Viking Leadership Structure For RPGs

From Deacon Rayne

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0252

A Brief Word From Johnn

Dragon Archive For Sale – Free Shipping

Just a quick note that I’m selling my out-of-print Dragon Magazine 250 Issues on CD Archive on eBay as a bit of a fund raiser. It comes in the original case and all 5 CDs are mint – no fingerprints or scratches. Also, I dislike getting hit with surprise shipping charges and “handling” fees, so I’m not charging any shipping. What you bid is all that you pay:

Laptop Use Is Working Out

My ancient laptop is turning out to be pretty useful at thegame table – finally! It’s taken several sessions to get used to it. The downside has always been that I work on a computer all day, and I do e-mails and writing on a computer at night, so porting over my RPG hobby to a computer seemed like a recipe for carpal tunnel.

It’s working out now though, and starting to pay dividends. The experiment continues as there are still many things I could do better.

Currently, I use the laptop for the following:

Wish list:

  • Mapping. Currently, I whip up my maps on paper. I still haven’t found mapping software that does fast and easy black & white maps with a grid overlay. Recently, I scanned in a map and used HTML to mark-up an image map for it. That works great. I’d like to do the same now for simple digital maps that I craft.

Radio Broadcast Subscriber – Please E-mail Me

Over the holidays I used a data cafe to keep up on urgent e- mails and to delete the hoard of daily spam I get. One e- mail never made it to my Inbox when I got home. It was from a broadcaster who had some tips about speaking as a GM. If you’re reading this, would you mind re-sending your e-mail? Thanks!

I hope you enjoy this week’s e-zine edition.


Johnn Four,
[email protected]

Viking Leadership Structure For RPGs

Vikings are an archetypical culture used in many RPGs and game worlds. Their leadership structure is quite interesting and useful to learn about for world-building. Understanding how Vikings were governed is also useful for small scale game design as well, especially if you need to whip up something on-the-fly or want to add a little flavour to a community.

While reading the information below, consider how it could be applied to your campaign:

  • Independent villages
  • Free cities and city states
  • Rival societies
  • A villain and his minions
  • Monster communities

The last idea is especially promising. You can transform run-of-the-mill creatures into organized societies by layering on what you’ll soon know of Viking culture. Imagine the increased entertainment value if the PCs must deal with a Viking goblin, kobold, giant, or orc clan. Alternatively, you can organize creatures that you wouldn’t expect to have such a culture to surprise your group. Consider such critters as beholders, sahuagin, intelligent spiders, harpies, and so on.

A Democratic Hierarchy Of Nobility

Vikings had a hierarchical system of nobility ranging from minor Chieftains to Kings who attained their positions through a democracy where the Freeman (Viking middle class) served as the electing body.

Electoral factors included:

  • Right of bloodline
  • Popular acclaim (feats of bravery in battle and such)
  • Personal wealth (including slaves, for having many was considered a sign of great personal prosperity)

Some election related plot seeds and adventure hooks might be:

  • The PCs are asked to quest and prove a candidate’s bloodline.
  • The PCs are asked to accompany an ambitious NPC who wants to commit an act of bravery to improve his candidacy.
  • The PCs are sent to a remote location and return with an item of great value. Rival candidates seek to befriend, strongarm, or steal the item to improve their wealth and esteem.
  • Two bitter rivals are seeking election. The PCs are brought in as bodyguards, spies, or saboteurs.

Viking Positions

The various positions of authority in Viking culture were as follows:

  • Chieftains. These lesser nobles consisted of the Hersar, or “landed men,” who received their authority from the King along with their land. This title was not hereditary and could only be bestowed by the King. Once given, it could not be taken away.
  • Huskarlar. Chieftains kept these men, also known as “house carls,” who were noble retainers that formed the Chieftain’s “hird”–household bodyguards. The Hird also served as the core of a Chieftain’s army.
  • Jarl. The greater nobles, or the Jarl, were second only to the King and had a great deal of power and autonomy. Many were completely independent of their local King. They kept enormous numbers of Huskalar, collected tribute, and ruled over their lands completely.
  • King. Kings, or “konungr,” were the top of the Viking hierarchy. The title of King was both hereditary and democratic. Kingship descended from father to son, but often in the case of multiple heirs the Freemen had the final say as to who would sit on the throne. This often resulted in brothers murdering each other to be the sole candidate for the position.

