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Author Topic: Icelandic Saga based campaign  (Read 21036 times)
Chris
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« on: April 28, 2003, 06:46:37 AM »

Know how to cut them, know how to read them,
Know how to stain them, know how to prove them,
Know how to evoke them, know how to score them,
Know how to send them; know how to send them.

I'm interested in any ideas or suggestions on creating a campaign based in historical/actual saga based midieval scandinavia.  This discussion began specifically about my attempts to create a workable magic system over at http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?p=64221#64221 but I think a larger discussion would be worthwhile.

I'm working on creating a world based in the actual sagas - Volsunga Saga, Njals Saga, Gisli Saga, etc.  I'm not interested in "big norse guys smash stuff, have magic helms and runes" vikings; besides, vikings were NOT an ethnicity, as being a viking was more a profession (or perhaps a passtime).

Questions I'm interested in: what system would you use for your Iceland campaign?  New, adapted?  And how would you balance "historical setting" v. "historically percieved setting" v. historical setting presented through literature," as well as the difference between the Islindingur Sagas (historical sagas, i.e. Njals Saga) and the Fornalda Sagas (legendary sagas, i.e. Volsunga Saga)?  I want to run Volsunga Saga and Njals saga at the same time, but I'm not sure if that's possible.

Thoughts on the Riddle of Steel system?  I've been reading alot about it and thinking of buying it and altering the magic, as the "gritty, violent, and quick death" combat system seems right for the sagas, but I haven't actually bought it yet.  Any thoughts?

I'm having a hard time finding a system that manages to have magic a common, every day element of life without the Fireball mage cropping up. Superstition, leaving out food for the fairies and hildafolk (elves), trolls, crazy seers from Lappland and Greenland, wards against the evil eye, runes of protection, ships dedicated to Thor, Christians wielding a crucifix as a weapon - all these should be nearly daily, without merely being cultural; they are real. When Egil Skallagrimson carved his runes to curse his enemy King Erik Blood-Axe, he didn't spent power-points, summon anything, and tap into ethereal forces of the unknown. How do you limit a magicians power while making magic present?

I began developing runes as an entirely seperate system, and have something that seems workable - runes are very labor intensive and difficult to 'obtain'; many know the futhark alphabet, few can harness the power of a few runes, and very few can carve complex bind-runes to create the swords that Sigurd and Sigfried caried. Characters have to obtain runes through ordeal and suffering (as did Odin, who hung upon the world tree for nine days and nights), and so only slowly learn more. I like the idea of sacrifice for magical power (I'm interested in Riddle of Steel's aging penalty), but a player can make sacrifices that no character might - few "real" people are willing to give up all human relations and comfort for the power of magic, but a player can shrug and say "sure, torture me and fill me with knowledge." But then I suppose any system can be screwed that isn't used as a collaboration between players and GM to create an enjoyable game.

I'm thinking of even just going for a diceless, Everway/Amber approach, modified to fit the setting - magic just IS, and the players and I can figure our what their players can do. Ah, my eternal conflict - I love the tables of Rolemaster, yet yearn for the freedom of Everway. I suppose my best games were when I ran Rolemaster virtually diceless. . .

Long opening, I know . . . sound off.  In a day or two I'll get my act together and provide a link to my notes, so people can have a better idea of what I'm thinking of.  [/url]
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James Holloway
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« Reply #1 on: April 28, 2003, 07:01:01 AM »

I'm not really sure that magic is everyday at all in the sagas. There are some which have a little more, but it's usually very low-key stuff (Thord gets a premonition that he's going to die, one of Gunnar's kids has a vision of his dead father). Magic in the "useful to player characters" sense is pretty limited.

Now, there are tons of magical elements (Killer-Hrapp comes back from the dead to kick ass, Thor delivers a shipment of second-rate whalemeat), but for the most part I don't think you should worry too much about characters being able to do magic.

Hell, you could take the UA approach and just say that so-and-so has a skill in foretelling the future. OtE does this kind of thing as well. Just say that Thangbrand has "a mighty fortress is our God" as a skill or similar, and you're off to the races.

Which, I guess, means that I come down on the fudge-it end of things. I don't think protagonists using magic is a common enough (or distinct enough) event in the sagas that it justifies its own separate system.

The only problem is if you want to have Volsungasaga-type stuff in there. I don't think that the Volsungasaga and the Islendingasogur go well together at all; they're very different types of stories. Some Icelandic sagas (Egil's Saga) veer a little bit in this high-powered direction, but there's still not as much monster ass-kicking.

