Fate of the Norns Review

Fate of the Norns – A Review

Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok Cover Art
Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok Cover Art

Review in Summary

At Gamehole Con 2022, I was fortunate enough to meet the folks behind Fate of the Norns. After a few months of flipping through Children of Eriu following the convention, I have some thoughts on the game. Some of the below comes from discussions with the creators about the history of the game.

Fate of the Norns, written by Andrew Valkauskas, has an interesting real-world story. It was written by enthusiasts with a deep love of real-world history and norse mythology, drawing upon both the Poetic and Prose Eddas, as well as other real-world historical sources. Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok is, in Valkauskas’s own words, historically accurate to what the vikings believed to be true about themselves and the world around them, including all of the myths and magic that entailed. In addition to the game itself, the research done by the Pendelhaven team was collected in the Illuminated Edda, collecting both the Eddas and selections from myths from other cultures which describe interactions with the vikings.

The resulting game, Fate of the Norns, is a viking-themed RPG which draws heavily on those real-world sources, and you can feel that inspiration in nearly every part of the system. Where other games might throw some viking trappings on some mostly generic rules systems, Fate of the Norns goes in hard, using runes as a randomizer in place of dice, norse social structures as part of character creation, and the hope of reaching Valhalla as equal parts moral compass and character advancement system.

The mechanics of Fate of the Norns are unique, flavorful, and fun to engage with, though acclimating to the runes themselves is initially challenging. The art style is somewhere between cartoon and painted wood engraving, giving it an entirely unique feel that could be drawn from doodles in a notebook or from a viking longship. Characters are widely varied despite a small number of character options, and the whole game is set up to send you on epic viking adventures culminating in a heroic death and a celebration of your character’s deed before (hopefully) passing on to a good afterlife.

Nearly 10 years following the release of Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok, Pendelhaven published Fate of the Norns: Children of Eriu. Children of Eriu takes the focus of the game from Scandinavia to the British isles, where Ragnarok’s effects have spread and now the people dwelling there must face Ragnarok on top of their own pre-existing problems. The setting is rich, well-detailed, and ripe for storytelling. Pendelhaven recently published a novel set in the setting called The One-Eyed King, authored by Ed Greenwood.

Children of Eriu uses the same rules as Ragnarok, but new character options (see two archetypes for free in this preview PDF) are introduced to fit the new setting. Pendelhaven has also clearly learned a great deal in 10 years, as the rules of the game are presented and explained much more clearly in Children of Eriu than in Ragnarok. The art style moves away from the wood carving-esque style, and instead adopts a more painterly style reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts or stained glass, depending on the specific piece. Despite this shift, the art, the mechanics, and the text all still fit very well alongside one another, and the love for and attention to the subject matter are apparent.

Overall, Fate of the Norns is an exciting game with a lot of great ideas. The runic game system can be daunting, and learning the resource management may be difficult for players who prefer less “crunchy” rules, but, once you get a handle on play, the system plays smoothly and every decision you make feels immediately rewarding and interesting.

Pendelhaven, the folks behind Fate of the Norns, were kind enough to provide review PDF copies of both Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok and Fate of the Norns: Children of Eriu.

Fate of the Norns Page Preview

Vikings, Norse Gods, and Ragnarok

Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok depicts vikings in a world where everything that real-world vikings believed is true, and Ragnarok (the viking apocalypse) is ongoing. The sun and moon have been eaten, and the world now endures Fimbulwinter.

Everything in the game binds strictly to that mythological feel. Instead of rolling dice, you’ll draw and spend runes. As you advance, you’ll place runes on a build to improve your character. When your character dies, your party will toast their victories, and an honorable character who died well has a chance to enter Valhalla, granting that player’s future characters greater abilities.

Children of Eriu adds celts to the mix, taking place around the mid-10th century in a time when christianity was prevalent, but the practice of religion hadn’t been standardized. This is a game in which a druid (not DnD druids; the real-world pagan kind), a crusader, a christian monk, and a wandering mercenary can form a party and have adventures.

Click Clack Math Rocks, But No Click Clack, No Math, No Rocks

Fate of the Norns does not use dice, which for a tabletop RPG is extremely unusual. Instead, the “Runic Game System” uses a pool of runic tiles as the randomizer. This pool is extremely specific to each character: player characters will add to this pool as they advance, making the pool larger and possibly changing the balance between the three types of runes (physical, mental, spiritual) to represent their character.

When skill checks are attempted or during combat, creatures “wyrd” (it means “to reveal your destiny”, which is a nice touch) by drawing a number of runes from an opaque container like a dice bag. The types of runes which you draw determine the outcome of your skill check or what resources you have available during a round of combat.

