Saturday, June 8, 2013

Thoughts on running a Viking Game

Of late I've been reading some Viking history.  Also a bit about about the Saxon conquest of Britain and am struck by how these time periods might lend themselves to mid-level D&D play.  Generally the dreary heroic and bloody minded nature of the primary sources have the sort of convoluted level of double crosses, poor hasty decisions and pointless feuds that I expect from a game of D&D.  However I don't think the game rules as written really work well for modeling the feel of Dark Ages epics, and my mantra in games has really been, house rules/mechanics must work towards a feeling for the game.

A Pict - 19th century
I am struck by a couple things in the Dark Ages/Viking history and sagas that D&D models badly.  The first is combat, the second magic. Basically the entire subject of dark Age's literature.  Northern European Dark Ages combat seems to have been split into two different kinds of fighting.  First, challenges and ritual one on one combat between leaders or champions and second shield walls pushing at each other until one side broke or gave up and tried to run (with often fatal consequences).  In both cases what you have is a champion or group of champions in better armor, with better weapons and a supporting body of spear and shield armed fodder. The leaders/champions do the work of breaking through the enemy shield wall and killing eachother, while the rest just make sure they don't get surrounded. Basically a warband is a D&D party where the fighters predominate and have a mess of henchmen. 

Here are aspects that need rule changes designed to encourage the feeling of Saga combat where the heroes do most of the "fighting", and it's heroic action that turns the tide of battle, but without a mass of henchmen a warrior is not especially effective against large numbers.  I'd propose using OD&D D6 damage, AC and HD rules because these generally lead to quick and dangerous combat. The changes made however make personal skill and Strength of Fighters more important.

I haven't figured out how to make Ritual/Champion Combat Special, but I am saving this for a second post.


North European Dark Age combat shared a lot of elements with the classical age war of the ancient Greeks and Romans in that it depended on a shield wall of disciplined (or at least committed) troops.  Apparently this was a matter of forming two lines of guys with shields into at least two ranks having them push at each other. The front rank holds their shields low and the next hold's theirs high.  Against foes not in a similar wall this juggernaut of interlocked shields and spears was pretty much terrifying and unstoppable.   When two walls meet they push and push with the front ranks basically crushing against each other without room to attack and the rear ranks trying to stab over or under the wall past the front rank.

Eventually with the soldiers in the front line stabbed from the rear rank one wall is either pushed back to stumble and break or becomes too exhausted and dispirited.  Once one wall breaks or loses cohesion anywhere, the other soldiers try to pour through and hack at the unprotected backs of the other wall (which is still pushing against the rest of their own wall).  Sometimes famous hero types break through a wall with sheer bloodthirst or skill and carve a hole in the enemy's wall for their companions to follow.  This makes them famous and really scary.

To model this I've made some changes in D&D rules that make fighting a bit strange.


Equipment - Metal armor is very expensive and not very good in Dark Age warfare.  The average well-equipped soldier has a leather breastplate, leather cap and a shield. Even individual pieces of metal armor were valuable and rare items, made by near mythical smiths or handed down from ancient times.  Thus non-magical armor can cover head and body.  Non-metal armor is worth -1 AC per location, as is a shield. Metal armor (ringmail on up) is worth -2 AC per location. Therefore a soldier kitted out in standard leather body armor and leather (or open metal I guess) helmet with a shield has AC 6.  A well equipped Thane in mail with a closed helmet would have an AC of 4 with a shield.

Outside of the shield wall DEX bonuses apply, making a quick fighter very dangerous one on one.  In the shield wall high DEX has no defensive bonus due to the press of fighters.

This makes hitting people relatively easy, especially for strong fighters - except for when they are in a shield wall (see below).

Better armor exists - things like the heavy scale mail of capharacts, metal greaves, full chainmail panopoly or bronze vambraces. These incredibly rare items are magic armor and all provide a bit more protection up to AC 2.  To get a better AC than that requires blessings, magic or omens.  

Weapons are all the same - spear/sword/axe/mace - all do 1D6.  STR bonus applies as Strength is the main thing that makes a hero in these sagas (and cunning, but we don't model that with stats).

