Thrones & Bones Kickstarter – Interview with Lou Anders

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HM: Lou, the first Thrones & Bones novel is set in Norrøngard. Can you describe the world for those who haven’t read the series?

Lou Anders: Well, there’s the world and there’s the country. The country of Norrøngard is just one area in the northwesternmost corner of a large continent, called Katernia. Norrøngard is based on Scandinavian culture and myth, but the Norrønir have their own pantheon of gods and a creation story which differs somewhat from the Norse one (they believe the world is a bubble in a never-ending expanse of rock, for instance).  

Moreover, the Norrønir are actually NOT Vikings anymore. The term “Viking” is originally a verb, not a noun. You “go viking” when you get in your longship and go raiding. The timeline of the novels and the game is in an equivalent period to the European High Middle Ages, but here the Norrønir people have resisted assimilation into the cultures of the rest of their continent and keep to their old ways. They’re technically not supposed to raid anymore, per the High King’s decree, who is happy to accept an annual ransom payment from their nearest neighbours to stop all that activity. Now there is suspicion that the town of Umsborg has started raiding again, threatening the peace. 

Meanwhile, the troll king has gotten bolder, sending troll marauders further and further south from their home of Trollheim in the Ymirian Mountain Range. And the great linnorm Orm Hinn Langi has either gone off or gone soft (as per the events of my books), and so younger linnorms are thinking maybe they have an opportunity to try for the title of “King of All Serpents.” And there are those who think that the High King of Norrøngard, who just turned 50, might be too old to deal with all this anymore, and maybe it’s time he was pushed aside. 

So Norrøngard is a land that’s seeing the tensions suddenly ramping up, all the screws getting tighter, and maybe things are just ready to break apart.

The new campaign setting book, which I hope is the first volume of a series, doesn’t venture too deeply into the rest of the continent, but there are hints and tidbits here and there. I don’t like monocultures, and I like to show how even fairly isolationist countries are interdependent with their neighbours, so you get bits and pieces of the wider world even in the frozen north.  The continent of Katernia was once dominated by a power called the Gordion Empire (a sort of mashup of Phrygian and Roman cultures) and there are even Gordion ruins in Norrøngard. So Katernia has got all these kingdoms that share some common traditions by way of the fallen Gordion Empire. But the Norrønir have only recently started thinking about the rest of the world as a place to do more than just chop some fellow’s skull in with an axe, and aside from a few port cities with heavy trade, they’ve got all this tension about whether to open up or fall back on what they know.

I wanted to build a world that was full of danger and potential, that had some of the familiar elements from Norse myth that people love, but which maybe deals with those aspects in new ways. And, of course, I wanted a world that had room for a thousand stories.

What made you want to explore this world further via a DnD campaign setting?

When I initially started writing Frostborn, the first book in the Thrones & Bones series, I was working as an editor for a science fiction and fantasy imprint, and before that, I’d been a journalist out in Hollywood covering SF television and film. My peer group are all amazing creators, and, frankly, I was nervous now that I was putting on a new hat, that I wouldn’t measure up to their stories. I thought a way I could trick myself into writing, maybe, as well as have the confidence to write anything, was to make a world so authentic, so rich and detailed, that you basically couldn’t argue with it. I mean, I’d develop the world to the point that it was “real,” and then the stories that came out of it would be real too, and I was just “some guy” who could hear the stories and was transcribing them. And so the pressure was off me as to writing, if that makes sense.

But this approach doesn’t mean that the books are just overstuffed with lore. I’m a big believer in the iceberg approach, that the reader only sees the tip poking through the water, and the author has 90% more ice under the waves. There is a spot in my second novel Nightborn where the dragon Orm sees Karn, one of my protagonists, carrying a sword, and he tells him, “The sword has a more storied history than you know. Once it was a weapon of great power.” And that’s all that is said about it. But I had written a thousand words on the sword’s history, how it was forged for a Gordion general and was once the Excalibur-equivalent for an Aralish queen a country over, before being wielded by one of the heroes of Norrøngard, and then even one of Karn’s own ancestors. None of that is in the book. It’s all just beneath that sentence, under the waves. But I always had one eye looking to a future where I could do a campaign setting and actually use that material.

