Sagas of the Icelanders: Episode 1

Ran Sagas for a table of the uninitiated. Of course it was great; SotI can’t fail, it can only be failed. We’re gonna try running it for a few sessions, which is exciting because I’ve never tried that. It’s a little intimidating!

I’m looking at the annual, seasonal and per-session rules with a very different eye now. The stuff for The Man’s homestead was surprisingly relevant in our session: he’d rolled really well, generated plenty of labor, so had enough extra to host a family meeting. I think my players are getting better all the time at going with the fictional flow and just being okay with whatever moves get triggered. It’s not perfect, and playstyles are such that for some of them it’ll never be perfect (or at least preferred), but so far so good.

The fronts and threats rules are also interesting. In SotI, the fronts are the gods, and they have like… meta-moves that add seasoning and tonal consistency to the threat moves. And literally every NPC on the map is considered a “threat,” from which you pick two or three to really concentrate on. I don’t know that I’ve seen another PbtA that does that, it’s interesting.

The cast for the first session was also smaller than I typically put together for a one-shot con game: The Man, The Matriarch, and The Goði. The Man and the Goði are brothers; the Matriarch is their mother. The oldest of the three sons recently died, leaving his gorgeous second wife and her husband’s exceptional lands in question. The r-map is complex but understandable, as always. SotI’s r-map technology has yet to be matched, IMO, much less exceeded. It produces such excellent webs of very human and relatable problems. Probably why I’m good at running it, to be honest.

I think I’m going to run each session as a new year, although that undercuts some of the most interesting stuff about The Man’s homestead management. I hadn’t noticed that his “adjacent land features” were season-specific, that’s an interesting bit of balance, and a drive to take the “expansion” move and spread out the income. Dunno, maybe seasonal. But one of my players (The Man) can’t make it and two new players need to get integrated in. Gosh, I just don’t know until they choose playbooks. I had initially thought I might aim the players toward playing consequential NPCs that are already on the map, but then they don’t really know the situation. If I’m honestly interested in playing this longer and more expansively, it probably can’t hurt to just add in their relationships and hope for the best. Just because they won’t share bonds with the first batch of characters doesn’t mean they won’t get folded in fictionally.

So I’ve found, five or six games in a row now, that setting expectations for The Man is totally key to making it an enjoyable playbook. The player who took it accepted the “boring moves but central position” tradeoff, and oh gosh he was so great. Unequipped to be at the center of the r-map, right on the edge of awful shit happening over and over again, delicately de-escalating (I’ve rarely seen successful Viking de-escalation tbh, although the Dreamation game with Mikael Andersson, Keith Stetson, Jason Morningstar and Catherine Ramen somehow also achieved it — maybe I’m getting soft).

Favorite bits:

* Using my r-map powers to slyly ask about ages of various characters in order to make things awkward. “OK so your relationship with this NPC is that you want to marry her? Got it. How old do you reckon the neighbor is? 30? OK. You know, I’ll bet the neighbor is that NPC’s father. So how old could she be…hmm…oh yes, probably about 14.”

* Doing Mikael’s trick of building a proper family tree after the r-map’s first draft to reveal missing relatives. Terrific, very useful, I’m astonished at how many characters and relationships I miss.

* Accepting a physical challenge to overdrink at a wake. The Man ended up drunk and stupid and the player gleefully fucked everything up on his own.

0 thoughts on “Sagas of the Icelanders: Episode 1”

  1. FWIW at 13 you were an adult. At 13 you could sit in judgment at Alþingi. So to make it weird for the characters she’d have to be even younger, although making it weird for the players is certainly enough.

  2. Jason Morningstar good point, good point. Probably enough for the player.

    Having a 14yo girl doll herself up for the wake so she could entice the goði seriously squicked him out. Good-squick, not x card territory.

  3. I love SotI so much. I wish the one game I had played in had been more “neighbouring farm rivalries that verge wildly from petty to epic” and less “Cormac McCarthy-esque walking across backcountry Iceland blood opera.” Which is not to say that the latter wasn’t amazing! It just meant that it occasionally drifted a little too close to a traditional adventure game for me.

  4. “SotI’s r-map technology has yet to be matched, IMO, much less exceeded.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this sentence? I feel like the only relationship stuff actually in the RAW is the bonds/relationships which can be very nondescript (“This one is my wife,” vs. “This is the one I trust”), and, IMO, is not top-of-the-line. The actual map map stuff I took from Archipelago/ Jason Morningstar’s SotI games. The implied relations based on Nordic culture, however, are definitely boss.

  5. Paul Taliesin​​​ sure, no problem. It’s really just the scope and style of the questions for playbooks. They’re relatable and adult and not crazy. There is a good mix of mundane (this character is my elder) and juicy (I’ve shared a bed with this one, I covet this one’s property). So there’s a good bit of range, I think.

    I usually see the maps start with the factual relationships, like who is whose relative, in the first round, and with that context folks then start grabbing for the telenovela ones right away: I’m sleeping with Sigrid, who might be my niece but I’m not sure, but I really want to marry Osk the witch, whose brother is the huscarl to the goði, etc etc.

