So in my setting, there's this magical elixir that can essentially turn people into berserkers for a short time.

They enter a state of "murder high" where they basically become hardcore sadists, reveling in the pain they cause others, rather than traditional berserkers where they're just too angry to die™.

They can't feel pain, their bodily functions go into overdrive and they can heal very fast. Not like deadpool fast, but if you cut them, in an hour it will heal.

They gain super strength, energy, and endurance. Not hysterical strength, energy, or endurance, like they still can be killed, but enough to punch a fully grown man across a room. It usually lasts about around 6 hours.

In high enough doses though, it will kill you instantly.

But I don't want this to be a common thing for warriors to be using, I'd prefer to keep it more traditional and save this kind of magic for ending fights and stuff.

To be clear, I'm referring to tribal bands of warriors, like the Proto Indo-Europeans, Picts, Vikings, or earlier Germanic tribes. Not a disciplined Roman-style army. They would see them as a liability.


8 Answers 8



  1. A berserker cannot recognize friend from foe. They want to kill their (former) comrades as much as their enemies. That makes them bad for fighting in groups. Where they shine is desperate suicide attacks. For example you send ten berserkers ( far apart that they don't kill each other) into one flank of the enemy formation, while your main army engages them from the front.

  2. A berserker cannot be called off. In normal warfare, typically a battle ends when one side is obviously losing, morale breaks, and they flee. The winner chases them for a while to make sure they continue fleeing. Then they stop chasing, and start rape-and-pillaging whatever it was they were fighting over in the first place. Neither side wants to chase so far that they corner their enemies and both armies annihilate each other. Using berserkers however means this will always happen. Your berserkers never survive the battle.

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    $\begingroup$ It is hard to overstated how much of a downside not being able to tell friend from foe is. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ Read Joe Abercrombie for a great fictional example of this. Logan Ninefingers's mental shift into berserker looks cool and all - until the point where he kills another friend (and we find why he was expelled from his tribe in the first place). At best, anyone with a weapon is a target. At worst, anything breathing is a target. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Also, when you say "tribe" I hear "fairly small sized society" -- meaning that very likely none of your battle-capable adults are truly expendable. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ Why am I thinking of Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Steangelove? $\endgroup$
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 27, 2021 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ Those side-effects sound like the perfect berserker for me, as long as it happens to one of their men, in their camp... $\endgroup$
    – arc_lupus
    Commented Nov 27, 2021 at 18:56

You can use whatever elements of those points, or none.