I'd be wary of dragging Edda material into this as well: I can't think of a precedent in the sagas (though I could be wrong) for characters suffering to learn magic -- Egil suffered in exchange(?) for his gift of poetry, which was far more important to him.
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Chris
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« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2003, 09:10:03 AM »

Yeah, I'm worried about falling into the "kitchen sink" trap - I spent many an hour as an undergrad trying to make the Norse mythos make sense, to weave it into some coherant whole, but to no avail (Have you ever TRIED to draw a map of the cosmos as described in the Eddas?)

I think the only reason I haven't given up entirely on character's using actual "magic" is I have this player who keeps begging and begging . . . but you're right.  The fact is that I can't think of a single "magical" saga hero - Njal had precongnisent dreams, characters were fated and cursed, but even outside of the primary heroes there is very little magic apart from seers and curses.  One of the few passages I can find that refers to what might be D&D fireball style magic is an obscure passage where King Hrolf is fighting the Lappish king, and "then the enchantments rained down so fiercely that many hundreds perished."  And since I don't exactly want that power to be in the hands of my characters anyway, perhaps just the "magic is an unknown force that usually scares the shaggy-breaches off you" approach would be best.

I'm currently thinking two campaigns - a Fornaldasaga campaign (for the dragon slaying, the dwarves, and the helms of terror), and and Islindigursaga campaign (I'm trying to embroil the characters loosing the war resisting King Harold Fair-Hairs conquest of Norway).  I'm pondering having the second consists of characters decended from those from the first, but we'll see . . .
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greyorm
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« Reply #3 on: April 28, 2003, 09:18:33 AM »

EDIT: cross-posted with Chris, above

James, note that Chris is also trying for a historical-style game, not merely one based on the myths and legends of the aforementioned texts. As such, magic and such is common, because everyone (and I mean everyone) knows it and does it.

It's like driving a car or using a computer today: its reality is unquestioned, of course it works, because it is supposed to. Ghosts and spirits and dopplegangers abound, 'ware being hexed, and know that the gods and valkyries are watching your battles and wandering the world -- tonight's visitor might be Odin himself.

These aren't things a rational man would question, unless rational men of our age question driving cars or using computers. And just as with that, there are various levels of proficiency: the priests and skjalds and others can work "magic" more easily than the common man does -- they know more secrets than the common man does.

Finally, the things that priests and magicians know are actually very limited. You can only do certain things with your magic, as a modern person can only do certain things with their car or computer: travel to the otherworlds, create bind-runes, shapeshift, invoke the gods.

Unfortunately, I don't have any answers for this question myself; I've long been looking for a system of realistic medieval/ancient magic in a game that doesn't fall prey to standard gamer conventions like requirements of "energy" or "knowledge," since neither accurately capture the idea of the peasant or commoner's worldview and practices.

ADD: so do you want a historical or a saga-based campaign, Chris? These two things are going to have seriously different requirements.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
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John Kim
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« Reply #4 on: April 28, 2003, 11:31:57 AM »

Quote from: Chris
I'm thinking of even just going for a diceless, Everway/Amber approach, modified to fit the setting - magic just IS, and the players and I can figure our what their players can do. Ah, my eternal conflict - I love the tables of Rolemaster, yet yearn for the freedom of Everway. I suppose my best games were when I ran Rolemaster virtually diceless. . ..

For comparison, I am running my campaign using a modified version of RuneQuest.  Overall, it is working pretty well.  There are a few things that I have changed about the system:
    [*] I discarded the notion of occupation, which is essentially an anachronism.  In a rural society like this, everyone is a farmer, and all men are warriors, and everyone has a craft.  There are no professional specialists.  Luckily this is pretty easy to remove from RQ, by just having players distribute skill points.  It would be harder with Rolemaster.  
    [*] I have added in an abstract Wealth system.  This is very important, since there is essentially no coinage used.  Wealth is primarily in land, livestock, and thralls.  Right now it is just a scale of what you can afford.  I need to add in some idea of how to estimate how you rise and fall in wealth.
    [*] I simplified rolls some.  Instead of a 20% special and 5% critical, I made 10% of all rolls criticals (slighly modified).  This is judged by if you roll doubles (11,22,33,...).  I also discarded strike ranks and instead just go around the table for everyone to do their actions.  
    [*] We are using Whimsy Cards (or Wyrd Cards as we are calling them) in play.  Each player gets three cards at the start of each session, which is their limit.  [/list:u]

