Sagas for the Icelanders: Dueling

I’m running Sagas of the Icelanders for the first time. It’s a fascinating game, and my first introduction to the Sagas as well as the incredible history of Iceland. A lot to learn!

I have a question for people experienced with the game:

Given how large a role duels played in Icelandic/Norse/Viking culture, they are likely to become a focus of play in any Sagas game.

However, handling them by the rules is not an entirely obvious matter. First of all, there are the subtleties of the legalistic mindset of the Icelanders (in stark contrast to the violent anarchy that sometimes pervaded their lives, at the same time), and, second, the question of how to handle their resolution at the table. So, both the rules of the Icelandic fictional people and the rules of the players at the table must be negotiated.

Some questions:

  • Do you distinguish between informal duels and the “holmgang” or “holmganga”?
  • Under what rules does dueling operate in your game, within the fiction/setting? Do they vary from duel to duel, or are they somewhat standard?
  • How do you use the game’s rules to resolve the duels?

There is some room to determine PC vs. NPC duels (most likely some combination of “accept a physical challenge” and “endure grave harm”), and some optional additional considerations in an optional bit of rules about weapons and armour. Does the MC/GM choose the moves accordingly, to colour the situation (e.g. the danger level of the duel), or bring them in at different times, or do you have a standard method?

More of a challenge is handling a PC vs. PC duel. What is your approach for those?

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PVP in Sagas is really, really overlooked which is…very odd given the subject matter. Basically you need to have some experience in other PBTA games to figure it out, as I learned to my chagrin in my first Sagas campaign. (FWIW, Vincent had good advice for handling PVP in Apocalypse World 2nd Ed.)

I generally ran duels as some combination of Tempt Fate/Accept a Challenge, maybe leaning harder on the first, and I sometimes pulled out the battle rules in the appendix (the ones that handle armor). If it felt right, I would zoom all the way in, given that people could break three shields during the duel before it was over. But for the most part you’re gonna end up winging it, so I’d try to drill down and get as much fictional detail as possible. Is the opponent big and strong with a long spear that requires Tempt Fate to even get close? Weasely and sneaky? Completely fearless? That sort of thing. Also, bonds will probably tip the fight one way or the other, so you should make the players aware of that–but also you’ll need to think about how much people outside the duel can contribute bonds, if at all.

I might be able to think of some specific duels, or you can pitch me some questions I guess.

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Thanks, Cat!

I’m glad to hear from you here. I can see a dramatic zooming in being a solution for some of these issues, but it’s still challenging and a little bit fraught. (And it doesn’t help that some of the moves - like spending Bonds! - aren’t clear in terms of how they apply to NPCs.)

We haven’t had a PC-PC duel yet, so we haven’t had to worry about that yet, but it may come up soon and we’d like to have a plan. Zooming in on the blow-by-blow can solve some of these issues, but also make the duels somewhat subject to framing concerns (e.g. who does the GM ask to announce what they’re doing first? Who rolls when such-and-such happens?). Taking it in turns informally may be necessary just to clarify who is rolling and when. The ambiguities of other rules (like failing an “endure great harm”) don’t help, either.

One of the issues with tempting fate and accepting a physical challenge is that many characters will have pretty lopsided ratings in the relevant stats, which makes the decision between the two moves potentially rather important!

In the one duel we had, things were settled in part by intervention: a small boy threw a knife into the back of one of the combatants’ knees, and no one watching had any stake in drawing attention to the fact. In the end, the winner (a woman disguised as a man, and a berserker) spared the losing chieftain’s life (when she spotted the knife in his lef!), claiming that he owes her the three marks for submitting to defeat, and stormed off. She will deal with the child later, I suspect.

The duel was brutal enough that we resolved it simply by having both participants roll to endure great harm, and the outcome was clear enough (she’s hurt and potentially mortally wounded; he’s dying).

How do you distinguish between a formal duel and an informal one? Is it just up to the participants to negotiate, or are there other rules of thumb? Do you always use the three shields rule, and always allow the participants the option to splinter a shield (as implied by the armour rules) to avoid harm?

We’re also very much wondering what the conditions are for spending Bonds… that isn’t terribly clear in the text, unless I’ve missed something. How do you approach this? The tip on considering how many Bonds they have on each other is a good one, and something we hadn’t thought of! Giving someone a gift and then dueling them becomes an interesting thing to do, which is quite thought-provoking…

I’d love to discuss “best practices” for a lot of these unclear corner cases!

If you - or any other reader - can remember a particular duel (especially one between PCs!) from an actual game and describe it in as much detail as you can manage, that would be an incredibly helpful thing for me as well as anyone else running Sagas. That would be incredibly welcome!