Fighter Advancement - Fighters are perhaps the most important class in the a Dark Age game, it's a
time ruled by warlords, and personally I'd limit magic greatly as the ancient arts of the classical days have fallen out of favor leaving only the petty knowledge of shamans, druid or warrior bards and the odd blessings of the new church.  Both of these kinds of magic tend to be protective or beneficial, but not directly aggressive.  I would eliminate things like fireball, and replace magic missile with an evil eye.  This is obviously a different discussion.  Most wizards have fighter abilities as well (use the elf advancement table) but lose the warlords ability to bind a large warband to personal loyalty.

Fighters advance normally* per OD&D but have the additional abilities as follows:

Strength bonuses give fighters a bonus to melee hit and damage as in B/X
At 5th level a fighter gains a 2nd attack per round
At 10th Level a fighter gains the ability to attack 3 times per round.

Fighters may recruit spearmen and veterans as follows:

Standard XP
May recruit
000 – 500
Rercuits = CHR bonus
500 -2,000
1+CHR bonus
2,000 – 4,000
2+CHR bonus
File Leader
4,000 – 8,000
9+CHR bonus
8,000 – 16,000
16 + CHR bonus x2 (May recruit veterans)
War Leader
16,000 – 32,000
25 + CHR bonus x3
32,000 – 64,000
36 + CHR bonus x10
64,000 – 120K
49 + CHR bonus x10
War Lord
120K – 240K
64 + CHR bonus x100
Saga Hero
240K – 480K
81 + CHR bonus x 100
Warrior King
480K – 1M
100 + CHR bonus x100

Men recruited are personally bound by oaths (often deemed magical) a gift of gold (usually a gold armband worth 100 - 1,000 sp/gp) and upkeep/land.  Note that even the greatest warrior can have a maximum of 400 men personally bound to him.  This doesn't mean nations or kings can't gather larger armies, but this is done through feudalism.

Men recruited by a figther may rise in level to 1/2 that of the fighter and recruit their own men, using standard rules for henchmen.

*XP should perhaps change to a feat based system - like a fighter becomes a veteran (0 level to 1st level) by doing 2 of the following (A - fighting shieldwall against shieldwall, B- Killing a foeman C- Killing a dangerous/mythical beast D- A season of raiding [cattle or viking] personally bringing back more than a warrior's price (100 sp/gp) in value).


Ritual Insults & Initiative -  Prior to the clash of shield walls the armies will need to get themselves worked up, which is usually accomplished by a ritual exchange of insults and provocations.  Intimidation in general takes the place of initiative, and the side that wins the display gets to attack first.

Rather than have players shout things at eachother the way I figure this is to have opposed charisma contest between the leaders of both sides.  Each side chooses a champion and they roll a D20 vs. Charisma applying whatever other modifiers (like magic or army size) to see who gets their men riled up first to fight.  The lowest score goes first and holds Initiative for the remainder of the fight.

 Battles between champions can take the place of an initiative check (though insults and intimidation play a role there as well), but given that Charisma also directly effects the number of soldiers a fighter can bring to battle, a high Charisma is very important for warriors.

Missile Weapons - Missile Weapons do play an important role in Viking combat, but generally don't seem to be especially useful against warriors in heavy armor.  Thrown spears and arrows wound, and distract, but it appears to take a lot of skill and multiple shooters to often do in a armored warriors.  They also appear more often in seiges and before the actual melee combat, a precursor to the real fight.

"While the Vindlanders were storming the castle, their king and his chiefs were out of the battle. At one place there was a man among the Vindlanders shooting with a bow, and killing a man for every arrow; and two men stood before him, and covered him with their shields. Then Saemund Husfreyja said to his son Asmund, that they should both shoot together at this bowman. "But I will shoot at the man who holds the shield before him." He did so, and he knocked the shield down a little before the man; and in the same instant Asmund shot between the shields, and the arrow hit the bowman in the forehead, so that it came out at his neck, and he fell down dead" - From the"Saga of Magnus the Blind and of Harald Gille"
As such I'd propose the following rules:  A readied shields grants a absolute protection from one missile attack per round +1 per level.  Thus firing arrows and throwing spears at a shield wall is a losing proposition, unless you outnumber the other side.  All other missile attacks are against AC 2 if the target has a ready shield.  Arrows and spears to normal damage (though thrown spears gain STR damage bonuses)

Shieldwalls - In open field warfare the only real tactic is the shieldwall, a six man (two rank) shieldwall covers a 10' square, and the first two ranks can attack if they choose.  Other tactics include wedges to break shieldwalls (before the wall wraps around and breaks the wedge from behind), or charging from the flank in a disorganized mob (which might work if the men on the flank can't individually fight off the attackers for the few rounds it'll take the wall to turn).

