The PCs are finally coming home to the village of Nidlirraholmen in Northlands after three long years of a-viking adventure in the southern climes. However, when they finally arrive, evil things are afoot: the clansmen have barricaded themselves into the great hall with lanterns burning low, and nobody recognizes the long-gone heroes, for they are believed dead. The clan chief Thorvald lies dead, yet unburied, for the wrath of horrible Nifur the Giant has prevented the proper rites. The PCs now have to win back their former position with the clan while simultaneously preparing to confront the horrible giant. Even more dangerous, however, might be the secret harbored by the revered chief Thorvald…
Characters are created at the beginning of the scenario, unless it’s slotted into an on-going campaign in some manner. Each player may describe freely the social standing his character used to have with the clan – appropriate choices are slaves, freemen, thanes and even immediate relatives of the jarl Thorvald. There are no balance issues here because these choices bring little benefit in the short term, but will all certainly complicate the character’s life in different ways.
We had three players who created a jarlson, a ringthane (a thane in service of a lord) and a foreign slave captured on the long journey. They also had a ship-full of loot and men, the last of their viking fleet.
The same holds true for character equipment: players can pretty much decide for themselves what kind of equipment and loot their characters are supposed to have after being out on an extended raid/odysseia for several years. As with social standing, great riches can be just as much of a challenge as they are a blessing.
Our players opted for a rather modest set of equipment. The long trip had been successful and there was loot, but the men of the ship expected to have their shares as well, so Bulfar, who led the expedition, was not very keen to throw money at problems the group encountered.
The Nordic setting of the scenario is filled based on group expectations and background knowledge during play, no need to fret about it excessively. Hollywood simplifications of matters will often serve just as well as the real thing, as long as the choices are otherwise valid. The fun of the game will not come primarily from realistic depiction of Nordic life; rather, the fun is in roaring like vikings and taking what rightfully belongs to this particular hero. Or dying ignomiously during the attempt, as the case may be.
During the scenario players will commit their characters to seeking different things. When you as the GM notice this happening, declare so and put up a rules-mechanical reward for success. I gave an experience level for such goals in my primitive-D&D, depends on the system what you might wish to give out. The important thing is to not have these rewards predefined: you’ll want to see the players commit to whatever they find important and then reward that, not just reward what you yourself would like to see. Conversely you don’t want to give out rewards afterwards, either; if a given goal was so trivial that it never surfaced as an ambition to your knowledge before it was accomplished, do not bother setting a reward. The players can always ask you if something they’re saddling up to try is worth a reward.
I won’t be listing likely goals in the scenario descriptions below because it really does depend on how the players react to the materials. Instead, here are some goals that I consider overall pretty likely to make an appearance based on the challenge material to be found in the scenario:
- Killing or driving off the giant.
- Becoming the new chief.
- Saving the survivors and escaping the village, leaving the giant to do what he wants.
- Regaining lost honor or welding broken kinship ties with specific NPCs.
- Burying chief Thorvald in an honorable manner.
- Saving the clan from the enroaching winter.
When the ship of the viking PC party comes home to Nidlirraholmen, it is obvious that everything is not alright: nobody is meeting them when spotters should have seen their colors from far off; no people are in sight. This is because the people have gathered into the great hall, guarding against the dread giant Nifur.
At the hall the characters will find a score of armed men, around twice as many as their own travel-weary band. These are led by Sigurd, a once-unremarkable armsman of chief Thorvald. He is tired of responsibility most of all, as he’s witnessed horrid slaughter and a slow bleeding of the wealth of the household during the last month, as the giant has returned night after night to nick an animal or a child. (The people will be all to happy to tell horror stories of how the giant goes about this.)
The chief himself died just before the giant started attacking, but his body still lies in state, for a honorable burial has been impossible during these weeks. Several key members of the household are away, either because the giant has slain them, or because they have kept away from the hearth in fear. The great hall of Nidlirraholmen is now filled with the women, children and animals of the clan, almost too fearful to go out even by daylight.
