“No living man am I! You look upon a woman!” 5 things I experience as a female role-player

For those of you who don’t recognise it, the quote is from The Lord of the Rings, specifically Eowyn’s response to the Witch King of Angmar (just before she kills him) when he tells her that he can be hindered by no living man. I think its relevant for a couple of reasons: firstly because people are still surprised when they meet women who role-play, and secondly because she’s the kind of awesome armour-wearing, sword-wielding woman you tend to find in RPGs.

In general, role-play is still male-dominated and in any given game you’re lucky to have one woman in the group. So, with this in mind I wanted to share a few things that I’ve noticed happen to me as a female role-player that I don’t think happen to my male friends quite so much (if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me!) This won’t reflect every woman’s experience and, from talking to other women, I think my negative experiences are probably on the milder end of the spectrum.

1. The character art.

I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone, but finding art that doesn’t make my awesome female characters look like someone’s wet dream can be tough. To illustrate, one of my favourite images I ever found was a dark elf who seemed to be dressed exclusively in belts (I actually found this funny enough to use as my character art, and created a backstory to explain why she only wore belts and not, y’know, any knickers). It can be so hard to find images where women look genuinely powerful that I actually have a folder dedicated to female character art on my computer, where I save likely images whenever I come across them.

Even when you manage to find art where the woman isn’t displaying copious breast, butt or leg, its next to impossible to find images of older women, non-white women, or women who aren’t incredibly beautiful. I’ve only found one or two images ever that I think look realistically like a woman who spends weeks at a time adventuring with no time to do her hair and makeup.

2. Feeling afraid

While I imagine everyone feels nervous the first time they met a new group, what I feel is more akin to fear, as it puts me in a position of vulnerability. I usually have to go and meet a group of strangers in the evening, normally all men who are bigger and stronger than me, and sometimes this will be at someone’s home. I’m aware that I’m taking a risk just by showing up, even in public spaces, because it’s still often in an isolated games shop full of blokes where I feel like an outsider. When I turn up and see another woman, I tend to feel extremely relieved. It’d be great if groups were a bit more aware of this and tried to make times/locations a bit more female friendly or less likely to intimidate a woman on her own. We might get a lot more women into the hobby this way.

3. Other players hitting on you in and out of game

This kind of relates to the previous point, as it’s another level of risk experienced by women in a male-dominated space that men don’t worry about to the same extent. In the majority of games, I’ve played, at least one member of the group has hit on me at some point. I’m lucky not to have experienced any sexual harassment as a result of playing but I’ve heard from lots of people who have. This means that when I play with a new group I always feel the need to mention that I have a boyfriend early, which is really silly and shouldn’t feel necessary, but it stops things getting awkward as soon as possible.

4. The rules are constantly mansplained

This one is probably the most annoying and ubiquitous for me. I find that in most games I’ve played, the GM and other players will assume I don’t understand the rules and will try to hand-hold me through my turns in combat (unasked). Even though I’m willing to concede that this might be with kind intentions, it can be really irritating when I’ve role-played for a number of years and know the rules as well as everyone else. It’s led me to become quite sensitive about other players or the GM explaining the rules to me, even when necessary! I have never seen this happen to such an extent (e.g. every. single. turn.) with fellow male role players.

5. PCs treat female characters differently IC

I only noticed this when I cross-played for the first time. Up until recently, I had only ever played female characters, so I just took how people treated them as par for the course. Playing as a male character I noticed a distinct difference in my IC interactions. My female characters, even when they were awful people, generally had positive relationships with the other PCs (and got away with quite a lot of shit in retrospect). If she was injured, someone usually helped her, and if she fucked up, she was always forgiven.

Playing a male character, I quickly noticed that I didn’t get the leeway I was used to, and that I was having to work a lot harder at building relationships with the other PCs. Suddenly, I was on a level with the other party members rather than ‘the female character.’ I don’t think this applies to such an extent when a man cross-plays as a female– in my experience, they tend to get treated the same as usual, possibility because the other players subconsciously don’t relate to them as a woman.

Since that experience, I’ve become really reluctant to play female characters, because (sadly) being ‘female’ is a notable characteristic that affects how others relate to you, whereas being male is the neutral/default choice and therefore doesn’t affect the character too much. It feels to me like I have more flexibility and freedom to shape my male characters, even when I’m more comfortable playing women. This is part of the reason that I’d quite like to play in an all-female group, to see if playing female characters feels any different in that context.

 
Thanks for reading. I’d be interested to hear from role-players both male and female if this feels familiar, or if there are other ways that your gender affects your experience as a role-player 😊

 

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Feeling thankful for my friends: bullying, school and being a nerdy teenager

Geek Blogs Unite’s theme week for this month is ‘Feeling Thankful’. I’m going to take the opportunity to write about how thankful I am for my four school friends – I know this isn’t strictly to the letter of the theme, as it suggested we write about ‘the geeky things we are thankful for.’ While I wouldn’t be so bold as to call my school friends ‘geeky things’ without their permission, being geeky has everything to do with why they mean so much to me.

To explain why, I’m going to paint a backdrop. This post is quite a bit more personal than I thought this blog would go, so bear with!

