This post continues my thoughts on ideas and inspirations from Iceland. It’s another post about both the social and political structure of a norse campaign, and about insights into how medieval worlds functioned. Again, it’s based largely on what I saw, was told by guides, and read during my stay in Iceland, with maybe a little influence from Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles.
The early Icelanders kept slaves. Slaves in Icelandic society don’t seem to have been the storybook slaves of legend, kept in pens and treated like animals – rather, they appear to be a particularly low and over-worked form of indentured servant. They seemed to be able to escape, sometimes they would be freed, and I get the impression they could also be accorded honour (though I have no concrete proof of this). This random site describes the class structure of norse society and the types of abuse (and freedom) that slaves experienced, and suggests that slaves could own property and save money to free themselves.
Like all GMs I tend to have rules about what I will and won’t allow my players to do, and in general keeping slaves has been one of the things that I have avoided. I know this is ridiculous – my players do a lot of slaughter, and occasional human sacrifice and more than their fair share of demonology -but it’s just one of those things, and I think every GM has them. So I’m guessing that if I ran a norse campaign I’d probably be omitting the slavery part from it. I guess also that if I did allow it I would probably require the PCs to be “good” slave-keepers, which doesn’t seem impossible given the accounts but isn’t really much of a step up. Of course slavery also opens up alternative adventure ideas – the PCs could start off as escaped slaves or slaves who had bought their freedom, and of course slavery would be an interesting alternative to the TPK – but in general I would be avoiding it. Norse society in the 12th century was nasty enough without introducing this as well! Also, slavery was an abomination of the early part of Icelandic history – the norse world banned slavery between the 12th and 13th centuries, i.e. a good 4 centuries before the UK did, and half a millenium ahead of the US. So it’s pretty easy to choose a setting where slavery is optional.
The Cultural Sophistication of the Medieval World
We moderns are used to thinking of the medieval world as unsophisticated and brutal because of their lack of scientific knowledge, and it’s true that their lives were nasty and brutish and their ideas silly, but the ideas they lived by take on a very different meaning if the fantastical and magical backing for those ideas were real. This has been a central theme of my Compromise and Conceit campaign, which is an attempt to imagine how the post-enlightenment world would look if all of the religious ideas its people subscribed to were true, and backed up by real temporal power (i.e. magic). The same can be done in any other setting, of course, and when you play this game suddenly the medieval world is no longer unsophisticated and backward, just very very different. It’s a fun game to play.
For example, the Vikings had particular beliefs about the origins of the Northern Lights. One of these, that the Northern Lights were caused by stored light in glaciers being emitted into the atmosphere at night, opens the possibility of a mad wizard’s adventure to collect the light for some crazed ritual, and of course in our magical world this could really happen. Or the PCs could reach the point of the light, and discover that the Northern Lights really do come from light reflected from the armour of warrior’s souls as they travel to Valhalla – the PCs discover a pathway to Valhalla at the “foot” of the Northern Lights and thus an extra-dimensional campaign commences.
The same kind of backwards sophistication is true for much of the rest of medieval thought, much of which was the topic of frenzied debate at the time. The PCs can even get caught up in these debates, as they are employed by scientists to explore the kingdom beneath the earth, or taken on a trip to Japan to find Jesus. Umberto Eco’s Baudolino gives some amusing examples of the crazy stuff medievals believed (and his Island of the Day Before gives some funny examples of what might happen if enlightenment-era science were taken seriously). Many of these ideas are also quite fluid, so potentially by taking sides in a debate the PCs may get their chance to shape the structure of the world. Obviously in a norse world a lot of these ideas will be tied up with Valhalla and Viking cosmology – why not explore it and see what kind of world you can create if these ideas are true?
War is Costly
The Icelanders set up their parliament, the althing, in 980 AD, and one of the key reasons they did this was that they could not afford to continue waging wars over petty slights and land disputes. War in the dark ages was a costly business, and in the absence of modern medical and agricultural technology, the Icelanders simply didn’t have the ability to maintain civil society and keep fighting wars. Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles makes this problem very clear, as each Autumn all wars cease so that soldiers can take in the harvest. Society at this time was a single failed harvest away from chaos, and any society that failed to produce enough food had no choice but to invade its neighbours and steal theirs. In the precarious conditions of Iceland on the raggedy edge, everyone saw that this was going to be a disaster. And so the althing was formed. It seems like a lot of medieval kingdoms were more than happy to wage war at will, but I guess this is largely because the ruling class were so divorced from those who did most of the fighting (the levied ranks of ordinary soldiers) and those who paid for it (their peasants). In free 980 AD Iceland this wasn’t the case – chieftains didn’t have peasants to fall back on, and had to get some form of consent to pay for war, so I guess they had to find ways to avoid fighting.
