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Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

Heroes, or Vikings?

As a games master, an assumption that the players’ characters behave as “heroes” has rooted itself in the gaming zeitgeist. However, not only does that need not be the case, but it may deviate from the origins of the hobby.

To put things in context, let’s consider some history. A lot of narrative on the topic of “Dragonlance” and its influence on tabletop gaming focuses on the “intriguing story intricately woven into the play itself” part of Tracy Hickman’s Nightventure requirements:

The first two of the four requirements that NIGHTVENTURE endeavored to meet – a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing; an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself – certainly can be seen as containing the seeds of what we now know as the “Hickman Revolution”.

Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution | The Mule Abides (wordpress.com)

Or, consider James Maliszewski’s comments on his blog Grognardia:

 … the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they presented not merely an entire campaign story arc — what we’d today probably call an Adventure Path — but, more importantly, it was an arc written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to bemoan “railroading,” but few adventures were as railroad-y as Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in advance.

GROGNARDIA: How Dragonlance Ruined Everything

However, the moral imperative “a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing” raises my eyebrows more than the railroad. For me, this presents a shift in tone that influences the character of the game as much, if not more, than an overly plotted narrative.

In the now famous, “Appendix N,” creator Gary Gygax cited 28 authors who inspired Dungeons & Dragons. While J.R.R. Tolkien appears on the original list, he is outnumbered by writers noted for their contributions to what came to be known as sword and sorcery. Later, Gygax confessed some writers provided more influence than others:

TSR – Q&A with Gary Gygax | Page 49 | EN World | Dungeons & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Now consider the following excerpt from Howard’s Conan stories (underline my own):

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” — The Nemedian Chronicles.

Howard, R. E. (December, 1932) “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Weird Tales.

Or consider Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser traveling to the tower in the forest to pilfer its riches.

Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart), on Flickr
Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic” (CC BY 2.0) by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart)
Two warriors with Nordic armor and weapons on the cover of the RuneQuest Deluxe Edition
By Avalon Hill and Chaosium, 1984 deluxe box edition, Fair use, Link

The fact emerges that much of the source material from which Gygax and Arneson drew inspiration followed the exploits of non-heroic protagonists. Couple this with the fact that both Conan and Fafhrd represent warriors from a barbarian north, and the connection with Vikings emerges.

From a gaming perspective, Viking PCs present distinct advantages. For instance, the “killing monsters and taking their stuff” phenomenon with which the Hickmans took issue doesn’t present a problem but a roleplay characteristic of the adventurers. Moreover, “dick-paladins” will not come around and spoil the party’s fun (and if they do, they will represent adversaries to overcome, rather than goody-goody nannies to endure).

But best of all, your Viking player characters will never pause the action to lawyer out how killing the trolls and taking their treasure will factor into a Rawlsian ethical paradigm.

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