Berzerkers in many cultures

Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Wed Dec 31, 2008 3:54 pm

What is the link between the Norse Berzerkergang, the Celtic ríastrad (ala CuCullihain) and the Moro Juramentado. I think it is a real thing (which we can see very well documented in quite modern times in the case of the Juramentado), and I think it is the same thing in all three cases.

What is the chief ingredient of making this work? Is it drugs, mushrooms, fasting, a religious extacy, mental illness, special training, genetic predispostion or what combination of the above?

I'd like to try to define this as a prelude to including a good way to make up some really good rules for this for the game.

G.
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Ian.Plumb » Thu Jan 01, 2009 8:59 pm

Galloglaich wrote:What is the link between the Norse Berzerkergang, the Celtic ríastrad (ala CuCullihain) and the Moro Juramentado...?

What is the chief ingredient of making this work? Is it drugs, mushrooms, fasting, a religious extacy, mental illness, special training, genetic predispostion or what combination of the above?


We spent a lot of time on this very subject over on trosfans. It isn't, in my opinion, straightforward as it largely depends on what the referee wants this phenomenon to be.

If you take the line that this is a real, largely natural phenomenon (a mental illness, special training, religious fervour, genetic anomaly) then I think it is hard to justify any controls or restrictions over it (such as no heavy armour, the risk of killing friends as well as enemies, no complex actions (casting magic, using an arbalest, etc).

If you take the line that this is an unnatural phenomenon (shape-changing, magically-induced, spirit-possession) then you get a number of culture-specific elements that may not suit your game. A Norse berserker in a Spanish Reconquista gaming environment...?

If you take the Norse sagas as your basis for Berserkers, and this stereotype is probably the one most likely to be familiar to the players, then you get some quite interesting elements -- but they may not suit your game. For example, at least one of the sagas describes the King as having a large number of Berserkers in his army, sufficient that they formed their own unit and were kept apart from the regular army when it was encamped. If you head down the "natural" path, if you're looking at a genetic disposition rationale or a mental illness rationale then you have to explain a very high percentage of the adult male population being affected -- a percentage that we do not see today.

For myself I much prefer the idea of shape-shifting. It explains the lack of armour, it explains the potential for lack of control, it explains the separation from normal people, and it explains the wearing of bear-skins and other culture-specific elements of the descriptions of the Norse berserkers. If that is just too fantasy then I'm quite fond of animal-spirit-possession. It would explain the potential for lack of control, the culture-specific elements (particularly the religious fervour), and to some degree the lack of armour/weaponry.

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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Thu Jan 01, 2009 11:22 pm

I think it is natural and real, and the inability to tell friend from foe is part of it. But for game purposes I also think it's fun to the include shapeshifting potential.

My theory, admittedly just a theory, is that the Berzerkergang is something induced by a specific cultural tradition involving both specific rituals and (apparently) certain drugs, but that certain people also appear to have had a genetic predisposition for it. Characteristics of the phenomenon include swelling and reddening of the face, increased strength and an apparent immunity to pain or physical injury (at least from the perspective of outside observers) during the duration of the fit, inability to distinguish friend from foe while within the fit, and a prolonged period of physical and mental torpor after the fit has passed. (This was traditionally when enemies finished them off)

I think the battle you are thinking of by the way was the Battle of Hafrsfjord, in which according to the Heimskringla, Harald Finehair is supposed to have had a unit of Berzerkers (probably Ulfhednar) but this did not mean it was a large number of men, Viking battles were quite small by modern (or say, Roman) standards. The Ulfhednar unit was apparently only a few dozen men at most.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hafrsfjord

This phenomenon does exist in many other cultures incidentally, this website covers a lot of the other examples, including female Maenads in ancient greece, the Chinese Boxers of the Boxer rebellion, the whirling Dervishes, and many others.

http://www.uppsalaonline.com/uppsala/so ... 0wild.html
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Ian.Plumb » Sun Jan 11, 2009 12:20 am

Galloglaich wrote:Harald Finehair is supposed to have had a unit of Berzerkers (probably Ulfhednar) but this did not mean it was a large number of men, Viking battles were quite small by modern (or say, Roman) standards. The Ulfhednar unit was apparently only a few dozen men at most.


The issue for me with natural explanations -- and this goes for any explanation of something that sounds mystical in the descriptions of the feats of ancient warriors -- is that the "logical explanation" has to make sense in today's terms. This invariably requires more detail (word count) than a mystical explanation and can lead to largely pointless debate on the forums. A mystical explanation is simply easier to implement in a game.

That having been said, the issue with the contemporary account and its depiction of a unit of berserkers is the inference that a comparatively large percentage of the total armed force have the trait. Even if that percentage is 5% or 2%, that to me is a very large percentage of berserkers. A percentage that needs to be kept in mind when coming up with the explanation.

Galloglaich wrote:But for game purposes I also think it's fun to the include shapeshifting potential.


