Fighting and Wounds in Viking Sagas

Now, the only viking saga I’ve read front-to-back is Njáls, but it is longest and most detailed one. And today, let’s talk a bit about fighting and injury in the sagas, and by extension: the viking RPG I have cooking. I like the descriptions in the book. They are short, accurate, descriptive but unceremonious. That could possibly be applied to the game as well. I’m not aiming for 240 levels of wound severity in this one. More like two, haha.

Ok, so should I drag up an example to show the style? Here’s a little bit of battle from chapter 45 and 54, in my own, probably not perfect, translation.

Sigmund draw his sword with his right hand and cut towards Skarpheden; the strike hit the shield and the sword got stuck. Skarpheden swung the shield so vigorously that Sigmund let the sword out of his hand. Then Skarpheden struck at Sigmund with the axe. Sigmund was wearing a harness [cloth armor probably]. The axe hit the shoulder and cleft the shoulder-blade. Skarpheden pulled the axe out and Sigmund fell on both knees but sprang up immediately.

He [Hallbjörn] thrust with both hands a great spear at Gunnar. Gunnar pushed the shield in front of him, and the spear pierced it. Gunnar put the shield so hard to the ground that it stuck and took to his sword, striking so fast no one could see it. It hit Hallbjörn in the arm just above the wrist, and the arm was cut off. 

So there it is. Hopefully I’m not trampling over any 1000-year old copyright. It’s probably this way because it originally describes actual happenings, so it’s kind of realistic, but people also perform some crazy stunts like jumping over or catching spears in mid-air. These things honestly might have happened. It’s not out of the question, but they may be a little exaggerated. But what things can be drawn from this (and more)? A list!

  • When people are hit, sometimes they die. Like really die. One good strike, bam, dead. Mostly people who are surprised or up against very good fighters.
  • Sometimes they are alive for a bit before they die. Saying a few last words, maybe making a dying vengeance strike or something.
  • Sometimes people don’t die but are wounded. Fighting on with wounds works sometimes, though it might be hard.
  • Jumping over spears flying at you? If you’re athletic.
  • Catching spears mid-air? Same. Also throw them back.
  • Catching weapons in shields. Yes.
  • Cleaving shields with weapons. Yes.
  • Piercing people with spears and throwing them into walls. Yes, if you’re strong.
  • General severing of legs and arms, cleaving heads and shoulders and chests. Yep.
  • Armor could save you. Or not.
  • Larger groups generally win. Unless they are fighting Gunnar, seriously.

So these are some basic things here.


Generally, there’s three categories of damage: scratch (superficial), regular wound (dangerous but not deadly), and a mortal wound (yep you’re dead). That works pretty well. I think I want something like “when you take a regular wound, roll x to keep standing”. I think that captures a bit of the feeling of combat. Each wound should be a threat on its own, not just “oh I lost 34 HP no biggie”. I like the idea of just counting wounds, not damage numbers, somehow. More descriptive.


I think opposed rolls would be good. Either that or “players roll all the dice”. I like people to feel like they be part of it, not the “he rolls 17 vs. your AC 12 you’re hit”. I’m not entirely sure about how to do this yet, but I’m thinking about d12s. They are nice.


And… There’s that. This was just a bit of background and random thoughts for now. I’ll be back with concrete things when… They are more concrete. Until then!


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