Compromise and Conceit

Kicking Bear's Dream

Kicking Bear’s Dream

This Compromise and Conceit one-shot begins in a remote part of the northern Red Empire. The background of the one-shot is described here, and the characters are:

  • Wachiwi, a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya, a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe, a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish, an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

Our adventure begins in the late spring, on the shaded side of a hill. The sky was a perfect, pale and cloudless blue, and a gentle cooling breeze blew in from the north. To the far southwest the characters could see a massive herd of buffalo, so far away that they looked like nothing more than the shadow of a huge cloud drifting over the plains. This picture of perfect natural peace was marred by only one small detail: the PCs stood up to their knees in a pile of dead Frenchmen. Nearby, one of these Frenchies was still alive, moaning weakly as his life ebbed away. On the crest of the hill a line of huge crows and buzzards had gathered, watching patiently as the PCs picked through the mess of dead bodies.

While the sight of a mound of dead Frenchies would not usually be cause for consternation amongst good citizens of the Red Empire, in this case they were a source of disappointment. Our heroes had been employed by a village north of this battle scene to find and kill these very Frenchies, and recover from them the village’s stolen totem. Yet for all their haste and careful tracking, the PCs had arrived too late, and had found their quarry killed by some other gang. The totem they had been tasked with finding was nowhere to be seen, and all that they could do was stand in silent consternation, looking at the heaped bodies.

Still, where there are dead there should also be killers, and anything on this wide and sunny earth that is powerful enough to kill a squad of hardened French mercenaries is also big enough to track. With Wickaninnish advising her on the details of the battle, Wachiwi set about finding the tracks of the victors. Wachiwi was a master at her craft, and nothing larger than a mouse could escape this battlefield but that she would find it. Soon enough she had located a faint trail, though on the scrubby and stony ground it was too faint to identify too much detail. The group set off in pursuit of those who had stolen their prize.

The Good Woman

They traveled as fast as they could while tracking, but after several hours’ travel they were interrupted by the sound of screams coming from the lee of a small hill. Our heroes guessed they were a woman’s screams, and immediately set out to investigate. They rode to the base of the hill, and rested their horses near a group of rocks. Weayaya disappeared behind the rocks, and a moment later an enormous crow hopped out from behind them, looking quizzically at its comrades in arms. Weayaya took off quickly and flew over the hill, ascending on the warm air to join a small group of crows that were circling in the sky a short distance away. His instinct was right: they had identified a scene of death, and were waiting for the living to depart so they could descend to feast. From this vantage point in the sky, the whole tableau was clear.

A group of six men in military uniform had made a quick camp in a dry creekbed on the far side of the rise. This creekbed was narrow and choked with bushes, but at one point behind the hill it widened to encompass not just the path of the long-dry stream, but a little beach lined with sagebrush and two small trees. From one of these trees hung a dead man, obviously harshly treated before his end. On the next tree hung a living woman, naked from the waist up and partly flayed. Three of the military men stood around her, while the other three sat around a nearby campfire. Between the fire and the trees lay a dead baby, and on the baby stood a vulture. As crow-Weayaya watched, the men did something to the woman, and she screamed again.

Weayaya returned to the group. It was clear what needed to be done, and no debate was necessary. Wachiwi slid into the creekbed and crept up to the camp, to prepare an ambush. The three warriors led their horses to the top of the rise, and when they judged Wachiwi to have had enough time to approach, they attacked.

Wachiwi slid carefully and quickly up to the camp, and was able to take a position within an arms’ reach of the three torturers. From here she could get a clearer sense of what was happening in the camp. One of the men held a lemon, another held a handful of salt, and the one in the middle held nothing. The woman was tied to the top of the tree by her wrists, so her back was arched and she was helpless before them. They had flayed off parts of her face and shoulder, and were treating these parts with salt and lemon to encourage compliance. As Wachiwi watched the man in the middle struck the woman in the face, and demanded something of her in a language Wachiwi did not understand. A moment later the vulture began to croak, and out of its hideous curved beak came words in rough Sioux: “Where is it?!” The woman stared back at the man in disgust, and replied in Sioux, “My husband may be a coward, but I will give you nothing. Kill me as you did him, you dogs.” The vulture then croaked all this back to the men in their hideous gabbled tongue.

