This is the plan for a campaign setting in one of the earlier eras of my Compromise and Conceit campaign setting, to be run in English using Warhammer Fantasy Role-play 3. This campaign will be set in Svalbard in summer 1635, early in the period of time in which Europe began to rediscover magic, through infernalism. I discussed some reasons for the Svalbard setting some time ago, and I’ve recently done a little research that suggests setting it in the 17th century gives me an opportunity to combine political intrigue, pirates and polar exploration. It also gives a chance to test a campaign setting where the environment is itself an adversary for the PCs, and to explore some more of the political and infernal concepts of the Compromise and Conceit setting. The last adventure enabled my players to explore the complex and violent politics of the French and Indian war, and ultimately to change the course of American history. Maybe this time we can explore the possibilities inherent in Scandinavia.
Svalbard in 1635: Political Context
This era is the beginning of a long period of infernal exploration, and the near end of the Age of Discovery, which was still playing out in Northern Europe and the Arctic. Svalbard had only been discovered 40 years previously, and was not yet controlled by any single power. Instead, companies from different nations – primarily England, Denmark, France and Holland – would come to Svalbard in the summer for whaling and seal hunting, establishing camp in bases along primarily national lines and hunting furiously during the limited months of sunlight. The nation states that backed these companies had limited authority out in the wilderness of Svalbard, and the whaling companies would come into often violent conflict with each other – even with companies from the same nation. These whaling companies were essentially freebooters, pirates with a semi-official backing from their home nation, and they would use quite vicious methods to ensure access to the lucrative whaling zones of what was then known as Spitsbergen. Political and mercantile tensions from Europe would be played out in these freezing waters.
The main nation with a solid, long-term interest, however, was Denmark: at this time Denmark, Norway and Sweden had united under the Kalmar Union and had also absorbed Iceland, which had accepted Lutheranism 80 years earlier after the beheading of its last Catholic Priest. By adding Spitsbergen to its crown Denmark would control all the islands of the Arctic, and access to the fabled Northwest Passage. It would also be able to exert control over lucrative whaling regions, and all the fisheries and any natural resources of those islands. During the middle part of the 17th century the Danish crown turned its attention on consolidating complete power over the union of Scandinavian nations, and although unable to back its claims of sovereignty over Svalbard with military force, was undoubtedly up to mischief on the island. With the rediscovery of magic in Europe, the Lutheran church also found itself facing a resurgence of interest in Odinism and paganism, and so the church as well needed to extend its powers across the distant archipelago.
Svalbard itself is a harsh environment for piracy or adventure, and in fact until 1634 no one had ever wintered on the Island. The Little Ice Age was well underway, and this meant sea ice in the Northern and Eastern edge of Svalbard for 9-10 months of the year, and freezing temperatures all year round. The North Eastern side of the archipelago was yet unexplored, and even traversing the main Island (Spitsbergen) was a formidable challenge for 17th century explorers. Against this political and environmental backdrop the Danish were attempting to establish a permanent presence on the Island sufficient to guarantee a long-term hold over the arctic, and its lucrative whale oil trade. At this time the full promise of Infernalism and the materials and technologies it would make available to Europe had not yet been revealed, and resources like whale oil were of great importance.
Svalbard in 1635: Infernal Context
With Shakespeare only recently dead and Marlowe long in his grave, the groundwork had been laid for the expansion of infernalism across Europe. Marlowe’s objections to the use of Demonology to bolster the power of King and God had been washed away in blood under suspicious circumstances 40 years earlier, giving Shakespeare 20 years to preach the gospel of Infernalism. His lessons had taken hold but the full benefits – magical and technological – that would flow from Infernalism, as well as its future challenges, were not yet known, and a diverse array of magical schools and colleges flourished throughout Europe. Their understanding of magic was fragmented and their power limited, Descartes had not yet written his Meditations or Principles, and the systematization of magic – as well as its restriction to a handful of schools – was not to come until the end of the century, under Newton, Liebnitz and the years after the Glorious Revolution in England. For the period from Shakespeare’s death until the English civil war magic remained a kind of cottage industry, and its practitioners a diverse and unruly bunch.
