An Interview with When the Wolf Comes RPG Creator Ian Stuart Sharpe

When the Wolf Comes RPG

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I recently announced that author & creator Ian Stuart Sharpe was bringing When the Wolf Comes to Schwalb Entertainment, a fresh sci-fi spin on the Shadow of the Demon Lord rules. I took the time out of Weird Wizard editing this week to sit down with Ian and dig into his what-if-the-Vikings-had-conquered-the-world setting: the Vikingverse.

RS: Ian, let’s start at the beginning. Why Vikings? Is there a particular axe you have to grind?

ISS: Well, Rob, you have a lot more pedigree in RPGs than I have, so cast your mind back to Deities & Demigods for AD&D 1st edition. Good grief, there were horned helmets and double-bladed battle axes everywhere. Frey was the god of sunshine and elves, and Odin was Neutral Good. As a callow youth, I didn’t know any better. I’ll admit to having gotten a bit annoyed with the way the Norse are portrayed by most media. They have also been treated as a handy scapegoat by history, and the record needs addressing. The whole bloodthirsty barbarians business is a terrible cliché. And don’t get me started on pointy-eared elves.

RS: Well, your books and the whole Vikingverse setting is all about rewriting history!

ISS: Quite right. Hasn’t everyone wanted to turn back the clock? Have a do-over? Especially round the gaming table! That seems to me to be the essence of the Norse Ragnarok. Because the Norse gods are born in our image, they join us in routinely blowing everything up, seemingly out of caprice. The Twilight of the Gods just keeps coming out of sheer folly. Nowadays, when you look at a world where the best solution our politicians offer is thoughts and prayers — and at worst, lies and tantrums — where a deadly pandemic acts as a mask for profiteering and looting, an alternate history gives you a sense of perspective. When the Wolf Comes is all about holding up a dark mirror to the world and wondering “what if”?

RS: Because the Vikingverse isn’t a fantasy setting, is it? Why did you choose a more sci-fi focus?

ISS: The Vikingverse is actually set in a pagan present day. It seems sci-fi because the central premise is that Odin decides to dodge his fate (being devoured by Fenrir, the original big bad wolf) and change history. One of the ways he does that is to accelerate Norse learning — handing over gunpowder a few centuries early for instance.  So, when people play When the Wolf Comes, they’ll inhabit this world that is drawn from the pages of myth and legend that borrows heavily from sagas and Eddas, but has a modern-day flavour with genetics and technology mixed in. That was the whole point of the books and comics that the game is based on after all. The All Father Paradox, the Jotunn War, Loki’s Wager: they all tell the story of how this Norse civilization came to be.

RS: Did you have any particular inspirations for the setting?

ISS: It’s something I talk about in the front of the rulebook. At the highest level, the Vikingverse is a space opera, epic in scale, dealing with war, vengeance, destiny and legacy. It is The Northman in space, the Viking Age made modern. I’m enormously fond of one particular review that called it “the lovechild of American Gods and Doctor Who.

RS: Now, I love a good Space Viking. But do I need to be steeped in mythology to follow along?

ISS: Not really. Tolkien arguably kickstarted the fantasy genre we all know by ransacking the sagas and Eddas, just like I do.  Personally, I love weaving in the intricacies and the detail, because that is what brings the world to life. You just have to see everything through a Norse lens. A good example is the starter adventure we have put in the rulebook. It sets the Viking tone by throwing in holmgangs and lawthings. It deals with honor and blood feuds. But it is also part of a wider campaign called the Thought & Memory Saga, that is tied to Odin’s ravens and a deeper mythology. If you don’t know who Huginn and Muninn are, you’ll find out soon enough. That’s the whole point of adventures!

RS: And what about the Old Norse words you pepper throughout the book?

ISS: Well, the book is broadly bilingual. Old Norse is actually a kissing cousin of English, with many words recognizable across both languages. I’ve thrown in a pronunciation guide for those who really want to unleash their inner Viking, and of course, I published Old Norse for Modern Times, which is a whole phrasebook on the subject and there is an audio version for free on I have also tried to ensure we use authentic names for classes, creatures, and locations throughout When the Wolf Comes. They might seem unwieldly at first, but fantasy fans are used to plucking archaic words from obscurity. Just like if you go adventuring in the Underdark and find out all about svirfneblin. Incidentally, in the Vikingverse, Rob, you’d be Hróðbjartr Svabar. Try saying that with a tankard of mead.

RS: And so who do I get to play in the RPG? Am I able to strap on a sword and pick a fight with a jötunn? 

ISS: After a fashion. Generic fantasy will just have heroes head out and adventure in Jötunheim, a land of literal giants. That bugs me no end, because it’s far too simplistic a picture and one I feel sure the Norse didn’t adhere to. Taken literally, the idea is as absurd as the notion of a Flat Earth, and certainly wouldn’t have stood the test of time and the march of science. The Norse were explorers first and foremost. There is a reason places are so named, whether it’s the United States of America or Garðaríki, and that is always the starting point for all my settings. So, my Jötunheim has a lot more background to explore: a terrible war that has raged for decades, akin to WW1 and WW2 combined.

Your characters in the RPG are all based on what scraps of Norse myth and legend survive. Certainly, you can play as álfar, jötnar or orcneas – but they are not the elves, giants and orcs of Tolkien. They are something more raw, more elemental, more closely linked to our mortality, just as they were in Norse pagan times.

RS: In Shadow of the Demon Lord, I pitted players against impossible odds and eldritch horrors. Inevitably, everyone dies horribly. I jest, but how does it work with Ragnarok? It has an air of finality…

ISS: I think the most memorable parts of any campaign are when characters die well. Perhaps the only thing that truly matters is how you stand to meet the end. Those kinds of stories resonate through history: Hastings, Custer’s Last Stand, Rorke’s Drift.  To that end, there is a whole honor, shame and lineage system in When the Wolf Comes. It really matters how you act, who your ancestors were and what they did. Play the son or daughter of your first character and you’ll start to accumulate fame, wealth and the attention of the spirits, just like any character drawn from the sagas.

RS: And magic? Do I get spells with my spaceships?

I’ve tried to do the same thing with spellcraft: make it authentically Norse and not just a knock-off. Norse magical tradition is marked by sacrifice and ritual, etched in secrets and blooded in war. Spells can shape the future, weave webs of battle or spin charms that harness primal forces. Now, none of this reinvents the wheel and a lot of spells are inspired or borrowed from your work in Shadow of the Demon Lord. But they are all linked to the Norse world and outlook. There are no fireballs for instance.

As to spaceships, well, sailing the seas (and in this case, stars) is a quintessential part of any Viking campaign. The trouble is the book has already grown from 250 pages to 400…so we’ll have to revisit that in an expansion! It’s all written and ready, so watch this space.

RS: And for anyone who wants to fully immerse themselves, where can readers find your books and comics?

ISS: Right now, after a change of publisher, you can find them on