Anyone who knows me will know that I found school socially difficult and, as an adult, I often reflect on how glad I am that I’m no longer an adolescent. I liked the vast majority of my classes, I was good at them and doing tests and homework gave me a buzz. In primary school, this oddity didn’t seem to be an issue – it made people more likely to be my friend if anything. When I went to senior school, it took me a while to notice that the social rules had changed (which is fairly typical for me), so for a good few months I made no secret of the fact that I loved homework and tests. And even though I might be moderately attractive these days, back then I was ginger, overweight and had braces – in short, I had the whole package.

At my school, the word of choice for kids like me around 2007 was ‘f**king boff’, or ‘boff’ if I was lucky. According to Urban Dictionary: “Boffin was a common colloquial term used in Britain during WW2 for the technical experts, the backroom boys, who were helping to win the war. An affectionate term, but with some practical fighting man’s scorn for the academic brain worker.” When I was called this, I certainly felt more scorn than affection from the practical fighting man, to put it mildly.

When I asked the four of them how we became friends and when, the answers were almost universally in the region of ‘I have no idea!’ and I’m not entirely sure either. Despite the fact that we all get along incredibly well and have been friends for over a decade, we don’t actually have a huge amount of interests in common, and it’s fair to say that we’re all very different people. I often find that when you see groups of girls together, they often look similar, sound similar, have similar interests and jobs. That’s really not the case with us.

So, we might have become friends because we were in the same form, because we were grouped together on a trip to the zoo, because we disliked the same people (strangely, I often find that this creates an instant bond…) or because we shared the same dorm at our year 7 residential. The last point is what sticks out for me as a defining moment.
So, at the end of the first year of senior school, the whole year group went on a residential. By this time, I still didn’t really have any friends, and spent a lot of breaks and lunchtimes reading in the girls’ loos to avoid anyone finding out. This residential itself was probably one of the worst weeks of my school life, for a number of reasons:

  1. It was a sports and adventure residential. I hate sports, adventure and being outside for prolonged periods of time. I detest being sweaty, muddy, cold or uncomfortable in any way. I have been told that I moan a lot.
  2. I broke my little toe on the first day during a morning run and was too embarrassed to tell anyone with any authority, and none of my classmates (including my friends!) believed me as everyone knew how much I disliked sports. So I carried on with all the week’s activities regardless.
  3. A rumour began that I had a crush on one of the most popular boys in the year – let’s call him Joffrey. This was extremely unjust in my opinion. In our dorm, one of the girls asked us all who we thought was the cutest boy in our year. I was too young to find anyone attractive, but another girl with more social kudos than me said she thought Joffrey was hot, so I copied her to avoid being thought weird. By the next day, everyone had heard, including Joffrey and his girlfriend. He and his friends proceeded to mock me regularly for a couple of years.

The five of us, along with a couple of other girls, happened to share a dorm together, which basically meant a week of sleepovers. We bonded over the fact that there was no hot water and that we had to shower two at a time in swimming costumes to not freeze to death. We also bonded over injuries – as well as my toe, which swelled to twice the size and turned purple, one of my friends ended up with a head injury.

After we came back from the residential, we just started hanging out together like it was natural, which was just wonderful. From there, school was an upwards trajectory for me. Once I had a few friends I could rely on (and I could always rely on them), I didn’t mind being ignored by everyone else. By and large this was the case, with occasional troughs and peaks either when someone got bored with the joke (me), or a new person found me interesting enough to pick on.

dav
Beauteous  artwork attributed to jessiful

Despite the fact that they think most of my hobbies are weird, my school friends were among the first to indulge my nerdier inclinations. For example, a few years ago, they all agreed to let me GM a one-shot of Dark Heresy for them, which actually went surprisingly well. And this year, I have this creature to the right made by one of my best friends which I fully intend to hang on my Christmas tree. I imagine it’s very obvious that I am not a photographer, but it’s so cute that I had to try.

They gave me the confidence I needed to do what I wanted to do without caring what other people thought of me or my hobbies, and they (along with the tests, homework and lessons of course) made my time at school enjoyable. I won’t say this often, but I think it was worth being sweaty, muddy, cold, uncomfortable, limping and embarrassed at that residential to find them.

‘A wizard walks into a bar…’: 5 questions to answer if you want a cohesive RPG party

‘An elderly wizard walks into the bar. He is clutching a bloodstained map. He wheezes, “I seek aid from adventurers to travel through the Labyrinth of Skulls, to retrieve the stolen treasure hoard of King Vaughn. The hoard is guarded by…urgh.” And then he dies still clutching the map. You look around the tavern and see a number of other folks present who might just be adventurers. Maybe you should form an adventuring company to retrieve this missing treasure hoard…’
Hello, and welcome to the ‘A Wizard Walks into a Bar…’ Challenge. The following article is written by the owner of this website in response to the quote above, and you are invited to participate. The rules are simple:

  • Copy and paste the italicized text into the top of your blog post.
  • Title the post ‘A Wizard Walks into a bar…’
  • Write an article about RPGs inspired by the quote. That’s the only rule as far as content goes
  • Make sure to credit the blog where you found the challenge with a hyperlink here: It’s more than just gaming
  • Finally, go read/comment on/link to and share other participants posts!

This week I’m taking part in a blogging challenge created in collaboration with Its More than Just Gaming – you can find the link in the text above. This is open to anyone who wants to take part, and we hope this will be the first of a series of three challenges. Thanks very much to John for writing the text this week – I’ll be doing the next one 😊 You can find his article here.