  • Nobody wants to go out like this. His people don't like it. Think about it. The leader might want murderous machines to throw at the enemy. Sure. But where is he getting the humans from? His own soldier/people. And they are not fans of a potion with 90% mortality rates. Normal combat is dangerous sure. But actual battles were not as deadly as movies depict. It's the fleeing, the hunting of fleeing soldiers, and similar stuff. Heck. Diseases kills more than combat. So. He people don't like it. And you can only force your own people to do something one too many times before they start to dislike it.
  • Similar to the point above. But different. Soldiers don't always die. In fact the survival rate of the elixir is high. Only problem? They have nothing. The elixir destroy their body. Working it too hard so that a 20yo soldier turns to a 70yo man after a single usage. Those soldiers are then a burden on the leader and society. Since they have to be put on pension. Obviously those are just approximate numbers.
  • The Cost is too great. In making the potion, in keeping the potion, and in overall usage. Heck. Why not make the plant that is used be very time consuming to be grown. Like it takes several years for it to be used. So. Now you got time with money or time alone or whatever other limitation. After all "The sinews of war are infinite money"
  • Your soldiers die after. So. Pyrrhic victory every time. Even assuming his own people don't mind. Once the thing is taken it's a 7/10 chances they die. Making damage to the enemy sure. But they die. Meaning that for the next battle you need to replace that soldier. And, sadly, humans are slow to regrow.
  • Laws, cultures, and overall inconvenience. For example lets assume the secret to the elixir is know to all the tribal peoples of that country. However they found out that the overall cost of the usage, money or people or whatever, is just too high. Perhaps there is a religious region. I once read that the burial mounds to certain cultures were truly sacred that they would not get easily looted. The believe was really strong. So. Maybe the people thought it taints the soul. Or there is a stigma in using it. Or it's from the graveyards of the people. Whatever the reason people find it very very difficult to use it and be accepted. Remember that acceptable and popularity were important. From emperors to tribal leaders to kings and everyone in between.
  • The enemy developed the perfect counters: retreat until they die or draw them in. Think about it. You throw 200 berserkers at the enemy line. They literally go into a killing frenzy and start closing the distance as soon as possible. That means they are leaving the shield wall behind. Enemy archers pepper them with arrows until they die in the open field. Remember they have no concern for themselves, they have no plan, no formation, nothing. They die on the open plains. To demoralize your soldiers. But wait, you fielded a whole army of them. The power! NOPE. Just: Retreat! As your soldiers retreat in orderly fashion the enemy start running at them until they tire them. There is certainly a limited amount of energy even in the berserkers that once used they have no more. Just keep backing away until it wear off. Now the enemy army is an absolute disarray. GG WP.
  • Best usage is probably last ditch last stand glorious death material.
  • People obviously proposed that they are uncontrollable. Up to you to decide. However I think a completely uncontrollable force is so obviously useless that the elixir might not be developed in the first place. I offer an alternative. And I'm ripping this off from Warhammer 40K. Have a sort of priest be the only person able to guide them in this sort of state. Now this means that your berserkers do still have some sort of battlefield usage since we had something like elephants in history. If the elephants took too much damage or their driver died they can run amok. You can use that. Now this might mean that the priest is an obvious target, or that it takes a lot of time and money to train them. Either way this gives you the ability to still use them in limited usages in a more "realistic" manner and still have the explanation of: We just don't have that many of priests and we can't even get more.
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for TANSTAAFL. Price that's even higher when the matter is for a tribal chief to consider - in a tribe, you don't have faceless soldiers, you have people which - in peace times - you work with and party with and celebrate their first born, people that you may share a childhood and rites of passage and many hunts and many battles together. As a tribal chief, you have to be desperate for the future of your tribe and so do those that will agree to become berserkers to save the tribe - they are likely never to return alive or with all their health. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 0:10
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    $\begingroup$ [1] "However I think a completely uncontrollable force is so obviously useless that the elixir might not be developed in the first place." I disagree with two things. Firstly, just because something is useless doesn't mean it won't be developed. It could be the product of a trial-and-error process towards something else (perhaps similar), and although useless, it was still developed, just not intentionally. I know you said "it might not be developed", and I'd agree uselessness lowers the likelihood that it'd be developed, but I don't think it significantly lowers the likelihood. $\endgroup$
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ [2] Secondly, this elixir is unwieldy, sure, but far from useless. You can avoid a lot of the problems of the uncontrollability of the elixir by timing the ingestion right, and by positioning the berserkers smartly. With this kind of elixir, preparation would be everything. And think about it; if they are so powerful, a handful of berserkers might be worth twenty/thirty soldiers? It's easier to sneak in five people into a fort than it is 30. You sneak in five soldiers, they drink the elixir and suddenly you got a nice distraction as you siege them, or, maybe they can siege the fort themselves? $\endgroup$
    – A. Kvåle
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @A.Kvåle You know what's even easier to sneak into a fort? Five doses of elixir, that you slip into the drinks of some likely lads during their evening meal. One infiltrator on one supply shipment meaning dozens or hundreds of enemies dead? That's a trick plenty of generals would give their right arm to learn. (Or someone's right arm, anyway...) $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Many of your arguments against berserkers would not apply if this berserker elixir was force fed to enemy prisoners of war, slaves, some undesirable "untouchable" segment of society, or some similar group. Such people may already be a burden on the tribe and this would be a means of "disposal" that benefits them. This "last hurrah" might be seen in a religious and/or legal sense as a means to make up for past wrongs, a way to save their soul or avoid some punishment that may be seen as far worse. Aged warriors might volunteer for this so they go out in a blaze of glory when past their prime $\endgroup$
    – MacGuffin
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 23:12

Organized shield walls can easily kill beserkers.

It doesn't matter how angry you are. A spear through your heart will put you down. An organized shield wall with spear and shield can block people running at them and kill them easily.

As such, in battles you need to break their shield walls first. Then, your beserkers can be used to disrupt them from within, or chase down the fleeing survivors.

Shield walls were popular among tribal bands. It doesn't require a lot of discipline to hold up a shield and stab your opponent. Spears are very easy weapons to make, as are shields, and this is an easy counter for any tribal society.

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    $\begingroup$ berserkers were one of the few things used effectively against shield walls because they were good at breaking them, albeit at the cost of the berserkers life. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 2:34
  • $\begingroup$ @John but if our murderhobo has angry people with shields and spears in front oh him but not so well defended potential victims next to him, are you sure he'll charge the shieldwall? $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Hobbamok real life berserkers could be aimed, at least until the confusion of melee. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ @John OP doesn't really describe real life berserkers however $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence : this is why spears used against wild boars had a crossguard to stop the impaled boar from advancing. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 27, 2021 at 14:46

It never completely wears off.