Shapeshifting explains the lack of armour. Wearing armour would kill someone undergoing the change. I'm not sure that shapeshifting explains the inability to tell friend from foe. If you say that they were-form knows none of the human-forms knowledge or memories then weapon use is out as are the weapon-based feats. That might suit you though -- having a block of were-form feats that replace the standard feats while the character is in changed form.

I like the spirit-possession myself because it is the most in-line with the religious aspect of the condition. It allows for conflict between the human spirit and the animal spirit which could be played out quite creatively. It explains the predisposition for wearing the hides of the animal creature while in human form, it explains the use of weapons and martial feats in combat -- the animal-spirit affects emotions and goals rather than knowledge -- so you don't have to develop a whole range of feats, just add a couple of specials that enhance the characters combat skills.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing the Berserkers for Codex.

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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Jan 11, 2009 12:38 am

My purpose in researching the "reality"* as much as possible before creating the game-rules to model them, is that the historical reality is in balance, is logical, etc. to a high degree of subtlety. From that "clean" basis you can build a system at whatever level of abstraction you want, but it is more likely to be functional, flow smoothly etc. because it's based in something that at it's core makes sense because it is part of the same Universe we live in.

What I see in RPG's all too often is that the attempt to model some interesting historical or mythological concept by a "fudge" or guess, usually based on a superficial analysis of the available data heavily influenced by modern preconceptions and cliches. This results in a system which has fundamental built-in logical contradictions and usually fails to either deliver on the 'feel' of the original concept or really function on a game mechanics level.

This used to drive me nuts with combat systems since I was always really into fighting, but you see it in many other aspects of RPGs.

Wargames by contrast, which were made at all different levels of abstraction from something as simple as chess to something as complex as sidereal physics. were usually based on very good research and typically had efficient systems which had a good pristine feel of verisimilitude.

Similarly, and maybe more relevant to RPGs from a "Narrativist" point of view (to use Forge terminology) basically all of the classic Fantasy authors who influenced RPG's started from a very solid, in depth grounding in historical (and literary / folklore) research: Michael Moorcock, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkein, Clarke Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber, Jack Vance etc. were all DEEPLY into history and ancient mythology and folklore etc., from the scientific angle as well as literary, to a very high Academic level approaching a PhD.

This thing with the Berzerkers was a subject of an in depth conversation on Schola Gladiatoria forum which basically answered the question in my OP on this thread, I'll post some more of the links here. But the bottom line is that due to the fact that many other cultures exhibited this same behavior as recently as the Spanish American war in the Phillipines, we have a lot more information available into what the phenomenon is and potentially to determine how the process works sufficiently to introduce it in an interesting way to the game.

Once that is nailed down and defined I think it can be modeled at a relatively simple level of abstraction for the Codex, and when merged with the folklore with which it is linked (including the shape changing), it's all going to fit together better and make much more sense.

Hopefully I just made sense too...

G.
Last edited by Galloglaich on Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:10 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Jan 11, 2009 12:51 am

(Moved to Werewolf thread)
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:05 am

I think the shorter answer is I believe the reality of the historical Berzerker phenomenon is sufficiently interesting in and of itself, and can be studied in some detail apparently in the Boxer Rebellion, the Moro Jurimuntando, whirling Dervishes, Meneads, the Malay Amuk phenonmenon etc. etc. as well as in the considerable evidence from the Sagas. I think the whole shape-changing mythology is another related but essentially separate phenomenon which I would also like to explore for the game in a more interesting way.

In other words Berzerkergang is one thing, a certain type of subculture, within which you might find a few shape changers. This is how it is presented in the Sagas (for example the Berzerkers in the Saga of Grettir the Strong, one of whom was implied to have been a were-bear) and how I think it will pan out best for RPG portrayal...

I just want to add I don't mean to be argumentative it's a subject I've got a lot of interest in so I tend to wax enthusiastic ...

G.
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby drkguy3107 » Wed Apr 20, 2011 2:25 am

Any further work done on this yet? I have made a berserker for my game but I doubt he will fit into anyone elses as he's not based on the historical record.
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Galloglaich » Wed Apr 20, 2011 3:11 am

No not really though i did read about another wear-bear in one of the Viking Sagas, not just like an allegorical type either, it was like he was projecting a bear spirit which was killing people in this big fight that was going on, in the King Hrolf Kraki saga.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hrólfr_Kraki

Other than that regarding the Codex my hands have been completely full with that Baltic thing. The good news is I'm finally done with the Codex Guide to the Medieval Baltic so I can now concentrate one some of the other elements including the basic Magic system which I'll be releasing as part of the False Facade adventure and campaign setting (which goes with the Baltic thing)

But no berzerker or lycanthrope stuff in that as of yet, at least that I can remember.

G.
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Re: Berzerkers in many cultures

Postby Daeruin » Thu Apr 21, 2011 7:48 pm

I wasn't around for this initial discussion, but I would love to hear any further developments. I have a partial novel manuscript sitting in my drawer that involved Norse-like berserkers, and I plan on resurrecting it one day. You mentioned that you found some information on the Schola Gladitoria forums, but you never posted the links. I would love to get that information if you can dig it up (but I totally understand if you don't have time).
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