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"What is it with Berserkers, anyway?" Topic

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Bobgnar29 Jun 2019 4:09 p.m. PST

The local club is beginning a Viking vs Anglo-Saxons small scale campaign. We are checking various small skirmish rules and and making our own -- each player has 12-36 individual figures. These are medium or light; archers or spear/ax; veteran, regular, or green, organized into homogeneous units of 6-9. So far so good.

What to do with Berserkers? Would they just be regular/veterans in a single unit, or just a few single figures roaming the battlefield? Doing what? Singles attached to units to improve them? We cannot seem to figure out what to do with them

I do not need rule suggestion to use as we have those. Just need to know how to use the Berserkers in general.

At this level of warfare, how would you use them.


robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP29 Jun 2019 4:33 p.m. PST

I'd just put them individually in units, but I'm not sure "improve" is the term. They don't use missile weapons, they ignore wounds, and they might not retreat if the unit does. (Would I be more inclined to stand and fight with a berserker close by? Not sure. Possibly a group attacked by a unit with a berserker in it is more likely to run?) Anyway, there should probably be an end of game roll to see whether the berserker is going to die of the wounds he's been neglecting.

I think mostly, we don't know enough to say anything is clearly wrong except those full-size units of berserkers you see every now and then--and maybe with only a small number of individuals, you could make a case even for those.

Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian29 Jun 2019 4:37 p.m. PST

And remember, they typically discard armor and even clothing.

They are described as "glowing." Or at least, they feel that way. Possibly, in modern terms, high.

Going berserk was seen as a spiritual thing, and as the ultimate manliness, in some cultures.

skipper John29 Jun 2019 5:08 p.m. PST

No armor, no shields, often naked and completely unconcerned about wounds. They were disturbed, insane, possessed and deadly. They destroyed what they were unleashed on, though they seldom returned from the fight.

Stryderg29 Jun 2019 7:19 p.m. PST

Assuming they were high/jacked up on adrenaline/etc, you might add one to a group and he would act as a bullet magnet. The first wounds inflicted on the group or the first person attacked in the group would be the berserker, since he would be running towards the enemy with more gusto than the rest of his group.

Or the group he is in would get an extra attack.
Or the defending group that's being attacked by a unit with a berserker may have to take a morale test at a penalty.

Old Glory Sponsoring Member of TMP29 Jun 2019 7:29 p.m. PST

I believe I have read in the past that in some cultures historians believe they made have been high on drugs ??

Zephyr129 Jun 2019 8:22 p.m. PST

You could also randomize whether one (or more?) is in a unit, and activates as a berzerker at some point (again randomly, if at all), replacing another figure in the unit if it happens. The uncertainty would give opposing units pause about getting too close… ;-)

gavandjosh0229 Jun 2019 8:26 p.m. PST

Is there a good summary of evidence for their existence?

Grelber29 Jun 2019 8:55 p.m. PST

In a naval battle, a few berserkers might be stationed in the bow of each ship, where they would be the first to make contact with the enemy.
In his book The Viking Art of War, Paddy Griffith questions just how superior berserks really were, suggesting they might have been more like a modern guard unit. He suggests that a lot of what we think we know about them is actually legend. All in all, he seems a bit skeptical about their existence.
Griffith mentions that, in the Heimskringla, berserks are often organized into units of 12.
The problem with the idea that berserkers might have been high on drugs or alcohol has always been that any drug that would make them ignore wounds and generally feel invulnerable would tend impair their ability to fight effectively.

Personal logo Wolfshanza Supporting Member of TMP29 Jun 2019 10:04 p.m. PST

Would I be more inclined to stand and fight with a berserker close by?

Old saying…never share a foxhole with anyone braver than you ! <lol>

HansPeterB30 Jun 2019 5:56 a.m. PST

Berserkers are confusing because the evidence for their existence and what, exactly, they were, is scanty, literary, and generally quite late. The earliest reference to Berserkers that I know of (and I'm not any sort of expert) is from a late 9th-C poem, but then that's basically it until Snorri and the Sagas (mostly 13th-C). The Sagas, though, don't portray Berserks consistently at all -- sometimes they are an elite fighting force, sometimes just a gang of brutal thugs, and sometimes supernatural shape-shifters. So in a war-game setting I would probably only use them because they are cool, and then model them as best suits the scenario. By the way, the best single description of the Berserks is in ch. 6 of the <Heimskringla> where Snorri describes Odin's chosen warriors and their "berserk rage," but the single best modern source for them, imo, is in Barbara Byfield's <The Glass Harmonica>.

HansPeterB30 Jun 2019 6:07 a.m. PST

Barbara Ninde Byfield: Berserkers -- "Proper Berserkers are mighty of stature, hirsute of face and body, generously thewed and sinewed; their interest is not in war but in battle. In time of peace, therefore, they are dour and melancholy, with little occupation save sharpening their weapons and mending their scanty battle harnesses. They are thus inclined to drink. In Battle they will be seen to froth and foam at the mouth, their cry will be that of a wolf or bear, and as they close in on their foe it will be noted that they become lower of brow, hairier of face and limb, longer of arm and shorter of leg, and more powerful withal. Experienced Berserkers are able to transform themselves entirely at this time, bears and wolves being the most favored animal forms. Wise Berserkers will provide themselves with wooden shields covered in leather, for it is their custom to chew upon the rims as they wait for battle. Metal shields do great damage to teeth and gums, as may be imagined, and Berserkers' spittle is thought to be more corrosive than most. If times are not propitious for battle, Berserkers tend to sink into lethargy and untidiness and show interest in little save becoming Werewolves."(28)

Aethelflaeda was framed30 Jun 2019 6:32 a.m. PST

I tend to believe they are a romanticized trope, the reality not equaling the legends, even to the point of discarding armour and fighting nude. Some drug use and other sources of fanatic fearlessness for sure. Consider them impetuous, high morale types unless you are playing a legendary game.

Personal logo Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP30 Jun 2019 7:14 a.m. PST

I'd suggest that "what to do with them" should be the decision of each individual player. Define the characteristics of berserkers, generate them somewhat randomly (so nobody can reliably make specialized units), and see how each player-warlord manages to use them.

Patrick R30 Jun 2019 7:25 a.m. PST

I think the most likely explanation for Berserkers is a mix of foolhardy young men without any prospects to inherit any wealth and whose only opportunity is to be at the forefront of every battle until they gain some glory and wealth or end up dead.

Others were people with PTSD, mean drunks, mentally ill and/or substance abusers.

Or to put it another way they were loose cannons that were too useful in a fight to leave at home, but too crazy to keep with the regular, proper raiders, rapists and pillagers who did everything in an orderly manner.

Ultimately they evolved into the viking equivalent of "biker/gang culture" and from there the legend grew. There are many overlaps with child soldiers and modern gangs, they all have their transgressive subgroup that is incredibly useful in a fight because they are more violent than regular members, they are the shock troops you send in first to put the fear of Odin into the enemy.

GurKhan30 Jun 2019 8:50 a.m. PST

The best summary of the evidence I have seen recently is the PhD thesis at

The author is at pains to distinguish between the literary concept and the probable historical reality that lies behind it, and how both developed over the centuries. The thesis is book-length (456 pages), but well worth a careful read.

Bobgnar30 Jun 2019 11:19 a.m. PST

Thanks to all for the considered and quick answers.

Asteroid X30 Jun 2019 2:04 p.m. PST

I think, "Barbara Ninde Byfield" may have been writing for a fantasy novel like 'Twilight' …

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