Wachiwi had heard enough; the time for battle had come. In silence she drew from her clothes a dried coyote’s paw, and whispering prayers to her ancestors she buried the paw in the soil near one of the sagebrushes. Having invoked her totem[1], she waited for the sound of her allies charging down the hill. As their ululations reached her, she slipped out of the sagebrush behind the man who slapped the woman, and slid her vicious knife deep into his side, fully intent on gutting him from hip to armpit.

As she struck her comrades came hurtling down the hill, screaming and yelling and firing their weapons, all of which missed. The men in the gully were held frozen in alarm at the sudden ambush, so that their attackers had a chance to charge straight into battle. Wickaninnish leapt from his horse and fell on the salt man, striking him deep in the shoulder with a single blow; Weayaya smashed into the other man with his spear, knocking him back. Atha’halwe dashed past the three men at the campfire as they scrambled to their feet, decapitating two immediately with his katana.

Battle was joined. The man with the lemon was revealed to be a wizard; he invoked some spell that confused Weayaya so that he was unable to strike him. The salt man tried to regain his feet and fight Wickaninnish, but he was too damaged; Wickaninnish surged over him beating and hacking with his axe. Everyone left Wachiwi to deal with the man she had ambushed, but he was tougher than she expected, and was able to recover from the near-fatal wound and draw a sabre, badly damaging her leg. Meanwhile Atha’halwe circled back to kill the last man at the campfire. As the struggle proceeded, the wizard cast another spell, yelling some imprecation in his ugly tongue as he did so. The vulture, of course, translated: “The Great White Mother does not allow her loyal servants such cowardly rest!!” Moments later the two beheaded soldiers rose to their feet, shakily moving towards the battle zone. Fortunately the wizard cast his spell too soon to reanimate the salt man; having clubbed him near to death, Wickaninnish drew from his belt a nasty-looking device made of a huge bear’s claw. With his last axe strike he shattered the hapless foe’s jaw, so that he could stretch the mouth wide enough to insert the bear-claw hook. Moments later he surged up from the twitching body, raising the bear-claw hook to the sky and yelling in triumph. Sunlight glistened on the man’s tongue, ripped out whole and intact from the back of his throat[2]. Wickaninnish flicked it disdainfully to the earth, and turned to take his next foe.

Now the battle had turned desperate for the defenders, and the Vulture translated for both sides as Weayaya speared the wizard to his death and the others teamed up to kill Wachiwi’s foe. “Die, you stinking white man!” “No, please, not that…” “Oh fuck, I’m done in…” “Get behind me, satan!” “aaaaaaaagh!” At the last, Weayaya smashed the wizard to the earth with his spear, and then used the point to score deep cross-marks in his chest. Then, as he twitched and groaned, Weayaya savagely tore back the skin from the crosses, so that he was flayed in a great x-shape, chest and muscles opened to the cleansing sun. With a roar he stood up and joined the battle to fell the remaining soldier.

Having dispensed with their enemies, the PCs took stock. They lay one surviving soldier and the leader, who was still vaguely conscious, next to each other by the fire. Then they cut down the woman. She fell to her knees in the dirt, then rose unsteadily to her feet. She took just one deep, steadying breath and then leapt screaming onto the leader. Knees astride his chest, she grabbed his face and tore out his left eye as he squealed and grunted in horror. Then she stuffed it into his mouth, forcing it shut with one hand while she held his nose fast shut with the other. There followed a minute or so of savage grunting and struggling as the severely wounded soldier tried desperately to shake her off, and our heroes stood around approvingly, catching their breath and watching the woman take her vengeance. The woman screamed curses at him in Sioux, promising him that he would suffer in eternity for torturing her and killing her baby; the Vulture translated her imprecations as the man twitched and kicked. Eventually the leader’s struggles stilled, he stopped kicking, and with some final desultory gurgling sounds, he choked to death on his own eyeball. The woman stood up proudly, spat on his corpse, and then collapsed in the dirt.

Having witnessed justice dispensed fair and honestly, the characters questioned the other man, before ending his miserable existence. The soldiers were English, from a large camp deeper in the wilderness, and were here searching for something that the Vulture translated as “the well of souls.” They thought this might be an entrance to the underworld, but it wasn’t clear in translation. The woman told them that she, her husband and her baby had been traveling when they were abducted for questioning by these soldiers; her husband had proven a coward and told them that there were rumours of a village that held the well, however he had also proven weak, and died before he could tell them more. The woman was a good sioux woman, however, and had held out for an hour before the characters arrived. Atha’halwe healed her, and she told them she would return to her village to tell stories of their heroism, and curse her husband for all time as a coward and a weakling.

