Svilland is a Norse setting for D&D 5e. The RPG is a great value purchase and very efficient. The book will set you back less than $25 ad has 206 pages.
The week in which I read Svilland and wrote this review saw a whole bunch of Kickstarters launched for 5e settings that promised to make D&D dark and low fantasy. For each of those Kickstarters, I wrestled with concerns; D&D does not go dark and does not do low fantasy very easily. The game is a high fantasy; people throw fireballs at you. It’s not that dark; you can literally fly away from drama in many cases.
Svilland has something to say about this debate. First up, Svilland makes D&D feel like a Viking game by embracing, not fighting against, the high fantasy. Rune magic is real, giants are real, and the gods are real.
The deities of Svilland are demanding. In vanilla D&D it often seems that the actual god a Paladin or Cleric follows doesn’t matter. What matters is the path or domain that influences their power. That’s not the case in Svilland. The NPCs (and PCs) you’ll meet and talk to will care significantly about the deity you’re sworn too, as will some creatures. The players in the game will have their own knowledge about Thor, Odin, Hel and the other Norse gods. You’re more likely to meet your god in Svilland than in the Forgotten Realms.
Gods have commandments. Here’s what Hel requires;
- Do not be afraid of death. Everything dies.
- There is no honorable way of fighting. All is fair in war.
- To understand life and its meaning, you need to understand death, and the afterlife.
That’s not crazy, is it? This lawful evil goddess, with the domains of Kaldr and Wicked, isn’t asking followers to go on murder rampages. She’s greasing the wheels of destruction, though, isn’t she?
Svilland wastes no time in introducing these deities, their personalities and commandments. There are pretty big considerations for each god too. For example, Hel worship is taboo, and her followers do murder people to please the goddess. In fact, they like to kill with poison so that the sacrifice does not end up in Valhalla. It’s details like this that define the campaign setting.
The phrase “Low Fantasy” isn’t appropriate to Svilland. There are gods and monsters here, but Viking fantasy works well.
The phrase “Dark Fantasy” is a little more appropriate, Svilland certainly meets many of the conditions set out in the Genre Police: Grimdark article. There are hard consequences, people die, there are blood and change isn’t always good (Ragnarock is coming).
However, I don’t think it is entirely dark. There’s no sense of hopeless. It’s okay to shoot for the big victories in Svilland, rather than aspire for the minor ones. I don’t the game needs to focus on unfairness and oppression either.
So, while “Dark” is a pretty good word for Svilland I’m going to propose a different one. The game is Brutal. Mistakes are deadly. The world wants to kill you. Power demands blood.
Svilland is, therefore, a brutal Viking fantasy.
Races and Lands of Svilland
In Geek Native’s Audio EXP: We Encounter Attack Lawyers and Tieflings I briefly mused on those settings that re-name D&D core races to ensure a better fit with the world. Svilland does this with dwarves and does it well.
After introducing the game by telling us of Svilland’s history and the deities active in the realm, we move on to discuss local races. Here they are:
- Austir – humans – mainly found in the Green Light of the East
- Dvergr – dwarves – in keeping with Norse mythology this race is also known as Dark Elves, by D&D players will call them dwarves.
- Half Jotuun – half-giants around 6 to 7 foot tall.
- Kuning – human, a different type – spiritual nomads.
- Mithal – another human race – an embattled culture
- Vestri – guess what; a human race – sailors.
I think ‘origins’ or ‘cultures’ might have been a better word than “races” since that chart is dominated by humans. However, there a reasonably substantial stat modifications that depend on which option you take.
More importantly, I think, is that the cultural conflicts and flavour of the world is embedded right in the top right of your character sheet. You’re not human. You’re Vestri.
Following the introduction of the cultures of the world, the rules move quickly to the Cults of Svilland. I mean; we began with the gods, then talked about the mortal population, so cults are the obvious next step. Here we discuss who, why and how deities are worshipped and what the goals of each faction are.
What Svilland does next is a little bit surprising for a 5e setting book. It geographically tours and describes the realm of Sviland.
That might not seem surprising, but I’ve gone through a host of books to confirm before writing this review, and it is unusual. Most 5e setting books take two other routes. The first is to describe the rules and powers that are so dominant that they define the setting. The second is to define NPCs and backgrounds or plots that represent the setting. When other 5e setting books get around to touring the map, detailing villages, population counts and curious little facts about those locations, it tends to be right at the back of the book. Often, there’s no such section.