The key component of the simple wall formation is that each warrior in the wall can protect his fellows with the dense overlapping shields.  Warriors in a shield wall have a substat called "vigor" which is derived with the following formula and indicates moral, endurance and willingness to fight in the chaotic press of the wall.

VIGOR = STR/3 + Level + 1 per member of the shieldwall file beyond 2.

Example:  Olaf Axe Biter is a 2nd level champion with a 15 strength and he stands at the front of a file of 2 other zero level spearmen, Olaf has 15/3 (str) + 2 (for his level) + 1 (as there is a rank of spearmen behind the second pushing the wall forward) for a total of 8 vigor.  The poor thin wall of spears he faces is only two thick and made up of 0-level milita. The milita man opposite Olaf has a 9 Strength and so his vigor is 3+0 (level) +0(as he has no extra ranks behind him).   

Vigor represents not only endurance, but protection and each point of vigor may be used to completely ignore an attack that would hit.  The attack is presumed to have been deflected by a neighbor's shield. Yet when two shield walls meet it's a horrible place, densely packed, and extremely hard to act in, most men in the wall simply push on each other, trying to push through and open up space for the second rank to stab past them or to give them time to stab with a dagger or short-gripped spear.  When two shield walls meet vigor is also required to attack.  In these situations the rear line tends to use their vigor to attack while the front defends. A man with no vigor left cannot defend himself properly and may in fact be panicking, his only defense is the AC of his armor and shield (DEX bonus is useless in a shieldwall).

Recovering Vigor - Fighters recover vigor even within the wall.  A fighter regains vigor as follows.

Vigor recovered
1 per 2 rounds
1 per 2 rounds
1 per round
1 per round
2 per round
2 per round
3 per round
3 per round
4 per round
5 per round
'Cause Beardsley
Breaking Shieldwalls - A shield wall can break when a file of men is eliminated.  At this point the file that breaks the wall may pour through and begin attacking the men on either side of the wall from behind.  A wall is considered completely broken if it contains less than six men.

A wall can try to close a gap one of two ways A) rushing reinforcements to fight the breaching party back (this is why leaders and hero types are the best for breaking through a wall) or, if it has more files than the opposing wall, closing together.  Closing a wall is tricky and requires the wall to pass a moral check (made as the standard level of the wall members).

Attackers may flood through the hole in the wall, as long as they have more files then the broken wall at the rate of 1 file per round.  Once beyond the enemy shield wall, the attackers gain a free backstab attack against the rear rank of the in the broken wall.  In subsequent rounds the rear rank may turn and fight as individuals, though if the wall is thinner than two men this constitutes another break.  Hence when a large enough number of enemies has broken through behind a shield wall the carnage is terrible.  Men turning to fight will abandon the wall allowing the shield wall they face to attack without loss of vigor and without their own wall's protection, often at their turning backs. At this point flight is likely the individual defender's most frequent option, though surviving the pursuit fighting alone is not easy, it's preferable to being stabbed down from behind.

EXAMPLE: Olaf from the above example will break the wall of milita and earn himself fame.  With his 8 vigor he can afford to go on the attack, using 5 vigor to attack the man in front of him.  He misses he first swing, but the remaining four strike home.  The poor militia man he is fighting uses his 3 vigor to shrug off 3 of Olaf's successful attacks, but with the fourth Olaf smashes him down for 1D6+1 points of damage and kills the poor militaman.  A militaman remains in the back rank, but he can't maintain the wall as his file lacks a 3rd rank.  Olaf has used his turn, but the warrior behind him spears the second rank man (without losing any of his own vigor as the second militia man is not in the wall), and kills him.  Olaf has broken the enemy wall.  The militia had best send someone from their reserves to fight Olaf  and his two warriors or make a moral check to close up (presuming they have any extra men in a rear rank or extra file) or next round Olaf and his two men will begin massacring them from behind.