So, onto my response:

The stereotype for rpg party formation is that a group of adventurers meet in ye olde taverne by happenstance and band together to defeat The Plot. I’ve certainly played successful campaigns where the characters have more or less met this way, but in my experience, this is not how the most memorable parties are formed. So, inspired by the challenge paragraph, my post is about how to create and maintain group cohesion from the beginning. I’ll be using quite a few examples, both good and bad, from my own games, with the approval of my role-play group (who have all added their ten pence worth).

Introducing the Bully Boys

The most cohesive party I have ever played in happens to be my current one, which is part a Curse of Strahd campaign [there may be very very minor spoilers ahead], so I’m going to be using it as an example a few times. The party concept is this: the Bullingdon Boys (or, more affectionately, The Bully Boys) are ostensibly a group of con artists pretending to be adventurers – this schtick is part of their shared backstory and, at the beginning of the campaign, it has been moderately successful. As a result, they are mistaken for real adventurers and trapped in Barovia, with the irony being that somewhere along the way, while pretending to be heroes, they become real heroes. While they started out pretending that they were going to kill the evil vampire lord, Strahd, in order to win fame and fortune and then scarper without doing the deed, they have come to the conclusion that actually killing Strahd is really important.

The Bully Boys really WORK as a party, and I think it’s the first time I’ve been party of a group with a whole party concept – its also the first time I’ve been in an adventuring party that’s had a collective name and identity. We each worked with that when creating our individual characters and backstories, so that our motivations and objectives were broadly aligned with that of the Bully Boys. If you’re interested, we have a campaign diary here, maintained by our GM Miles. The description of each party member is here.

 

Bully Boys Low Res.jpg
Our beautiful character art by Matt Synowicz

I’ve also played in extremely mismatched adventuring parties – this can sometimes work too. However, most have ended up becoming quite antagonistic, and forced the PCs to come up with on-the-fly reasons why characters who dislike each other and have different goals and motivations would stick together, so that we don’t break the plot.

 

Without further ado, from my experience to date, the five questions I’ll be considering when I create my next adventuring party:

What is the ultimate objective?

A cohesive party has to have a shared objective that all members care about or, at the very least, their objectives need to take them to the same end goal.

I played a campaign of Numenera where my character, the party leader, had a very focussed objective; namely, to obtain a certain magical object. All other characters were hired by, or chose to follow, my character to help her achieve this objective, and that was the sole basis of our adventuring party being together. The problem with this was that when shit started going down, why would those hired hands stick around? Their objective was to earn money, and mine was to obtain the object. Realistically, those two goals wouldn’t have lead those characters to the same places. My character had to go on quests for monetary rewards she shouldn’t really have been interested in, whereas the characters motivated by money went into situations that were life threatening when they really had no reason to do so, in order to make sure the plot kept moving.

If I compare this to the Bullingdon Boys, broadly their objective is fame and fortune, though individual characters do have sub-goals. The fact that we all agree that being famous and rich is important has lead us to agree that defeating Strahd is the best way to meet our shared goal.

So my advice would be to decide on an objective that every character agrees upon. In moments of disagreement, come back to that.

Why do they stick together?

Once you’ve thrashed out the objective of the party, you should be some way to answering this already. If my objective is to make money, why do I choose to make money with these guys as opposed to those guys? If you adventure together for circumstantial reasons, when things get tough, or other opportunities come up, why are you not taking them? Is it that you just like the other characters a lot? Are you related to them, beholden to them, or loyal to them for some other reason?

To use a different example, in Dark Heresy, you play a cell of acolytes who are ordered to work together by the Inquisition. The penalty for failing to abide by those orders is death. So all characters have to agree to obey the Inquisition to take part in the plot, in spite of their backstory and private motivations. Whether they agree with the Inquisition is pretty much irrelevant until the point they decide not to obey any longer, as this means that they leave the party.

What is their history?

Having a history together, even if it isn’t well fleshed out, is a really good way to link your characters. At the very least, work out how they met and how long they’ve known each other. As I touch on in this post, ideally each PC should have a definable relationship and backstory with every other PC. A strong session 0 can really help to create these relationships. If your party has a shared history, this will go some way to explain why they stick together and what their ultimate objective is.

To use the Bully Boys again, two of the characters are brothers, so they have a long history together. The other two characters are essentially criminal partners, disguised as paid servants, and each backstory describes when and how they joined the group: all of this took place prior to the campaign, so that the story started with characters who already had a relationship and a past together that they could discuss and refer to IC from the very first session.

What are their shared values?

This is not so much to do with objectives, but the things that all the PCs think are morally important. At the simplest level, this could be considered ‘party alignment’ – Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, Chaotic Evil. Characters will be individual, but ideally there should be points everyone agrees upon to avoid excessive antagonism, such as whether its’ acceptable to loot corpses, torture people for information, or the loyalty of the party to certain authority figures.

To make this simple, all new joiners to the Bully Boys now have to recite an oath which pretty much lays this out (credit to Isaac for this):

“I [blank] do swear by these words, that as a loyal Bully Boy I will always uphold the Bully Values: money, loyalty to my fellow Bully Boys, and good running shoes in the event it all goes south! From this day until my last day, I will not rest until my coffers are full; my tankard overflows with fine wine; and the rights of Cornelius Pfeffil Bullingdon as the Marquis of Saxonia have been restored.”

