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Some Thoughts on Berserkers and Shieldwalls

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Some Thoughts on Berserkers and Shieldwalls Empty Some Thoughts on Berserkers and Shieldwalls

Post by AncientWarrior on Thu Jun 11, 2015 12:09 am

Preface: This forum seemed the best fit for this post as it is a combination of rule revisions and battle report (notes about the experiment). Please let me know if I made a mistake in posting it here. Thanks for reading. Oh yes, apologies for the links to various blogs and sites . . . apparently, they don't copy and paste well. Sad

An informal and alphabetical survey of the ancient rule books in my possession revealed the following:
- The Viking list on page V (how appropriate) of ARMATI 2nd Edition allows for the purchase of up to 2 Berserker/Gall Gael warband units from the Bonus troop category. According to the notes, these warbands fight until they are broken, may not break-off or disengage, and are not key units.
- The Norse Viking and Leidang list in Book 3 of the DBM Army Lists includes a very small number of Berserker elements. These are described as Irregular Warband.
- The FOG supplement “Wolves from the Sea” does make mention of Berserkers as “specialist” troops but explains that their numbers are too small for representation as Battle Groups under these rules.
- In the Hail Caesar rules, Berserkers are/may be represented by adding the special of “wild fighters” to a selection of heavy or medium infantry units. Given the acknowledged “free form” nature of these colorful and popular rules, I imagine that it would be possible to field sub-units of Berserkers, small units of Berserkers, or even tiny units of these “under-the-influence” warriors.
- The Norwegians and Danish (Vikings) 1066-1071 list on page 25 of Extra IMPETVS 2 contains no mention of Berserkers.
- The Viking army list in MIGHT OF ARMS also does not contain any reference to Berserkers.
- In one of the Vis Bellica supplement army lists, Vikings are permitted a single unit of Berserkers. These are categorized as open order, elite medium infantry armed with 2-handed weapons.

The “survey” was completed as I was interested in staging a large contest set in the Dark Ages between Saxons and Vikings. (I drew inspiration from Prudence intervened, thankfully, and suggested that I scale back things a bit and perhaps focus on a Viking versus Viking scenario. It seems to me that fielding a Viking army without Berserkers is the equivalent of making/having a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the peanut butter. As I was planning on using the IMPETVS rules (readers familiar with my efforts will know that I need the practice) and as the rules do not have any provisions for these “specialist” troops, I had to develop some rule additions. After thinking about it a bit, I decided that the simple approach was best and simply had each side roll 2d6 to determine the number of “Berserker dice” they would have at their disposal. These “Berserker dice” could be added to any melee phase/round, thereby increasing the offensive “punch” of the engaged unit. A limit of 4 “Berserker dice” was established so that the melee would not become too one-sided. Further, it was established that “Berserker dice” were a one-time thing. They were used (added to the original number of melee dice) and that was it. One either rolled 6s and or pairs of 5s with the “Berserker dice” or one did not.

Courtesy of a gentleman/scholar/wargamer who contributes to the IMPETVS forums, I was directed to a few more sites concerning the history, nature, and wargaming applications of berserkers. I list them here for interested readers to peruse at their leisure.

After studying these entries (in addition to, I decided to restrict the “Berserker dice” to either Guard or Veteran Huscarls units, though I do think there is probably enough evidence available to make Berserkers into their own units. If I were to fabricate such a formation for the Vikings list in IMPETVS, I would imagine that I would make these troops impetuous and probably give them a B or even an A discipline rating. Anyway.

To extend the peanut butter and jelly analogy, it seems that playing a Dark Ages scenario without rules governing the shieldwall formation is tantamount to making that sticky-sweet sandwich without any bread. Now then, there is a brief special rule paragraph on page 29 of the aforementioned Extra IMPETVS supplement which covers the shieldwall. Fortunately, there is a revised version of this special rule in ADVANCED IMPETVS (Version 1.5, dated February 18, 2014) which addressed some of the shortcomings of the original rule. Unfortunately, however, it appears that this newer version of the special rule still needs some work, some tinkering. Prefacing the following with the admission that I am certainly no expert in this particular field (or any field for that matter), I still thought I might try my hand at creating a number of revisions to the special rules as they presently stand. To be certain, I mined other sets of rules for ideas as well as took notes on related discussion threads on a number of online forums.