    I guess I look at, say, the Urban Shadows r-map questions and it’s just not as claustrophobic or juicy. US starts out by relying on “what do you care about?” to get things started, while SotI expects the GM to look for the juicy bits on the map and ask leading questions.

    Not to pick on US, I really love that game, it just provides different tools that aren’t so preloaded with fraught situations. Cities are big, farmsteads are small.

    Night Witches comes as close to SotI as I’ve ever seen, but it also needs to serve the “strangers thrown together by circumstance” thing, so it’s juicy but less tangled.

  6. Keith Stetson I think you could in fact end up with a totally dull map of factual relationships, and that would both suck and be totally legal. Not sure why that never seems to be how it pans out in my games, though. I might be doing something during my facilitation? Doesn’t seem like it, other than asking tons of provocative questions and pointing out implications.

  7. A boring, stable r-map is a flag that your players crave external sources of conflict, which is totally fine. Bring on the Norwegian princes, etc. It wont’ stay stable for long.

  8. So, in other words, the method is basically AW’s Hx questions, but the particulars of the fictional genre, small, dependent community, and the particular questions having a mix of mundane stuff and some more juicy questions make it really well-tuned? (Plus, some facilitator magic may or may not be at work.) Is that about right?

  9. This is really open-ended, and a bit afield, but based on Keith’s and Paul T’s comments: what sorts of improvements could be made to SotI’s r-maps, or how could other games be altered (and hopefully improved) by importing principles from SotI?

    Would US or NW be made stronger if their questions were a little more “mundane relationship”?

    On a similar note, would an addition of text in games like this that help a new GM “read” an r-map be useful? Jason’s comments about how a boring r-map is a flag for external drama really resonates with me, but I can see a lot of GMs flailing when presented with that, or (maybe more likely) becoming frustrated when the r-map is too rich, and they can’t inject external strife.

  10. I don’t have a larger answer, but combining personal yet mundane relationships (brother-in-law, foster child, etc) with more “spicy” variants (love triangle, etc.) seems like a generally great approach to generating interesting relationship maps. A lot of games try to make them all “interesting”, I think, which dilutes the awesome. Having those more “normal” relationships we can relate to mixed in with the more interesting stuff, I would expect, can generate a lot more exciting play. “I want to kill him… but he’s married to my sister” is much more interesting than just having a death grudge against someone.

  11. You also need to ask what the rmap is for. Not every game needs one. Some games ought not have them. I didn’t run The One Ring with a relationship map because it’s such a travelogue.

    So…I run Sagas very much as a family melodrama. Tbh I’m not sure what I’d do with a set of purely factual relationships, and Jason’s advice is so smart here. But I need it to give me spicy conflicts and it does. Not really sure that I need the same spice in Apocalypse World or The Sprawl. Or look at Undying, the map is a pure expression of debt and power; nobody really cares if you’re still feeling salty 300 years after that incident with the Vicar.

  12. The problem with the mundane relations in SotI, for me, is that in this culture familial relationships are expected. It’s not really interesting that you have a brother, it’s expected. You should already be reaching out to other players to form those types of connections. I want the game to give me the juicy prompts of “I see greatness in this one,” and the like.

  13. Just struck me, from Paul’s last post, that in The Sprawl, the r-map is all about your relationship to corporations. All ties that last and matter start with corporations. Even your links to the other PCs are centered around them.

    How delightful, when compared to SotI and all the relationships being about blood and shit and other human beings you can’t escape.

  14. Keith Stetson okay so that’s kind of interesting.

    I don’t know that, if the instructions were something like “draw at least two familial connections (sibling, parent, etc) between characters”, that I’d end up with the same vibrant situation.

    When we were setting up SotI, like I said the first round it was the mundane connections. But then, without any incentive or bond payout or gaming the map at all, we just started creating more and more of those connections. In a lot of cases, we threw down a whole little cluster of “husband and wife and their four kids” because it was either necessary to fill in implied family, or because the map said so or whatever. So, like, in terms of pure volume probably 70% of the family on the r-map was us just creating those connections. But that (first) 30% sure seems like it benefited from being part of the r-map process.

    This is the stuff I can’t analyze and untangle and objectively evaluate. It falls under the heading of “magic” in terms of the consistently positive results of the process.

  15. All I want to throw in is that I wish SotI made more mention of foster relationships: they were really, really important in Norse culture and ran the gamut from “we’re too poor to raise our kid, you do it” to “hostage exchange by important families.”

    Paul, I take it you were using the original Man playbook and not my hack? I ask merely for informational purposes 🙂

  16. Vinicius Lessa did a revision that has some neat ideas; in my non-copious free time I plan to work on consolidating those changes (right now its behind my “Tatters of the King in Trail set in 1950s America” campaign prep, getting ready to run Masks of Nyarlathotep again for the Tuesday night meetup crew, and possibly working up a pitch on an idea I had.

  17. Catherine Ramen it arrived a day late, sorry. 🙁

    Great call on fosters. I need to keep that in mind. Also the concept of standing staff on a homestead in general, which your playbook variant does a much better job of laying out. My homesteads tend to be worked by the family itself and thralls if that playbook is in play or the Man took that advance. But teen fosters and single adults could have totally been hired. I need to think about homesteads more like small businesses than homes.

Leave a Reply