I think its safe to say that we’re a Neutral party…

What are the characters’ non-negotiables? What action would be so bad that it would force them to leave the party, and what would they forgive?

While party harmony and cohesion is nice, I find it’s a good idea to have an idea which what values your character is unwilling to compromise on – everyone will have a breaking point, whereby certain actions would force them to leave an adventuring party or come to blows. Your character might be a generally righteous person willing to overlook a theft or two for the greater good, but when it comes to killing innocent people, they might just be willing to turn against their companions.

That said, it’s important not to be too rigid in your character’s ideas that they won’t ever compromise, or that the slightest disagreement will lead to PvP, as this can make it quite difficult for others to play the characters they want at the expense of upsetting a single PC. If you don’t want to end up fighting your companions, either makes sure your values are mostly shared, or only have 1 or two that you won’t compromise on.

In a 13th Age campaign I played in, one of the PCs was stoic dwarf called Relgin who had a personal grudge against Necromancy. However another PC was a Necromancer, posing as a perfectly ordinary wizard – he was called Setra. In a particularly trippy dungeon, we came across a room where the PCs could make unbreakable promises, just after Relgin witnessed Setra performing obviously necromantic magic for the first rime. Relgin demanded that Setra promise not to cast any necromantic spells from now on. This would have pretty severely compromised Setra’s abilities, so he refused, but Relgin’s character was founded upon his hatred of necromancy, so he felt unable to continue without that promise. This lead to a stand-off, where no one was willing to move forwards. In the end, we had to ret-con Relgin’s discovery that Setra was a Necromancer, in order to progress the game, and Relgin agreed to remain wilfully ignorant. This was an example of two characters’ values being so opposed that it impeded the plot very nearly ended with PvP or one or both characters leaving the party.

 

Thanks very much for reading and I hope you found this useful. If there’s anything you think I missed or that you disagree with, let me know in the comments. If you’re interested in taking part in this challenge, remember to link me 😊

 

Happy Hel-oween: Zombie Vikings, Germanic monsters and Old Norse witches

In recogition of Halloween, I’ve decided to write about my favourite spooky, freaky supernatural moments in early Germanic literature – I’m mainly looking at Old Norse stuff, but a bit of Old English has crept in. In general, Germanic sagas and poems are pretty gory, so there is quite a lot of disturbing stuff I could have picked that’s not at all supernatural, e.g. Freydis murdering a house full of sleeping women with an axe. But as its Halloween, we’ll stick to ghosts, ghouls and the like.

I have included some actual Old Norse and Old English, where I have it to hand, just for anyone who’s interested. Also, I really hope you like puns, because there are plenty ahead.

Hel no!

As I’ve named this post after her, I have to mention Hel – I’m going to mention her name a total of three times in the next sentence alone. So the word ‘Hel’ is completely unrelated to the English word ‘hell’, but the Norse Hel did happen to control the underworld, and ‘hel’ is regularly used to mean the afterlife in Old Norse.

The daughter of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, Hel is said to be half corpse and half living woman. When Odin discovers her existence, along with Loki’s other monsterous children, he banishes her:

Hel he threw into Niflheim and gave her authority over nine worlds, such that she has to administer board and lodging to those sent to her, and that is those who die of sickness or old age…Her hall is called Eliudnir, her dish Hunger, her knife Famine…her threshold where you enter Stumbling-block, her bed Sick-bed…She is…rather downcast and fierce-looking.

(Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturluson, in Edda, ed. and trans. Anthony Faulkes, p. 27)

So basically, anyone who does not die in battle, including all women, elderly people and children, will not go to Valhalla and instead will go to the underworld to be cared for by Hel, which from the above doesn’t sound particularly inviting. The afterlife is rubbish for Vikings unless you’re a warrior.

Greenlandic-Viking-Zombies

Any Old Norse story you read where someone visits the Western settlement in Greenland is probably going to result in something awful happening. For some reason, it seems to have a literary reputation of being full of witches, spirits, zombies and supernatural sickness. Interestingly, the Eastern Settlement in Greenland doesn’t seem to have the same associations and sounds like a pretty nice place to live.

There are quite a few draugar (Viking Zombies!) incidents in the sagas about Greenland – no one seems quite to stay dead there. The spookiest example, I think, is in Eirik the Red’s Saga. So this guy called Thorstein, his wife, Gudrid, and a party of their men are blown off course in their ship and end up in the Western settlement of Greenland. They have to stay with a farmer called Thorstein the Black (there are a confusing number of Thorsteins). During their visit, a large number of the party get mysteriously sick and die, including the wife of their host. During the night the corpse of Thorstein the Black’s wife tries to get into bed with the visitors. Luckily visitor-Thorstein makes pretty sharp work of her and hits her in the boob with an axe – this seems to solve the issue.

For reference, I’m reading the translation in Sagas of Icelanders, translated by Jane Smiley.

Grendel, Grendel, Grendel!