I can see why other setting books leave the setting to last. After getting fired up on the deities of the land and the competing races, I’ll admit that my reading pace slowed down. Why am I reading about Hjanlir a hamlet with only 75 people in it? Or Issfever a village with 180 dvergr?
Sticking with the book at this point, in hindsight, is the right thing to do. It means as Svilland goes on to discuss other aspects of the world and even magic you’ve the context needed.
Classes of Svilland
As might your favourite D&D core race might not be available in Svilland, so to might your favourite class. I don’t see this as a bad thing at all, but I certainly have met some players who would disagree.
There are no Monks in this setting, nor Druids or Warlocks. Here’s what we have instead.
- Runewalker – new, a mixture of wizard spells and new rune paths.
- Path of Elements
- Path of the Dead
- Path of Travel
- Path of Protection
- Path of Berserk
- Path of Seal
- Seidr – new, spiritual shamans with access to the druid and seidr spell lists.
- Chanter of Kin – initiated by Ancestor spirits
- Chanter of Skies – picked by the spirits of the sky
- Chanter of Nattura – initiated by the spirits of nature
- Alle – known as Paladins in core D&D, renamed here and with Oaths matching the local gods.
- Barbarians – new archetypes suitable for the setting
- Path of Berserkr
- Path of Svinfylking
- Path of Ulfhednar
- Bards – with new traditions
- Tradition of Bragi
- Tradition of Helord
- Tradition of Ofridr
- Tradition of Villr
- Fighter – lots of these, with new archetypes too
- Rune Warrior
- Gothi – known as Clerics in core D&D
- Rangers – with new archetypes
- Sorcerer – new sorcerous origins
- Children of Vanir
No changes to wizards and rogues.
These choices are not cosmetic. Each one of these options directly and significantly changes the build of your character.
I think Dream Realm Storytellers, the publisher, have nailed it here. They’ve not been scared away from saying that some classes aren’t in-theme with the setting. They’ve reskinned the rest, by and large, rather than reinvent the wheel and it works well.
The Runewalkers introduce bloody new magic with runes. The Seidr have their own new spells and give the dream realm too. Lots of DMs use dreams as a plot device, Svilland gives us a setting with a dream power-up.
At this point, we’re about halfway through the 200 pages. It’s the crunch that comes next. We’ve just listed classes with new powers and spells and they, along with new feat and backgrounds, need to be explained.
I’m not going to claim to be a games balance expert. I’ve been playing for 30 or so years, often with crunch heavy games, so I’m comfortable in assessing mechanics, but I just wanted to introduce a pinch of salt to my quick summary of the new rules. Here it goes; I think Svilland has a tendency to lean towards ‘glass cannons’. I mean it’s easy to build a character who could kickass in a particular situation, but who is going to be easy to smash after that. You can, of course, resist the urge.
Right towards the end, we get our monster collection. This is when you can summon up your Skyrim mojo and try and remember how many of these you’ve already personally fought.
Draurgr Guardians are CR 2, by the way. They’re the weakest of the draurgr you could encounter, and that’s noted by suggesting skeletons could be used by a kindly DM for weaker parties.
There are enough monsters and other encounters for raids on D&D’s main monster collections to be a rare event.
Giants are scary.
Unusually for a rule book that begins with world details and saves the crunchy bits until later, there are encounter tables for wandering monsters. I like how Dream Realm Storytellers are comfortable and confident enough to do their own thing throughout.
I like Svilland. I think it’s great value and does a robust job at reskinning 5e.
The PDF is very well presented throughout, with ample and quality illustrations, clear text, easy to read tables and functional layouts.
There’s a tonne of new rules in here, and they’re tightly packed.
My one concern can be eased with supplements and expansions. Some rules are bound up in fluid events in the game’s setting. These are events that characters might want to address. For example, only four of the sky spirits are currently giving the Seidr any power and that because of one particular incident. What if the PCs make it their mission to address that?
Overall? If you like 5e and are tempted by a Vikings game, then I think you’ll like Svilland. I think you’ll get the most from the game, though, if you’re interested in the storytelling rather than a dungeon crawl, though. Why? It’s the setting that really matters here, not what you’re fighting in a dungeon.
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