Sunday, April 7, 2019

Mechanics for a Viking Campaign

I've decided that my Viking Campaign (better name tbd) will be set in the same world as the Meager Country. The setting was originally inspired by Ahmad ibn Fadlan's account of his chance encounter with a group of Rus merchants on the Volga river. It's unknown if these merchants were actually from Scandinavia, but I think it's natural to approach the setting from the perspective of the other group involved in Fadlan's encounter. Naturally, there will be more places to explore than the Meager Country proper, and that part of the world will seem a lot less meager when approached from the north rather than the south.

Something very like the Viking age is going on in a place not quite unlike early medieval Scandinavia a few dozen years before any Besharan diplomat would step foot in the Meager Country to parley with tattooed Rowing People or plunder the tombs of Seluk Khagans. But put a pin in that, the precise details are to come.

Burial of a Varangian Chieftain, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1883
Siemiradzki's image of a viking funeral is also inspired by ibn Fadlan's account

Last time, I wrote about the characteristics a Viking campaign's setting should have, now I'll spend some time talking about how I plan to evoke the period mechanically and handle some important Viking activities in the game.

I've decided to use GLOG as base system for the campaign, mostly because of the huge amount of class options written for it and how easy it is to hack in good bits from other old school games. Particularly, I'll be taking a lot of inspiration from The Nightmares Underneath  and also some of the rules from Lukomorye.

Classes and Leveling up
In Viking age Scandinavia, the intuitions which controlled power in the medieval period (e.g the Church) were yet to be fully adopted and local institutions (such as the numerous local legal assemblies called 'Things') had less power than the structures which would come later. Power was held more by persons than by structures.

 So, instead of being the member of a class or calling to gain new abilities, you must find a person to instruct you in that class who is a higher level than you. To get fighter 3, you need a mentor who's Fighter 3 already and he can't teach you Fighter 4. Leveling up will probably take a week to a month of training, double that if you're picking up a new class. At home, there will probably be only 3-4 classes available. To find more, you'll need to venture out and interact with the other peoples of the world and find mentors among them. Some classes may be unique, mastered by 1 individual who will not be interested in sharing their knowledge without good reason. Also, having to spend a long time abroad may make achieving mastery of your class difficult. You may find yourself in a place where you are the only Fighter may have to adopt a local tradition if you want to benefit from a level up.

Gaining Experience
Gold for XP makes a lot of sense to use for a Viking campaign, but I think more could be done. For instance, it might be best to give xp when goods are exchanged for precious metals so furs and other valuables can be used to gain levels. Also, I may consider implementing non-combat xp awards so journeys which are commercial failures still have some value to players.

Death, Dismemberment, Retirement 
I'd like characters to retire semi-regularly so that players could try playing the new kinds of people and the new classes they'd discovered on their adventures. Vanilla GLOG usually maims characters instead of killing them, I might move the needle closer to kill or make getting dismembered more debilitating to encourage retirement. Also there should probably be a benefit for retiring characters. Maybe they'll be allowed to level up while retired, manage domains, and return to the game at a later date.

Most medieval fantasy rpgs assume a decidedly late medieval or early modern level of technology. There's usually a lot of pole arms, sometimes basic gunpowder weaponry, and abundant plate armor. I'd like to keep things  earl medieval, especially in the arms and armor department. 

These will probably be the only weapons: Sling, bow, knife, long knife (basically a short sword), axe, spear, battle axe, sword (a rare status symbol)

In terms of armor, the shield will be the most important piece. It should be subject to breaking frequently too. Body armor, such as the classic leather and chain varieties, should be pretty rare. Most armor will be assembled piecemeal (I'll probably be drawing heavily from Lukomorye's body armor and accessories system). 

Here's some other notes: there is no glass, potions come in waterskins or ceramic jars. There are no lanterns. Your torch creates lots of dirty smoke, candles don't produce much light either. Everything and everyone is generally covered in mud and soot. People live in houses made of mud and straw. In Scandinavia they mixed it up and put the mud on the roof instead to invent the glorious turf roofed house.

Wilderness exploration has always been difficult to do well in D&D. The space it takes place in is too abstract, too large, for the usual techniques which make dungeon level exploration work to be successful. There can still be wilderness dungeons which exist on a slightly larger scale than is typical, but trekking through the wilderness should be done differently. I may just rule that the party will need a guide, or perhaps learn the route from another source, to start out on a journey into the mostly unexplored wilderness with random encounters along the way. Still, I'd like the player's to have some freedom in deciding where to go, some chance to stumble across unexpected locations in the wild. 

