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Thursday, 19 December 2019

"Winter Bites" (a solstitial scenario set in 10th century Iceland)

"Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been."
We used Sagas of the Icelanders for this adventure, and such game mechanics as it needs are given in those terms, but other options are GURPS Vikings and VikingsRegardless of the system, you will certainly find the Icelandic Saga Map useful.

If you're running the adventure as the lead-in to a campaign then the characters are young (15-19 years) and begin with two relationships instead of the usual four. 

Thorkill Whalerider lives at Kolbeinsvik up in the Strands in north-west Iceland. In his youth he was a renowned trader and raider, now he owns much of the land from Arness to Kaldbak and is the big man in the district. The characters are sent by their family in the far south to trade goods with Thorkill, but a complication requires them to spend the winter with him.

At this time of year the sun rises at 10:00 and sets at 14:00, with three hours of twilight either side. So it’s full dark from 5pm till 7am.

The characters are bringing spices and furs, which their father is trading with his old shipmate Thorkill for wood (mostly driftwood that fetches up along the coast). Thorkill has agreed to send them back with men and mules to carry the wood, which takes more space than the goods they’ve brought.

It's sunset and the characters have been travelling all day in freezing fog. They're cold, they're tired. Coming down off the Thorskafjord Moor, they see a big man who seems to have a bloody burden on each shoulder. He lumbers up and tells them he’s Ulkar No-Name, “so now you can tell everyone you met nobody on the road.” He doesn’t smile. “I’m bringing these two sheep for the feast.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to herd them back and slaughter them at the house? “I didn’t think of it.”

But there’s a snag
Thorkill hasn’t yet got the wood together to send back, and so he says the characters must stay for the frost festival Þorrablót”) when a sacrifice is made in honour of Frost and Snow, the sons of Jokul the Giant in mythology.

The characters can sit about the house as guests, or they can join in chores if they choose to. If they volunteer to do that, it’s an opportunity to meet Audun Haldorson the foreman who says that the wall needs mending on his farm. It’s not actually for Thorkill, but it would help indirectly as it would free up Audun’s time.

If so they might meet Audun’s headstrong son Bakki, who is their age and will surely propose a swimming contest (in the sea, freezing) or a wrestling or drinking match, or a dice game (use wyrd). Bakki usually tries to get them to do this instead of work, and is likely to be derisive if they refuse, so there’s opportunity for Honour to be questioned.

About half the wood has so far been made ready, including a pine tree trunk that would make a magnificent mast for a ship. Thorkill’s brothers pause each day to look at it and say what a hardship it would be to part with that, maybe the characters can make do with some driftwood roots instead, etc, etc. It’s just a wind-up.

The household

  • Thorkill (38)
  • Asdis (wife, 26)
  • Ongul (brother, 35)
  • Skeggi (brother, 34)
  • Ulkar (illegitimate brother, very strong, 39)
  • Senuna (a beautiful Irish thrall, 19)

Rumours include:

“Ulkar is Thorkill’s half-brother, but he’ll never acknowledge him. He gets seated at meals like a labourer and never gets included in family decisions.”

“When will Thorkill have your goods packed to send back? In his own good time, like everything else.”

“Thorkill went raiding in his youth to prove himself as bold as his father, but Kar Drangson was as fierce a man as any of us will meet in this life, and with his sword given him by the Danish king he was a match for any three warriors of these days.”

“The bandit called Thorn has worried his way into Thorkill’s side since last winter. He preys on those crossing the moors and he’s been tracked as far as Ymir’s Tooth Mountain, but nobody knows where he has his lair.”

“You’ve been invited to the frost festival?” Sucks his teeth. “You know it involves a sacrifice, don’t you?” (This is just locals winding up some young outsiders.)

Characters could use Look into someone’s heart to figure out if a rumour is true or just the locals getting a rise out of them.

Audun the foreman
Thorkill’s foreman is Audun Haldorson (35) a free man with his own farm at Kaldbakvik. Thorkill has bought up every other farm in the district that his family didn’t already own because of the haunting of Kar the Old, who died twelve years ago and whose ghost is said to walk the shores.

The bandit
Thorn and his four men are outlaws who hide out in the mountain and watch for traders they can rob. Their lair is in a tunnel that runs right through the mountain.

Towards sunset it’s as though the day peels back, so that already you can see stars while there is still a glimmer of pale blue, orange and red along the horizon. At such a time character might, looking up at the mountain, see the blood-red light of the dying day somehow mirrored in a pinprick gleam in the middle of the black cliff.

Unless you know the way up, it is a hard climb to the caves where the bandits live. For the last twenty feet it’s likely their lookout will have spotted you, too, so there’ll be a barrage of rocks raining down on you before you reach them. [When you tempt fate for the climb; ideally Berserker or Fight with many against many for the fight at the top.]

The barrow
At night you can see a pale green light billowing around the headland. This comes from Kar the Old’s barrow. (When would they see that? Probably when going outside to empty their bladders.)

Audun: “That’s why people are in a hurry to get home before sunset at this time of year. No one wants to meet Kar walking on the shore. When Kar was buried, Thorkill was in Norway. He took it hard, not for love but because Kar had much of his wealth buried beside him in the barrow. But Kar’s ghost has enriched Thorkill anyway, by terrorizing people into selling him their farms.”

If they enter the barrow: it takes most of the day to dig down to the rafters. Then if they enter (a drop of twelve feet) their torch goes out because of the foul air. They won't be able to get a torch or candle to stay alight, and that's -1 ongoing for darkness.