Suggested Shieldwall Rules for IMPETVS
1. In order to form a shieldwall, a unit must pass a discipline test. There is no penalty if the discipline test is failed.
2. Units in shieldwall formation may move at half-speed when activated. They may not attempt a second move, nor may they move obliquely or attempt to wheel. Movement by a unit in shieldwall formation must be directly forward.
3. A disorder marker negates the advantages of being in shieldwall. In other words, units that are in shieldwall formation and receive a disorder marker are no longer considered to be in shieldwall formation.
4. Units in shieldwall formation are allowed to roll 2d6 worth of “missiles” when charged by an enemy unit. This is a one time event. Supporting units in shieldwall formation my roll 1d6 to represent the throwing, hurling, and chucking of various kinds of missiles.
5. Units in shieldwall formation that move into contact with an enemy formation are permitted to roll 1d6 worth of “missiles” before the melee is resolved. This is also a one time event.

In summary:
1. If a unit is disordered, it cannot be in shieldwall formation.
2. Units in shieldwall formation can move but at a reduced rate.
3. Units in shieldwall formation have a certain “missile” capacity. This is similar to the pila rule for units of Roman heavy infantry so armed.

A Tabletop Experiment
It was not your typical wargame table. The opposing armies were certainly not traditional and there was absolutely no terrain present save for the green cloth covering the 6 by 4-foot plywood board. While there was no artistic quality or even tactile heft to the arrayed troops, I could tell at a glance which side they were on and easily reference their movement allowance, fighting ability, discipline rating, etc. As an added bonus, I did not have to worry about accidentally bending spears and breaking banners or drawing blood if stuck by a miniature spear or banner.

Deployment was very simple and straightforward. Thorgrim’s Danish Vikings (see, along with a contingent of Anglo-Danish Rebels under the command of Egbert (see, waited for the inevitable advance of the Norwegian Vikings under Thangbrand (again, see Thorgrim’s right consisted of the Anglo-Danish Rebels formed in large units. On the far left was their warrior commander and his Huscarls. The majority of the formation consisted of Select Fyrd armed with long spears. The center of the position was held by Thorgrim and his Guard Huscarls. These elite men were supported by 2 units of Veteran Huscarls and 2 large units of Huscarls. The left wing of this defensive line was made up of 8 large units of Hird. With regard to leadership, Thorgrim was rated as expert, while Egbert was classed as fair. Egbert, however, enjoyed a small advantage in that he possessed a roll of destiny. This allowed him to redo a poor cohesion test for any unit in his command.

Just 18 centimeters away, Thangbrand’s men gripped their weapons and shields tighter as they prepared to advance and attack. Four large units of Huscarls formed the left wing. The center consisted of 2 units of Guard Huscarls (one of these protected Thangbrand) and 4 units of Veteran Huscarls. Nine large units of Hird were arranged on the right flank. Thangbrand was rated as a charismatic leader. Though both sides had some skirmishers, it was not imagined that these formations would play any real role in the coming battle.

It is not my usual practice to offer a turn-by-turn narrative of the battles taking place on my tabletop. I think, however, in this experimental case, I will make an exception. My apologies to any readers who dislike this particular method of reporting.

Turn 1 - Rolls of the “Berserker dice” revealed that Thangbrand had 12 extra melee dice to call upon when needed, while Thorgrim had just 8 extra dice. Thangbrand moved first and ordered a general advance. Thorgrim countered with his Hird and ordered his better troops to form a shieldwall. Egbert’s men tried to form a shieldwall but only half of the command accomplished this task. A unit of skirmishers armed with javelins drew first blood for Thorgrim’s cause when 1 point of damage and a disorder marker was inflicted on a large unit of Hird in Thangbrand’s right wing or division.

Turn 2 - Thorgrim was able to keep the initiative (even after Thangbrand rerolled both dice) and his skirmishing javelin troops inflicted another casualty on that large unit of Hird and then ran way through the ranks of friendly Hird. Thangbrand’s skirmishers were busy too, throwing a volley at point blank range against the shieldwall formed by Thorgrim’s Guard Huscarls. No casualties were inflicted but the shieldwall was disordered by the dozens of javelins and light spears landing on the formation. The archers of both sides tried to make their arrows count, but none of these skirmishers could find the mark. After letting loose, the archers from both sides scampered back behind the massed lines of heavy infantry. Egbert’s Anglo-Danish Rebels continued to struggle with forming their shieldwall. The unit on the left of the formation was able to do it, but the unit to its immediate right was still having problems.