The PCs will have to decide on their goals in this situation. There are several problems to overcome if they are to engage with the situation and win back their place in their homeland:
Matters of identity: Sigurd will not recognize the PCs, and there’s nobody else obvious to do this either. It’s been too long, and they have changed on their travels. Also, they were thought dead: perhaps somebody saw the noble son swept into the sea, or the whole group overran by southlanders in a battle. While one or two of the NPC followers of the PCs might be recognized by their families, any nobility definitely will not be, especially if they claim kinship ties to the old chief. Part of this is suspicion, part honest forgetfulness, part is ambition: Sigurd wouldn’t mind ascending to be a chief himself if no better candidates appear. The situation may come to head in several different ways, but questing for a trusted witness or revealing a closely held clan secret to prove kinship are some ways for regaining position. Force of arms is also an option, especially if followed by clemency and wisdom. Failure to mollify Sigurd in some manner leads directly to no shelter from the night and potentially strife, which could end up with the PCs and their small band spending this or several nights out where the giant is.
In our game the whole group was closely tied with Bulfar Thorvaldsson, the son of the chief, so the identity question centered on him. Sipi played Bulfar, and while he brooked no insolence, he also didn’t quite manage to get himself and his crew overwhelmed by his suspicious kin. Instead he opted to reveal a shameful secret of his father to the clan, regaling a few trusted household members with the story of a fateful day with the bull that left his father unable to beget more children off women. This was certainly a secret that would be kept closely, so the question was mainly whether Sipi would dare to shame Thorvald’s memory this way just to gain Sigurd’s acceptance. The backstory condition itself was established by Sipi here; I considered it clever and entertaining enough as it simply changed the challenge of proving his identity into a challenge of outlasting his father’s new reputation as an eunuch. In other words, this was an example of negotiating a challenge into something more interesting for the player.
Matters of revenge: The characters are likely to have backstory hooks that point to this, and if not, they will most likely fail social checks or make choices that justify raising the ire of some enemies within the clan. Gaining temporary hospitality and non-agression with Sigurd and his men matters little when the characters threaten Sigurd’s power and honor so easily. The players will need to work to avoid conflict, or they will have to prepare to face one or more honor challenges, assassinations, demands for vergild or simple legal complaints, all of which weaken the clan. This will only cease when the characters again find an established place for themselves within the clan, which is somewhat unlikely with the giant crisis looming over everything.
In our session this particular challenge theme was constantly coming up because the players did not hesitate to step on toes to get things done. Owain, the foreign slave wizard made enemies for himself by openly casting his magics against the men of the household during their first meeting. Throdningen bested Sigurd in a fight and took him captive at the same time. Later Throdningen also threatened a respected elder woman (Thorvald’s father’s concubine, I seem to remember) of the house to get her to stop criticizing Bulfar. Plenty of ill-will, which then showed up in the form of armed challenges and even planned assassinations. Throdningen was ultimately forced to humble himself for a public apology, which further eroded his respect and encouraged brash young men against him. At the end of the session Bulfar had all but promised Throdningen’s head to his enemies right after the giant got through with him.
The matter of the giant: The above matters are brought to the fore by the background threat of the giant himself. More of him below, but for now it is good to remember that the giant forces the clan to keep as strong as it can, it inspires men to superstitions and complicates even simple matters, such as collecting enough wood for having the old chief burned in style. Definitely nobody can take up the real leadership of the clan before the giant has been dealt with, and if it is not, it will spell the doom of the whole clan in the long term.
In our game Bulfar Thorvaldsson was perhaps most occupied by regaining his position in the tribe, but all three PCs were agreed in the giant Nifur being the real goal of the scenario. The giant would have to be dealt with somehow if Bulfar was to regain his just position as the chief. As the other characters were tied to his fortunes and everybody faced either becoming homeless bandits or slaying the giant, the choice was pretty easy. Understand that this was not a prescribed GM plot point; the decision to confront the giant and drive it off or kill it was arrived at by the fiction tying together my backgrounds and character backgrounds created by the players. In slightly different conditions I could well imagine that the players could have paid off the giant (I’ll soon tell more of his motivations), in which case Sigurd would have become a much more dangerous foe, and Bulfar would have suffered no end about ignoring the will of his father.
The giant and the chief
The situation above is pretty static as it stands, mostly making life difficult for the PCs, but the three strong NPCs of the scenario change this. I’ll explain each and their goals separately:
Sigurd is an ultimately mediocre armsman in terms of personal virtue, even if he’s around the PCs in experience level. However, he rose to the occasion when the giant came, and now he’s trusted by the clan to make decisions on the best course of action. Sigurd is not a bad man, but neither is he good: it depends on the characters whether he will stoop to betraying them in some way, or even betraying the clan, if his personal future is threatened in some manner. Sigurd may also be engaged to marry a PCs sister if something like that would entertain the GM.