The superpowers wear off completely. But the mental changes do not.

/ they basically become hardcore sadists, reveling in the pain they cause others/

This element stays and these people come back different. Bad. They cannot be trusted around children. They hurt domestic animals. Some can control their impulses but they still feel them and these people do not like having the impulses.

The other problem is that the potion calls to them. If they get a chance they will do it again. It is a good feeling to be berzerk and impervious to harm. But twice and these people are not fit for society.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think this one is neat. Even small, incremental changes, will make anybody with half a brain wary of trying the berserker brew. Even well-adjusted, normal looking ex-berserkers will live in distrust - eventually making them outcasts even if only a minority really keep being sadists once the potion wears off. $\endgroup$
    – laancelot
    Commented Nov 27, 2021 at 14:09

So you've brewed up a potion that turns relatively normal fighters into horribly sadistic amoral monsters with incredible strength and regenerative powers, and you're wondering why the Jarls are looking at you funny? They've probably been down this road before, and they know it doesn't lead to a pretty place.

Modern historians are far from convinced as a whole, but there are certainly several of them who believe that Berserkers used various drugs to evoke the battle fugue. No doubt there were some who could do it on pure rage and blood lust, but for many of them the process may have been helped along with anything from henbane to fly agaric - both of which have some pretty nasty side effects, like vomiting blood and, you know, dying. It might get you through a battle, maybe two, but the accumulation of toxins will make for an excruciating last few days of your life... if you're lucky and don't end up living through it, weakened and broken.

In more recent times all sorts of pharmacological advances have been made, including such wonders as amphetamines which pretty much all modern armies have used at some point to combat sleep deprivation during long operations. Doesn't take much to understand why meth-heads shouldn't be flying planes or holding rifles, but during Vietnam over 225 million 'pep pills' (dextroamphetamine) were consumed by the US armed forces. The German soldiers on the front lines of WW2 consumed over 35 million methamphetamine pills, and they were working on a new battle drug - a mix of cocaine, meth and oxycodone - right before the war ended. And while armies probably never used it, Phencyclidine (aka PCP or Angel Dust) is a hell of a combat drug.

And now you're peddling a magical potion that makes PCP look like decaf? Uh, not for me thanks. I'm good.

The problem with performance enhancing magic is that there's almost always a price to pay. If you're lucky the price is up-front in terms of cost of manufacture: expensive components, lots of mana, maybe a few animal sacrifices. But more likely the price is going to come from the person using it.

First, the psychological price. The human mind is a delicate thing, and your potion rips into it; suppressing some parts, strengthening others and maybe rewriting whole aspects to make you the perfect sociopathic killer. And when the potion runs its course and the magic is spent, it's not going to linger long enough to put your fractured psyche back together again. A hit like that is going to leave permanent scars, and most likely the result will be complete psychosis.

Physical enhancements can also be expensive in some fairly nasty ways. Is the potion actually beefing up your muscles like Bane? Or are you just being flooded with combat hormones, like adrenaline and so on? Perhaps it's just letting you access the sort of hysterical strength that lets mothers lift cars off their children, or suppressing your pain reception so you don't notice how badly torn up you muscle fibers are getting every time you move.

But surely healing is a good thing, right? Well, that depends on how it works. Divine healing spells, healing potions and the like are definitely positives. They draw energy from outside of you, or from their own ingredients, and use that energy to fix what's broken. Your potion on the other hand forces the body's own healing processes into overdrive, constantly fixing what's being broken by your own physical excesses. In a magical context that probably means that you're using your own essence to power the regeneration, and essence is quite literally life. An hour of enhanced power is 5 years off your life, and it shows. Young, healthy warriors walk off the battlefield as broken down old men. Mature warriors may run out of time in the middle of the battle.

On a more... biological level, if you've ever experienced adrenaline fatigue you'll know that it's not something you ever want to experience again. It's unpleasant to say the least. Adrenaline hangovers are about as much fun as waking up in a ditch after a 3-day bender. Your potion is 10 times worse, and the hangover itself will kill half of the people who use the potion.

And yet there will be those who will chose to sacrifice themselves for the good of the tribe. The problem isn't getting them to take it, it's to stop them from taking it until there is quite literally no other option. You know, and they know, that there's about a 1-in-10 chance they'll survive the experience as anything other than an insane, broken wreck. They're likely to die outright or have to be put down for the good of the tribe. It's a desperation move, a last slim chance to rescue some shreds of victory from the howling maw of certain defeat... or to take the bastards down with you.

