Customs in the Northlands

How Things Work in the North

Outside of family and clan, felag is the strongest bond in society. It means “fellowship” and “partnership” and is linked to the power of the Fé rune, which represents division of wealth. A sacred bond between shield-brothers, a felag oathtaker swears to loyally support one’s captain and fellow warriors. This oath defines the felag’s aims, its right to depose and elect leaders, and fair division of the spoils.

Most Northlanders are karls, free farmers and artisans—and part time raiders and traders—who answer only to themselves. Unlike their counterparts in the feudal hierarchies of the south, homesteaders aren’t bound to a local lord by anything but their own choice and oath. Karls who directly serve a lord are known as huskarls (“karls of the house”) and make up a lord’s chief allies, administrators, and personal bodyguard. A wise lord is free with gifts and opportunities for glory, else his karls look elsewhere for a patron.

Above karls are chieftains, jarls, and kings—nobles defined not by bloodline or divine provenance but followers, ships, and estates. Sometimes the North has many kings and sometimes it has none, but rarely do they unify more than a relatively small area, and never for more than a generation or two. Royalty attracts more than enough rivals, invaders, and pretenders to stymie any ruler’s power, and successions are always disputed. Even kingship is not viewed as especially sacred or special. Some rulers might claim descent from a hero or god (occasionally backed up by genuine divine favor) but success is the only real measure of nobility in the North.

In the lowest social class are the thralls or slaves, prisoners of war or unfortunates kidnapped by raiders or bondsmen unable pay their debts. Most thralls lead hard lives, but some rise from such depths. Everyone respects triumph over adversity, and good slaves are considered part of the family, sharing its hardships and successes with everyone else. Karls often free their slaves, either in their wills or by treating them as freemen as the years go on. Social order is fluid and defined by one’s actions: Kingship and jarldom are forged through war and adventure, not guaranteed by bloodline.

The unyielding landscape hammered Northern life into its current shape. The surroundings define its people far more than race—the societies of humans, dwarves, giants, and others share much in common. They approach life with the same bullish mindset, worship in a similar fashion, and follow roughly the same customs. Humans can travel to a goblin hall with reasonable expectations of proper etiquette.

Customs of the North

The unyielding landscape hammered Northern life into its current shape. The surroundings define its people far more than race—the societies of humans, dwarves, giants, and others share much in common. They approach life with the same bullish mindset, worship in a similar fashion, and follow roughly the same customs. Humans can travel to a goblin hall with reasonable expectations of proper etiquette.

Still, each species has its own prejudices and preferences, muddying the waters and adding unexpected twists that can form the basis of entire adventures. Jotuns rarely think it unfair to challenge guests to giant-sized games of strength for example, while kobold Þings are notorious for backstabbing politics, and what’s on the table at a troll feast might not be palatable to other races . . . although it’s still rude not to eat. The most common shared customs involve honor and reputation, hospitality and feasting, the Þing, wergild and duels, and the infamous reaver raid.

Threes and Nines

Three Norns. Three gods who made the world. Three monstrous children of Loki to end it. Nine Worlds and nine days hung on the tree Yggdrassil; nine nights spent together by Njord and Skadi in each of their homes. Nine deities who will survive Ragnarok.

The numbers three and nine, and multiples thereof, feature heavily in Norse myth. They’re luky and powerful, and every northerner is aware of their significance.

Honour and Reputation

Reputation is everything. Warriors tell tales of old comrades and adventures, and skalds sing of deeds both valorous and vile. Passing news and gossip is a common pastime from thralls to kings. Desire for a good reputation compels men to acts of generosity, valor, and hospitality, while ill-repute is rightly feared and the taint of dishonor sometimes never shaken off. Northlanders have a prickly sense of honor: A good name is all that remains after death, so most people don’t just want to do the right thing, they want to be seen doing it.