Sigurd is quite capable of killing, even in murder, if he believes that this would further the security of the clan or his safety. He also has friends and accomplices among the people of Nidlirraholmen, so as long as a PC is perceived suspicious or hostile to the village, Sigurd will find it easy to enlist others to do his work against the PCs.
In our game Sigurd proved a tenacious conservative voice; although the PCs managed to convince him and the rest of the people of their lineage, Sigurd withheld crucial resources from the PCs in the interest of the village. He also encouraged trouble, ultimately leading to a series of revenge attacks between the PCs and the villagers. However, Sigurd was always a moral challenge as well as practical: the PCs did not find outright killing him an honorable solution, and therefore remained patient despite his distrust.
The old chief has been dead for a while, but he lies restless. Should an immediate blood relative of his engage Nifur in battle or parlay, Thorvald will soon stir from his eternal slumber. The first time this happens it’ll take several hours for him to react, as his spirit needs to awaken; later it will be quicker and quicker for Thorvald to awaken, until ultimately he will not go back to death at all, becoming a night-gaunt or corpse-wight permanently.
Thorvald as an undead being is concerned solely with one thing, and that is preserving his family and his secret against the giant Nifur. Thorvald-the-wight has inhuman strength and his former skill in combat, but he is unresponsive and does not perceive the world around him easily. This is because his senses are clouded by death; he can only be reached by yelling in his ear or striking great blows at him, for Thorvald will ignore anything less. The only exception to this is Nifur, which Thorvald can perceive unnaturally from a great distance, hearing and seeing him through hill and dale. Thorvald will always know it if Nifur is engaged with his family.
Thorvald will outright ignore anybody who is not Nifur or a blood-relative of his; he has no love for his village or people, and will not hesitate to cause doom to fall on his people if that means the destruction of Nifur. Thorvald’s spirit will only depart when Nifur is destroyed and his secret is safe, or when he is given the burial rites of a great chief.
In our game Thorvald revealed his undead state when Bulfar tracked Nifur to his cave. Thorvald followed him, keen to destroy the giant before Bulfar should have an opportunity to engage the giant. Bulfar, however, wanted to protect his father’s corpse from being eaten by the giant, at which point he succeeded in calming the wight. Bulfar took Thorvald with him back to the village, intending to give his father an honorable burial, never guessing at the full motivation of the wight.
The centerpiece of this simple scenario is Nifur, an old and mighty giant. He is inextricably entangled with chief Thorvald, above: Nifur and Thorvald are brothers off the same mother, a giantess wooed by Thorvald’s father during adventures lost to time. Thorvald refused his giant heritage long time ago and became a chief of the northmen, while Nifur became a brutal creature of the wilds. Part of this is that Thorvald refused to challenge his brother and eat his remains, which would be necessary for a giant to become a stead-holder. Now that Thorvald is dead Nifur wants to have his body for his blasphemous giant rites, to revive and feed upon the giant-nature of his dead brother, to thereby extend his own ravagements another century.
Now Nifur is working to get at the body by destroying the village and the clan protecting it: he comes out only at night, for he sees in the darkness much better than humans do. Every night he comes out to make demands with his broken language, asking for meat and mead and riches, as well as Thorvald’s body. Nifur can be persuaded to leave the rest of his demands, but the body of Thorvald is unnegotiable. Not that Nifur has a lot of motivation or patience for negotiating with the puny humans, he knows that the village is quite beyond help and at his mercy.
The relevant part is that Nifur wants the body of Thorvald, while Thorvald is sworn to preserve the secret of his ancestry, for occult as well as practical reasons, even beyond the grave. This conflict pretty much fuels the whole scenario, so whichever way the players resolve it, that’s the ultimate goal. Nifur is quite happy to buy the body if anybody is willing to stoop to such ultimate villainy, for example. Or the characters might perform the rites and bury Thorvald; if they do it right they prevent both Thorvald and Nifur from messing with them later on.
What does it mean that Nifur is a giant: he is inhumanly large, strong and durable. but also rather stupid. He is also of a wild elemental substance, handling unexpected powers. Giants might change their shape and size, or fly, or turn invisible, control the weather, hide their heart or do other amazing things. The GM may reveal two of these supernatural abilities during the adventure to mess with the player characters.
