Concerning hólmganga duels
[This was originally a comment on this post (https://plus.google.com/112509706035121254690/posts/G2Nvyamvmzv). I’m coping it here because a main post is easier to find.]
Well, one cannot say that the rulebook does not speak about this topic (see pp. 130-131):
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Duels were a way to resolve disputes and court cases or most commonly a way for a man to avenge his honour. If a man or their family was insulted, he could (and usually would) challenge the insulting party to a duel. Hólmganga translates as “island walk” and it might mean the duels were originally fought on islets. The more common and well-documented way is to stake out a piece of ground with a large cloak or hide (or perhaps hazel rods). The demarcated area was square and about three meters on the side. Each man had three shields they could use. If a shield broke, they could replace it until they were left without protection.
Duels were originally fought to the death, but having both feet outside the marked area (willingly or not) counted as a loss as well. Over time, the duels became more symbolic and less brutal. Berserks or professional duelists often abused the earlier, less-regulated form of duels as a kind of legalized robbery or murder, first laying claim to something and then proving their ownership through this ritual practice.
You can run a duel with the rules as they are. Use the ‘accept a physical challenge’ move to resolve blows and other manoeuvres and the armour move to take the three-shield rule into account. Additionally, you can tweak things a bit with the following move.
When you endure grave harm during a hólmganga duel, you can decide to step or fall back out of the square and lose the duel. You endure no harm if you do so.
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In our Icelandic saga, +Talisa Tavella’s shield maiden fought in two duels and +Nikitas Thlimmenos’ man fought in one duel.
One of the first issue you have to deal with, when it comes to hólmganga duels in your Sagas of the Icelanders game, is how much importance you should give to weapons, armours and other warrior-stuff.
This is important, since you have some additional moves on the pp. 127-128, which revolves around weapons in detail. Of course, you are not forced to use them, as the rulebook says (p. 127):
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The following moves are not considered core to the game, but you can add them to give weapons and armour more significance in your play.
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In our saga, we choose to not use them, because it would have put an extra weight and narrative relevance to weapons, which we didn’t think necessary. Of course, you can choose otherwise and, in that case, remember to also apply those rules.
So, we have these two people (usually two men) on a relatively narrow piece of land, who are armed with some kind of weapon (a sword, an axe, a hammer, a spear, etc.) and three shields. And you have to manage that situation with nothing more than the basic moves and that additional move for “when you endure grave harm during a hólmganga duel”.
To show oneself on the land of the duel without appropriate weapons and/or without one or more shields (remember you need three shields) could likely cause your character to have his honour in question (if he is a man). His opponent could likely refuse to fight against a man without proper weapons and armour (otherwise his honour would be in question, too).
If you fight an opponent who comes to the duel without proper equipment, a goði could be persuaded to declare your duel illegal and blame you for the unlawful murder of another person (resulting in full outlawry). If you come to a duel without what you need to fight it, the people who came as witnesses could consider the duel lost by forfeit by you, even without any blood is shed, and of course your honour will be in question (all the dales nearby would speak of your bloop).
If you are a woman, one of the first issues is to convince someone else to accept to duel with you (if he is a man, his honour would be in question, unless you convince a goði to decree that it is fair to duel with you – and good luck with that!). If you come to a duel land without proper weapons and shields, you honour would not be in question, but your opponent would never fight against you (if he is a man of honour; otherwise he could kill you outright and face the consequences, likely full outlawry) and the duel would be won by forfeit by him. Of course, the people around would say that you were just a woman and you should have not engaged in such things as a duel.
But, let’s say both of you are in a duel with your weapon of choice and your three shields. You should face this situation like any other situation in the game. Start with a soft move:
“Vigdis, the boy in front of you is young, but it seems he can handle a sword: he makes rapid steps towards you and tries to take a blow to you with his sword. He aims to your belly. What do you do?”
“Oh, gods, I won’t kill him: he’s just a boy and he doesn’t know how wrong it was for him to defy me. But I know he did it only to keep his and his father’s honour. I deflect his blow with my spear, when he is very close to me, and, with all the weight of my body, I try to throw him beyond the hólmganga sacred boundary with both of his feet.”
“Ok, it seems you are tempting the fate.” [Vigdis is a shield-maiden and cannot accept a physical challenge.]
“So it seems. Whoops, I rolled an 8.”
“Well, you do it, but the Fates take a bond with you. The boy is clearly overconfident and cannot believe it, when you block his sword with your spear. After that, it’s just a matter of lever and force: you make him lose his balance and end with both of his feet beyond the duel boundary.”
“Hurrrah for Vigdis the White, the shield-maiden!”
“Hurrah for you! It seems no man, from now on, will take lightly the choice of duelling with you. Oh, and we should not forget that: how do you think the Fates are going to take a bond with you?”
“Well, it was that morning. I went to Helga, the seiðkona, and asked her how could I won the duel with the son of Koll. She told me I had to catch a hare and sacrifice it to the will of the Three. I did it and, now, I guess I have their attention.”
“Interesting! That’s something we could build on during the following scenes. Maybe you could change one of your relationships to one with Helga, at the beginning of the following session.”
“Hey, I already have one!”
“Whoops! I should take a note!”
And so on.
We had a duel between Vigdis, a shield-maiden, a female PC, and Hrolf Kollsson, a young male NPC, son of a former huscarl, now dead by the hand of Vigdis.
Here you can also see that you can resolve a duel with a single move. Just remember the moves, in Sagas of the Icelanders don’t imply nothing about the detail of the actions of the PCs. In Apocalypse World this was explained plainly. I cannot find something similar also in Sagas of the Icelanders, but I really think this apply to this game as well (Apocalypse World, pp. 121-122):
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Elide the action sometimes, and zoom in on its details other times. Play out a battle in precise and exacting detail, but in the middle of it say “so they keep you both pinned down there until nightfall.” Sometimes pick one session up in the moments where the last left off, other times let days or weeks pass in between.
This goes for moves, too. Making a dash under fire might mean crossing 3 meters of open ground in view of one of Dremmer’s snipers, it might mean crossing 100 meters of broken ground with his gang arrayed thereupon, it might mean crossing the whole damned burn flat with Dog Head and his grinning-dingo cannibals in pursuit. Let the moves expand and contract in time, all through the range from their smallest logical limit to their greatest.
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So, what are you going to do? Are you playing detailed duel, breaking shield after shield, until someone dies first or is put out of the area of the duel with both of their feet, or are you watching the duel with a bird’s eye view.
A duelling male could accept a physical challenge to resolve an entire duel, but he could also make the same move, trying to shatter his opponent’s first (or last) shield. Always clarify the circumstances of the situation in the fiction and what the character is doing which triggers his move.
You, as the MC, should be aware of these choice you have and always ask yourself: “What can I do to be a better fan of the characters? How can I make the players’ characters’ circumstances worthy of a saga?
That’s the secret. Nothing more. 😉