Flanking Walls - A wall is 10' square per six men, mean a 100' long wall takes 60 men.  On an open field it is wise to keep auxillaries, such as horsemen, light troops or militia on the flanks to avoid even a small number of enemies getting behind the wall, or to pick a spot with a narrow space for a fightin g front.  A wall may overlap another wall if it extends 20' (12 men minimum) beyond the enemy.  These men, 1 file at a time, may wrap around the enemy wall and start backstabbing the enemy. Obviously having even ten less men then the enemy requires good generalship, a fortress or narrow field of battle.

Shieldmen vs. Lone Champions Lone Champions can carve through a shield wall, any easily do in most AC 6 1D6 HP spear-men, but they fair poorly when surrounded and hacked down.

They returned to the attack; Illugi defended himself and Grettir courageously, but Grettir was unfit for fighting, partly from his wounds, partly from his illness. Angle then ordered them to bear Illugi down with their shields, saying he had never met with his like amongst older men than he. They did so, and pressed upon him with a wall of armour against which resistance was impossible. They took him prisoner and kept him. He had wounded most of those who were attacking him and killed three. - From The Saga of Grettir the Strong

The key here is that a gang of ten or so spearmen can kill even the toughest warrior.  This is partially due to the fact that even the best armored warrior (AC 2) will get hit about 15% of the time (18,19,20) by 0 level warrior (with blessings or magic I suppose this AC could be lower - but never below 0).  With an AC of 4 the average armored champion is taking a spear from 25% of attacks even in a face to face fight.  The element I'd emphasize (and the one that pushes aside high level fighters' stacks of HP) is flanking and backstabs.  I figure a warrior can face off against up to 3 opponents without getting flanked or surrounded, but any more than that and in an open field formation I'd say the fourth and fifth enemies are flanking him and any after that are making backstabs.  Flank attacks are at +2 hit for x2 damage, while backstabs are at +4 to hit for x4 damage (+ more if conducted by a thief). In addition when a warrior is facing an enemy from the front even the other two front facing enemies may give up a round to position themselves in backstab or flanking position, and as long as the enemy attacking from the front is still fighting they receive a backstab the next round.  Thus even if a hero is surrounded by four weak enemies, in the first round one will have the chance to flank him, while the next round the other two in front can move behind him and attack at +4 for quadruple damage, unless the warrior manages to kill the attacker holding his attention in front.  Obviously if surrounded the defender should find a wall or tree to stand against Cúchulainn style while the attackers would be wise having their best armored fellow fight in full defense (-4 AC - likely AC 2) while the rest sneak behind the hero and spear him in the spine.  With OD&D HP  Progressions even the greatest lord of war will only have 10D6+11 HP (+1 for level over 10 and +1 per level for his 18 CON), which will go down quickly to multiple 4D6 backstabs a round.

It's potentially worse for the hero if the attackers can form a shield wall - (it requires a minimum of six men to the smallest 10' shield wall).  Sure the wall's attacks won't be as effective, but they won't be losing vigor, except to block the hero's attacks and even 0-level soldiers will likely have 3 blocked attacks before the hero can strike effectively (though one blow from the hero against a level 0 AC 6 solider of the Fyrd is likely to kill and break the shield wall by reducing it's numbers below the minimum). Yet if the shieldwall is Level 1 Veterans they should be able to hold any defender with less than 2 attacks per round at bay indefinitely, with the front line regenerating 1 vigor ever other round and blocking, and all six spears attacking each round.


  1. Have you thought about treating groups of opposing mooks like a swarm even when not forming a shieldwall?

    1. As a single creature that loses attacks and HD? I don't know if that would work better, OD&D combat amongst 1HD groups is quick with most hits leading to death.

      I definately need open field cleave rules and likely "fleeing enemy" cleave rules. Also morale should play a huge factor with leadership, heroics and magic having a big effect on it.