This isn’t Old Norse, but since Grendel from Beowulf is one of my all-time favourite monsters, I felt I had to include him. For anyone who isn’t familiar with Beowulf, its an epic poem in Old English about a warrior (called Beowulf), who travels to Heorot, which somewhere in Sweden, to kill a pair of monsters that have been traumatising the people of King Hrothgar. The first monster is called Grendel and is a horrific cannibal monster-thing who hates people having a good time, and frequently visits Heorot to kill and maim Hrothgar’s thanes:

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands,
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.

(Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, p. 24)

Ða cōm of mōre under misthleoþum ō
Grendel gongan, godes yrre bær;
mynte se mānscaða manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan in sele þām hēan.

(Beowulf lines 710 – 713, p. 69 in Beowulf: A Student Edition, ed. George Jack)

Beowulf sets a trap for the monster. He knows Grendel hates the sound of parties and fun, so he and his band of warrior have a jolly good time drinking mead in Heorot and making loads of noise, and then settle down and pretend to be asleep, in the hope that Grendel will attack. He does, and quickly makes short work of a couple of warriors:

Mighty and canny,
Hygelac’s kinsman was keenly watching
for the first move the monster would make.
Nor did the creature keep him waiting
but struck suddenly and started in;
he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench,
bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
utterly lifeless, eaten up
hand and foot.

(Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney, pp. 24 – 25)

Þryðswyð behēold
mǣg Higelāces, hū se mānscaða
under fǣrgripum gefaran wolde.
Ne þæt se āglǣca yldan þōhte,
ac hē gefēng hraðe forman sīðe
slǣpendne rinc, slāt unwearnum,
bāt bānlocan, blōd ēdrum dranc,
synsnǣdum swealh; sona hæfde
unlyfigendes eal gefeormod,
fēt ond folma.

(Beowulf lines 735 – 745, pp. 70 – 71 in Beowulf: A Student Edition, ed. George Jack)

The fight scene is incredibly gory and vile, and therefore very much befitting the Halloween season. There are also several other horrible monsters in Beowulf, including sea monsters, a water-hag-thing and a dragon, so if you love warriors, fiends and gore, I’d recommend the Seamus Heaney translation of the text. It isn’t an exact translation, so it isn’t great for study, but it does portray the style and pace of the poem really well.

Foreign witches are stealing our kings!

Similar to the Western settlement in Greenland, in sagas the Hebrides are absolutely full of witches. If a Hebridean woman crops up in a story, you can almost guarantee she is about to ruin people’s lives with her sorcery. Same goes for Sámi women – you might say that Norse people didn’t trust foreigners very much. This one happens to be about a Sámi woman called Snjófríðr.
King Harald Fairhair, a semi-legendary Norwegian king, is tricked into marrying Snjófríðr by her father, after he drinks some enchanted mead. He falls for her so hard, that he forgets to govern his kingdom. She eventually dies, in circumstances that are not explained, and Harald continues to sit beside her corpse for three years, refusing to let her body be taken from him. Miraculously, the body doesn’t decay. Finally, his advisors persuade the king that they should be allowed to move the body in order to change its clothes. When they do, the body falls to pieces and putrefies, and only then is the spell on King Harald broken.

And when she was moved there issued from the body a rank and fulsome stench and foul odours of every sort. A pyre was hastily prepared and she was burnt but before that the body blackened and there bubbled out worms and vipers, frogs and toads, and multitudes of vermin. She sank thus into ash, but the king rose to wisdom and abandoned his folly…

Ok þegar er hón var hrœrð, þá sløri á óþefjani ok ýldu ok hverskyns illum fnyk af líkaminn, ok ullu ór ormar ok eðlur, froskar ok pǫddur, ok allskyns illyrmi. Seig hón svá í ǫsku, en konungr steig til vizku ok hugði af heimsku…’

(Ágrip af Nóregskonungasǫgum, ed. and trans. M. J. Driscoll, pp. 6 – 7)

I would direct you in particular to one of my favourite Old Norse words – ‘fnyk’, which means ‘horrible odours’. Just so you know, this story is recounted in a piece of writing called ‘Ágrip af Nóregskonungarsǫgum’ or ‘A synoptic history of the kings of Norway’, and is presented as absolute fact.

The Hrapp-ening (Viking ghosts)

Ghosts crop up reasonably often in Old Norse sagas, and are generally regarded as an unfortunate fact of life, just like damp or a moth infestation. A memorable one is the ghost of a guy named Hrapp, who was considered ‘difficult to deal with’ in life disliked by everyone in the neighbourhood. On his deathbed, still unwilling to stop pissing everyone off, he asks his wife bury him upright under the doorway to the kitchen so that he can keep watch over his house.

‘Everything was done just as he had instructed, for she [his wife] dared not go against his wishes. But if it had been difficult to deal with him when he was alive, he was much worse dead, for he haunted the area relentlessly. It is said that in his haunting he killed most of his servants. To most of the people living in the vicinity he caused no end of difficulty and the farm at Hrappsstadir became deserted.’

(The Saga of the People of Laxardal, The Sagas of Icelanders, ed. and trans. Jane Smiley, pp. 297-8)

To deal with the problem, the local chieftain and his men disinter Hrapp and move him elsewhere. Even so, Hrapp’s old farm, aptly named ‘Hrappsstadir’ or Hrapp’s place, brings bad luck and the next man to live there becomes insane.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What even is ‘table-top role-playing’?

