A Game Per Year: Ultima Thule (1999)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule is a Finnish viking age roleplaying game set in the lands that would later become Finland. “Ultima thule” is Latin and means the far north.

Interestingly, the book is published by Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura (The Finnish Literature Society). It’s one of the premiere institutions in Finland dedicated to preserving Finnish cultural heritage, not normally prone to roleplaying game publishing.

Both in terms of system and basic setup the game reminds me of Runequest. The characters are adventurers in a mythic historical setting. There’s an adventure idea in which a smith asks the characters to go to the graveyard of another village and steal the metal interred in the tombs. On the way there, they meet a strange group of people going in the opposite direction. Once the characters get to the graveyard, they find it empty of corpses, tombs opened.

Returning to the smith, they find him missing, kidnapped by the dead. These are the same strangers they met earlier. They needed the smith to craft great magic for their village.

One of the great achievements of Ultima Thule is the way it makes the ancient Finnish setting legible and usable while avoiding the standardization of fantasy elements so common in a lot of modern genre fiction and game design. For example, the undead can factor in the game but they’re not zombies or skeletons. Instead, their behavior and appearance follows the logic of Finnish myth.

At character creation, you choose your tribe, such as karjalainen or hämäläinen. You can also play the Sami. The example characters are quite gritty. One is a 68-year old unmarried wise woman equipped with a “mökki korvessa”, a shack in the woods.

The best thing about Ultima Thule are the spells. They are straight-up actual ancient Finnish spell songs, just with game mechanics.

For example, if you want to do a counterspell against another spellcaster, you go:

Noiju, noita, itseäsi,

velho veitsirautojasi!

Joka suustasi lähtee,

se sieraimistas sisään menköön,

tulena tukehtukoon,

pahana pakahtukoon!

An interesting take on the idea that roleplaying games teach you witchcraft! The book helpfully notes that if you need more spells, Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura has recorded tens of thousands of them.

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