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?


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.


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!

I have an additional question about Sagas of the Icelanders for friendly readers. I thought about starting a new thread, but finally decided that adding it here might draw more attention from people already interested in Sagas, or experienced with the game.

Here’s the question:

It seems to me that the gendered moves have an odd side effect; you see, most of the female moves are moves that are used on men, and most of the male moves are used on men. As a result, there is very little mechanical backing for anyone who is looking to interact with female characters.

Men’s situation is fairly clear: if you’re dealing with another man, your options are to insult him or to attempt violence.

Unless Bonds are in play (which is no guarantee, since it’s only for existing Relationships), women dealing with each other (this came up in our game) basically have no mechanical recourse at all to influence each other. (Even the “reading” move is either something you have to take - “Scrutinizing Eye” - or something you have to expend Bonds for.)

In theory, a male character could use “reading the situation” in his interactions with women, although that might be stretching things a bit. A female character could, in theory, “talk sense” to other women, but this move is more than a little unclear when it comes to dealing with NPCs (I tried to apply it, as the GM, but its use is not always obvious when it comes to NPCs).

What’s your take on this? How did it play out in your game? What would you advise for players new to the game?

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Upon request, I have started a new thread for this question, along with some more discussion of our game:

I’ll leave this topic for discussions of dueling, which is still fairly mysterious (particularly when between two PCs or two NPCs; a PC dueling with an NPC can usually be handled without too much difficulty with the available moves). Perhaps someone else will chime in! I’d love to hear how people have been doing this.

What did we do?

We didn’t have any more duels after those early sessions, although we had several violent encounters.

We often found ourselves simply assigning “endure great harm” rolls to settle situations in play. We occasionally even did so for NPCs (!), giving them roughly appropriate stats. Two people duel each other? Both roll to “endure great harm”, and the result colours our narration of the duel. This worked well, because it was possible for both to die or neither to get hurt. The duel between Skeggi and Haki ended with Haki dead and Skeggi mortally wounded, for example. (Although that detail turned out to be rather cosmetic, as Skeggi was likely eaten by a draugr in the final scene - no one actually stayed to watch it happen, but that’s what the legend will recount after the fact.)

In a nighttime raid/battle scene, I instructed the leader (the Man, leading the raid) to pick two of the three people involved in the scene (himself, his brother, and his son) to endure grave harm, and we were all quite happy with that. It worked at the time, but I’m not sure I would recommend any general use of that particular technique.

Dueling remains a fairly difficult topic in Sagas, it seems.

However, our game was quite successful despite that - you’ll find more info in the link, above.

The last time we had a holmganga in a Sagas game, I ran it this way:

  • Both sides roll to Accept a Physical Challenge at the same time.
  • Winning the challenge is defined as shattering the opponent’s shield. They each have 3 shields.
  • A 6- result basically just made them Tempt Fate or suffer grave harm, but there was often narrative choices in there too.

Now here’s the kicker and where Sagas really sings: bystanders could spend their bonds after the rolls for either side if they have them. “Father look out!” might turn a 6 into a 7, or loudly insulting a man’s wife might drop his 11 to a 9. Having PCs bidding on outcomes is so amazing here.


That’s really great, Aaron! Seems like a good way to handle that.

We didn’t have any more formal duels in our game, although there was lots of death and murder. We tended to handle that by having both sides roll to “endure grave harm” when they fought, and usually this produced something interesting. I like your approach here!

Unfortunately, we never managed to get the Bond economy into play - there was some use of Bonds to “see into someone’s heart”, but I don’t think anyone ever spent Bonds to influence other peoples’ rolls. I would have liked to see that in progress, but it rarely seemed relevant (the few times where someone wanted to do so, they had already spent that Bond). I’d very much like to see that sometime, but limiting Bonds to four starting Relationships seemed to limit us fairly dramatically.

Bonds aren’t limited to the starting relationships. Whenever you give a gift, you gain a bond. It’s up to the grantee if what you gave them was a gift.

Plus there’s playbook moves to gain more bonds.

Yes. We had a couple of non-Relationship Bonds pop up, but I guess we never hit the point where it made a big difference. Part of it is that the Relationships we chose at the beginning didn’t end up being the most important Relationships for those characters in actual play (they mattered a lot to the characters, but story logic took them largely out of the running - for example, the Man and the Woman were both obviously each other’s Relationships, but the wife ran off with another man and they were separated from most of the game), and part of it is that we didn’t refresh the Bonds quite as often as we should have (we often forgot), which would have help a little bit, too.