Viking culture and RPGs (and I don’t mean rocket propelled grenades)

Brian, over at Gamecrafter’s Guild just had an interesting post about a way to look at gaming universes. In order (I assume) to make a gamemaster’s task of creating a whole world from scratch:

(T)he world is a dark place. Civilization is comprised of tiny settlements and the occasional large city, mostly isolated from each other and separated by vast expanses of wilderness. They are, effectively, points of light in a sea of darkness. This philosophy is present, they say, to provide more opportunities for adventure, and to make creating your own setting, one point at a time, easier.

As he wrote this, I thought about an audio lecture I was listening to by The Teaching Company about the Vikings. Scandinavia during the Viking Age resembled the world of darkness Brian described. I began to think of how what is known about Scandinavia during that time might be reflected in world made up of “points of light in a sea of darkness”. So, here are my thoughts…

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The area didn’t benefit from Roman roads so there was no system for moving overland (with the exception of walking/skiing over frozen rivers/lakes in the winter). Most of the interior was thick forest so attempts to travel overland took a great deal of time and were seen as pretty dangerous. Sea travel, by contrast, was seen as quick (a journey by sea that took 3-4 days could takes several weeks over land) and relatively safe.

The geography of the area manifested itself in the viking culture in several ways that could add some interesting twists to an RPG game:

  • Sea captains (those who had a boat(s) and could command men) became the wielders of power. The kingdoms that eventually formed in Scandinavia had their origins in powerful ‘Sea Kings’ who consolidated power.

Possibilities for gameplay:

  1. Area is witnessing the rise of skyship/caravan captains and the decline of traditional rulers (clergy?)
  2. PCs become ‘apprentices’ of powerful captain
  3. An outside power comes in (a new religion like Christianity? An expanding empire?) and PCs must decide to assimilate or resist and to what degree.
  • Viking captains not only engaged in the familiar pillaging and plunder but were also expert traders. In fact, it wasn’t unheard of for vikings to conduct a raid on a town and then set up a market a short distance away to sell back captives and goods. For vikings, trade and raiding were seen as equally important. They were one of the only ways to get goods to and from the outside world.

Possibilities for gameplay:

  1. Competition between captains for trade/plunder routes
  2. Raiding missions
  3. New captain (players?) trying to establish new trade routes and win their fortune
  • The geography of the area wasn’t favorable for stone excavation. The area didn’t have the limestone and marble deposits that were present in the Mediterranean so they became expert at woodwork instead. Also the isolation and climatic extremes resulted in people who were much more in tune and connected with nature.

Possibilities for gameplay:

  1. Increase in magical/sacred items with a nature connection
  2. Increased abilities in natural/sea settings (hunting, fishing, sailing, tracking) among PCs and NPCs
  3. Power/magical ability tied to sacred spots
  • Isolation also meant that it was difficult for invaders to attack viking settlements. Therefore, much of the male population could leave on raiding/trading expeditions, confident that outside armies couldn’t reach their homes.
  • A warrior ethos pervaded the society. This meant that virtually every free male in society was expected to be able to fight. In Western Europe at the same time, military service was seen as a distinct skill and therefore, with the exception of temporary peasant levies, the domain of knights and men-at-arms.
  • Since settlements were isolated and fairly small, there was a need to get rid of excess population. This was accomplished through colonization. England, Ireland, Iceland and parts of Western Europe all served as places for viking populations to move and establish new settlements.

Possibilities for gameplay:

  1. PCs are members of new settlement, struggling to explore their new land and survive
  2. PCs are sent to find out what happened to a ‘lost’ colony (like Greenland)
  3. PCs sent out to ‘scout’ the location of new colony

What’s the relationship between the humans (?) and the folk? Perhaps at the edges of both civilizations there’s more interaction than would normally be assumed or tolerated at the centers of power. During the viking age, while the Frankish kingdoms were being plundered mercilessly, Frankish traders were selling/trading high quality swords to the vikings (that would then be used on Frankish victims). This sort of trade was outlawed by Frankish rulers but didn’t stop anyone from making a quick buck. On this topic there’s also some pretty interesting parallels with colonial Americans living on the frontier and their interactions with Native Americans (which may be the subject of a whole new post).

That’s all that comes to mind right now. Although, I’m only half way through the lectures so perhaps more will present itself…

4 responses to “Viking culture and RPGs (and I don’t mean rocket propelled grenades)

  1. Pingback: Gamecrafters’ Guild » Blog Archive » Viking culture in RPGs

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