Sagas of the Icelanders: AP and Questions

I have recently completed a short campaign of Sagas of the Icelanders. I wrote a tiny bit about this, in question form, over here earlier (our early sessions had a couple of duels, so that was the topic I was asking about - something the game doesn’t give you much guidance on):

(I know @AviatrixCat was interested in the discussion, so I’ll tag her here just in case she wants to follow along.)

We played online, in short sessions of an hour to two and a half hours, and played over the course of about a dozen sessions.

At the beginning of the game, some of the players expressed concern over the lack of overt conflict in our setup (there were simmering tensions but no clear danger). I think they worried that nothing interesting would happen, and some of the playbooks reinforced this idea (following the advice in the book, we picked The Man - using @AviatrixCat’s alternative playbook - and the Woman as our focal characters, and the playbooks pinpoint their issues as primarily domestic).

I’m not exactly sure why the players felt this way, as we’re not averse to slice-of-life gaming, but, in any case, this turned out to be a vain fear. As you will see, our game, in the end did not lack in conflict - quite the contrary!

We played in a highly collaborative style, and all contributed details and scenes to the developing fiction. I was the MC, but I regularly relegated MC duties to other players when it seemed appropriate (and, on a few occasions, even played “my character” while someone else MCed).

To flesh out the relationship map (and as a way to familiarize myself with the rules), I used all the basic playbooks to create NPCs. This inspired a variety of interesting characters, and served me really well in a genre and setting I was entirely unaware of before playing. I think we all ended up doing some real research and learning a lot about the Sagas and medieval Iceland. Fascinating stuff! I highly encourage anyone who wants to read up on this truly unique time and place in history.

Our game escalated very nicely from its demure beginnings to turn into a bloody and horrible saga worth telling. Here’s an excerpt from a scene Hildrig (the Woman) found herself in: she was kidnapped by Brother Caolan, a Christian monk who had been the sole survivor of a shipwreck, and taken to Haki’s homestead in the middle of the night. I had to type this up to present her with her choices before our penultimate session, so I’ll share it with you here: it will give you an idea of where our game ended up.

Hildrig takes another step forward, unsure. Behind her lies the circle of standing stones, casting long flickering shadows as the light of the burning house tinges their black stone faces.

Short trees, their backs bent by decades of biting wind, form a wall around the stones. Within the circle, the wind cannot be felt, the roar of the fire seems to fade into the distance, and time itself seems to stand still.

The ground is covered in blood; here lies one of Haki’s men, torn apart. There lies the dark and beautiful thrall-girl, Anessa, her lungs torn out of her own rib cage and spread around her body in a gruesome imitation of an eagle’s wings. Where Hilgrid thinks Fjalla’s grave may have been, the ground is torn and thrown about.

The gentle cries of the baby on the black stone slab at the centre of it all breaks the uncertain silence. Brother Caolan, shaking, trying to keep himself from vomiting, steps forward and gently picks up the babe. He does not know that this is Haki’s surviving heir, but he can sense the importance of the child keenly, and his hands cradle it like the precious and fragile soul he knows it to be. Did they really intend to sacrifice this child this night? To what end? What kind of place is this, that people are capable of such cruelty?

In front of Hildrig, a wild path of disturbed snow and blood heads into the darkness, away from the Hildigunarsson homestead. If Brynjolf is anywhere to be found, it must be at the end of this path.

What followed was a truly dark and tragic finale, with few survivors.

A lifelong grudge held by one woman against another turned out to have been the driving force behind all these tragic events, and, in the end, she watched her rival kill her own son (a young boy) in self-defense.

I can share more details about the fiction and the story; if anyone is curious, please ask away! Meanwhile, I’ll be back with some questions about the rules.

In no particular order:

  • We didn’t engage too hard with the advancement mechanics, as most characters did not get a chance to interact mechanically with all four of their Relationships. Hildrig was the only one who, at the very end of the game, “looked into” Vigdis’s “heart”, and thereby earned an advancement. I very much like the idea of marking all four relationships as a tool for character agenda and scene framing, however, and wonder if we could have made more of this. Ultimately, as we played, the relationships we had written down at the beginning were not necessarily the most interesting ones to us a few sessions later, so marking all four only happened in a single instance.

  • Perhaps this is a fault of our group’s, but we had trouble with the temporal scope of the game. All of our dozen-or-so sessions concerned the action of a few days’ time, from Magnus’s return to his home to the bloody finale of the raid on Haki’s homestead and the slaughter of Magnus’s surviving family by the little foster boy, Smari.

