By CatLord, 16 February 2019
“Helheim Unbound took a wandering path to its creation. What we ultimately set out to create was a fun, less crunchy, RPG that you could sit down and do sessions over lunch. The Core Rulebook is designed as a framework for your own adventures. We wanted something you can tuck into a cubby or a small spot on your desk, along with a handful of dice. Not everyone has a two or four hour block they can regularly set aside to play games with their friends. Helheim certainly can let you do that – goodness knows we did so during playtesting – but its not a necessity. We hope you enjoy our first voyage into the world of RPG publishing, and that you can join us along the ride as we work on our other products.”
(Nat for Skylark Studios, the creators of Helheim Unbound)
*This reviewer is listed with an ‘Editor’ credit for this game. There was no involvement with the rules beyond syntax, and this involvement does not affect the review below*
One of the first qualities that makes Helheim a unique game is that the game has no requisite for die type. They recommend d6’s or d10’s, but any even-sided die type will do as long as that’s the only die type you roll. A success rate of about 70% should be attainable on the selected type (1-4 on a d6, 1-7 on a d10). For each die within this range, you receive a “Hit”, and the number of hits is tested in a few ways.
- Tests in HHU are as follows:
- Simple – Pass/Fail based on Hits vs Difficulty
- Opposed – Two or more parties roll and the highest number wins
- Complex – The amount by which you pass or fail affects the outcome
When rolling, the GM determines a difficulty using some tables that suggest values and modifiers to a base action. They can also make it up as they feel appropriate. The players then draft a dice pool based on their skills, equipment, traits, and (dis)advantages. Finally, the game’s fudge factor called “Wyrd” is applied. It has a variety of uses from allowing more dice to be rolled by that character or removing the same amount from an enemy acting upon them, or flipping up to two misses to hits (once again, vice versa for an enemy).
One could argue that Wyrd is the closest approximation to a level, since characters (Champions) replenish it each session and higher maximums demand harsher challenges. If a character receives enough injuries based on their maximum Wyrd, the character either dies or summarily retires from adventuring. More on permanent injuries versus health will be discussed later. A starting champion has four Wyrd by default.
Beginning character creation starts with that character’s first defining Deed. This is up to player and GM discussion, and ultimately decides the starting basis of who the character is. Deeds are the results of achieved Desires, and creating one is the next step in making your champion. Working with your GM will determine the steps needed to achieve this desire, and the resulting Fame of completing that Desire. You can change desires with GM approval, although you can have up to three at a time. Good RP on the way to completing any desire can award (or penalize) your current Fame. Beyond champion creation, Fame is the currency for what most games call “XP”, in that it lets you buy skills, benefits, resources, and Wyrd.
Skill creation is typically where the most complication will be found. There is a list of sample skills to get you started, although the point of this system is to get more personalized results. Players may select from previously created skills or generate their own. Skills have three variations: Narrow, Standard, and Broad; covering 1-3 areas of expertise respectively. Essentially, a Standard skill is made of two Narrow skills or a Broad skill is made of three. A Narrow skill might be “Archery”, where a Broad skill might be “Hunter”, including archery, tracking, and stealth. With more areas, it costs more to raise – but not as much as several narrow skills. It can be cheaper to have a narrow skill you can raise faster if you are really banking on your character’s expertise. Raising skills costs “time points”, and you receive 26 of them to do as you will at character generation. Keep in mind that any skill you or anyone else creates is now fair game for anyone or thing in the campaign. Every skill level represents two extra dice to be rolled on relevant tests, and unused time points at creation are converted into two Fame each. The alternate way to raise skills instead of using Fame is by Trial. A Trial takes place when a champion uses the skill in a particularly difficult situation where they are not expected to pass. Depending on skill breadth, 2-4 Trial Points increase a skill by one die (with the second die advancing it a level).
Keeping in line with the free-form champion creation comes the selection of three points of benefits, and up to two points of hindrances to create more benefit points. Once again there is a decent list that works as a springboard for other ideas. HHU has no traditional traits/abilities/advantages, and they are instead all covered under the umbrella of “benefits”. Is your champion stronger than the average person? Give them Strong. Does that not quite capture how powerful they are? Give their “Strong” another benefit point to become Brawny. Is your champion a part of a secret society? Give it a benefit point. Hindrances work the other way. Your champion may be illiterate, or starting the game with an injury, and your character gains either one benefit, two time points, or three wealth points per point of hindrance. The amount of benefit or hindrance in an applicable roll changes your dice pool proportionately.
Lastly you determine your champion’s resources. Resources are items, places, and people your character has access to. This could be your Father’s Sword, Master Lockpicks, or even an Exotic Spice Rack. It could also be that they own a ship or a plot of land. As with benefits/hindrances the ability to apply a resource to a roll is determined by the situation.