    Essentially, it mostly turns out the way you say -- mostly diceless.  We have occaisional skill rolls, and combat is dice-using, but there is certainly no rulebook consulting or any such.  I have a few quibbles with combat even with my modifications, but I certainly wouldn't want to replace it with Amber-style combat.  Historical saga combat should have a random feel, IMO, of hacked limbs and giving oneself over to fate.  RQ is very visceral, and overall I like it.
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    - John
    Chris
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    « Reply #5 on: April 28, 2003, 12:59:37 PM »

    First the historical/legendary question . . .  I actually see it as tri-part division:

    1) Historical - what the history books tell you happened.  Real men living on real Iceland, with a bunch of superstitions that are all equally untrue.  

    2)Historical Literary - the world as presented in the Islindingursagas.  Based on real men and real fueds, but curses were REAL magic, runes had REAL effects, Lapps REALLY went on spirit-journeys, Grettir REALLY battled undead giants.

    3)Legendary - the world as presented in the Fornaldursagas.  Sigurd rescues Brynhilda from within the flames, Odin sways the corse of battles, Sigfried slays the dragon Fapnir, men turn in to bears.  

    I had started thinking I would do Legendary AND Historical Literary, but all they have in common is a touch of the fantastic.  I'm thinking of focusing on the Historical Literary, but any ideas are wanted.

    Second, I must find a copy of RuneQuest, as it is mentioned again and again.  

    Quote
    I discarded the notion of occupation, which is essentially an anachronism. In a rural society like this, everyone is a farmer, and all men are warriors, and everyone has a craft. There are no professional specialists.
     

    When I first started on the idea for the campaign, I thought I would use a heavily modified d20 system (all my games are in storage, and I could download it for FREE), so I made a list of "professions," started coming up with class skills . . . and realized that every single one was a modified warrior.  So instead I made a point-based, "Create Your Own d20 Class" idea, which I still think is interesting, but I'm begining to remember why I could never stomach D&D even in seventh grade.

    One worry a friend had was "but then everyone is a warror!"  Well. . .yes.  Its the sagas.  The poets were warriors, the sailors were warriors, and the farmers were warriors.  What made one different from the other?  Personality, charactor . . . *gasp* but in role-playing?

    Quote
    I have added in an abstract Wealth system. This is very important, since there is essentially no coinage used. Wealth is primarily in land, livestock, and thralls. Right now it is just a scale of what you can afford.


    I like it, and would be interested in any details you'd be willing to share.  I've been envisioning something like that - I like the "equip your character" rules in Sorcerer - your character starts with anything that would make sense for them to have.  It doesn't matter if the characters are wealthy or not (unless you want the camapaign to be based on characters with little resources and hey, what the GM says . . .) if getting a huge mound of treasure at the end of the day isn't the point (I was always highly amused by the D&D 'treasure' tables . . .  'I kill a wolf and find he's swollowed two gold coins!)

    Okay, I've been overdosing on this message board.  I have to stop, collect my thoughts, and get some of my write ups on-line for anyone who would be kind enough to read them.
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    Paul Czege
    Acts of Evil Playtesters
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    « Reply #6 on: April 28, 2003, 01:07:06 PM »

    Hey Chris,

    Okay, I've been overdosing on this message board. I have to stop, collect my thoughts, and get some of my write ups on-line for anyone who would be kind enough to read them.

    Before you do that, send a private message to Scott Knipe (who posts here as Hardcoremoose) and ask him for the pdf of his game WYRD.

    Paul
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    My Life with Master knows codependence.
    And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans
    Chris
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    « Reply #7 on: April 28, 2003, 01:33:21 PM »

    Oh, and how is RuneQuest for keeping combat brutal?  I like what I hear about Riddle of Steel, because I want combat to be quick, dangerous, and deadly.  When Gunnar is defending himself in Njals saga, he strikes at Asbrand, and "the halberd went right through his shield and between the upper arm and foreorm.  Gunnar then twisted the halberd so violently that the shield split and both Asbrand's arm-bones were shattered; and he, too, toppled from the wall."  One lunge, one death - no hit die, no chiping away at life.
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    Ron Edwards
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    « Reply #8 on: April 28, 2003, 01:37:25 PM »

    Hi Chris,

    RuneQuest invented brutal RPG combat. Its nickname back in the early 80s was "LimbQuest" because characters were all running around trying to get their chopped-off limbs healed back on.

