As I got to thinking about what are the most over-generalized stereotypes that show writers, roleplay games, and history games use, the first one that jumped out at me was the viking. I mean, simply thinking of the word "viking" probably gives you a vivid image in your mind: black leather, axe (maybe with a shield), big beard, pelts on his back and shoulders, raids and pillages for a living, and can sail all day, right?
Most of that is wrong from a historical context, but that's the image, right? Because that's what everyone does. And that's boring, because the moment you drop the word "viking" your audience tunes out. They know what to expect.
And that's dumb - we can do a lot better. And that means it's time to rethink vikings.
I. What Is a Viking?
So, to start off, in earth's history, there was no "viking people." There were norsemen (or "north men," hence the term) from Denmark, Saxony, Norway, Iceland, etc., and some of those norsemen would go "a viking," or "raiding." So a "viking" in earth's history is a profession, not a people group.
Vikings would raid, but they were not primarily warriors: they were just as skilled at exploring and foraging as they were at fighting, if not more so. And of course the main skill a viking knew was how to sail, both in fair and foul weather. Not every game system has a mechanic for sea travel and naval combat, but if your system does (Seventh Sea by John Wick comes to mind), take advantage of this!
And when they did fight, vikings used a variety of weapons: bows, spears and shields, and axes and/or swords for sidearms, along with a knife (most commonly the einar knife, though it could be a scramasax for saxons). So when I say that vikings were versatile fighters with a variety of weapons, I mean that: almost all of the primary weapons of the time could be found in a group of vikings.
And as for armor, we know from historical digs that they had metal helmets, ring mail shirts, and little to no iconography or historical evidence of leather armor. We do know from iconography that they had padded armor, which makes sense as it will also keep you warm while on the sea, typically under a ring mail shirt.
I mention armor to say that vikings dressed practically. When you are raiding, you don't have the luxury of a bedroom or shed to store things in - what you have on you and the space around you is what you have to work with (though if you are in a sci-fi setting, maybe you do have crew quarters on your spaceship while raiding...hm...). So keep in mind that your raiders are going to be practical: they need to be economical with how they do space, armor, clothing, etc.
Vikings are also pictured as fearless. Some think of the berserker warrior (which, to be fair, we don't know for sure whether this is a madness that causes him not to feel pain, or whether they were just strong men who were good fighters), but even your "average viking" was a pretty fearless warrior. They did not fight large battles, and were driven by one goal: bring back resources to earn a higher status in the village. So there was a lot riding on a successful raid.
So when we think of vikings, there's a lot going on here: exploration, honor, social standing, provision for the clan, training for war, foraging, pillaging, and raiding. This gives us a lot of room to expand on the idea of a viking and make it into a more interesting, nuanced person than what we see on television or in most stories, as the stories tend to pigeonhole what a viking is.
II. Rethinking Vikings
So, to get us started, remember that the purpose of going "viking" (or "raiding") was to gain social standing, personal wealth, and to provide for the clan. So there have to be motivations for vikings to show up in your campaign. Why is this group of people raiding the region? Why would this be preferable to setting up a permanent colony or building up their local settlement?
What resources are they after? Is their home territory short on food (perhaps it is not conducive to agriculture)? Is there a reason they would stay in such a place and raid, instead of settling elsewhere (perhaps their home is defensible but barren, making it a safe haven to return to)? Are they a powerful player in the region or a nuisance that needs to be dealt with every spring/summer?
How does their vikingness show itself in their culture? Does the ship have reputation and/or status that goes with it (are the strongest warriors on Ulrik's Vengeance, and the best hunters are on the Haggard Dawn)? Like the Klingon culture of Star Trek, is the greatest honor one can have to die in battle, and is going viking the most common way to engage in war?
A twist: are the raiding parties comprised of those with low standing who need to prove themselves to the clan (and are thus expendable: it doesn't matter if they don't come back)? The interesting thing about vikings is that you don't need to make it an honorable thing: it could be a punishment, and thus those who participate in it have nothing to lose when they encounter the party (which can make them dangerous).
Does going viking come with a curse or other lasting effect? Is there a hazard to being a viking, providing that only the bravest and fearless of the tribe join the ranks?
Is there anyone they wouldn't raid? Will they attack a larger force? Do they only attack small villages, and don't attack the forts, castles, etc.? Does their home territory bring advantages or obstacles to their raids (a lack of magic, access to great beasts to even the odds against an army, access to a resource that others don't have, etc.)?
Are they undead vikings? Perhaps Valhalla has been filled of late with weak warriors, so some of the ancient heroes have returned to harrow the earth, removing the weak from power and reforging their descendants into the strong warriors they should be. Suddenly the vikings are more than just raiders: they are also the ancestors of those they are raiding, perhaps making it harder to kill them, and/or causing some to not wish to fight back. Suddenly we have an interesting tension created by vikings.
And finally (I've seen a group of players do this), form a party of vikings. Consider running this for a campaign: a group of explorers, raiders, hunters, and foragers who are seeking to provide for the tribe. If you really want to shake things up, set the stage as a clan that has recently arrived last summer, and now that the ice has thawed and spring has come they are making their first journey into the region, so they will be learning who lives here and how to handle them for the first time. With the right group, this could be a lot of fun.
It is worth noting (as we've said before in our Rethinking Series) that the idea of the viking is not era-specific. You can have a viking element in any historical or tech era, and as a recent example, we have been promised "space vikings" in the Nihil for the upcoming literature on the High Republic Era for Star Wars. So regardless of what system or timeline you are playing in, there is room for vikings. Just be sure to make them interesting, so your players will engage with them in fresh ways.
Until next time,