In the Icelandic sagas, the concept of personal honor is enormously important as
character motivator and driver of plot. Offences against a person’s honor include
such things as insults, slander, infringement on another’s property and physical
assault. The laws of the land are supposed to deal with such matters, and the
favored outcome is some form of arbitration and, ultimately, reconciliation.
Human nature being what it is, such a peaceful resolution is not always achieved
and a cycle of violence, once initiated, can escalate to a blood feud. While this is
disastrous for the characters 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 honor, which can 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 both combatants acquit themselves decently and honorably,
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 dueling 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 dueling in old-school games that captures some of the flavor of the
literary sources.


Here are some situations that might lead to a duel in a Norse-flavored 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 is incensed by a derogatory
reference to Freyja’s sexual proclivities and challenges the speaker (perhaps a
missionary or cleric of another faith) to a duel.

An arrogant professional dueler has demanded a farmer’s youngest (and
favorite) 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 dueler
accepts this), especially if the farmer has something of value to give.

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 honor 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 “honor points” and the like, which might work just fine 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 honor by
performing valorous 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 armor. Shields are mandatory, even
for characters who don’t normally use them, e.g. magic-users. (Such characters do
not gain the usual Armour Class bonus but the shield is still useful, as we shall see.)
Swords and 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 dueling-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 honor, with consequences as described above.

When all is prepared, the duel begins. The participants enter the dueling-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 [+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 [+2] AC bonus for fighting defensively.

Option: The participants may elect “seconds” to hold their shields for them. 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 dueling-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 honor 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 dueling-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 mail and wield swords. At the appointed time,
the duel begins.

As the challenged party, Asmund strikes first. He needs 15 to hit Bjorn’s AC 2 17
(mail + shield + defensive bonus). He rolls 2: a clumsy stroke, easily parried by

It is Bjorn’s turn to strike. He also needs to roll 15 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 3 16. He swings at Bjorn and rolls 15. Bjorn sacrifices his second shield. Bjorn then aims a blow at Asmund, rolls 14 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 for his tarnished reputation.


Kormak’s Saga, in Sagas of Warrior-Poets, Penguin, 2002.
The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck, in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Penguin,


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