The fun thing is though, even though I had tens of thousands of words on the world, once you sit down to write a 5e campaign setting, you have to write thousands more, so the world, that was already so immense, is just so much bigger and richer now that it’s incredible.

There are lots of fun locations in Norrøngard and we’ve enjoyed turning them into maps. One of our favourites is Stolki’s Mead Hall. Can you give us a flavour of what is going to happen here in the game?

Well, Stolki’s is the largest mead hall in the town of Bense, one of the largest towns in Norrøngard, and the southernmost one. It sits on the shores of Serpent’s Gulf, and is the port of entry for merchants and traders coming from Araland across the gulf. Stolki’s is a huge longhouse, with long tables throughout its interior and benches all around the perimeter, and it’s the place to be in Bense for a good time.

But you have to be careful, because like the Norse people of our world, the Norrønir enjoy a good food fight. It is a major pastime. But it plays out a little differently than you might imagine. After you finish your meal, you take the bones and you hurl them at other tables. You only get points if you draw blood, but if you can knock something off—like a tooth or an eye—you get double points.

So, visit Stolki’s for sure when you’re in Bense, but if you stick around to the end of the meal, maybe wear a helmet!

Thrones & Bones’ is an actual game that is played in the world you’ve created. One of the maps we’ve been working on is a Thrones & Bones board (life-sized for playable characters!) so we know the board game will feature in the Norrøngard storyline. What’s the game like and will players get a go at it?

There’s a real world game the Norse played called hnefetafl, which is an asymmetric game (meaning one side has more pieces than the other) in which one side plays invaders and the other defenders, and the defenders object is to get their leader off the board safely before the leader is captured. They think it references a time when the Scandinavians were forced to retreat and abandon their settlements in Russia. When I started writing Frostborn I planned to include references to hnefetafl itself. But as the book grew, I came to realize how important the rules were going to be, and there’s no agreed way the game is played. Instead, there are multiple reconstructions, and they vary enormously, right down to the size of the board and the number of pieces. Some even use dice.

I decided it would be better if I knew what the rules of my world’s game was, so I stopped writing, and I went to the craft store and purchased enough materials to make a board. And then I played multiple variants of hnefetafl, taking a rule here and a rule there, and inventing rules, and modifying rules, until I came up with a new game that was similar to hnefetafl but not based on any one version. And I called it “Thrones & Bones.” 

Now, at the time, my two oldest nephews were chess champions in my homestate, so I took them to Starbucks, bought them coffees, and watched them play Thrones & Bones against each other for several hours in game after game. And when they were hooked, I knew I had something good. So the rules for the boardgame are in the back of the novel, Frostborn, and they’ll be included in the Thrones & Bones Campaign Setting: Norrøngard as well. And it was a moment of personal pride for me when Board Game Geek decided to list Thrones & Bones as an actual game “in the hnefetafl family.”

Everyone in Norrøngard plays Thrones & Bones, but as your question suggests, player characters may get a more intimate view of game play than they expect!

We know you’ve been designing classes and creatures for the campaign setting. Which are you most excited for people to see?

All of it? But if I can’t say that, I’ll say that I’m especially proud of a few things. First, there’s a (generally female) position in Norse culture called a völva, who is a sort of wandering seeress. The name means “carrier of the magic wand,” and I initially thought it would be a wizard class. But the more I looked into it, the more I wasn’t sure. The völva wanders the land, shapeshifts, sees the future, and controls the weather. So in a moment that was halfway between an epiphany and a “Doh!” I realized, that’s a druid. I hadn’t planned to make a druid subclass because I was saving that for when I get to the aforementioned country of Araland, where druids are kind of a thing, but it was obvious in retrospect. So I’m really proud of my Circle of the Völva.

Meanwhile, there’s a new race called huldrafolk. The huldrafolk are the “hidden people” of Scandinavian myth. They look human, but their true nature is often given away by a glance at their tails, which resemble either the tails of cows or foxes. And they have holes in their backs like the cavities in the trunks of trees. They were always going to be an NPC in the bestiary, but they became a last-minute player race addition too, and I really love them.

