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Hólmganga: Duelling rules for Old Norse campaigns

November 19, 2014

I don’t use Trollsmyth’s popular Shields Shall be Splintered! house rule in my games. Not because there’s anything inherently wrong with it, but simply because my players gravitate towards magic-user and thief characters – hence, no shields. Anyway, while thinking about Old Norse roleplaying, I realised there was a perfect context for the rule, or a variant thereof.

In the Icelandic sagas, the concept of personal honour is of paramount importance as character motivator and driver of plot. Offences against a person’s honour may include such things as insults, slander, infringement on another’s property, or physical assault. The laws of the land are supposed to deal with such matters and the favoured outcome is some form of arbitration and, ultimately, reconciliation. Human nature being what it is, such a peaceful resolution is not always achieved, nor even desired by the participants in all cases, and a cycle of violence, once initiated, escalates into a blood feud. While this is disastrous for those involved, it makes for exciting narrative so it’s good news for the saga reader.

Before the start of the eleventh century when the practice was abolished, Iceland’s laws also allowed the wronged party to seek redress by challenging the offender to a duel. Two kinds of duel are mentioned in the sagas. The first, einvigi, refers to men meeting in single combat to settle a matter of honour, which may occur independently of third-party interference or adjudication. One example is the fight between Bjarni of Hof and the eponymous hero of The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck, in which the antagonists acquit themselves decently and honourably, neither man exploiting any unfair advantage over the other despite the absence of witnesses. The other, more formal type of duel is called hólmganga (“island-going”) and is conducted according to strict rules. The fullest account of these rules is given in Kormak’s Saga, which features several duelling scenes. In the guidelines that follow, I don’t try to incorporate all the details of the hólmganga ritual – which in any case differ from one text to the next – but rather to provide a playable model for Norse duelling in old-school games that captures some of the flavour of the literary sources.

[Note: For no other reason than that of brevity, I use the masculine pronoun throughout.]

If a character is challenged to a duel and declines to fight or fails to turn up at the specified time and place, then he loses honour and is diminished in the esteem of the local populace, including his retainers or other supporters. The Referee decides how this is made manifest in the campaign. I have seen attempts to introduce systems of “honour points” and the like, which might work well provided the bookkeeping isn’t too onerous. My preference would be a simple penalty on reaction/morale rolls. A penalty of -2 is certainly warranted for backing down in the face of a challenge. Naturally, if this method is chosen, the Referee should also be prepared to hand out bonuses to characters who attain significant honour by their deeds.

If the challenge is accepted, then a time and location must be mutually agreed by the participants. Two or three days are usually deemed sufficient for preparation. The participants must also agree on arms and armour. Shields are mandatory, even for characters who don’t normally use them. One-handed swords and battle axes are the most commonly used weapons. The participants need not both employ the same type of weapon.

The duel may take place on a small island suited to the purpose, but more often the hólm is metaphorical and artificial: a spread cloak, five ells square, pegged out on the ground. Beyond the outer edges of the cloak, a further space is defined by the placing of strings, or hazel-poles, to mark the outer perimeter of the duelling-ground. If a participant sets one foot outside the perimeter he is considered to be retreating; if he puts both feet outside he is running, and has forfeited the duel – and his honour, with consequences as described above.

When all is prepared, the duel begins. The participants enter the duelling-ground and take turns striking each other. At this point we depart from the abstract combat system common to old-school games and enter a more concrete, detailed mode, with characters trading individual blows. Don’t bother with combat rounds, especially not if yours are a minute long. Don’t roll for initiative; the challenged character goes first, while the challenger tries to defend himself with his shield. Since the latter is not trying to attack but only avoid damage, he is considered to be fighting defensively and gains a -2 bonus to AC. (Or use the rules for defensive fighting, if any, in your game system of choice.)

If the blow connects, the defending character may choose to sacrifice his shield to avoid sustaining any damage. (This can be automatically successful – my preference – or the Referee may require a successful saving throw.) Each participant is allowed three shields; if all three are destroyed, he must defend himself with his weapon. He still gains the -2 AC bonus for fighting defensively.