Plot hooks:

  • Intrigue potential abounds with the PCs being hired as informants, ambassadors, or Huskarlar.
  • Each PC is named as a Chieftain by a newly appointed Jarl. This type of campaign consists of domain management, political intrigue with the purpose of gaining prestige with the Jarl, and raiding to increase wealth and slaves.
  • Three brothers are left as heirs to the Kingdom. It’s suspected that one of them murdered their father and plans on using foul play to win the upcoming vote. The PCs are brought in as objective investigators responsible for uncovering the traitor and stopping him before he can sabotage things further and tear the fabric of the Kingdom’s society apart.

Noble Responsibilities

Viking nobles had a myriad of responsibilities:

  • Ensuring their land was farmed regularly
  • Ensuring tribute was paid on time to their superior (their region’s Jarl or even the King)
  • Patrolling their lands against threats both domestic and foreign
  • Judging court cases
  • Certain nobles called Godi (priests) performed rituals and protected sacred grounds
  • Commanding in battles
  • Influencing selection of the local law speakers
  • Collecting tributes
  • Tending the King’s estates
  • Enforcing the King’s decrees

Nobles were also responsible for negotiating weregilds: settlements between subjects who had grievances against one another. They mediated these disputes to prevent blood feuds.

As they were often called upon to be diplomats, nobles had to be excellent hosts, often throwing lavish feasts for even minor guests.

The King’s most critical task was to oversee the protection of his people as he was still subject to them. He gained his position through democracy, and through democracy it could be taken away. He also served as the grand judge for disputes too entangled for the nobles to solve as well as being his people’s war leader and collecting tribute from neighbouring kingdoms.

Plot Hooks

  • The PCs are sent to capture wondrous beasts for a grand feast being held by the King who is trying to assuage two warring Jarls.
  • The PCs are slaves who, through deeds performed as the campaign unfolds, earn the trust of the Chieftain and are sent on further quests to protect the domain.
  • The PCs are Huskarlar and become involved in numerous adventures, Three Musketeers style, protecting the honour of their Chieftain’s wife and daughter, guarding the Chieftain from various rivals’ plots, and working to build the Chieftain’s reputation for the next election.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Of Prophecy, Quests, And Destiny

From Ria Kennedy

I think it’s very important that I am specific about my beliefs of role-playing – does the GM tell a story or not? The answer is mostly not. What the GM does, is tell a saga of the PCs’ odyssey.

  • Saga: A description of historical and legendary events.
  • Odyssey: An extended, adventurous wandering.

As you know, a story is static and pre-planned, but a narrative about character’s adventuring and historical and legendary events can be exciting and interactive. There are a few things that can be pre-planned like in a story, however these must be used very carefully. These are prophecy, quests, and destiny.


All prophecy should serve a purpose and show a goal or a warning. Some vague, meandering description of nothing in particular serves no one. No matter how vague you are, with enough effort, the PCs should be able to figure out what this prophecy (whether it’s a vision, dream or other) is telling them. They may not know when, where, why, how or who, but they should be able determine what. If not, then your prophecy is about as effective as not having one at all. In fact, you can even set yourself back by having an ineffective prophecy. Your PCs may become confused and lose focus.

Ask yourself, why do you need a prophecy? If it’s to shore up interest, it is likely unneeded – you could add a goal and that may be more effective. However, if you need a prophecy or your heart is set on having one, you must establish its purpose. What is the spirit/god trying to communicate to the PCs? Why?

Once you understand those two things, you can decide where and when the vision will occur, and if the PCs have to do anything special to have it.

Finally, you need to visualize what the PCs will ‘see’ and write it down. I advise letting your prophesy sit for a day and then make any necessary changes to it; when it comes to prophesying, it’s easy to get carried away and say the wrong thing.

Also remember, when doing prophecy, show situations. If you show the characters doing something, this can make the PCs feel like they have limited choice because of the prophesy, and I am sure that isn’t your intent. If you show situations, rather than focusing on the PCs’ potential words or deeds, you create a compelling vision of the future and events that may transpire. It will make the PCs wonder where they will fit in, and how they will deal with it.

Don’t be afraid to make it personal. For instance, in a vision I recently gave a PC, I showed a banner that he is supposed to find and use. He has already spent a week of game time researching the Lion-star banner, he has been brought to the attention of some very important people, and also in the vision, I showed him as a beacon in the darkness. That was about as specific as I wanted to go as far as trespassing on the character concept, but he is the hero after all, and has a great destiny.


Quests are the life-blood of a proper saga, but these should not be confused with a typical adventure. A typical adventure is fairly open and shut, and may be about many types of problems (solving murders, rescues, etc). A quest may take, in game time, weeks or years, and has a specific goal that may be personal or world-oriented.