At their simplest, the three types of runes are split into colors: red for physical, blue for mental, green for spiritual. When attempting difficult tasks, you might need to draw a number of the correct color runes from your bag. The colors may be difficult if you have color vision differences, but each rune is also marked with a runic symbol, so with some practice you can figure out which ones fit in which category.

The runic symbols on each rune are used for various crunchy parts of the game, most especially unique powers and “meta tags”. Using runes with the right symbol can let you empower special abilities by creating “rune chains”, adding or improving various effects. This makes engaging with your powers very satisfying, but learning to match the rune symbols is certainly a challenge when you first pick up the game. It’s literally a new alphabet. (Well, new to the player. Runes have been around for a while.)

Fate of the Norns Metal Runes


Player characters are built using a lifepath system to generate a backstory, an Archetype (a character class for DnD players) to define your character’s general skillset, and then customized using Essence, Destiny, and by allocating runes. A character’s experience is measured in levels, and levels are “spent” to improve Essence or Destiny.

Essence and Destiny are your character’s base numeric stats, and building a character allows you to balance your preference for how much of each to take. This will influence how many runes you get to allocate to skills and abilities, how large your bag of runes is, and how many runes you draw when you “wyrd” during a scene, so this decision alters your character’s playstyle heavily, and the decision is felt constantly. As characters gain levels, you can increase your Essence and Destiny, unlocking more skills and abilities each time you add Essence.

Archetypes provide four “boards”: square grids with a collection of benefits on them. When you gain Essence, you allocate runes on each of your archetype’s boards, gaining passive abilities, active abilities, skills, and other benefits. There’s no linear, level-based progression, and two characters of the same archetype can feel very different from one another.

Other things can add additional boards to your character, but they typically require you to have one or more characters who have died and gone on to the afterlife. This unlocks the outermost edge of your 5×5 archetype boards, as well as other game mechanics and other archetypes. The game continues to get more mechanically interesting as you accumulate dead characters.

Combat, Both Social and Otherwise

Combat takes place on a hex grid, and facing is used. Attacking a creature from behind is advantageous, but they can also spend a rune to “Spin” to face you. Initiative is determined at random, and every round begins with everyone drawing runes (wyrding) and proceeds through a few phases which make sure everyone manages their runes and any ongoing effects.

Managing the runes that you’ve drawn is extremely important because you can use them both proactively and reactively. Actions to defend yourself when attacked are often just as important as actions to attack on your own turn. You can also place runes in a “contingency” space, effectively preparing actions to use those runes. There’s very little sitting around and waiting for your turn; you need to be paying attention to respond to whatever comes.

Your bag of runes also serves as your hit points. When a creature takes damage, it moves runes down a wound track on a character sheet to represent damage. This means that taking damage removes a rune from the creature’s pool of available runes, thereby weakening the creature and reducing their options in combat, so taking damage is a serious problem, unlike many TTRPGs where you’re mostly fine until you hit 0 hit points.

There’s some additional nuance to different damage types which allow you to do stuff like knock runes out of a creature’s various zones on their character sheet a bit like forcing a player to discard cards in Magic: The Gathering.

There is also a rich system of conditions which can affect the course of combat, such as being on fire or being frightened, but depleting runes remains the central win condition in a straight fight.

Players familiar with games like D&D and Pathfinder will need to adjust to actions in combat always succeeding. There are no attack rolls or missed attacks here. Success is a matter of “how much”, not “yes or no”. This means that you never fall into ruts where everyone spends several rounds missing attacks before something interesting happens. Defense is handled by both passive damage reduction and by spending runes to counter or mitigate actions, again reinforcing that managing your runes is the central mechanic.

Fate of the Norns Monster Entry

Lots of Little Fiddly Bits

While it’s not explained in the original Ragnarok, Children of Eriu goes into detail on what Fate of the Norns describes as four “levels of crunch”. Depending on how comfortable the players are engaging with the game mechanics, they can use runes in more or less detail. “Crunch 0” equates each rune to a verb like “I move over here and I attack the monster”. “Crunch 3” uses “meta tags” and rune chains to perform complicated effects using your character’s abilities.

This nominally allows players with different preferences to enjoy the game alongside one another, though at a glance the higher-crunch playstyle does offer a lot of power that you can’t match unless you’re willing to go all the way to Crunch 3. Still, the option is exciting, especially for players first learning the game.

The mechanics around character death are novel, and actively encourage characters to seek out a good death after living a noble life. Certain acts like grave robbing diminish your chances of entering the afterlife, giving you as the player the interesting choice of looting your enemies’ dead bodies for precious treasure or a better chance of your character going to the afterlife and giving future characters benefits as a result. The act of burying a character also asks the party to tell a story of the deceased character’s deeds, which is a fantastic way to look back on an ongoing game.