Turn 3 - Thangbrand’s Hird formations “bumped” into those belonging to Thorgrim and much combat and chaos ensued. Initially, Thangbrand’s men had a difficult time of it as their impetus advantage and numbers did not appear to matter to the dice. Reviewing my knowledge of the melee procedures when two opposing groups clash, it was determined that 3 of Thangbrand’s units broke or were destroyed for the cost of just 1 on Thorgrim’s side of the melee scrum. The dice then seemed to turn in Thangbrand’s favor and the 3 large units on the left of Thorgrim’s line were forced to give ground (a Hail Caesar phrase, I know, but appropriate) though they were not pursued. (Note: I have struggled with the rule concerning disordered units and groups. It seems to me that one might indeed have a disordered part of a group and the negative modifiers would take care of that. If disordered units cannot be a part of a group and one has a group formation of 8 or 9 large units, then some “fudging” or “redressing of the ranks” has to take place in order to provide for these affected units. Does this not, even if minimally, result in sideways movement and by extension, make it possible to produce match ups that would otherwise not occur. The distinction between main unit and supporting unit is another area that can sometimes lead to confusion. I have studied paragraph 5 of section 7.7.3 a number of times; it seems contradictory.) All that aside, for the first melees on Thorgrim’s left, it appeared something of a bloody stalemate.

In the center of the field (i.e., lab),Thangbrand’s Veteran and Guard Huscarls threw themselves at Thorgrim’s shieldwall. The last-minute missiles had no effect what so ever. The combats were certainly hard fought, and both commanders used half of their “Berserker dice” to sway the results. With the exception of Thorgrim’s unit taking a single loss and withdrawing 3 centimeters, the battle line remained unchanged. In fact, the 2 units of the right of Thorgrim’s position were able to maintain their shieldwall.

In their phase, Egbert’s men stood still, hoping that the one large unit would finally form a shieldwall. It didn’t. Thorgrim’s men fought back in the center and both sides threw more “Berserker dice” into the melee. The result was a stalemate, though all of Thorgrim’s units were no longer in shieldwall formation. Over on the left, the Hird units had focused on rolling to reorganize their ranks. In these attempts (each unit rolled twice) they were singularly unsuccessful.

Turn 4 - Thangbrand, being a charismatic leader (with a name like that, how could he not be?), won the initiative again this turn and decided to start things off on his left flank. Accordingly, 4 large units of Huscarls advanced straight into the thicket of long spears held by Egbert’s Select Fyrd. On the far right of this contest (from Egbert’s point of view) however, it was Huscarls versus Huscarls. The dice gods apparently favored Thangbrand’s warriors as the engaged unit was only disordered while 3 points of damage were inflicted on the enemy. The cohesion roll turned up 5 for the losing side, so Egbert thought he would use his roll of destiny and hope to get a stalemate. Of course, the re-roll turned up a 6 which resulted in a commander check for Egbert. I looked at the table in the back of the rule book and calculated a modifier of +1. I held my breath and rolled the required 2d6. An 11! The modified result indicated that Egbert had been captured and his command, worth 18 morale points, had been routed. The loss of 18 points plus the 2 points of Hird formations destroyed in previous turns signaled the end of Thorgrim. The morale of his army crumbled and his men fled the field.

Well that certainly came as a surprise. While this result did save me the potentially laborious task of working through a series of melee turns where ragged lines of ragged Vikings hacked and stabbed at each other, it also deprived me of furthering my IMPETVS education, especially with regard to determining main and support units in close combat and which units can pursue or follow up a retreating enemy.

As to my rule amendments or suggestions, it seems sensible to take these in order.

“Berserker dice” - Short of creating a new IMPETVS unit, I think these additional dice worked fairly well. As I recall, there was only one instance where the extra dice added to the number of hits scored against an enemy unit. Fortunately for that challenged unit, the cohesion test was passed and the result was disorder as opposed to disorder and multiple casualties. This is not to say, however, that the rule if perfect. There is still some tinkering to be done and I would appreciate any and all constructive comments and ideas from readers so inclined.

The Suggested Shieldwall rules - I think the discipline test and restricted movement ability are decent amendments. I am not so sure about the placement of a disorder marker bringing an end to the shieldwall. It seemed a little too easier to bring down a shieldwall in this unexpectedly short experiment. I wonder if being in shieldwall should give a unit testing its cohesion a positive modifier? Even though the Vikings under Thorgrim did not score any hits with their “pila” volleys before melee was joined, I think the idea or rule revision has merit. One gentleman has suggested tying the missile ability of Viking, Saxon, and similar infantry types to a unit’s impetus, but I think it has to remain a distinct element of the shieldwall. In the experiment just concluded, not a single unit in shieldwall formation was able to inflict any damage or disorder on a charging enemy. In that respect, the shieldwall missiles perform almost exactly like the Roman pila - that is, at least when I have had Romans on the table!