Settlements on Svalbard
There are five main locations on Svalbard, numbered in the map above:
- Smeerenburg (“Blubber Town”): The Dutch settle at Smeerenburg in the summer, and hunt whales from here. Their activity was so frenzied and the sights the settlement offered so disgusting that the town was given the name “blubber-town” by those who work there. The Danes were driven out of Smeerenburg a few years earlier, and now only a few Danish traders visit during the period of activity.
- Danskoya (Ny-Alesund): The combined settlement of Danish and Dutch whalers forms the de facto political base for these two nations, as well as a resupply base for Smeerenburg, which is further north, and the official point of communication with the English and French whalers to the South. This town is equally frenzied in its pursuit of whale meat, but also contains some non-whaling related commercial activities, primarily hunting and trapping. It is also the first area of Svalbard to be turned into a permanent settlement. Just South of Danskoya is a small French settlement, called Refuge Francaise, and largely dependent upon Danskoya for protection and resupply.
- The Silent Tower: A group of Norwegian monks have set up a small monastery here, in the ruins of an ancient stone tower that no one seems able to account for. The tower provides excellent protection from the elements and seems to have a permanent supply of fresh water, and the monks are able to winter in the tower. They have been doing so for at least the last 10 years, and no one really knows anything about them: they have taken a vow of silence, and most people assume that they see the long months of winter darkness as an opportunity for contemplation undistracted from the concerns of the mortal world.
- Ice Fjord: This is the main base of the London Whaling Company, and also the unofficial English government outpost, the Ice Fjord base has the best weather conditions in summer and is also blessed with the permanent monastery on its Northern side. The London company wrested this base by force from the Danes a few years earlier, and although Danish boats may now dock here and some traders come and go, there is a tacit agreement that they will engage in no whaling South of Prins Karls Forland, giving the British free reign of the whole South western half of Spitsbergen. This doesn’t mean they don’t come into conflict, of course.
- Bell Sound: The base of the English Muscovy company, famous for having opened up trade with the Russians a few years earlier, but also for having lost a major sea battle with the London company a few years ago and having been driven into Bell Sound, a much less profitable whaling location than Ice Fjord. The two companies regularly come into conflict. There are rumours that the Muscovy company has begun to focus on overland exploration, and may also be prospecting inland of its camp, but of course no one knows anything about the commercial activities of this company
Aside from a few small survival huts set up in between the main outposts, these are the only established settlements on the island. Until 1635 the island was completely silent and dark in winter, save for the Silent Tower; it becomes a hive of frenzied activity in summer, focused on the mass slaughter of the whales that throng to the island. Against this backdrop various tales of murder, piracy, industrial espionage, sabotage and theft will be played out every summer. Anyone who survives the summer will leave the island rich with whale oil, but the death rate, like the stakes, is high.
The First Adventure
In 1634 the Danish wintered for the first time in their temporary settlement at Danskoya. The first winter squad consisted of only seven men, well supplied and dug into a deep and well-built shack. When the first Danish explorers arrived in spring 1635 the hut was empty, the men all gone, and some signs of a struggle could be seen. The Danish are concerned that one of the other companies on the island also over-wintered there, and launched a daring mid-winter raid to kill the Danish crew. If so, this has alarming implications both for what the other companies are willing to do and for their winter-survival technology. The Danish whaling company needs to send a squad of adventurers to Spitsbergen to investigate who did it and how. Once they know this they are to kill the people responsible. They will travel there under the guise of guards for a Danish royal expedition, which aims to draw maps of the whole archipelago over the next few summers. This expedition will spend the first summer traveling up the west coast conducting initial soundings and exploration, and so the PCs will be able to visit every settlement over the course of a few weeks, giving them a good sense of who is where and what they are doing. With the cartographer as cover, they can then visit any settlement they need to for further investigations.