NPCs, including monsters, use the same Essence/Destiny system and board system that players use to build their Dwellers. This allows the Norn (the GM) to customize monsters on the fly, picking from a set of available features for each monster so that two trolls might have wildly different capabilities. This keeps players guessing in a way that games like DnD or Pathfinder can’t replicate, forcing players to approach new and dangerous foes every time initiative is rolled.

Two Core Rulebooks and a Decade Between Them

Ragnarok and Children of Eriu both function as stand-alone core rulebooks. There are some pre-published sagas (adventures) for Ragnarok, but none for Children of Eriu as of this writing.

All of the products below are available physically from Amazon, digitally from DriveThruRPG, and in both physical and digital formats from the Fate of the Norns store.

Once you have rulebooks, be sure to grab player mats from the free downloads page on the Fate of the Norns site.

You’ll also need a set of runes. You can get wooden or metal runes from the Fate of the Norns site, but if you want a low-cost option, grab a box of blank playing cards (affiliate link) and write the runes onto them. A box of 500 should be enough for your whole table with blank cards to spare.

For more viking content, consider supporting the Fate of the Norns patreon. Andrew is still working on more content for the game, and shares it early with patreon supporters.

Pain Points

10 years after its release, the original Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok has a few rough edges that could be addressed by a copy-editing pass. There were some confusing grammatical choices which made certain rules unclear, and the PDF copy had some odd type issues where letters would be missing or overlapping, which at times made it difficult to read. Digital format RPG products have become much more normal in the time since Ragnarok was published, so it’s likely that these issues are left over from the book’s original publishing.

Ragnarok included quite a bit of setting material which set the tone for the game. Children of Eriu said “hold my drinking horn” and started the book with 130+ pages of lore about the british isles. The setting of Children of Eriu is very complicated because it details a complicated period in history with the added complexity of Ragnarok. A lot of the lore is really cool, but it also makes the book feel difficult to approach.

As I read through a lot of the lore, I encountered names for places and peoples with which I was not previously familiar. Some of these names are difficult to pronounce. A pronunciation guide would be a welcome addition to the source books.

The hardware is the biggest barrier to entry to the game. The players and the GM each need their own set of runes, and at nearly $40 US, that’s a tall order. You can get around this by crafting your own stand-in runes using scraps of paper, index cards, or blank playing cards. Even so, an official app would be really nice. Such an app existed once upon a time, but it’s no longer available on app stores.

Once you get past the point of acquiring runes, actually using them can still be intimidating. You’re functionally learning a whole new alphabet on top of the resource management, binding runes to spaces on your character’s grids, and then sliding runes around on your play mat. It’s a lot to ingest very quickly.

The glossary of terms is located at the beginning of the rules portion of both Ragnarok and Children of Eriu. This is helpful when first reading the rules, but it makes it hard to reference later because you need to hunt through the book to find it. Moving it to the end of the book like most books do would be an improvement, in my opinion.

Fate of the Norns: Harald from Denizens of the North
Fate of the Norns: Harald from Denizens of the North


I’m excited to play Fate of the Norns again. It has some wonderful ideas, and some mechanics that are a ton of fun to engage with. I love that managing runes is a constant task rather than sitting around until it’s your turn to act. I love the settings and the art in both of the core rulebooks. I love that every bit of the system works together to build a cohesive whole that exactly hits the theme it’s going for. Few games can boast that their resolution mechanics feel so thematically intertwined with the rest of the game.

Despite all of that enthusiasm, I see some barriers to entry that could be lowered. Bringing back an official app (even if all it does is manage your bag of runes) or creating a low-cost option for runes like a deck of cards (apparently those existed at one point), publishing a quickstart adventure for Children of Eriu alongside Fafnir’s Treasure, and printer-friendly character sheets and player mats would do a lot to make the game more accessible for newcomers. What is available is excellent and exciting, but it’s a lot to ingest if you just want your first taste of the game.

If you want to jump into Fate of the Norns, grab Fafnir’s Treasure (affiliate link). It includes an introduction to the Ragnarok setting, the basics of the rules, pregenerated characters, and a 3-part adventure. The preview on DriveThruRPG includes some of the setting information and some great art pieces.

If you’re lucky enough to attend a convention attended by the Pendelhaven folks, try to get into a game of Fate of the Norns. If you’re lucky, it might be Andrew himself running the game. The slots fill up quickly, and their books and merch are usually sold out by the end of the con. I don’t know what their con plans are for the year, but follow them on Twitter for the latest.