Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok review — the center cannot hold

Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok is a fascinating case study in why review scores are an oversimplification. Its highs are unmatched, its lows confounding, and the overall product a singular work of art that’s unlike any other game I’ve seen. For years I had heard legends of the apocalyptic Norse RPG with randomly drawn runes taking the place of dice. Having now spent time with the game, I’m sorrowful to see how little attention it’s gotten, even if I completely understand why.

Taking place in the winter years after Baldr’s death, Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok eschews dice in favor of runes from the Futhark alphabet. Your character’s attributes are the runes you have in a bag, split between physical, mental, and spiritual for red, blue, or green runes. Player characters also have a Void rune that you customize at character creation. Your character is made up of Essence, the composition of runes in your bag, and Destiny, the number you draw for a skill check. Those checks require drawing a rune, comparing the number to the corresponding feat you are trying to achieve, and modifying if you have a relevant skill. You then compare to the difficulty value of 1-5, getting a marginal success if you are within 1 or 2 of the difficulty value. Characters are modified by those skill values and special abilities that mostly come into play in combat.

Combat consists of multiple action types between attacking, defending, moving, and magic that all require corresponding runes. You also take damage by losing runes from your bag, moving them down the physical or spiritual wound tracks until you lose enough to die. Characters become Bloodied upon losing half of their allotted wounds, and many abilities have triggers off of the Bloodied condition. Everything in combat is tracked on the character sheet by moving runes around, and the economy of spending the runes to take actions, while gamey, is an extremely engaging way to make combat decisions. While casting magic, you will use a specific rune as a base, adding other runes to the side to modify the spell, adding extra potency or effects. In the fiction of the game, you are creating spells by crafting sentences from runes. Initiative consists of cards representing units, chosen randomly and placed in order each round, allowing you to spend a rune to go earlier.

Runeplay is both a physical and mental exercise that adds a layer of genuine magic to the game. There is a tense value judgment happening at every stage, whether it’s making your character, stringing a spell together, or weighing how to spend your resources in a combat. The physical aspect also makes learning the game easy for new people; you are working with objects in front of you with a tangible connection to your actions, rather than the pure abstraction of a die roll.

The core book itself stands out in many ways, chief among them being in its presentation. Melding the twisted angles of Viking imagery with the vibrant colors of illuminated manuscripts, the first 80 pages of the book are an astounding joy to behold. In terms of pure artistry, this book is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever read. It’s just page after page after page of evocative, culturally informed pieces that sell every bit of the game’s intended fantasy. This is a world of adventure, terror, and legend, sprawled across its maps and character sheets in the same style of the setting’s art. The art alone goes a long way towards Fate of the Norns price tag of $75.

If that price sounds like a lot, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. First, that quote was for the soft cover. It’s closer to $100 for the hardcover and $200 for the premium version. And that’s not to mention the runes themselves. Each player and the GM need their own set of runes to play with. The book does give you paper cut outs you can use, and it’s easy enough to make them out of other materials or sources, but if you want a nice set to play with you will need to find some on Etsy or buy them from the main store for just under $40 for the wood set or over $53.27 for the stainless steel set. Altogether that’s not too unreasonable compared to D&D’s three book set, but it’s a far cry from the inexpensive options plenty of other games offer, and it’s a lot of buy-in for a game with an extremely specific draw.

There’s one more issue that makes playing Fate of the Norns a tough prospect, that being the structure of the rules information. While the rules are easy to grasp if someone is teaching you, the presentation makes learning it from the book a daunting prospect. I’ve talked in reviews about the problem of presenting a rule without explaining it, sometimes offering an explanation using other rules you haven’t explained yet, and Fate of the Norns is probably the worst example of this I’ve ever seen. The combat section alone is a miasma of terms that are all crucial to one another and all explained in seemingly random order. It doesn’t help that the book’s admittedly unimpeachable art design makes using it as a reference point difficult. The game’s official Youtube channel is a better resource to get your head around the mechanics, and once you have them in mind playing becomes a breeze.

We trade dice for runes as Andrew Valkauskas walks us through Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok

Character creation also suffers from requiring you to flip all over the book. Upon assembling your runes and deciding on skills, you begin randomly (or not) taking runes from the bag and placing them around a chart of abilities, the layout of which depends on your chosen archetype. If your character dies, they begin a legacy and future characters will have access to more powerful abilities. It’s a neat activity, except for the fact that the abilities are scattered all around a later section of the book. You’re meant to either copy the character creation page to look at later chapters or just have multiple copies of the book. This also means that you can only practically make one character at a time. Doing so doesn’t take long unless you have someone who wants to dig into the abilities presented to them, of which there are many options. It makes for great character building opportunities if you want a long-term game, but it comes at the cost of a high investment in mental energy right at the start.

The good news is that there is a starter set, with premade characters, a starter adventure, and simplified rules that are marginally better organized. The problem is that the starter adventure is $36 and doesn’t come with any runes other than paper versions you can copy and cut out. The adventure for 2-6 players is a grand time and worth the overall price, but if you end up liking the game and want to progress beyond that, you’ve started out with a hefty purchase before having any of the official materials. In a technical sense, you can also play the game for free. The Youtube channel explains the rules, the runes can be obtained on printed paper, and the site has free pregenerated characters available.

Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok is an unequivocally great game when you are actually playing it. It’s in obtaining and learning that game that you run into issues. Because of the options available to find out if this game would interest you, you can make an informed decision before taking that plunge, which goes a long way to alleviate the issues with price and presentation.

Senior Tabletop Editor | [email protected]

John Farrell is an attorney working to create affordable housing, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: or follow him on Bluesky @johnofhearts



Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok

Review Guidelines

Fate of the Norns has an artistry to its visuals and mechanics that makes it unlike anything else. Poor organization and a high price makes getting into the game a challenge, but those who do will find its rune based gameplay an innovative and immersive way to travel the freezing Earth and battle ancient evils.

John Farrell

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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