    There's more lineage here than you might be seeing. Pendragon's system is a derived form of RuneQuest; Legend of the 5 Rings is strongly influenced by Pendragon; The Riddle of Steel is strongly influenced by both L5R and Pendragon.

    Best,
    Ron
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #9 on: April 28, 2003, 04:42:38 PM »

    Quote from: Chris
      I had started thinking I would do Legendary AND Historical Literary, but all they have in common is a touch of the fantastic.  I'm thinking of focusing on the Historical Literary, but any ideas are wanted.

    Second, I must find a copy of RuneQuest, as it is mentioned again and again.  

    I would recommend it.  More important than the basic rules, though, is the Vikings Campaign set for RQ3, which is good.  My campaign is solidly in the Historical Literary: it takes after sagas like the Laxdaela saga.  One important thing to note is that these sagas also involve more aspects of life: so events like marriage and child-raising are a part of them.  The Laxdaela saga is largely about a woman who had four husbands.  

    This is an important difference from a campaign which is primarily about raids and wars.  Much of my campaign is gossiping, diplomacy, and so forth.  Marriage and legal suites have played important roles in the game.  

    Quote from: Chris
    (Re: Wealth) I like it, and would be interested in any details you'd be willing to share.  I've been envisioning something like that - I like the "equip your character" rules in Sorcerer - your character starts with anything that would make sense for them to have.  It doesn't matter if the characters are wealthy or not

    OK.  My rules currently are just a ranking of different wealth levels.  Wealth level is rated 0 (Thrall) to 10 (King).  A sample entry is:

    4 : Common
    A common farmer, with a modest longhouse, a few (2 to 4) thralls, and around 6 milk-cows worth of various livestock. Alternatively, a non-landowner with means, such as a master craftsman or reknowned huscarl. Equipment: a sword, shield, metal cap, and leather armor for fighting. A pair of horses and a simple fishing boat for travel.

    I also have some equipment listings with each item given a rating in wealth level.  If you are that wealth level or above, you have that item.  You can see the full thing at:

    http://www.darkshire.org/~jhkim/rpg/vinland/rules/wealth.html
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    - John
    James Holloway
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    « Reply #10 on: April 28, 2003, 11:17:33 PM »

    Quote from: greyorm
    EDIT: cross-posted with Chris, above

    James, note that Chris is also trying for a historical-style game, not merely one based on the myths and legends of the aforementioned texts. As such, magic and such is common, because everyone (and I mean everyone) knows it and does it.


    Well, without getting into a debate about what constitutes "historical" (our knowledge of what historical Icelanders did and believed in terms of magic and religion could barely be dignified with the term "sketchy" -- remember that the sagas are written hundreds of years after the period in which they're set) I'm going with what Chris said about basing his campaign on the sagas, in which, as I've pointed out, magic is not really common. Personal belief in religion may exist (it's not really mentioned outside of characters like Thangbrand to whom it's really important), but most characters go their whole lives without it mattering. Do you think that because the characters think this thing is real and important, there should be a system so that the players think it's real and important?

    The only place I can see this mattering is in conversion narratives, which are an important part of the sagas. Again, though, I don't see that this needs to be represented by a system element (but I'm a very "fudge it" kind of GM, so you might not want to trust me here). If you liked, you could have some kind of system incentive for becoming Christian, but I'd generally present this as an in-game incentive ("Hey, if we become Christians the King of Norway will give us lots of presents!"). Cynical James tends to think that's how it worked in history anyway...

    Note that the Icelandic sagas aren't "myths and legends." They're novels, possibly the first novels.
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    RiP
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    « Reply #11 on: April 29, 2003, 05:20:54 AM »

    Hi to all,
    I've played an Icelandic Saga ten yers ago with a homebrewed game system.
    One of my PC played a Runic Shaman. I designed for him a special magic system based on the old futhark. And it works really good. I took the basic idea  of this system on on old (but still played) one. A german RPG: Die Schawrze Auge (The Black Eye ?).
    This is a freeform magic system that allows the player to create his own spells by combining three runes.
    At the beginning a runic shaman knows a few rune and during the campaign quests for more runic knowledge.
    Best regards,
    piR
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    Pradal Pierre
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    Chris
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    « Reply #12 on: April 30, 2003, 06:21:30 AM »

    Quote
    And it works really good. I took the basic idea of this system on on old (but still played) one. A german RPG: Die Schawrze Auge (The Black Eye ?). This is a freeform magic system that allows the player to create his own spells by combining three runes. At the beginning a runic shaman knows a few rune and during the campaign quests for more runic knowledge.


