Thursday, April 19, 2012

From the Classics: Drunk Poetry Slam

Among many adventures depicted in the Viking romance Arrow-Odd, one of my favourite is a scene where the titular character is challenged to a drinking contest with a pair of lazy nobles named Sigurd and Sjolf. Now, drinking contests are always fun, but what's striking about this one is that it also incorporates improvised poetry. The drinkers take turns presenting a horn of mead to their opponent, but before the opponent drinks the offerer must speak a verse to them. Each verse is eight lines long and consists of alternately singing one's own valiant deeds and ridiculing the manhood of one's opponent. For example:

You weren't around,
Sjolf, when we reddened
Our steel on the earl
off Laeso Island.
Mad for sex, you
sat at home wondering
whether to cuddle
the calf or the kitchenmaid.

Sick burn! Obviously, as the competitors get more drunk, they become less able to come up with verses, and are eventually defeated. So it's one part drinking game and one part Medieval rap battle.

The following are some rules for simulating such a contest in a game of D&D:

Competitors take turns to present a horn of mead and a verse. By default, each player has two minutes to come up with a verse before they have to speak it. This might be intimidating for some players, but bear in mind that the verse doesn't have to rhyme or scan. All you have to do is tell a tale about your brave deeds and then talk some smack about your opponent. You can't talk about the same heroic deed more than once, so having a good character history will be of some help. Of course, you can choose to make something up, but this will require a Bluff check (or roll-under CHA if you're not playing with a skill system).

The characters' drunkenness is measured in terms of 'sobriety value'. Each character starts with SV 4, plus or minus their CON modifier. Each time they drink a horn, they must make a saving throw vs. poison (or CON save, Fortitude save, etc.) or else take -1 SV. The player's time allotted for composing a verse is equal to 30 seconds multiplied by their SV, so a character with SV 4 would get two minutes, but a character with SV 2 would only get one. A character with SV0 can still compete, so long as they begin to speak their verse immediately when their turn comes around. A character with negative SV passes out from drunkenness.

Contestants can be eliminated by the following means:
- Failing to provide a full verse of 8 lines containing a heroic deed and a diss
- Stumbling over words or hesitating while reciting the verse
- Being caught lying about their deeds
- Passing out

The last man standing is the winner. The game can be played 1-vs-1, free-for-all, or in tag teams. 

Alternate rule set: Ignore all the complicated crap about Sobriety Value and SV and just have each player drink an actual horn of mead when their turn comes around. Do not use this method if you are planning to carry on the session after the drinking contest is over.

Note: I don't know about you, but my players love drinking contests and will initiate them whenever they get the chance. I wouldn't use this system for that kind of ad-hoc minigame, because it's too long and involved. It would work best if something important rested on the outcome of the contest.


  1. I've got to read this one :) The only Icelandic Sagas I've read are the ones in this: compilation. It's really good but it doesn't include Arrow-Odd or Njal which are some of the classics. However, it does have Egil Skallagrimson who acts more like a PC than any other character in literature I've ever read.

  2. Oh, Egil's saga sounds good. I'll have to look out for it. The book I have contains six more stories besides Arrow-Odd, but none of them are Egil or Njal.

  3. Probably because they're two of the longest, Egil alone is the size of a short novel. It includes his father and grandfather, but it focuses on him more than most long Icelandic Sagas focus on one guy.

    Here's a bit of Egil's poems:

    I'm feeling drunk, and the ale
    has left Olvir pale in the gills,
    I let the spray of ox-spears
    foam over my beard.
    Your wits have gone, inviter
    of showers onto shields;
    now the rain of the high god
    starts pouring upon you.

    Gotta love kennings for vomiting on people who've pissed you off :)