The interior chamber is narrow, only room for one at a time. They feel around until they find horse bones, then their feet slither on silver coins and they blunder into the back of a carved chair. It’s heavy, though. It doesn’t give when they push it. Wait – there’s somebody sitting in it…

In fact: Ulkar is prone to narcolepsy and wanders off in a daze by night, either wandering the shore or entering the barrow by means of a tunnel that emerges a hundred yards along the beach. So they will have quite a fight with him – that’s Accept a physical challenge at -1 ongoing for darkness; in the cramped conditions it’s not possible for another character to assist by spending bonds. It will go better for them later if they don’t kill Ulkar.

The treasure includes the short sword Kar used to wield, which is the finest weapon any of them have ever seen. Its blade looks blue in daylight and in torchlight almost seems to reflect the blood it’s thirsty to spill. Thorkill will not part with this: “You must do something worthy of fame before I give you the sword, for I myself could never get it from my father as long as he lived.”

The festival
At the feast they are given strong drink, then the youngest is bound with silk ribbons and carried out to the bonfire. [A character could Consider an uneasy situation if concerned.] He is shown to the flames and the men say, “Now this one will sacrifice to you, sons of the ice.” He’s then carried to a hut to lie with Senuna, the thrall; the only sacrifice, his virginity.

If somebody wants to essay a poem or song, so much the better. Our Icelanders campaign is historical, so there's no magic, but you'll want a numinous moment to evoke the solstice spirit, so how about giving the characters a spectacular view of the northern lights "like the hem of Odin's cloak brushing middle-earth".

*  *  *

The opening quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of "The Wanderer". The pictures are by the acclaimed illustrator John Vernon Lord, whose grandson happens to be one of our players. John coincidentally grew up in the same Derbyshire town as my dad. Much of the story has been swiped from Grettir's Saga, and I urge you to read that before running it. May the High One grant you peat for your fire, mead for your cup, and boon companions to share the long evenings of storytelling and merrymaking with.


  1. Thank you for sharing this road for the imagination, Dave. One point I find confusing, perhaps due to an ignorance of Scandinavian burial practices; how does Ulkar enter the barrow? A less-obvious entrance?

    God Jul!

    1. Good catch -- yes, there's a hidden tunnel into the barrow, but I forgot to mention it in the write-up. Now fixed. In our game the players found it somehow, probably thanks to the Wanderer character or Jamie Thomson's Persian thrall, who had a sharp eye.

  2. Thanks for the posts this year, Dave. Even those subjects I'm not interested in, are interesting. Over the last few years we've compared opinions on books, music, film, TV and others. Crucially we've missed the most important one, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Cheese or Ice Cream?!

    1. I'd go for the ice cream if it were just up to me, Andy, but my wife has a thing against it. I think she always thinks it's going to taste like Wall's vanilla.

    2. Scarred by Raspberry Ripple, perhaps? Of course, in a world without Cholesterol and Diabetes, it would be all three. For what it's worth I agree with Nigel, the Red Leicester has it! Happy new year,

    3. Stop me if I've told this one before, but when I was a nipper we found a cherry stone in a block of Wall's ice cream. My mum complained and Wall's sent around a van with a tub of real Italian ice cream. Unfortunately for them, as a PR exercise it backfired because after tasting the genuine article we never bought boring old Wall's ice cream ever again.

      As for cheese, I'll just say that Jarlsberg is The Nation's Favourite (TM) -- at least in this house.

    4. No, you've not mentioned that one before. I'm surprised they're still in business with that complaints policy. Still, it has given me a plan to get my wife to stop buying supermarket cheap own brand mint choc chip!

      Jarlsberg, I don't think I've tried it so I'll give it a whirl. I'm a Halloumi man myself. Providing it's not a fruity one, I'm as happy as a mouse who got the, erm...

    5. I'm supposed to be on a post-Christmas diet, Andy, but vicarious enjoyment of imaginary cheeses can't hurt. I like to grill halloumi myself. The squeakiness when you cut into it is part of the fun.

    6. Now you're talking. That or dry pan fried. That was my Christmas Day morning treat. Also the perfect accompaniment to a full English. Got to eat it while it's piping hot though. There's only lamb that I can think of that deteriorates in niceness the colder it gets.

      Reverting back to ice-cream, I'd tell you about a fantastic dish I had when I was in Italy. Unfortunately affogaton the name of it.

    7. I have to pass on this hot cheesy breakfast treat that Oliver Johnson recommended. You'll need:

      6 North Staffs Oatcakes (Sainsbury's have them)
      Colvin’s Hot Pepper Jelly
      150g Lancashire Cheese

      Oliver says: "Fry the pancakes in butter for a minute or two on a medium/hot heat so the edges are just slightly crispy, flip, put 30g or so of grated Lancashire in the middle of the cooked side, after another minute or so fold in half, fry off both sides so the cheese inside is gooey, repeat and serve with the Pepper Jelly. Yum!"

    8. I'm having palpitations just thinking about it, Dave. And probably will again after eating it. However, like your good self, I'm supposed to be tightening the belt. That said, I'm working gently into the diet and there's a Sainsbury's just down the road!

  3. Thanks for the prompt Andy. Dave sincerest thanks for all you’ve shared this year. In what’s been an otherwise challenging year for me a real source of enjoyment and escape for me has been your blog. I’m so pleased I can give a little back by backing Jewelspider (whilst selfishly salivating at the prospect of more Legend). I hope 2020 holds much happiness and success for you and yours. Ps. Probably cheese :-)

    1. Thanks, Nigel. And by this time next year, thanks to you and other generous patrons, I'm pretty confident Jewelspider will be published with all the artwork it needs.