It is hard for me to imagine drawing out the timeline so as to engage with the mechanics for the passing seasons and more long-term play. I suppose we’re used to pushing our conflicts hard! As a result, we never saw any of the “passing seasons” mechanics in play at all. Does anyone have advice on how to handle this better, or whether it’s something the game needs? We were all very happy with how the narrative turned out, so I’m not sure we would have wanted to change anything in this instance, but I’d like to get better at running more temporally distant scenes and stories. It feels like I skill I haven’t quite figured out; instead, our immediate conflicts tend to snowball so nicely and immediately that skipping far ahead usually seems fairly implausible (how to you skip ahead to the winter when two characters are standing with their seax knives at each other’s throats?).

  • Generally speaking, although we really enjoyed the game, the characters, and the narrative, we didn’t engage with the game mechanically as much as I’m used to in PbtA play. There were many, many moves we never used at all, and I think one main character might only have rolled the dice at all two or three times during a dozen sessions.

We often struggled to find places for the moves, and most of our scenes didn’t involve any of the moves at all.

More on this here (copied from the other thread):

Given how focused the gendered moves are on male-on-male violence and female-on-male manipulation, do you have any advice on handling and resolving non-violent conflicts between male characters and conflicts of any sort between female characters? We struggled with this.

There were a lot of important and meaningful interactions which could have used some mechanical teeth but didn’t fit into any existing moves (e.g. one woman trying to manipulate or intimidate another).

Similarly, the format of gendered moves often put us into ambiguous situations that didn’t have clear answers: for instance, we had a woman masquerading as a man, and several underaged characters (children). It was often unclear what moves they had access to or recourse to. Often, this wasn’t a huge challenge (e.g. can a woman play on the honour of a young boy? Depends how he feels about it, I suppose), but sometimes it felt difficult, particularly in the case of Skeggi, our cross-dressing swordmaiden warrior.

  • In a similar sense, I notice that the game has a number of places where it seems to expect us to engage with and lean on a highly focused “economy of Bonds” between significant characters. However, this didn’t really happen in our game, perhaps because we had so many important NPCs - but I understand that having a large, extensive relationship map is pretty typical for this game.

It wasn’t very clear whether you could gain Bonds with someone you didn’t have a Relationship with, and, if you did, whether that created a new Relationship or not. In any case, it never became a meaningful situation in our game, and, aside from “looking into someone’s heart”, Bonds rarely came into play. I wonder if this is something that we could have played differently, and, if so, how.

I look forward to your feedback, questions, and advice (in any combination)!

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In the meantime, we’re are starting to analyze and consider the events of our game and finding them quite rich. We ended up with interesting characters with a lot of emotional depth and some hard-hitting drama. It’s a bit of a funny contrast for me: the fictional material was rich and powerful even while we struggled a lot with the rules. The retrospective of the developing story is, in many ways, smoother than the actual play-through of the game, which forced us to negotiate and improvise a fair bit more than we’re used to.

Here’s a touch of my thoughts on the game; I’ll be back with other commentary from my fellow players, once I have their permission to share.

I think it’s fascinating how Hildrig’s story turned out to be not unlike the tale of Madame Bovary : a woman struggling with her sense of power and obligation and experimenting with her own freedom. Even though the overt/obvious frame of action for this story came from Magnus and his plan to destroy his rival, Haki, I think the true heart of the story was the women’s story: the conflict between Vigdis and Hildrig, which we only discovered at the end stemmed from a long-ago love triangle. I personally consider Hildrig to be the main, viewpoint character in this story: if this were to be made into a movie or a book, it would be told mainly from her perspective, I think.

Vigdis, an outright villain, turned out to be sympathetic in some respects, her tortured and difficult past serving as just motivation for her schemes; a neat contrast to Hildrig’s tale of (relatively) innocent and carefree, privileged living which ended in tragedy when she finally chose to exercise her freedom.

Although it was a struggle sometimes procedurally, I think we churned out a truly epic Icelandic Saga. I enjoy imagining the draugr stalking the night around the burnt remains of the Bjornsson and Hildigunarsson households, and perhaps frolicking with the ghosts of all those unrightfully slaughtered that night. (A night the survivors will never forget!)

Hildrig’s life as she knew it is in tatters, now caring for Haki’s child - certainly not an outcome she would have ever expected, I think! - and cared for by the unlikely but equally smitten duo of Brynjolf and Caolan, two very different men who may yet end up killing each other in the long run as they vie for Hildrig’s affections.

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