It is quite evident that more play testing is needed. Given my lack of rule confidence with IMPETVS, I am thinking about changing the main variable and using modified ARMATI 2nd Edition or perhaps even going once more into the Hail Caesar breach.


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Post by Jim Webster on Thu Jun 11, 2015 7:20 am

I read this elsewhere but I thought I'd better chip in my six pennyworth here as well. I think there's some mileage in the berserks :-)

Berserkers are 'one of those things.' I often wonder if they're a bit like 'Warband', a wargames artifact rather than something an army commander at the time would recognise.

Still it's clear that men did go 'berserk' during the period we're discussing. It may have the same roots as the Malay 'amok'.

The problem from the wargamer's point of view is that they didn't do it by numbers in 200 man units. So actually, I rather like your method of modelling it under Impetus.

What I'd suggest is that a general would know at the start of the battle what unit his 'berserks' were in. But because it's a cultural/psychological thing there might possibly be berserks in other units, just far less likely.

I'd suggest you could pay 5 points for 3d6 berserk dice. 2d6 of them were in with the unit you wanted, 1d6 (the smallest) would be kept to one side and each time a unit (not skirmishers) fought a round of combat you'd roll a d6 and on a 1 that unit would get the remaining berserk dice.

Jim Webster
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Post by AncientWarrior on Thu Jun 11, 2015 11:57 am

Thanks for reading (twice) and for the feedback/idea re paying for berserkers.

At the risk of trotting out a form of the cliche, it seems that gamers will do what they like/please, depending on their priorities.

From the information provided by RD (he of the 3 blogs/sites), it would seem that Hail Caesar might be the better rule set where berserkers are concerned.

At the risk of changing the subject, I wonder if TO THE STRONGEST addresses Dark Age warfare and if so, how does it handle berserkers?



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Post by Roughage on Thu Jun 11, 2015 5:52 pm

Good post, Chris. The battle report sounded very much like many of the battles here. They all seem to go "Oops, what happened? Oh, their/my troops are running away. How did that happen?" Smile

Regarding your rules, I think you have a choice to make here. Do you want peanut butter with your jam/jelly, or are you willing to eat just a jam sandwich? Smile Leaving aside my distaste for peanut butter, this really means that you need to choose to follow the traditional interpretation of berserkers, or do you follow the latest research?

The former will play up to your players' expectations and can be fun with special rules for berserkers, such as your berserker dice. It puts the emphasis on the game rather than on the historicity. For colour, I like your berserker dice idea. The problem would be in balancing it. Perhaps Jim's idea is along the right lines.

The jam sandwich will basically leave you with a stock Viking army per the army lists in Impetus. It would be more historically accurate but less colourful.

Jim, I regret that I am going to have to disagree with you about berserkers and going berserk. Old Norse literature does not describe berserkir going berserk. Close reading of the texts shows that berserksgangr is not a form of rage or fit, because the berserkir are still in control after undergoing it. Thus, the medieval saga authors did not actually believe that berserkir went berserk either and it seems likely that their interpretation in this instance is closer to the probable historical reality than that of later historians and philologists. Instead berserksgangr is a form of posturing like the All Blacks' haka. It is designed to intimidate the enemy and bolster their own morale. All the business about going mad in battle and being totally uncontrollable is really starts in the eighteenth century with the 'blood and guts' school of history. Personally, I blame Ödmann for introducing the idea of them eating magic mushrooms in 1784. It all went downhill after that.

The examples of warriors apparently going berserk in Old Norse literature, such as Þórólfr at Vínheiðr are type scenes: the warrior surrounded by the enemy decides to go down fighting like Byrhtnot's retinue at Maldon. The language is pretty much exactly the same in each case in the Old Norse texts. These scenes are very similar to the descriptions of Richard III's final moments at Bosworth too, yet no one calls him a berserker. Moreover, the men described in these type scenes are never called berserkir.

Berserkers worked in an environment where being out of control was not a good survival strategy for them or those around them. The shieldwall required control and berserkers were the bodyguards of kings and lords, so they would have been the best warriors around. So, they would have been in control, all other appearances to the contrary. The best modern analogy for Viking Age berserkir is the Parachute Regiment or the French Foreign Legion. They all use(d) extreme controlled aggression to achieve their objectives in battle.


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