Speaking of the bestiary, I’m enormously pleased with my linnorms. Linnorms are the dragons of Norse myth. They have long snake-like bodies, and they don’t always have limbs, or sometimes they only have forelimbs. In the earliest sagas, the linnorms are basically giant snakes with venomous bites. But then you get some with poisonous breath. Later, the Norse start reading the literature of the people they’ve been raiding, and they hear about European dragons and think that sounds great, so the linnorms start flying and breathing fire. I wrestled for a while on how to reconcile all these different variants until a solution came to me, and I think it’s a really elegant one: it’s the life cycle from wyrmling to ancient! The linnorms start out limbless and with a venomous bite. Later, they develop forelimbs and can breathe poison. As they get older, they develop wings and the ability to ignite their gases to breathe fire. And the ones that never develop wings and limbs move into the ocean as sea serpents.

Another monster in Norse myth is the draugr, which is a malevolent intelligent undead (and the basis for the barrow wights in The Lord of the Rings.) They’re basically too greedy and too egocentric to die properly, so they cling to life, dwelling in their barrow mounds amid all their rotting worldly treasures and waiting for a chance to inflict their bitterness on the living. And there are a lot of them—any decently-sized burial mound field is going to have quite a few. In Norse myth, they could do all sorts of things, from turning into a cloud to shapeshifting into a horse with a broken back (of all things) to transforming into a cat that drained your life force to growing to enormous size. Taking all those seemingly random powers and figuring out how to get them into a 5e stat block was a hoot. But the result is a very unusual class of undead that I hope game masters and players will love.

I should add too that some traditional monsters, like trolls and frost giants, are different from how they appear in the 5e source materials. I’ve crafted my own versions, more appropriate to either Norse myth or the Thrones & Bones novels. Trolls, for instance, come in three sizes, from little cave trolls that are more mischievous than evil, to the large, dim-witted and often two-headed forest trolls, to the gargantuan mountain trolls that are often mistaken for mountains themselves!

We mentioned above that Heroic Maps are making battle maps for the Norrøngard Kickstarter – backers can get these in printable and VTT formats. What else will they get if they back the Thrones & Bones Kickstarter?

Well, the campaign setting book, which is 99.9% complete, and out with play testers and a copyeditor right now, comes in at approximately 200 pages. I say approximately because a lot of the stretch goals will be for more artwork (of which we already have a copious amount) and so I’m hoping it gets even longer. It’s got wonderful original art from such luminaries as Andrew Bosley, Justin Gerard, Ksenia Kozhevnikova, Randall Mackey, Will O’Brien, Craig J. Spearing, and Bryan Syme. The book will be available as a PDF and as a hardcover. It has around 60 pages of world lore, then a chapter on ancestries, subclasses, backgrounds, feats, magic items, spells, a unique system of rune magic, rules for flyting, rules for board games and ball games, and a unique approach to magical resurrection. Then there’s a nearly-30 monster bestiary, and two introductory adventures (with your beautiful, amazing maps).

Then for the stretch goals, I’ve lined up a number of experienced RPG designers to come in and write additional adventures. These will be released as a PDF and will be intended to carry the two starter adventures forward in a loosely connected path that takes players up in level as they journey across Norrøngard.

I’m also at work with two colleagues right now on a really exciting add-on, but I haven’t decided yet if it will be made public before launch or surprise folks with it then, so I won’t say anything more about it now. And I have a second add-on/stretch goal planned I’m also sitting on!

What I will say is that I’ve been a huge fan of Heroic Maps for years, and I cannot believe how mind-bogglingly amazing the work that you’ve done for the Thrones & Bones Campaign Setting is – I cannot wait for everyone to see it!

We can’t wait either! The campaign world sounds so exciting and a really refreshing take on Norse-inspired fantasy settings. Thanks for telling us all about it, Lou.

If you want to find out more about this awesome Kickstarter that will include our maps you can visit the launch page here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/louanders/thrones-and-bones-nrrongard-5th-edition-campaign-setting

You can also get more information and updates from Lou here:

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