All champions have ten health, which is the number of wounds they can take before they are forced out of a situation. Mundane human NPCs have one. After their fourth wound, the champion has a -1 hindrance to all rolls. After their seventh, it becomes a -3. Once they reach ten, they receive a permanent injury which may add to an existing one or be a new one altogether – but it’s permanent as per the Wyrd description above, and they retain the -3 to all rolls until they heal.
Magic tends to be a bit complicated within the bounds of HHU, but it is one of the few things that breaks down into a mechanical formula. The system treats high technology with the same regard as magic for this purpose.
- Spell casting or technology use comes with restriction tiers including things like:
- Material components
- Specific foci (e.g. magic wand)
- Knowledge level for rarer magic
- Feedback/Backlash when casting
- Warm up times
- Cooldown times
- Limited number of casts (overall or per spell)
- Limited number of spells known
- Number of spells active at once
Each of these things has a “severity” level which determines the restrictions for that type of magic. So the sample “Divine Magic” has a low severity “Channeling” restriction (takes a few seconds to cast a spell), high severity “Focus” restriction (requires a divine object with a resource level at least a good as the spell’s power), and “Limited Reserves” with a moderate severity and high impact (restoring spells requires a short rest and no more than their Knowledge benefit x4 spells cast between rests).
Enemies in HHU are at one of three levels in two categories. Either a “Creature”, whether human or not, is an individual being (Solo, Elite, or Tough), or it is a group of beings banded together (Formation, Large Formation, Mob). Beyond that the rules are generally the same. Each creature’s classification determines its health and protection from attacks, and the best way to illustrate damage. A formation might be a squad of archers, so it has a good ranged attack value that diminishes as it loses health and the individual archers are killed. A tough might represent a dragon, larger in size than that formation but still just one creature and is subject to Injuries if it becomes a recurring villain.
Combat is a very direct sequence in HHU. If two participants target each other with attacks, the highest attack roll wins and the raw number of hits is dealt as wounds to the one with the lesser roll. Ties favor the player (if only one of the two is a player champion) and grants one hit. There seems to be no mention of multiple combatants, although one could infer that the “Assisting” action would allow multiple champions or creatures to compound into an exchange where the base/leading figure takes the damage. All affects happen once all rolls are completed for the round.
Helheim Unbound is a game where intention leads the way. There aren’t hard set stats, which makes it hard to truly min/max a character. While you can stack your proficiencies fairly easily, it isn’t hard for a creative opponent to turn things around.
In addition to not locking players into a mathematical hell, you can stat out anything you can imagine with relative ease. This is a game where the more you play it, the better your experience should be, since every campaign will add to an arsenal of skills/benefits/resources that are already existent and balanced without having to negotiate with the GM.
The magic system is unlike any this reviewer has seen, which for the most part plays to its benefit. The lack of real boundaries for what constitutes a spell is disappointing but it’s nice to see that individual magics can have such disparate framework to really bring out their advantages in the chosen campaign world. Expansions with more fleshed out rules will really provide the fudge factor here.
Artwork within HHU caters to the default setting of the Saxon Wars. This would be the only drawback since the art style is reminiscent of classic high fantasy which places it on the positive side. The color palette can be a bit bland, but there is a lot of detail and expression in the pieces.
Teetering on a razor’s edge between positive and negative, the core rulebook is short, featuring sixty-four pages between the covers. Where this becomes more advantageous is the fulfillment of the promise of a streamlined system. Other than magic, there is nary an explanation or rule that takes more than a page worth of space.
Continuing from the last positive point, the rules are small and self contained. However they are not very thorough. An example is provided for most rules, but it also tends to cover the most direct usage of the rule as it was intended with no real clarification.
Organization is also lacking in the book, as in an attempt to separate player and GM information, almost every rule has information listed in two places, which results in flipping between two pages for correlation.
The biggest elephant in the room is combat. Fighting was designed to be a no frills, one and done system because it helps prevent constant desk checking, dice calculations, and task paralysis, but we are put into 8-Bit RPG mode. A player just says “I attack”, rolls, and then action moved to the next player. While there are some in depth mechanics, combat pales in comparison to the richness found in some of the other rules.
When you pull it all apart, Helheim Unbound is an RPG that reminds this reviewer of The Hobbit. Personal specifics and all of the “in between” time received a lot of attention, and the most action packed scenes were left to imagination. There is a lot of innovation behind the mechanics, especially the potential for the magic system, but this feels like an incomplete work if you pull the veil of “streamlining” up.
The artwork has a graphic novel aesthetic
All in all time will tell what this game has in store, but until it develops, it gets three buns here.