In our game Nifur never had an opportunity or occasion to explain himself, nor did he need to. The PCs quickly took up the job of analyzing the giant’s strength and figuring out how to fell the brute beast. Traps were laid, the hideout found and plans made. Nifur almost managed to crush a couple of PCs to death with his hideous strength, but the PCs were also near killing him once. Nifur revealed one amazing power: he could stretch his limbs to unnatural lengths and warp his body in other ways. At the end Nifur was badly hurt, but managed to escape: if the game were long-term he would be sure to return whenever the characters got around to giving Thorvald the rites: Nifur’s own life depends on Thorvald, so he’ll definitely get suicidal if the occasion comes up.
This scenario is a fine beginning for a campaign, if such is desired. There are plenty of complex and not so complex rewards and consequences to different decisions made by the PCs:
- If Sigurd is encouraged to seek leadership, he might become a great chief, or a horrid pretender. PCs might find themselves either living under his rule or living homeless in the hills. All four outcomes (“good Sigurd” + “outlaw PCs”, “bad Sigurd” + “outlaw PCs”, “good Sigurd” + “PC lackey”, “bad Sigurd” + “PC lackey”) offer fine opportunities, as does killing Sigurd and dealing with the traditional blood vendetta from his family.
- If Thorvald is not buried, sooner or later he will become a malicious corpse-wight, perhaps escaping to the wilderness.
- If Nifur is left alive and any PC is kin to Thorvald, Nifur will certainly come for him. Likewise, if the PCs try to solve the situation by sailing away with the body, Nifur will follow sooner or later.
- If Nifur is not stopped, the PCs might end up leading a bunch of homeless northmen away from the destroyed settlement. Finding a new home, perhaps with a friendly jarl nearby, might require great deeds.
- If PCs slay Nifur, his mother could certainly come for reparations. My original inspiration for this scenario was (a combination of too much Descent and) Beowulf, so this makes some sense.
The end-result in any case is a solid situation to develop, with the PCs probably having many immediate and not-so-immediate goals to strive for. Certainly a campaign I wouldn’t be averse to playing.
What does the above scenario teach us?
I wrote this scenario down for pedagogical purposes, first and foremost. As can be seen, a challenge-based traditional roleplaying scenario is composed of three kinds of material:
- Backstory: details of the setting, geography, NPCs, previous events and such are very important to many, many styles of roleplaying. Here the important point is that all this material can be introduced to the players as a basis upon which the game will happen. This is not storytelling material for the GM to railroad the players through, it’s simply backgrounds for the actual events of play.
- Challenges: suggested challenges (setting-derived demands upon the characters) and goals (player-defined character motivations) are also very useful, because those help explain why the backstory is the way it is. In this case, for instance, the backstory about the giant brothers, burial rites and whatever is there to ground the very straightforward challenge of giant-slaying. The players might not take up that exact challenge (they might opt to try to sell the body to Nifur and hide the sordid exhange from the village, for example), but that’s one of the suggested possibilities.
- Consequences: what happens afterwards? A good scenario leads to interesting outcomes and is flexible in the challenges it offers.
An important point to note is that this is not a mind-blowingly complex and artistic method of roleplaying; very similar scenarios have been written often, although I have no idea how those scenario-writers have intented their scenarios to be played. It’s still great fun when properly implemented in play, though! I wrote more about the method of GMing in another post, but that’s mostly because I don’t see many people playing in this style anymore. At least few people tell about it in the internet if they do.
The scenario itself was the work of perhaps two minutes for me to set up, even if writing it down here took more time. This kind of game is very easy to run without preparation, too, as long as you have a good sense for what kind of backstory you really need. I ran the scenario as a part of a primitive-D&D exercise, so there’re no rules statistics here: I could tell you that my giant had Strength 20, Constitution 23 and Intelligence 6, but all that was really just winged in the fictional context of the game, so putting the numbers down here doesn’t serve any good purpose.
I can’t off-hand name any particular inspiration for this method of roleplaying or scenario-writing; I’ve read a lot of material about how roleplaying games have been played during the ’70s and the ’80s and this is based on that, but there is no particular names that pop up for me. So I don’t claim any originality either, even if I can’t think of any specific sources right now. There certainly is a lot of traditional roleplaying that is quite different as well; for example, my scenario here does not presume a plot like most of the ’80s stuff I’ve seen does.