A lot of political entities in gaming are actually too sophisticated for their putative time – democratic or oligarchical city-states in an otherwise medieval setting, for example, or even societies coming close to constitutional democracy, which is really a post-enlightenment phenomenon – and it’s hard to imagine those types of state being able to venture willy-nilly into costly wars against the backward communities around them. Where such states exist – or where hard-scrabble societies live on the fringe of e.g. Orc-controlled territory – it’s likely that there will be a lot of espionage work for PCs that is primarily aimed at preventing wars. While in our fantastic worlds we tend to find that the main method for avoiding war with Orcs is genocide, the more likely real world compromise would be tribute, and it could well be that the PCs would be paid to either organize, guard or renegotiate tributes. In a norse world that takes slaves, tribute could be an unpleasant business as well, with unwanted slaves being sent to the Orc lair along with trade goods. PCs could also be charged with all sorts of black ops to prevent, avoid or delay wars, or to guarantee their victory through economic sabotage.
Taking into account the real cost of political error in the dark ages when planning campaigns means, I suspect, that there would be a lot of careful skullduggery being thrust upon the PCs, and some very nasty espionage jobs. When war does come to a kingdom the PCs may find themselves in a land plunged into near total chaos as food shortages, disease and social breakdown spread. If they gain their own strongholds they may even find themselves going to great lengths to pacify their neighbours, and doing very unsavoury things to avoid conflict. Forcing players to these kinds of unwanted compromises can be a truly pleasurable experience for a GM with a sadistic streak, and if you set just a few real world constraints on the political and economic climate the PCs operate in, you may find them becoming very creative in their endeavours to control their neighbours and enemies…
Religions can Coexist
For much of Icelandic history it appears that christianity and paganism have co-existed, with christianity gaining the upper hand by simultaneously co-opting pagan ceremonies and ignoring minor pagan rituals. This situation also obtains in Japan, where Buddhism and Shintoism get along very nicely side by side. In a magical norse campaign, this means that Druids and Clerics (both Christian and Odinic) can coexist, maybe even sharing worship space, spells and political goals. Alternatively you can envisage a society where they coexist in the minds of the people but fight viciously for political supremacy at the level of the clergy. This makes for some very interesting political crises to thrust the characters into the middle of, and introduces a kind of industrial espionage-style adventuring, where the PCs are paid to undermine the religious rituals and powers of an enemy church. Ultimately, of course, one church might want to destroy the Gods of the other – a nice high level goal for any PC! In an alternative-history Iceland this opens up the possibility of completely changing Iceland’s future direction (christian fascist? Pagan dictatorship? Roman-style pagan democracy?) I’m going to be exploring this in my Svalbard campaign once I can get it running, and for me the role of religion in determining politics in such societies is very interesting – especially since their real magical powers means that people will listen to them in a way they never would in the real world. We know that the christian church was very active in politics throughout Europe, and it’s very interesting to imagine how that involvement would have turned out if their beliefs were true, and backed up by real magical powers.
GMs can make a great deal of headway in campaign planning with very little real background work by choosing a historical point in a well-understood culture, backing up the religious ideas and fanciful scientific notions of the time with real magic, and then choosing a crisis point to dump the PCs into the middle of. The results can be history-changing, which is satisfying for everyone and sets up further adventures in the future. It’s also easy to do both geographical and political sandboxing – you know what major events are coming up, and can fit the players into a narrative that they have every opportunity to change. Incorporating some of the constraints and social problems of the real world can force creative (and often challenging) decision-making, but magic prevents the players from being completely constrained by these forces. The results can be a very interesting and exciting campaign world, with minimal GM effort. With the background ideas I’ve written here, a map of Iceland and a few pages of background material, I think a GM could easily come up with a fruitful and challenging campaign.