Dragon Ship
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THERE'S no wind along these seas,
Out oars for Stavanger!
Forward all for Stavanger!
So we must wake the white-ash breeze,
Let fall for Stavanger!
A long pull for Stavanger!

Oh, hear the benches creak and strain!
(A long pull for Stavanger!)
She thinks she smells the Northland rain!
(A long pull for Stavanger!)

(from) Thorkild's Song Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

The dragon ship, also known as the longship, drakkar or drekar was the primary warship of Scandinavia between (roughly) the 9th and 13th centuries AD. The "dragon" part of the name comes from the removable dragon-styled figureheads that were traditionally fitted to the ships when out viking.

Primarily troop carriers, the drakkar were relatively lightweight, clinker built and shallow drafted, giving them excellent handling capabailities in a rough sea and allowing them to operate in shallow inshore waters and even be portaged during river expeditions. A moderately flexible hull and double ended build also helped resist damage during amphibious operations and aided unbeaching and low-speed manouvers. Propulsion was generally by a single square sail rigged to a central mast or by rowing - meaning that the ship's trooplift capacity was also a large part of its propulsion system1. Unsurprisingly, the number of rowing positions was the prime means of sorting this class of ship.

The longship tended to lack most design refinements imaginable with little or no shelter or holdspace, primitive steering and little else in the way of amenities - but then their job was to deliver and extract troops for costal raiding. It also struggled in naval combat, being lower in the freeboard than other contemporary ships2 and pretty much doomed against a true warship, but fortunately for the operators true warships were virtually non-existant in much of their range3 and most other opponents could be defeated by superior numbers and crew training4.

For less warlike expeditions the Scandinavians of the period preferred the Knarr (a heavier weight cargo ship) or the karve (a broad beamed costal transport).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Not all that great for a party of PCs unless they have enough men to crew it.
  • But a fact of life for any PCs playing vikings - or early medieval Scandinavians in general.
  • These things were like beach sand, getting as far away as the Caspian Sea and the Nile - although the ships that reached North America were probably knarrs. Their ability to operate in relatively shallow rivers allowed deep operations into Central Asia and you could make a case for them turning up in sub-saharan Africa as well (although there's no evidence that they did).
  • For Saxons, Franks, Slavs … anyone who wasn't a Scandinavian really5, these things meant trouble. Specifically a pile of dozens of vikings. Even if the dragon heads were unshipped and their intentions nominally peaceful, there was still a worryingly mobile warband somewhere very close.
  • These were the sort of vessel operated by Blue Men.
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