    RiP, if you have any more info on this (is there anywhere I can find this in english, summerized on-line somewhere, etc.), that would be great.  It seems somewhat to what I've been thinking about - players would begin the game knowing few runes, gain more through the story and experience (having so under go some trial or ritual to gain them), and could make spells thought the use of "bind-runes," the number of runes used limited to the characters development.  I am tentatively making simple rune casting error free, and bind runes always succeeding but with somewhat unpredictable success, due to their comlexity (% of stated intent or something). The only "limitations" would be the extremely labor intensity (carving onto steel), the social stigma often associated with anything magical (even in pagan societies those with otherworldy powers were, if not anathama, at least held highly suspect), thus making daily rune-carving highly impractacle.

    I've been discussing this under the strain/exaustion thread, and had the following quesiton:

    Quote
    My only problem with this is - if someone can carve a rune onto my sword to make it more damaging in battle (+1, or whatever your system is), why didn't anyone just set up a magic sword shop and crank out runed items all day? Sure, people would seek out a wise man and have him bless or inscribe something, by there isn't anyone riding around with a magic sword, helm, cloak, saddle, horn, loin-cloth, soup-bowl, et cetera. I guess this is what started me thinking along the lines of strain/exhaustion, as then you CAN'T keep it up forever. . .


    And as I said there, I was going to link to my ideas on runes, but my file is corrupted, and I don't have the time to fix it right now.  So y'all can keep talking without really having any idea what I'm talking about.
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    John Kim
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    « Reply #13 on: April 30, 2003, 09:22:14 AM »

    Quote from: Chris
      My only problem with this is - if someone can carve a rune onto my sword to make it more damaging in battle (+1, or whatever your system is), why didn't anyone just set up a magic sword shop and crank out runed items all day?  Sure, people would seek out a wise man and have him bless or inscribe something, by there isn't anyone riding around with a magic sword, helm, cloak, saddle, horn, loin-cloth, soup-bowl, et cetera.  I guess this is what started me thinking along the lines of strain/exhaustion, as then you CAN'T keep it up forever.  

    As far as I know, they did.  Historically, it was extremely common for swords, shields, ships, and houses to have runic blessings inscribed on them -- this is confirmed by archeology.  Some people's immediate reaction is "but that's not magic -- that's just carving a rune on something for good luck"...  but of course, "good luck" is exactly what magic is for most people.  In most systems, a minor +1 bonus seems like a reasonable representation of good luck.  

    Two things to note: you should distinguish between mortal magic and legendary magic.  Swords which cleave through rock and so forth simply aren't possible for ordinary mortals.  Anyone who can create these effects is truly singular or divine -- and you probably shouldn't worry too much about balancing their effects.  Mortal magic is generally quite subtle and is primarily about information or subtle bonuses.  

    Second, as a general principle, making something rare or costly is not a substitute for disallowing it.  Chances are that there is a PC willing to pay the cost... and the result is magic of a sort you don't like showing up.  If you don't want an effect showing up in your campaign at will, then don't give it as a power to PCs.
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    - John
    Chris
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    « Reply #14 on: April 30, 2003, 09:37:17 AM »

    Quote
    As far as I know, they did. Historically, it was extremely common for swords, shields, ships, and houses to have runic blessings inscribed on them -- this is confirmed by archeology. Some people's immediate reaction is "but that's not magic -- that's just carving a rune on something for good luck"... but of course, "good luck" is exactly what magic is for most people. In most systems, a minor +1 bonus seems like a reasonable representation of good luck.


    This is the sort of talk I need - common sense.  I'm still too much "in the box" when it comes to RPGs, and it keeps overshadowing what I know about the sagas.  "Good Luck," everyday items IS what I want in my game - when I think about it, I do want most swords to be inscribed, dedicated to Odin, and for that to be integrated into the game play.  I think I need to trust myself, my players, and the setting a little more.  Would it REALLY be so bad if EVERy character could could carve runes onto their sword and have it effect the game?  No, thats what I'd love.  It might take a while - on a journey from Tronheim to Upsala a character could settle down by the fire to carve another rune into their blade, and after three weeks of travel it could be complete.  I'm actually interested in WYRM's idea of Tragic and Heroic happenstance in regards to magic items (trappings), and am starting to think along those lines . . .
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