Midgard is a fantasy world filled with wizard colleges, dragon lords, humanoid ravens, and masked gods. Yet it's bound to a map similar to Earth, and is filled with a mashup of mythological figures and folk legends. It can be used with a variety of RPG systems, but even if you're not a gamer, it's an amazing window to an elaborate world.
Midgard is the brainchild of Wolfgang Baur, creator of RPG publishing company Open Design. It started out as Wolfgang's own homebrew campaign setting, derived from notebook sketches and scribbled ideas dating back to junior high. Last year, Open Design began the process of forging Midgard into a professional campaign setting for use with the Pathfinder RPG.
[Pathfinder is essentially a fork of the D&D rules, developed by Paizo and open to third party add-ons like the ones that Open Design produces. If it had an official edition number, it would probably be D&D 3.75.]
Like many other RPG systems these days, Midgard crowdsourced the design. Using what they call a "patronage project," Open Design allowed people to contribute both financially and intellectually to Midgard's gestation (it's a lot like a Kickstarter project, but with rewards geared specifically toward prospective game designers getting involved in the design process).
I've reviewed a fair number of Open Design products before, and I have to say I don't think I've ever given them a negative review. The reason for that is pretty simple – they're a group of talented game designers with a serious passion for their craft. With the Midgard Campaign Setting, they're at the top of their game. It's a massive tome approaching 300 full-color pages, packed with details about the various regions, deities, cultures and races that populate the world. There are expected, traditional fantasy tropes like elves and centaurs, dragons and demons; you'll also find delightfully startling twists on those old ideas. The centaurs are steppe nomads, and the huginn (ravenfolk) are descended from Odin's raven companions, for instance.
That reliance on semi-familiar folklore is a huge plus for this campaign setting. The gods range from Norse myths, less well-known Slavic deities, demonic dragon gods and a pantheon derived from ancient Egyptian lore. You won't find pigeonholed fantasy stereotypes too often. Not all elves live in tree cities, not all dwarves live underground. There's a complexity and a dark beauty to this setting that comes through in the many tales woven throughout it and the excellent art.
While Midgard is built for use with Pathfinder, the actual rules text is fairly sparse. There are magical items and new spells scattered liberally throughout, but for the most part the book is concerned with world building. I'd say 90 percent of the text could be used with any fantasy RPG, and the rules that are included could be easily adapted to quite a few systems. Even if you have no intention of playing the game, it's an amazing book just to read through and experience a cohesive, rich fantasy world. If that's insufficient, there's an appendix with specific rules for using Midgard with Green Ronin's AGE system (created for the Dragon Age RPG).
Lead Designer Wolfgang Baur was kind enough to answer a few questions about Midgard, how it was created, and where it's going.
io9: You mention in the introduction that some of this material dates back to junior high, and that it originally existed as "scribbled index cards." Logistically, what was the process like, moving from that "every DM everywhere" stage to a full-color book of more than 200 pages?
Wolfgang Baur: The best fantasy worlds take years to grow. Things pile on top of other things through actual play: elder gods connect with ancient magic, which connects with the dark fey roads, and so on. A lot of the elements from my very oldest notebooks were abandoned as we turned my homebrew campaign into a publishing-worthy product, but all the best material is the stuff that got refined in the crucible of use and re-use.
It's a little like a standup comedy act: some jokes bomb right away, some never quite click, and some become beloved standards, catchphrases and go-to bits that work again and again. Having that many years to draw on gives Midgard a lot of depth, and the stuff that doesn't work has been identified and dropped along the way.
The process of taking the material from "notes that only Wolfgang understands" to "book that will appeal to a reader" is a whole 'nother level of adjustment. Fortunately after designing RPGs for 20 years, I do feel pretty comfortable with that part of the work.
io9: The Midgard patronage project allowed patrons to get involved in the design. What was that like? Are there any ideas or areas that stand out that came from that part of the design process?
WB: A lot of things stand out from that sharing of ideas! People voted on what they liked and what they hated through feedback on the project forums. The discussions provided another layer of filtering, and having that new audience forced me to explain certain concepts of the setting (the masks of the gods, the shadow roads) that I wouldn't have explained that well otherwise, because my players and I knew them so well.
I'd say that the coolest idea that came out of the public design was possibly the Huginn, who are the ravenfolk of Midgard. I think of them as Westernized tengu, the children of Odin's two famous birds from Norse legends. They are statted out for D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder RPG in the free Midgard Preview PDF.
io9: I've long been an advocate of lining up a fantasy world with parts of the real world. At what point did Midgard become mapped to an analog of Europe/North Africa? What drove that decision?
WB: I agree, the real world is much more interesting than most wholly-new fantasies, and the Midgard setting draws from that. It means that you have a lot of great material to blend with your fantasy. I find that being able to say, "It's like France if Cthulhu had waded ashore near Normandy," is a great shortcut to help players understand quickly what they are getting into. Likewise, "Late-dynasty Egypt but the pharaohs are mostly undead god-kings." But the setting includes a lot of cultures without real-world analogues as well. The goal is to keep a fantasy world accessible for new players, while still introducing things that no one has ever seen before.
To really freak players out, it helps to give them something familiar first. Then you can hit them upside the head with the alien insect queens later.
io9: One of my favorite things about Midgard is the blend of real-world mythologies, including some more obscure ones that aren't explored as often in fantasy works. Could you talk a bit about your interest in folklore, legends, and how they feed into fantasy games and fiction?
WB: I think most gamers have some level of interest in legends and folklore: I read about King Arthur obsessively in 5th grade, and the Hobbit and LOTR not long after; and then Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Golden Bough, and dozens of other sources of myths. Over time, my tastes broadened, which is why you see North African, Russian, German, and even Iberian myths. They are great stories, powerful stories, and as a gamer I want some of that material in my world.
Now, those stories and monsters work because they were honed over generations. Midgard and worlds like it can use trolls, or rusalka, or the valkyries in new ways, but players who know the myths and legends react to those monsters in ways that they don't react to something completely made-up — say an umpqua-beast. Until they know what an umpqua-beast is, it's just a name and maybe a miniature on the table. It's a lot more work to get players to react to the new name with a sense of understanding, dread, or familiarity.
I wanted to draw on some of the powerful myths and legends that English-speaking audiences know, but that aren't overdone. For example, the zmey is a wonderful three-headed dragon from Slavic legend. Kobolds are German in origin. The valkyries are Norse and ready to be reinvented. So Midgard builds on some of what people know, and puts a dark fantasy twist on other legends that might not be as familiar. It's a balancing act, but it's also fresh blood and fresh ideas for tabletop gaming.
io9: What's planned for the future of Midgard?
WB: The Midgard Atlas for the iPad and the print books for D&D, Pathfinder, and Dragon Age are out and available now. My plans to support the setting include a series of adventures that involve islands, some tombs, some intrigue and of course dungeons.
In addition, there's some player's guides with new Pathfinder RPG options, new short fiction by Jeff Grubb, and a series of adventures already underway, plus regional books like the Zobeck Gazetteer and Northlands. We'll also be starting a contest where the winner gets a game design contract for a new Midgard adventure.
Given how well the Midgard Campaign Setting has done already, I expect there will be Midgard adventures coming for the most popular roleplaying games for quite a while. If any of your readers are interested in writing them, I invite them to join a future Open Design project – and keep an eye out for that contest I just mentioned. A new world is always a great opportunity for new adventures in gaming, and in game design!