Use it wisely, and pray the gods forgive you.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This alone will make chieftains use it sparingly An hour of enhanced power is 5 years off your life, and it shows. its a good opportunity for a background story, recounting tribes or individuals who didn't respect this stuff in the past. You know, and they know, that there's about a 1-in-10 chance they'll survive the experience as anything other than an insane, broken wreck. This is also a relatable concept. Perhaps the elixir only works fully on a few of the chosen, you wouldn't want to waste these guys, you need to maintain the threat without actually deploying them if you can. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 11:35

Save your werewolf potion for the medics' enclosure

There are two ways to use this to increase the combat output of your soldiers. One is to send them out to suffer a random fate while they have super healing ... the other is to bring back your wounded, chain them up, and use the potion to convert your casualties into fighters ready to go back and fight the minute the "anaesthesia" wears off. Your force can be a little braver when they know they are likely to survive a major wound (especially if antibiotics are poorly developed), and they keep their numbers up.

Of course, every now and then you're trying to reset a bone on a rapidly regenerating fellow in an altered state, when a medic loses an eye, a key is dropped, and before you know it everyone under treatment is busy tearing apart anyone and everyone they run across including each other. In situations like this it can help to have a particularly fast and foolhardy runner in reserve to heckle and beckon the motley crew toward the enemy... an enemy that can't be expecting such a pyrrhic approach, but will long remember it. :)


what about the fact berserk means out of control Therefore in your book it could just be they are to dangerous. I mean why create a super soldier that wants to kill everything including you.

  • $\begingroup$ Please be aware that we expect answers to explain "why" and "how" $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Nov 25, 2021 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch: I think COLOC_KID means that really for real the word "berserk" means out of control. The Oxford English Dictionary concurs: "berserk, -er. A wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’; often a lawless bravo or freebooter. Also fig. and attrib. Now usu. as adj., frenzied, furiously or madly violent; esp. in phr. to go berserk. And the applicable meaning of frenzy is "agitation or disorder of the mind likened to madness; a state of delirious fury, rage, or the like". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 25, 2021 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @L.Dutch - this needs a bit more detail. Not saying you should write page after page (like I'm prone to doing - it's a character flaw, probably), but we do like answers with a bit of depth to them. World building is a place for authors - and occasional game masters - to ask interesting questions after all. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 6:44

While other answers have tried to "nerf" this "drug", I will try the opposite approach: increasing its effectiveness, but also let visible signs that it has been used. For example:

  • The berserkers can move very fast, leaping over enemy formations and directly killing enemy leader (or achieve any other objective). While in this state they will not be stopped by wall (berserker may jump over or smash them), nor by armies (berserker may jump over, smash them or move around very fast)
  • They gained too much power: one charged hit can wipe a town from map, shatter hills, change geography, etc. (but skilled berserkers can still limit their damage to intended target only)
  • They may still have their self control (or have it reduced, or have it completely gone)

So, if it's very effective, why don't everyone use them? Same answer as nuclear weapon: because it's MAD (mutually assured destruction). They're only used for deterrence. We don't unleash them because we're afraid that they will also unleash a berserker at us.

The very first time a tribe begins using them, other tribes will start scrambling for its productions, it will be a major turning point in history. There will be a period of "arms race" (tribes amassing a lot of these drugs and threatening to wipe each other). But after that everyone realize the flaw below.

If berserkers fight other berserkers, one or more of these things may happen:

  • terrain changes,
  • damage to natural resources or any other resources they're competiting for,

The usage of berserker also have such drawback:

  • the berserker may have enough self control to stop destroying things, but they also may not (imagine giving a "kind" person an unlimited power, he/she may not be so kind anymore)

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely - John Dalberg-Acton

  • if a berserker is out of control (it happens randomly with very small chance), it will be like a natural disaster. Tribes will band together to stop it. Any tribe who started it will be seen as bad (and probably already been wiped out by the berserker they unleashed anyway)

When used correctly, it is a very powerful weapon, but there's a very visible (and irrefutable) proof that it was used (e.g.: certain smell or visible gas, or some kind of radiation or radio wave that can be picked by specialized tools if your world have it) that can be tracked back to who used them. This will alert everyone that the tribe who unleashed the berserker is a threat to world regional peace.

There will be treaties to disarm dispose them. And violators will be subjugated together by the other tribes (using berserker drug too).


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