Along the way to resolving a quest, there may be many adventures. These could have nothing to do with the quest, or further the quest. A personal quest for the PC I described earlier is to find the Lion-star banner. This makes the quest part of the PC’s individual journey, and not just about what my story needs. A world quest for the same PC is to fight the Enemy’s forces and inspire those he meets to fight to overcome the odds.

It just so happens that the Lion-star banner helps to inspire others, and is perfect for someone who will have to lead men. Thus, the player gets to quest for something special, just for his character, and I get to incorporate it into my saga.

If the adventure in question has something to do with the quest, you should give a broad hint that this has something to do with the quest. If the PCs still don’t get it, just say you may not be able to complete the quest if you don’t do this. Don’t take it personally, PCs go on so many adventures that they can all start to look alike.

Remember, when sending PCs on a quest, time should be allowed to mercifully pass. Sometimes, there is really nothing but woods and grass. There’s no reason to dally. This keeps a campaign action-oriented, and keeps travel from becoming boring, trite, or predictable.

The other thing is, sometimes PCs will not want to do a side-quest adventure, for whatever reason. In this case, recycle what you can of it for another scenario and let the PCs ride on. There are a hundred ideas for scenarios, but nothing is worth losing the good-will of your players because you force them to do something they feel their character would not do.


In roleplaying terms, this is an inevitable course of events that the PCs will face. This is *not* what you think the PCs will or should do; you have no way of knowing what the PCs will do after the big revelation.

In addition, this is what happens after the PCs take action – the repercussions, as it were. Even the greatest champion makes enemies. Destiny is what happens after a character makes a choice, as well as the situations you plan for him or her to confront on their odyssey.

For instance, the vision my PC had propelled him from a simple merchant’s son to a leader of men. He has gained the attention of important people, and could even become steward of his own domain. Will he remain a simple ranger or will he embrace his potential?

All a GM has to do is provide choices and goals, it’s not about writing a great novel or writing a world renowned play. There is way more give and take in roleplaying to support rigid planning, and too often that is the model we use. Only time will tell what choices my player’s PC will make. It is simply up to me to tell the saga, and let the odyssey unfold.

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PC Creation From Birth

From Kelly Lee Phipps

I just started a new campaign and I had the characters begin as babies with 1s for all their stats. Then we rolled 12 siders to get their sun, moon, and rising signs (for instance, if you were born under the sign of the Dragon you might add +1 or +2 to your Str, Dex, or Con). Also each Zodiac house of your three signs gave them either two Unearthed Arcana traits or 1 flaw.

Then we rolled genetic influences based on the father and mother’s professions. Then we rolled for events on either mundane, risky, or dangerous tables for each age increment (every 2 years for a human for example), and we did 12 increments to simulate childhood, young adulthood, and some adulthood.

Next, we rolled for mentors. And the whole time the family fortune is going up and down and the PCs were allowed to invest in something to change social status.

All in all, it was the best night of character creation I’ve ever had in over two decades of gaming!

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Problematic Campaign Anecdote

From Matthew Leach

I thought I’d drop you a quick note to share an experience I had with my group this last weekend.

I have been running a large scale 3rd Edition D&D campaign in the Forgotten Realms on and off for the past two years. Characters started at first level, and are only now around eleventh level. My ultimate goal was to get characters to epic level. I have allowed my players a lot of freedom in the characters that they can play, but I still limit them to official Wizards sourcebooks only. I noticed that after 8th level the characters have become unbalanced, posing a huge problem to the types of encounters I can throw at them.

For instance, the party has an eleventh level half-orc fighter named Vrok. Vrok has all the feats a fighter could ever need, wields a magical dwarven waraxe in each hand, and has five attacks per round (thanks to feats) at bonuses of +18/+18/+12/+12/+9 to hit, dealing a minimum of 11 points of damage per hit. His hit points are around 120, and he has an armour class of 24.

In order to pose any threat to Vrok, or to at least give him a challenge, I need to throw a CR 11 creature at the party, which is not meant to be a problem for a party with an effective party level of 11, but I have a dilemma. Most of these creatures would kill any of the other party members outright with only a single blow.

This is about the time that I began to notice more and more problems with the group, and ultimately allowed me to take a step back and seriously look at my group and campaign from a different perspective. I found that we had somehow allowed power-gaming and rules lawyering to creep in and start pulling things apart, a problem that had become detrimental to the campaign.

I decided that if these problems could not be sorted out we would have to abandon the campaign – my brainchild for the last two years (do other GMs get attached to their stories?) – but I thought that I would at least make one last effort to try and get things right.

So, in our last session, I got the players to arrive a few hours early. I had an individual chat with each of them, recreated each character from scratch to sort out character discrepancies, and had a heart-to-heart with each player about the issues in the group.

