Review: Helheim Unbound
Good afternoon everyone! Or I guess it is evening by the time you are reading this….assuming you click the link today. Anyways, I have a review that I have been looking forward to sharing for a few reasons. This game is one that I have had a chance to see a couple versions of. Not a lot, mind you, but I think it has been at least 3 and each one has shown some wonderful improvements. Not only that but this game comes from one of my Patrons and the first Patron I didn’t know personally. I cannot thank him enough but I can give him some insight and hopefully send some people his way. The game is Helheim Unbound and if you are here looking for some epic Norse escapades then great. If not that’s okay because guess what? This is a universal system that should be adaptable to any setting. So, be sure to check out their site if you are interested and get on supporting them on Kickstarter! They have one week left and still need help reaching their goals so let’s make another developer’s dream come true!
This time I do not have a specific land, genre, or setting to talk about. Helheim Unbound is a game that is meant to be used to tell whatever type of story you are hoping to tell. It might be vampires, mystery, science fiction, or steampunk. Or it might be all of those things. You might focus on narrative or combat or exploration and all of those are good too. What the game is designed around isn’t a setting or genre but a feel to the story you are telling. There are many old tales and myths that do not translate as well as they do when they are told to you. It is better to see or hear the exploits of champions of the gods rather than reading about them. More than that, it was the tradition of most cultures for the significant portion of our history. The epic and dramatic tales of Norse mythology (hence Helheim) is where the feel of this game comes from. When you play this there is no reason to be bogged down by excessive stats, lists, concepts, or anything else. The point is the drama and the heroism. From what I have seen so far, Helheim Unbound is doing a wonderful job of evoking this. They want to make sure that the drama and things that come with it such as risk, fame, and trials of skill all have a role. More than that, the book is written to make sure the audience, the people at the table, are playing a fun and lively game together.
To start the mechanics of Helheim Unbound are a relatively simply set of dice pool mechanics. There are various methods of increasing or decreasing the dice pool. This might be by as much as 3 or as little as 1 for any given help or hindrance. These different things add up and the most math we have to do is calculating how many dice you end up rolling for a given task. In the end the total successes are added up, the total failures are taken away, and whatever is left determines how wonderfully you succeeded or how horribly you failed. The interesting thing about this is that the designers do not assume you can’t play the odds or don’t want to see options for rolls. The suggest using d10s which grant successes on 8+ and that’s about a 30% rate. They also allow that you might simply have d6 lying around and that those succeed on a 5 or 6. Pretty standard. They also explicitly state that some nudging up or down of the probability is not a big deal and you can feel free to do whats right for your game. This attitude is central to the games design and I really appreciate that.
Characters are built around this dice pool mechanic and a core concept: that anyone can do anything. The idea is that you can make any kind of character you want. There are no classes or specific skill sets or races. Whatever you want to do is between you, your imagination, and the GM. Skills are up for you to create and they come in different categories. Narrow skills are specialized and come with one ability while broad skills are general and have three. You can spend less points on more skills when making or upgrading a character by making those skills related. Want to be good at insight, deception, and persuasion, well these might all come under a broad debate skill. Want to be good at shooting, driving, and climbing, well those might just might have to be individual narrow skills. I love this concept because it allows you not only to make whatever type of character you want but encourages you to try to balance between really specialized and really broad. You might take all narrow skills and have a lot of specializations (in a way making you sort-of well rounded). Or you might take a bunch of broad ones that grant you a wide variety of abilities in limited areas (a different type of well rounded). It is all up to you.
Two other mechanics I want to mention are wyrd and magic. Wyrd is a system of points that you can use as the hand of destiny or fate. These allow players to manipulate thing into their favor before or while things are going bad. They can even be used to bring disfavor to the enemy. It is strongly encouraged, however, that these uses have ramifications. Wyrd is part of the cosmic expectation of your character. Use up wyrd and not taking your part in destiny could have consequences. Magic is a bit of an odd system here. The idea is that it works similarly to a skill, but have some obviously more miraculous effects. Learning spells costs fame. People have to be willing to teach you and you must be worthy of being taught. Depending on the spell there are also requirements, costs, and tests that must be performed to enact it. The harder the spell the more difficult that roll might become. The book reveals two types of magical skill and a variety of spells to work with. Each type has its own special rules. This brings me to the final aspect of the mechanics of the game I want to talk about: special rules. There are a few and not all of them are needed. It all depends on your game. Still the designers have anticipated the need for guidlines in a simple and open-ended game so there are some suggestions. More than that there is some guidance on making your own so that you can take this game and make it your own.
Usually I like to talk about design and layout here, but I wanted to get a little broader. I am currently using rough copy 21 for reference and it isn’t complete. Images are still missing, their spots saved for completion. That being said we can talk about the overall execution of this product so far and what I hope to see in the final product. So far I really like what I see. This is an RPG rule set with a very specific goal and backbone. It is a game that looks to invite all players to play any time of game and do so in dramatic, epic fashion. The designers appear to be self aware enough to realize how much could be done and how more guidance can be helpful. In part they have pulled this off, but there is more to be done, I think.
The game has plenty of examples in text and explains things fairly well. The writing is well done and not horribly confusing. I have encountered plenty of games with plenty of confusing mechanics. This game is not overburdened by them. It is written with the expectation that you might be new to games but probably not to the concept. And that you can be given tools to use on your whim. I love how they have done this all, but I would like to see some more. Specifically I would like a greater set of skill examples. There is a bit of wiggle room in what a skill really entails. Knowledge vs distinct abilities. How much is too much for a specific thing and how much does a skill cover. I don’t know which is a better layout but I think separating them by breadth and then giving some that are more generic and some that are more “specific ability” would be beneficial. A table that summarizes it all would also help. More than skills, though, some examples for desires, hindrances, and the other pieces would help too.
But really that brings be to the only thing I would like to get out of this game to really judge its success or not. Some breathing room. The document I am working with is very dense. Not in a terrible way, but it is information after information after information. While formatting delineates things, it could be a little more expressive and larger. Perhaps even more chapters that are a little smaller to better group? I don’t know. What I do know is that it feels a little too instructional. I think, perhaps, that the general mechanical working and explanations might need to be more separate from character development. Of course not all sections feel this way. Magic feels especially well done. There is magic, each type given is laid out similarly, and then there is a section for developing your own magic or tech. There contents seem concerned with themselves and an assumption that you understand the other bits. The same can be said of examples but spotting where we slide from desires to skills is not a quick task. Making the heading such that those two, on the same page, can be taken and separated at a glance would help!
Helheim Unbound is a wonderful looking RPG that seeks to enable users to do anything, as many universal systems do. The quirk that this takes is a structured stability of mechanic with a free form style of building characters. It is, so far, well written and executed and most of what I want to see it do is expand on what it has for examples, buff up the layout/design, and really kill it. There is a lot of potential here and I would love to see the designers given the opportunity to keep shaping the game with our support. If you love universal systems and want something free form and flexible, I think this might be a game for you. Especially if you love dice pools!