Honor isn’t the same as goodness, however. Wicked reavers are considered honorable, and some good men are known as níðingr (honorless) for abandoning the crueler Northern customs. Regardless of alignment, an honorable man is generous in gifting and hospitality, fair-minded in judgments, and fearless in battle. Cleverness and wit are also essential—Northlanders should be able to recite poetry, evade the tempers and tantrums of the gods, and be considered cunning by allies and enemies alike. Northlanders take life stoically, calm in even the worst of circumstances. All Northmen (and women) know no human or god escapes his fate, and complaining is pointless.

The Þing

Travelers can be surprised by the democratic traditions of the North. Families and neighbors sort out local matters among themselves, but every region also has a regular meeting called a Þing (pronounced thing) that combines court and trade fair. Northlanders come to settle quarrels, make vows of peace or war, forge new alliances, celebrate great deeds, and invoke ancient laws. A council of wise men (“law-speakers”) and jarls oversees debates and attempts to broker satisfactory settlements, but all the discussions are public and all free people can have their say.

Much in the North is decided by the influence of local lords and bullies, but big decisions need public approval—although intimidation and backstabbing goes on behind the scenes. Even in relatively peaceful times there are arguments to settle and feuds to avert, so the Þing’s law-speakers are kept busy ruling on hunting and pasturage rights, debts unpaid and stolen thralls or cattle, and even kidnapping and murder. If agreement and recompense cannot be reached then, injured parties can rely on the sanctity of the duel or the declaration of a feud.

There’s also trading to be done and raid booty to dispose of at the Þing. Most families have slaves, cloth, fine weapons, cattle and oxen, salt, wax, hides, raw materials and a variety of hand-crafted household goods to offer in trade. Master artisans, rune masters, and wizards also prowl the Þing for customers, and in a region with few cities it’s the best opportunity for a wealthy Northlander to lay his or her hands on exotic or magic items. Distant kings and powerful jarls sometimes send men to the Þing to safeguard their interests.

Locals despise such sly emissaries, and it’s not uncommon for such folk to have their heads removed and sent back to their masters as a message that people here prefer to manage their own affairs. These actions and duels are the only violence permitted at the Þing, although most attendees consider it a poor event if fewer than three or four men travel the hel-road during a moot. Death is great entertainment, a fine sacrifice, and a good way to remind everyone how useful the peace of the Þing is.

Most Þings take place at a traditional spot: a sacred glade, blessed rock, World Tree, or other hallowed location. Borders are a common locale, allowing rival regions to stay separate between debates. A nearby hall might host prominent visitors, but most people camp in the surrounding fields. Divinely sent afflictions and public condemnation await those who break the truce.

Justice, Feuds, and Wergild

justified A Northlander’s concept of justice can be hard to define. There are relatively few crimes—most come down to theft or dishonoring someone’s good name—and “justice” is synonymous with compensation or avoiding a feud, not some abstract idea of right or wrong. Assuming he or she has not committed an especially heinous crime (treachery, for example), the accused might not be treated as a criminal by the populace at large, or even by their victims. Fines known as wergild are the usual punishment, paid by the offender to the victim or their family (traditionally in the form of silver rings), and in exchange the victim and his kin swear to let the matter drop.

Holmganga (Duelling)

Questioning someone’s honor is asking for a fight. Sometimes it happens by accident—especially at drunken feasts—and Northlanders laugh off such happenings once a sincere apology is given. But sometimes only bloodshed can heal a warrior’s wounded pride. This is called holmganga (“going to the island”), and duels are typically fought at an island, at a crossroads, in sacred glades, or on a cloth staked to the ground.

The fight ends only when one combatant flees or cannot continue. The concept of “first blood” is ludicrous. Typical provocation for a duel is accusing a warrior of a crime, cowardice, or falsely claiming credit for heroic deeds. Whoever caused the offence has three days to publicly apologize for the slight or meet the aggrieved party for the duel.

Failure to show up earns a reputation as a nithling (coward, −4 Status penalty) and outlawry for a year or two. Each warrior can take personal arms, armor, and three shields to the dueling ground. Breaking a shield or throwing it down ends a “round” of fighting, allowing a brief respite (no more than a minute) to catch one’s breath.