So, an rpg (role-playing game) is basically any game where you play as a particular character and make decisions for them that affect the outcome of the story. There are loads of video game rpgs you might be familiar with, like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, World of Warcraft, The Witcher – pretty much anything where your choices as the player character impact the plot.

Table-top rpgs are similar in principle, except that they’re played as a group and the plot is created by the players. Basically, about five people sit around a table with dice, pens and paper and a rule book, and speak and act as their imaginary characters having adventures in an imaginary setting for a few hours. They use dice to determine whether they succeed or fail in whatever they want to do (so there’s always a chance of failure and/or death) and paper to keep track of character progression, equipment, statistics, wounds etc. The most famous table-top rpg is Dungeons and Dragons, which is set in a fantasy world with dwarves, elves and dragons, but there are loads and loads of other systems and settings to choose from.

One person around the table is the GM (Game Master, or Dungeon Master, or sometimes Master of Ceremonies), and their role is a bit different.

The Game Master

The role of the GM is to be the interface of the game and to manage the players. They don’t have a character to play, but instead control basically everything else. Everything that happens, apart from the actions of the player characters, is up to them, including the setting, plot and the actions of all NPCs (non-playable characters – every other character in the story that isn’t a player). They also look after the rule book and make decisions on the mechanics of gameplay, based on the guidelines there.

Their job is to make sure the game runs smoothly, kind of like being the Chairperson or referee but with more creative license. Often the GM will design the plot/adventure that the PCs are part of, though this can also be co-created with players or they can follow a pre-written adventure book, depending on preference.

The PCs

Everyone other than the GM will be a PC (player character). Each player creates and controls a character. There are a couple of restrictions on that control: firstly, while the GM can’t take charge of your character, they can make decisions about what is and isn’t allowed within the rules of the game, and secondly, whether or not a PC is able to do what they want will sometimes be subject to a successful dice role.

To create a character, players fill out a character sheet using the rule book, which defines what kind of person the character is, their personality, appearance, as well as their talents, skills and traits, and weaknesses. They will also determine their ‘characteristics’ or stats, which will tell you know how well or badly PCs can do certain things. For example, if you have high Dexterity, your character will probably be faster, better at using bows and sneaking, while if they have high Strength, they will be better at lifting things and may do extra damage when they hit stuff.

The D.

There are a number of different systems that dictate success or failure of actions, but they’re usually based around dice. Typically, if a player wants to perform an action where there is a chance of failure, they will roll a dice to see if they succeed or not – they might get to add to or subtract from the role, depending on their stats, environment, or how good their character is at the action.

The most famous dice system is probably the d20 system of Dungeons and Dragons which revolves around using twenty-sided dice (which Big Nerds call a d20). However, there are systems that use d100s, standard d6s, or pools of different sized dice.

There are a couple of games that use playing cards or a jenga set to determine whether an action is successful instead of dice.

The Setting

You can pretty much set an rpg anywhere you like, since the GM has complete creative control of the game. For example, I’ve played in the following settings:
• Middle earth
• Viking Age Iceland (because of course I have)
• Generic high fantasy
• Warhammer 40k
• Post-apocalyptic dystopia
• 90s-teen-high-school-supernatural-romance (á la Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Why would anyone do such a weird thing?

For me, because it’s really fun and its super creative. The lack of a board or computer interface means that you rely on imagination to create the story, so the possibilities are unlimited. You get to make up and star in awesome stories with your friends – some of these stories may last years and follow the characters through major arcs. Frankly, it’s also really great to get to pretend to be someone else, living in a different world for a while. It’s easy to get attached to your character when you’ve been playing them for some time, and I may have cried once or twice when a PC has died…

Why do you play table-top rpgs? Would you consider trying it out? Let me know in the comments!

Who was the coolest Viking lady?

A friend of mine recently asked me who the coolest Viking lady was. I got so excited thinking about this, that I decided to write an entire blog post about cool Viking ladies who really float my long-ship. I have also put a handy reading list at the bottom, where you can find the best versions of all the sagas/poems I mention.

Please note: a number of these ladies probably didn’t exist or weren’t strictly Vikings (as they didn’t all do the raiding thing), but they are all medieval Norse people!

Hervör Angantyrsdottir

My favourite non-historical cool Viking lady has to be Hervör, who is one of the protagonists of The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek and of the poem The Waking of Angantyr.

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I think this is meant to be Hervör chatting to her dad in his grave mound

Hervör wore men’s clothing and adopted the male name Hjörvard so she could go raiding and pillaging with impunity, which is pretty darn cool. The most impressive part of her story takes place in The Waking of Angantyr, in which Hervör sails her crew to a haunted island to retrieve her father’s magic sword, Tyrfing, from his grave mound. There is an epic stand-off between Hervör and the ghosts of her father and uncles, in which they tell her repeatedly that a woman could not wield a sword as mighty and dangerous as Tyrfing. I won’t spoil the ending, but honestly, it’s a great read.

Unn the Deep-Minded

This one is an actually-probably-historical cool Viking lady, and probably my all time favourite. Although not strictly a Viking (as she didn’t go a-raiding), Unn, sometimes called Aud just for confusion, was a bad-ass old Norse lady (and Old Norse lady). After the death of her husband and all her sons, Unn had a ship built and sailed from the Hebrides with a crew of men under her command to Iceland, where she founded a successful settlement and became a respected female chieftain. She was probably pretty elderly by Viking standards when she did this, as its recorded that she married off a load of grandchildren at various points along the journey. Also ‘the Deep-Minded’ is such a great epithet. You can read more about her in The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which she is a founder of one of the main settlements.