[Option: The participants may elect “seconds” to hold their shields for them, instead of holding their own. If the “second” belongs to a character class not normally able to use shields, then no AC bonus is granted, though the shield may still be used to avoid damage, as above. If all three allowed shields are destroyed, the “second” retires from the duelling-ground and the participant must use his weapon to parry, as described above.]

Whenever a participant sustains damage, there is a 2 in 6 chance (alternatively, a 10% chance per point of damage sustained) that his blood falls on the cloak. If this happens, the bleeding character may elect to retire from the duel by paying a ransom of three marks of silver (48 gp) to his opponent, who is then declared the victor. The loser suffers a diminution in personal honour as outlined above.

The duel continues, turn by turn, until one of the following conditions is met:

– One participant is killed or, for whatever reason, can no longer fight.
– One participant retreats or runs from the duelling-ground.
– One participant pays a ransom to retire from the duel.
– Both participants agree to stop fighting.


Asmund has been challenged to a hólmganga by Bjorn, over a perceived insult. Both men are 4th-level fighters, wear leather armour and wield swords. At the appointed time, the duel begins.

As the challenged party, Asmund strikes first. He needs 13 to hit Bjorn’s AC 4 (leather + shield + defensive bonus). He rolls 2: a clumsy stroke, easily parried by Bjorn.

It is Bjorn’s turn to strike. He also needs to roll 13 or more. The roll is 6. Asmund parries.

Asmund rolls 4. Bjorn rolls 18, which is a hit unless Asmund sacrifices his shield – which he does, avoiding damage. Bjorn waits while Asmund drops the shattered shield and takes up another.

Asmund rolls 11. Better, but still not good enough to trouble Bjorn. Bjorn rolls 9.

Asmund rolls 19, and Bjorn sacrifices his shield. “That was a heavy blow,” he says. He takes up his second shield and strikes again, rolling 12.

Asmund rolls 7. Bjorn rolls 17 and Asmund, breathing hard, now takes up his third and last shield. “Things are not going as well as I expected,” he mutters grimly.

The unlucky Asmund rolls 3. Bjorn rolls 18. Asmund’s shield is splintered and now he must defend himself with his sword alone. His AC is now 5.

He swings at Bjorn and rolls 13. Bjorn sacrifices his second shield. Bjorn then aims a blow at Asmund, rolls 12 and hits, doing 4 points of damage. The Referee rolls to see if any drops of Asmund’s blood fall on the cloak. They do. There is murmuring among the spectators. Asmund glares at Bjorn, who still has a shield to spare, considers his options, and hurls his sword to the ground. “Luck is not on my side today,” he says, pays three marks of silver to release himself from the duel, and goes home in a foul mood. He will also have to pay Bjorn compensation for the original insult and suffer whatever penalty the Referee decides to impose on his reputation.


Finally, here are some situations that might lead to a duel in a Norse-flavoured campaign:

– An NPC claims that the PCs have stolen something.

– An NPC insults a PC or claims that the PC insulted him.

– The PCs have (knowingly or otherwise) killed the servants of a powerful and hot-tempered local chieftain. The chieftain demands compensation. If a large cash settlement is not immediately forthcoming, he challenges the best fighter in the party to a duel.

– In a heated theological debate, a Norse cleric challenges a cleric of another faith to a duel over Freyja’s honour.

– An arrogant professional dueller has demanded a farmer’s youngest (and favourite) daughter as his bride. Having refused, the old man faces a duel in three days. One of the PCs might volunteer to fight in his stead (assuming the dueller accepts this), especially if the farmer has something of value to give.


Kormak’s Saga, in Sagas of Warrior-Poets, Penguin, 2002.

The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Penguin, 2000.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    November 19, 2014 4:54 am

    Of course the movie ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’ has an example of this kind of combat as well.

    • November 19, 2014 9:45 am

      I had forgotten that. (In fact, I’d forgotten all but the general outline of that film.) Having just found the sequence on YouTube, it seems that no one involved is playing by the rules, with multiple strikes and parries going on. Still, thanks for the pointer.

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