Contestants can use magic items and their own magical powers, but outside assistance is forbidden. Martial characters naturally have a great advantage in holmganga, but honorable men of all professions are expected to go the island when necessary. If a duel is grossly mismatched, a champion can fight in one’s place or the defender can go before the local Þing and petition to have the duel declared unfair. Despite this, many warriors make a good living as wandering duelists, making challenges to extort “gifts” from men unable to stand against them.


If debate or holmganga cannot resolve an issue (or neither party is interested in trying them), then a feud begins. Immediate and extended family, neighbors, and the victim’s friends are expected to avenge him by inflicting the same woes on the criminal and his kin. Sometimes the motivation is a genuine sense of justice; more often it’s an excuse for robbery and murder.

Feuds rapidly get out of hand as each side calls in debts, creating an ever-expanding circle of violence (and more wergild needed to settle it) that can go on for generations. Pressure from the Þing can sometimes end feuds, but otherwise they continue until one side flees the area, is destroyed beyond capacity to strike back, or— rarely—both sides weary of continual bloodshed. All factions court adventurers to aid them, both officially and unofficially, and the call for allies or the duty of guests to their host are easy ways to embroil honorable characters in a conflict, sometimes on the wrong side. Even intervening to break up a fight can thrust an unwilling party into the feud—or become the cause of a fresh one.


Outlaws have been banished from honorable society. They are outcasts, sometimes by choice or circumstance but more commonly as a punishment. Beggars as well as respected men are made outlaw for crimes. Literally “outside the law” they can be killed without penalty or fear of wergild or feud. Their families are supposed to treat an outlaw as if they were dead, while strangers should not offer them hospitality or aid, treating them as they would a wolf that came scratching at their door. Sometimes a bounty is offered by the outlaw’s victims, and jarls reward anyone who kills a known outlaw.

Outlawry is sometimes for life and sometimes for a set period—a year or three years or until the king or jarl who declared it is dead. Outlawry applies only in the outlaw’s local Þing or kingdom. Depending on the crime, an outlaw might be ignored or even welcomed in neighboring lands. Outlawry doesn’t carry much stigma (it’s an occupational hazard for most adventurers), but the deed behind it might reflect significantly on the outlaw’s reputation.


Feasting and Hospitality

Providing hospitality is one of the most important obligations of honor. A warm hearth, a hearty meal, and stout walls are the only respite from the dark and dangerous wilderness, and welcoming guests is one of the few ways to learn foreign news and gossip. How someone acts as a guest or a host is considered a telling mark of character. In exchange for the host’s generosity, guests are expected to pay them back not with coin but by behaving themselves, defending their host from attack, and giving their own gifts (or aid in time of need) while staying beneath his roof. Even deadly enemies and monsters adhere to the laws of hospitality—or at least the letter of it.

Local notions of what’s hospitable might not match the traveler’s own, however. From the farmer sitting down with his family and hired hands each night, to a jarl hosting his huskarls or a king celebrating a major religious festival, the communal meal is integral to Northern culture. At the feast table warriors get to know one another, deciding issues of status and building the camaraderie needed to survive as a war-band or army. Outside martial groups, feasts mark harvests and other important calendar days, offer praise to the gods, and help bind families and communities together. The day’s events are discussed, gossip spread, and deals brokered from betrothals to barter to raids.

Those who regularly shun communal meals are viewed with distrust— clearly they have something to hide. For kings, jarls, and prosperous karls, meals are taken in a specially built hall, a large building resembling the upturned hull of a longship. Here the lord and his family receive guests, who judge a host by their hall and the hospitality offered in it.