Brynhild

This is another legendary female warrior who probably didn’t really exist. Brynhild was a Valkyrie, who are mythological beings, sort of like immortal war angels, who fall in love with particular warriors and protect them in battle.

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She probably killed her ex with that spear.

Brynhild was also the first love of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, who you might have heard of, and is an important character in The Saga of the Volsungs – the saga about Sigurd and his family. This Valkyrie was a stone-cold badass. After Sigurd is tricked into betraying her and falling for another woman, Brynhild stabs Sigurd while asleep in bed next to his new bride, and then flings herself onto his burial pyre so they can be together for eternity. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of heroism you would want to emulate, but it is a pretty cool story. Don’t cheat on Valkyries, even if you are cursed by a witch: it never ends well. There is also a great poem about Brynhild’s death called Brynhild’s Journey to Hell, where she stops on her way to the underworld to argue with a giantess about the appropriateness of her reaction to Sigurd’s betrayal. Surprisingly, she comes out of the debate looking quite reasonable.

Gudrun Gjúkadóttir

Gudrun was Sigurd’s second love and the above-mentioned bride in bed with her new husband when he is stabbed to death by his ex. So, Gudrun’s mother bewitched Sigurd to make him forget Brynhildr and fall in love with Gudrun, who he then marries. Once Sigurd is killed by Brynhild, life becomes pretty shit for Gudrun, as she and Sigurd actually had quite a good relationship. She is forced to marry a guy called Atli (who is probably meant to be Atilla the Hun!), who happened to have killed her entire family earlier in the story. Now, here is where Gudrun shows some bad-assery of her own and really sheds light on the kind of women Sigurd tended to go for. Unlike Brunhild, Gudrun decides to play the long game in terms of her revenge on the man who has pissed her off. After being married to Atli for a bit and having had two kids with him…she kills both her sons, has them baked into pies and then serves them to her husband. Still not yet satisfied, she then burns down his mead hall to kill everyone instead before attempting to drown herself. It’s all pretty ghastly. However, there are also couple of really quite romantic poems attributed to Gudrun about her grief over Sigurd’s death in the Poetic Edda (basically the definitive collection of Old Norse legendary poetry). Really, this is about as romantic as Old Norse poetry gets.

Freydis Eiríksdóttir

My love of Freydis rests on a single scene that appears in one version of her story. Freydis was the daughter of Erik the Red, famous for founding the Viking settlement in Greenland, and the sister of Leif Erikson, thought to be the first European to discover America, so she was probably a historical person. She appears in both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders. In both stories, she is the only woman in a group of Greenlanders who discover and settle North America, but her portrayal is pretty different in each.

I really like her in Erik the Red’s Saga. When she is eight months pregnant, the camp is attacked by Native Americans. Lots of the men are frightened of them and their strange weapons, but Freydis tells them all to stop being cowards. She then whips out her tit and slaps it repeatedly with a sword, screaming nonsense, which terrifies the attackers so much that they flee.

However, for the sake of fairness, I should mention that in the Saga of the Greenlanders, she is a pretty dreadful woman who murders the wives of her business partners with an axe while they’re sleeping, basically because she gets jealous of their longhouse.

Gudrun Ósvífursdóttir

This Gudrun was probably a historical person and is one of the main characters of The Saga of the People of Laxardal, in which Unn the Deep-Minded also features.

Gudrun_and_the_spear
Gudrun is giving him a death stare because he just killed her third husband and is using her shawl to clean his weapon.

Gudrun is famous for being the most beautiful woman in Iceland and is married four times in total, with all her marriages ending in unfortunate circumstances. The central drama of the saga is a love triangle between Gudrun and a pair of foster brothers, Kjartan and Bolli, that divides Laxardal.

Gudrun prefers Kjartan out of the two brothers – since while both brothers are pretty great, Bolli is just slightly less impressive than Kjartan. However, Kjartan ends up going on a Viking expedition and leaving Gudrun at home and she is deeply unimpressed. To get back at him, she marries his foster brother, Bolli. This decision leads to the death of quite a large number of people.

Cool Norse Lady Reading List

The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek – available in PDF form here

The Waking of Angantyr, The Lays of Gudrun, Brynhild’s Journey to Hel – all in this translation of the Poetic Edda

The Saga of the People of Laxardal – in this really epic compilation of the Sagas of Icelanders

The Saga of the Volsungs

Both Erik the Red’s Saga and The Saga of the Greenlanders can be found here, in the Vinland Sagas

 

 

‘I roll to seduce the ghoul’: 10 ways table-top role players can raise their game

The above is a quote from a combat in a Warhammer Fantasy one-shot, in which my entirely randomly generated character only had two advantages to work with: an ‘Outrageous Hat’ in her starting equipment and off-the-charts Fellowship stats. Most GMs would discourage this kind of behaviour in all but the sillest one-shots. As a player, I felt I did my best with what I had.