As a contingency, I had the players roll up new first level characters while all of this was going on, restricting them to using only the PHB. After all the one-on-ones were finished, I got back to my group with feedback. The decision I had to make was no less of a burden than before, but my players surprised me at this point by unanimously making the decision for me.

The players all had such fun in creating their new characters that they were fired up to start anew, get back to basics, and do things properly from the start. They are all keen to assist in the development of the campaign (something that I was doing on my own before) with backstories, plot ideas, character journals, etc. Even though I will miss the old campaign, I am excited about this new one – an excitement that I have not felt for a long time.

The remainder of the session was filled with an ad-hoc starting adventure for the new characters and the players loved ridding a local tavern of a rat infestation. The whole experience for them was enjoyable – it was new and exciting to be challenged by something as trivial as rats!

I hope that these ramblings serve to help someone.

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Inspirational Poetry For RPGs

From John Gallagher

Try these to inspire you and your players:

  • “The Faerie Queene” by Edmund Spenser.
  • The Heart song, “Dream of the Archer.”
  • Alice Cooper, the entire Welcome to My Nightmare album (for horror)
  • Alice Cooper “Desperado,” or Styx’s “Renegade” for wild west games.
  • “The Tempest” by Shakespeare (the parts with Prospero and Caliban, especially.)
  • “Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare.
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Making Vermin Interesting

From Shawn Cantu

I have some suggestions for 3.5 D&D with regards to the article in issue #247 about Supervermin.

A few personal things I add to make the ordinary interesting:

  1. Flavor text for unusual creatures. I find that flavor text – a brief written introduction of a scene, environment, or creature – usually heightens interest and tension as players wonder what clues you might drop, as well as gives a great visceral, vivid idea of what they’re up against. Always better than fighting the fifteenth giant rat in a 20? by 20? chamber.
  2. Advance the monsters you’re using. Depending on your ethics, you can increase the HD of a monster without adding to its challenge rating. This can result in a surprise for players who expect a weaker monster which attacks them with a higher attack bonus, more damaging attacks, and worst of all, more hit points. It works especially well at lower levels, as advancing that lowly 1HD monster to a 2HD monster effectively doubles its staying power.Plus, without the increase in CR, the experience points gained do not go up, resulting in more challenging fights for the same experience.Deep down, I think most of us long-term players and DMs agree the 13.33 encounters per level is a bit weak. This allows some flexibility while staying within ‘bounds’.
  3. In tandem with suggestion #2 above, remember that monsters that are advanced have free access to the non- standard array, 13,12,11,10,9,8 for their stats. Most creatures in the monster manuals will only have used the standard array: 10,10,10,11,11,11. Remembering that you get these custom stats to play with for free with advanced monsters allows more creativity. Play to a bruiser creature’s strength and raise that stat, or one-up the PC’s expectations and give it higher stats in other areas and play the monster to a different tune!
  4. Creatures that advance by class levels. Consider using NPC classes for the reduced CR adjustment, and also consider using non-associated classes because they don’t increase the CR as much. This allows for really creative, relatively powerful NPCs at lower levels. Adepts, under the newer Eberron campaign are particularly potent as they have access to clerical domains.
  5. If you do advance a creature by actual PC class levels, remember that the creature has free access to the Elite Array for building its stats. 15,13,12,11,10,8 as opposed to the generic 10,10,10,11,11,11. This allows for supreme flexibility.
  6. Clever use of old templates. Rather than use the base human warrior skeleton for skeleton archers, what if I suggested using skeletal hobgoblins for archers? The bonuses better fit an archer without a real change to the skeleton’s CR. Now imagine said skeletons on a ledge, rampart, balcony, peering down on PCs who’ve yet to find out how to reach them.
  7. Use that treasure money! Do you just sit on your wealth, waiting for others to rob you? And besides, what on earth do kobolds have any reason to collect gold for? The local bazaar? Imagine you took that kobold clan’s collected wealth of 100gp and instead spent it on alchemist’s fire and cheap booby traps. Again, this might not seem fair, but I contend that regular PCs garner wealth too easily and unrealistically in my estimation.
  8. The situation. Remember that PCs generally have to be generic because they have to be capable of handling anything, whereas most NPCs and creatures won’t live past the day they encounter the heroes. =) That said, designing a situation and a creature to take advantage of rules that fit that situation is a great concept as well.To give a specific example: Imagine a grotto, accessible only by swimming into it from underneath and then climbing the walls of the cavern to reach solid ground. Now, as the players are climbing the wall, kobolds appear at the top of the precipice! And they throw alchemist fire down! Now, alchemist’s fire is a ranged touch attack, and climbing PCs lose their dexterity bonus to AC. This results in an AC of 10 against an attack, and the kobold suddenly has a *very* good chance to hit! On top of that, if the PC is hit he must save or fall!How about clever use of the Hover feat? I had a dragon once that casted invisibility on itself and then hovered over a pile of waste and gave itself total concealment on top of this. Why was this important? Because now, mages could only cast an area dispel magic, as opposed to a targeted one. Not only that, but the dragon’s blindsense allowed it to see and attack with its breath weapon. Truly ugly.
  9. Roll each creature’s HP rather than using the averaged number. This will give players the feeling that even a rogue or wizard might be able to take down a monster in a pinch. It gives more incentive to risk-taking in combat, and therefore makes the game more attention grabbing.
  10. Feat substitution. When custom making or advancing monsters, a unique ploy is to substitute some of the feats the creature has. This is particularly true of smaller monsters when advanced to larger sizes. Eventually the Weapon Finesse feat will become useless as their dex bonus becomes smaller next to its strength. Why not replace that feat with, say, improved initiative, power attack, expertise, dodge, improved natural attack, improved natural armor.