Exploration by sea will also have to be accounted for. Sailing isn't very interesting by itself, but there should be encounters at sea. I think I'll need pretty robust rules for ships getting damaged and repaired, fighting on deck, and also rules for calculating how much cargo a ship can hold.

Raids and Skirmishes
Raids involve a lot of moving parts. A team of raiders, a settlement with a bunch of buildings, hundreds of inhabitants, a defense force quickly mobilizing, the actually party itself, and a whole lot of chaos. Big skirmishes with 20-50 on each side and pitched battles are not represented well at the scale of D&D combat. Good raiders will avoid this kind of battle, but they still may happen regardless. The whole raid should probably run more like a dungeon, at the scale of 10 minute turns, with the actions of raiders away from the party abstracted to a single dice roll (i.e do they succeed in doing X in the turn) 

A raid may last for hours and see the players going after large objectives, temples, places where goods are stored/produced, treasuries, the homes of the rich, while their team tries to scatter the defending forces and extract valuables from the populace. 

The party may also end up occupying settlements for days, maybe months to continue finding loot or in an attempt to establish the settlement as a beachhead for further raiding and eventual conquest. This will eventually lead to a pitched battle with a larger force of defenders brought in from the surrounding region, the only question is how long it will take for such a force to be assembled. 

In any case, exploration and raiding should make use of a morale system, I'll be using Luke Gearing's. I also need to figure out how xp and gold are distributed among all the members of the raiding party. 

The last time I visited the Meager Country, the different peoples of the Meager Country gained different bonuses from their spirit guardians while the Besharans were divided by religious practice and belief. I'm considering blending these systems together for this campaign.

 For belonging to a certain ethnocultural group you'd get a small bonus but have to abide by certain group practices. For the example, you couldn't continue to be one of the Untamo after violating the sanctity of the sauna, the heart of spiritual life for this particular tribe. Players would usually have no qualms about killing a person in a sauna. They're naked and not on guard, it's a perfect plan. If the violation of a taboo is involved though, and the loss of a mechanical advantage, it may give the players pause. Of course, if we've established that violating the sauna is a grave crime they may exhibit the same pause, but I think using mechanics to underline the importance of these taboos and habits can help get players into the setting. 

I don't have enough time to do extensive research into the exact value of silver in the Viking age economy and compile accurate price lists. However, I think I'll be able to get away with stealing the great item lists from the Lukomroye player's guide. I'll probably be awarding precious metal by
 weight rather than in coin values at first and use some of the information from Nightmares Underneath to figure the exact value of a gram of silver. I'll also probably be using the inflation rules from Nightmares and the item availability ones from Lukomorye. I may also increase the price of arms and armor by a few fold.  

Institutions are a great place for players to invest money from Nightmares Underneath and would make perfect sense for a Viking age inspired campaign. Though, I will probably have to write more setting appropriate institution types. I think the institutions can also be easily folded into domain play. Here are some more appropriate Viking age institutions. 

Temples, Trade routes (mostly building trading posts), Fortifications (for protecting the trade routes and securing domains), Blacksmiths (for arming large contingents of soldiers), Great halls (for receiving guests and drawing fame), Shipbuilders.

There should probably other institutions which you can learn about abroad (i.e the capital C Church)

I'd like there to be a lot of downtime between expeditions. Winter is long, the season for exploration is short. What happens during downtime will probably be most determined by whether the players are more focused on the world abroad or that at home. There will be feasts and festivals to attend, assemblies and trials to see, and perhaps battles between factions to win or lose. Ships will also have to be resupplied, information about newly discovered routes will need to be acquired, fresh rowers and raiders will need to be recruited.

So that's the rough outline for my campaign, at least mechanically. I'd love to get some other perspectives on what I've presented here, especially the part on tribes.

This post is dedicated to Lawspeaker Torgny, who brought peace with his great harangue 


  1. My current plan for XP is to give each basic warrior a half-share of XP and loot. This is partially to encourage my players to focus on trade and the slaying of famous monsters without assistance - both situations where the crew get no share in XP.

    1. I like that idea, the whole xp shares system is designed to encourage players to rely less on hirelings after all. How do you plan to reward xp for trade though?

  2. I think that the limitation of class by location and populace is fantastic. I like how it offers and very reasonable explanation for an initial limitation on options and their very slow expansion. I have to say that I wasn't expecting to see that old AD&D1e rule for 1d4 weeks to level up crop up, but at least you don't need to pay a bunch of gold to level up (yet, maybe).
    I'm excited to see how Experience and Raids & Skirmishes are fleshed out. And yay GLOG.
    Dark Dungeons has some things that might be helpful for Institutions (Strongholds, Towers, &c.) and Raids/Skirmishes (mass combat).