To make up for the occasional past misdemenour on my part, here are ten things you can do to befriend your GM, role play a bit better and become your party’s Favourite Person. This is purely based on my own experience, so feel free to publicly comment, agree or disagree with me, or to politely excuse yourself from any interaction whatsoever.

1. Play as a team

While the best players are attached to their own character and story arc, they recognise that they aren’t the only protagonist. You are co-staring in the story with all the other PCs (player characters). Be as willing to explore other party members’ story arcs as your own and try to champion the interests of the whole party. The vast majority of table-top RPGs are designed to be co-operative, and you will generally get the most out of them if you work together and share the limelight.

2. Make an effort to bring in other characters

If someone has been a bit quiet for a while or if they’re character isn’t really involved in the plot arc, find a reason to engage them. Ask them a question in character, whether that’s ‘Skull-crusher, what do you think we should do?’ or ‘Clarence, pray examine this magical item and relay to me your ponderings’. Some players might find it difficult to shoe-horn themselves into a scene and just need a bit of encouragement to get involved. As above, you’re all co-starring in the story, so if one or two characters are making all the decisions or driving the plot on their own, it’s going wrong.

3. Work with the GM, not against him

The GM’s only ulterior motive (if he is a good GM – I may do another post about this!) is that everyone is having fun, himself included. Try to engage with the plot, the hooks and the leads that the GM provides and make his job easier, not harder. This doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. In fact, being creative often means that the GM has less work to do, because you’re giving him more to work with. Add your own flavour and try to solve the GM’s problems imaginatively, so that you’re all working together move things forward, rather than deliberately sabotaging the story or passively listening to a pre-written plot.

4. Be patient with new or unconfident players

Not everyone will get it right away and that’s fine. Some of these players will be great additions to the party further down the line. This is a niche hobby and we really can’t afford to turn people off by intimidating them! Keep explaining the rules and help new players by explicitly laying out their in-game options – this was really helpful to me when I started. It sometimes takes a while to click that in a table-top RPG, you really can do anything. If they are a little shy about role-playing their character, try to bring them out of their shell by asking questions and always address their character, rather than the player. If you make an effort to immerse them in the story, chance are they’ll follow suit and pick it up.

5.Recognise the pace of the story

Sometimes PCs will get caught up having an interesting and engaging discussion about something minor – that’s fine and all part of the fun. Just as in creative writing, sometimes it’s important to slow the pace and focus on an entertaining moment that might really aid character development, even if it doesn’t advance the plot. Equally, notice when nothing has happened for a while and you need to pick up the pace and keep things moving, even if it means curtailing an in-character interaction you find really entertaining, but the other PCs are losing interest.

6. Pay attention to the tone

Listen to the GM when he talks about tone. I think if I had tried to seduce a ghoul in a different kind of game, for example if it weren’t a one-shot where the other PCs included a tax collector and a halfling bear trainer, I would have been rightly repudiated. If you, the GM and the other players agree to run a serious grimdark campaign, work with it. Play a sinister wizard with a dark past, given to brooding and pessimism, rather than a drunken dwarf who always carries around a ten-foot pole and tries to seduce every NPC you encounter. Likewise, if you are playing in a jolly fantasy romp where everyone else is playing a pirate gnome with a comedy accent, don’t get upset when no one is taking your tragic rogue’s propensity for dark murmurings as seriously as you would like. If when you start a campaign, the GM hasn’t mentioned tone, bring it up and discuss it with the other players to make sure you’re all on the same page and have the same expectations.

7. Create relationships with the other PCs

In my experience, parties work really well when each character has a personal relationship with every other PC, whether its negative or positive. If two characters are left alone together, they should always have something to talk about and you should have a clear idea what your character thinks of the other party members. If there is a character you rarely seem to interact with, make an excuse to talk to them in character. Don’t allow your relationship to remain neutral, as it makes for the least interesting story.

8. Do a voice

If you can. The most obvious way to do this is an accent, but if you don’t think you can maintain an accent for a whole campaign, and most of us won’t, try to differentiate your character’s voice from your own voice in some other way. If you don’t ‘do voices’ this could be a simple as the kind of language they use or the tone of their voice. This makes it a lot easier for everyone else to follow when your character is speaking,stay immersed in the story and respond to you appropriately in character or out of character.

9. Stay in character

Try not to have out of character discussions when you’re role-playing (or keep checking your phone). I find that this really breaks immersion and can make it harder for the GM to keep the plot moving.

10. Do what your character would do

When faced with a decision, don’t do what you yourself would do or what is clearly the most sensible option. Do what your character would do. If your character is stupid and loves hitting stuff, solve things by hitting stuff rather than by coming up with a clever solution she never would have thought of. If you’ve written a character who has low charisma and is creepy and weird, don’t try to seduce all the NPCs you come across (unless this is part of the character you’ve created, in which case, touché). Role-playing isn’t about ‘solving’ or ‘completing’ the quest or making the biggest and best character who is brilliant at everything; it’s about creating a story. Characters can and should make mistakes sometimes, if it is in character, even if it costs them their success or their lives. Stories where everyone only makes intelligent, sensible choices all the time are dull.

 

If you’re wondering, I successfully seduced the ghoul, but since the condition for not attacking me was that I stay in the dungeon with him forever, it didn’t actually benefit me much in the long run. GM: 1, Player: 0.