleplaying game in Icelandic must’ve been a challenge, not to mention getting a publishing house to release the game.
My friend Ólafur introduced me to roleplaying games, my brother who loved acting also joined us and we both loved it. Later, after many sessions in Reykjavik, we were heading out east and discussed while driving why there wasn’t any Icelandic roleplaying games. We have rich literary tradition and we found it strange that no one had so far created Icelandic roleplaying game. We decided to give it a shot. We started writing spring 1992 and the game was published before Christmas 1994. There was so much happening at the time, Jon was studying in Norway, I was in my last year studying in Egilsstadir, but we never gave up. We used every spare moment, until the spare moments was everything else. It was the only way if we wanted to see the game in print.
As mentioned above it’s safe to assume that almost all Icelandic roleplayers at the time tried Askur Yggdrasils. The receptions of the game were mostly positive, right?
Yes, they were and if I remember correctly many Icelandic roleplayers were happy to finally have an Icelandic roleplaying game. They liked the setting, the atmosphere, the gods’ grace subsystem and the ethic of the game. Some complained about the pedantry in the skill system, the combat system was perhaps too lumbersome and so forth. Then there were those who liked the spell system, while other players criticized the categorization of the spells. I agree with that one. If memory serves me I also believe that many players were thankful for having Icelandic translations for many common roleplaying terms. We made many small victories and perhaps that’s why we’re still talking about Askur Yggdrasils more than two decades after its release.
There was only ever one module published for Askur Yggdrasill, which was included in the Game Master’s handbook. Reading through it, one has to wonder if there was ever plans to publish more modules and books?
Yes, there were. We wrote the campaign Eye of Mimir, which was playtested and ready. Unfortunately my brother was preoccupied in Norway and I had an accident, which meant I couldn’t follow up on the game’s success.
But then again, it’s expensive to publish books in Iceland and even harder to make ends meet when publishing roleplaying games. Askur, despite being well received by Icelandic roleplayers, didn’t sell as much as the publishing company planned. Naturally, it was reluctant investing in modules and expansions for Askur Yggdrasils.
As years have passed the number of fans have grown and we still hear from people who would love to have more material for Askur. It would be great to have the time to release a 2nd edition of Askur. I play the game every now and then with friends and family. The thing is, every game like Askur kindles players’ imagination and I heard about one player who kept a campaign diary for over 10 year. Later he got the diary published as over 1000 pages long fantasy. How great is that!”
What the future might hold
Over 20 years have passed since the release of Askur. Are there any plans for re-release or 2nd edition? What can those who still love to play Askur expect from you?
Well, we would like to and we plan to, but the scene has changed so much since Askur was published, e.g. the internet. We would like to see if we can crowdfund a new release of Askur. Then again, we both have our families and we are both employed and busy doing other things now. Still, it would be great to find some time to update Askur.
Whether Askur Yggdrasils will be re-released or not, I think that it’s safe to say that the game has left its mark on Icelandic roleplaying history, of not for any other reason than translating many common roleplaying terms.
This, I believe, is the single most important legacy of Askur. Today many terms of Askur are used by Icelandic roleplayers when they talk about other roleplaying games and I think that this helps new and young roleplayers learn the ropes quicker.
It’s hard to find Askur Yggdrasils boxed set in mint condition, almost impossible. Perhaps this game needs to be updated and re-released, in not for any other sake than for collectors and players alike to get a hold of new editions of the books and the character sheets (which were not included in the rule books for photocopying).
I think though, that considering how much games have evolved since the 90’s, it would need a serious overhaul. As much as I liked to play Askur back then, I think that modern games are more streamlined and easier to use. The setting however is still as awesome as it was back then.