Ale and mead is served in vast open barrels, ladled out by servants and ferried to drinkers who sit in order of status. Those most favored near the master of the hall, who sits on a thronelike chair wide enough for two people (the lord and his wife or leman). Everyone else rests on a bench. Drinking is done from hollow horns, specifically designed so that they cannot be set down without being emptied. Failing to do so is good cause for mockery, but drinking from a mug or flagon is considered suitable only for women—although many female heroes would rather drink with gusto from a horn. Guests’ weapons are kept nearby, but not permitted at the feast; their presence would offer too many temptations for drunken diners to violate hospitality, bringing dishonor upon all concerned.

Northlanders have a justified reputation for enjoying strong drink as much as they enjoy battle—and the former leads to the latter when warriors gather together to feast, brag, and swap outlandish tales of daring. As the hours or even days pass by, words become slurred, tempers become frayed, and brawls or duels are a constant possibility. A wise lord breaks up a long gathering with hunting and outdoor sports to prevent restlessness and give guests a change of scene. Skalds (bards) and entertainers are in great demand to ease tensions, although more than a few lords enjoy watching guests fight.

Besides drink and brawls, popular entertainments include hunting (essential for keeping meat on the table during extended feasts) and hawking (considered “an old man’s game”). Sagas and rhymes are common, dissolving into impromptu contests between audience and skald—a chance for all involved to show their talent and wit. Animal games, especially bear-baiting, cock fighting, and dog fighting are also common. A host is expected to give gifts to victorious contestants. Many areas have a specialty in some rough but mostly friendly contest that visitors are expected to take part in. A wise guest finds out in advance what’s locally considered “fun.”

Sample games include the following pastimes:

Dancing with the Bear: A popular Khazzak game: Walk across a balance beam over a pit containing an angry bear (DC 15 Acrobatics check), but characters must quaff a strong drink after each round and can “raise the stakes” by voluntarily taking a penalty to their check that other contestants must match.

• Horse Racing: An opposed Ride check. Alternatively treat this as a chase as detailed in the Pathfinder® Roleplaying Game: GameMastery Guide.

• Lie-Tales: Who can tell the most outrageous “tall story” while keeping it superficially plausible?

• Polo: A variant of knattgildra (a ball game) that’s played from horseback—or in the case of giants, mammoth-back.

• Swimming: Swimming contests are popular, especially “fearswims” where contestants swim out to sea as far as they dare and then back again. Sea monsters, impromptu wrestling between contestants, fatigue, and cold provide additional dangers.

• Water-Wrestling: Wrestling match in waist-deep water (–2 to hit, CMB, and damage; half normal movement, and likely requiring a check against exposure to cold). The aim is to hold a combatant underwater until he submits or cannot continue.

• Worg Tickling: A Wolfheim specialty. Wrestlers engage in unarmed combat against wolves and worgs, trying to pin them.

Inescapable Fate

The Norns weave destiny for god and mortal alike, and no one escapes their final doom. Everything in the world has a fate that cannot be evaded or denied. Baldur’s dreams foretell his death and a hall awaits his coming in the Underworld. Wotan learned of Ragnarok many years before it will come to pass and knows that he will die with the jaws of the Fenris Wolf around his throat. His son, meanwhile, prepares for years crafting the weapon he knows will avenge his father. Northlanders don’t believe in coincidence. When old friends or enemies meet, they give a knowing nod at their destined reacquaintance.

When an expedition is lost at sea or a companion killed, it was destiny. People’s actions are predestined, their choices already woven, but they travel through life with a cheerfully resigned attitude to trouble: It was meant to be, and a good man struggles on as best he can and hopes that a better thread of fate awaits him tomorrow. Curses and prophecies abound, yet stoic acceptance of one’s doom is integral to the Northern character.

Chance doesn’t play a great part in the Northern psyche, but luck is a different matter. Good or bad fortune isn’t random but is tied to fate. “Luck” is how your destiny plays out and calling something lucky or unlucky is much the same as calling it good or bad. Charming men are called “woman-lucky” and good sailors are said to have “sea-luck.” Because lucky men are signposts of fate, Northlanders ally with those favored by fate—likewise, they distance themselves from unlucky people and items.

Customs in the Northlands

Hrafnsmál twiggyleaf Morrison