Note: A lot of what I discuss here is rather advanced NPC/monster generation stuff, you may have to take a closer look at the DMG or MM to fully understand what I’m talking about.

Looking into these ideas will have two effects on your game. One, the DM will have to get more creative. Is that a bad thing? Hardly ever. Two, players will have to involve more of their abilities to handle these newer challenges. This is good because it will begin to involve more of the PC classes rather than just relying on the brawn.

The wizard who casts spider climb (to get a climb speed and thus be immune to falling and losing Dex while climbing), the rogue who can sneak or deceive, the cleric who destroys the hobgob skeletons, the person with the knowledge skills to know a creature’s weakness, suddenly all become integral to winning. Getting that treasure from a monster who’s spent it on weapons and gadgets for their own use will suddenly require intelligent gameplay and foresight.

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Traps With A Twist: Harvesting Ideas For Trickier Times

From Darren Blair

How many times have your players groaned over yet another boring trap? Ever rack your brain trying to come up with something new and inventive to ensure you’ve got something to ensnare the party?

A common problem with designing encounters and adventures is that sometimes people think too hard. They’ll get so focused on the tried-and-true that they stop and miss quite a few things that could work instead. Just take a look around you, and you’ll be amazed what you can easily turn into a trap to get your players for sure. For your consideration.

I have two examples below:

  1. Pressure PlatesAs the name implies, a pressure plate is a device designed to cause something to activate when the amount of weight on top of it shifts. A common example of a pressure plate is at many stoplights – once a car has been sitting on the plate for a long enough period of time, the light changes.Examples of Pressure Plate traps:
    • The Sky is Falling. The object that the party wants is in a square in a corner, at the end of a hall, or something similar. What they don’t know is that the squares surrounding the object are ringed with pressure plates. Unless disarmed or avoided, the plates will activate a device that will cause the ceiling tiles above them to collapse.
    • Blasting Zone, Part 1. Some landmines work on a pressure plate concept in that they don’t detonate until after the person who steps on them takes their foot off. Imagine, if you will, a barbarian in a rage or a dwarven berserker. They aren’t going to stop and think about where they’re putting their feet or about that odd “click” sound they just heard. Bwahahahaha.
    • Blasting Zone, Part 2. A variant on the concept in Part 1 is the deadman switch. Quite simply, a deadman switch requires that once it is pressed it remain pressed; if the switch is no longer pressed, the explosives detonate (such a device can be seen in Terminator 2 when the characters go to destroy the Cyberdyne facility). Imagine if you will an otherwise non-descript statue holding a solid gold rod encrusted with jewels. What thief wouldn’t want to try and take the rod? Boom.
  2. Directional ExplosivesNot all explosives have a 360-degree radius. Some -like the Claymore anti-personnel mine – only affect certain things in one specific direction.Examples:
    • Watch Your Step. What the party wants is at the far side of the room on a raised platform. What they don’t know is that the floor is rigged with directional explosives under certain tiles. The players were safe while going towards the platform, as the detonators (and the area of effect) are set up to injure only those attempting to leave. Yes, I did see this one on a cartoon.
    • Not So Close! This idea is a variation on the concept of reactive armor. In this situation, the players must get close to an armored vehicle (such as a royal carriage or an armored car). What they don’t know is that the vehicle actually has two layers of armor. Sandwiched between the two is a series of explosive devices. While the inner layer cannot be breached by the explosives, the outer layer is almost useless against them.