The characters decided to continue the path they had been following. These soldiers had come from the direction they were tracking their quarry in, and they suspected that their Frenchmen had been killed by an English patrol. Thus, the story of this quest for the well of souls, and their totem, were intertwined.


Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Custer’s Last Stand

The characters traveled slowly and carefully, aware that they might cross more such patrols. They stopped to rest the night rather than risk stumbling on enemies in the darkness, and next morning set out early to follow the trail. They traveled for the whole day, and towards evening they found what they were looking for. From a hillside they saw a large British camp in the near distance. It was set out against a steep slope, that curved up to a nearly unscalable bluff. In the shadows of the bluff rested a huge Corvette, something none of our heroes had seen before, though perhaps they had heard of such miracles from the British. This huge vehicle was large enough to carry perhaps 200 men, and indeed set out in its shadow was a large camp for about that many men. The camp was set in the lee of the bluff, so invisible to people in the plains beyond. A wide picket on the edge of the camp ensured that noone would find the camp without alerting its occupants. This picket held three gun nests, and also had a soldier every 30m or so. Wandering the line was a six-legged, two-headed chimaeric dog. This force was obviously deep in hostile territory, and moving with extreme caution to avoid being detected by large Red Empire forces.

The PCs had to get in there to find out what was going on. They waited until dusk, and then Weayaya disguised himself as the dead captain. He and Wachiwi slipped into the camp, and set about finding out what was happening. Weayaya found himself enlisted into the senior officers’ meeting, where with the help of a little magic he was able to understand the proceedings. The meeting was convened by a big, arrogant British general called General Custer, and his plans were very clear: in the morning the entire force was going to do a forced dawn march to a town two hours’ walk away, in the shadow of a hill called Little Bighorn. They were going to descend on the town and kill everyone in it, and then his two wizards would enter the well of souls – for reasons not disclosed at the meeting. They would then leave, leaving no trace that they were ever there. Any squad leader who left any evidence that they 0r their men had been there would be thrown from the Corvette on the return journey. The corvette – which Weayaya discovered was called the Custer’s Last Stand – would remain here, to be called in if things went wrong. The attack would take place at dawn.

While Weayaya learnt these military facts, and then went on a tour of the autonomous sentinel cannon gun-nests at the periphery of the camp, Wachiwi was investigating the two huge warrior-beasts standing in the shadow of the corvette. She had never seen anything like them before: three metres tall, made of human bone and demon flesh, with plates of metal armour embedded amongst the organic mess. Each was armed with a huge sword and an infernal blaster, and though they appeared to be inactive at dusk, their eyes still burned with an evil light inside their heavily-armoured skulls. These beasts were Myrmidons, the pinnacle of British military technology and formidable opponents by any measure, likely worth 20 braves in close battle. The force amassed here, though not capable of defeating a major sioux battle group, would certainly be able to wipe out a single town with a surprise raid.

Something would have to be done.

The dawn battle

Their plan was simple. Weayaya remained in camp disguised as the British captain, and would ride near Custer into battle, with Wachiwi hidden in his saddlebags. They would ambush Weayaya when the battle began. In the meantime, Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe raced ahead to the town of Little Bighorn, to warn the residents of the coming battle. The chieftain of the town was one Sitting Bull, currently deeply involved in the politics of Imperial Ascension and eagerly looking for a victory to present as proof of his candidature. He agreed to the ambush, and they set their ambush in a forested hollow at the base of Little Bighorn.

The trap was easily sprung. Custer’s forces were moving fast and quiet, and had little time for outriders; those they sent were easily neutralized. When his forces entered the hollow the braves attacked, and as soon as the battle began Wachiwi and Weayaya attacked Custer. Wachiwi’s ambush was not enough to seriously hurt him, but she pinned his leg to his saddle with her knife. As he struggled to throw her off, Weayaya struck him with a spear. Custer’s wizards were riding near him and reacted in outrage at this attack, but Weayaya confused them by yelling,

“Custer! You coward and traitor! You have led us into a trap!!”

This declaration worked so well that the wizards were briefly confused, and did not rush to Custer’s aid. As he battled Weayaya and Wachiwi, his men were caught in ferocious battle with the Sioux attackers. Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe cut their way through the throng, making their way towards Custer. Custer was guarded by one of the Myrmidons, but with a stroke of luck Weayaya was able to confuse it with an invocation to the spirits, and for a few brief flurries of battle it did not attack.

As Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe approached, Custer realized he was beyond salvation. Calling to his elite cavalry, he spurred his horse from the battle and led them up the slopes of Little Bighorn, declaring that they would make a last stand on the hilltop. As he fled, Weayaya yelled

“Custer! You cowardly traitor! You lead us to an ambush and flee! You are a low-down servant of the red man!”

The wizards, convinced by Weayaya’s declarations, decided to take sides, and they both let loose balls of balefire on Custer. As he rode up the hill, he was engulfed in two huge balls of black fire. He fell roasted from his horse, and his men riding behind him fell into disarray as the lead horses crashed into the fire and fell. Pursuing Sioux fell on them, hacking them to death.

With their general revealed to be a cowardly traitor, and now dead, the remaining British began to panic. Weayaya rode up to Wickaninnish, and their followed a remarkable piece of stage-managed deception. Wickaninnish dismounted from his horse and, drawing his tomahawk and letting loose a great cry, plunged it deep into the ground. A ripple of confusion spread from the axe, and all across the battlefield people stopped attacking each other[3]. The vulture, circling overhead, translated for Weayaya from English to Sioux, as he said

“Oh brave and powerful warleader, I offer you the surrender of all my men on this battlefield if you will show us mercy.”

All about them soldiers and braves looked on in amazement as the Vulture translated. Wickaninnish raised an arm and replied,

“Pale-faced captain, you have fought well and bravely. It is not your fault that your warchief was a coward and a traitor. Because you acquitted yourselves well, I grant you mercy. If your men throw down their arms and admit their error in this attack, we will allow them to live, and will escort you all back to your camp. I assure your safety!”

Weayaya looked around at the soldiers, and issued this demand. They threw their weapons down and with cries of sorrow, offered themselves to the tender mercy of the Sioux. The battle was over, Custer disgraced, the mission to the well of souls a complete failure, and Wickaninnish now a proud and revered warchief.

They led the men back to the corvette, which they claimed for the Red Empire. Inside they found their totem, which the British had simply stolen opportunistically when they stumbled on the French mercenary band. A few Sioux prisoners were freed, Custer’s documents and plans were stolen, and the wizards questioned. The men would be forced to return on foot to the nearest French outpost, their mission revealed but their lives spared. All that remained was for our heroes to find out why the British were willing to risk so much for a raid on the well of souls. What did they want in the Underworld that they were willing to risk an elite force to do it? What was their interest in the mysteries of the Red Empire…?

fn1: This totem enables everyone in battle to replace one characteristic die with a reckless die. Totems need to be placed at the point of battle, so charging braves cannot deploy totems; Wachiwi was the only person who could invoke a totem for this battle.

fn2: This is counting coup! From this Wickaninnish regained a coup point and one point of fatigue.

fn3: This is one of Wickaninnish’s powers, “Bury the hatchet,” which forces a temporary peace on a battle.

Picture credits: the corvette is obviously from Nausicaa. The picture at the top of the post is a piece of ledger art depicting Custer’s last stand, by Kicking Bear, 1896.

Things as they were...

Things as they were…

There are three main coherent nations of native Americans in the mid 19th century. They are the Iroquois Confederacy, the Red Empire and the Empire of the Sun.

The Iroquois Confederacy is a group of six nations in the north east of modern America, on the border of Canada. Their most famous members are the Mohawk nation. They are a matrilineal society, possibly also Matriarchal depending on how one defines this historically elusive concept. They have a functioning democracy and are probably the most politically sophisticated of the nations. They are bordered to the north by the Huron, with whom they are in regular conflict, and to the South by the English colonies. To their west is a disputed borderland that leads to the borders of the Red Empire. They trade and farm, and are most familiar with Europeans. An Iroquois character would speak their own nation’s language, and also would be fluent in French (the language of the Confederacy).

The Red Empire covers the area of the Great Plains, basically from somewhere around Chicago west to the rockies, and from the Canadian border down towards Texas and Florida. It is bordered by the Rockies on the west and the English colonies on the East. The Red Empire is populated by many of the Great Plains tribes, most famously the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Pawnee. Some of these tribes are nomadic (e.g. the Sioux) and others semi-nomadic. The Cheyenne, for example, are farmers and traders, and the Pawnee live in earth houses but go on long journeys chasing the buffalo. The Red Empire is newer than the Iroquois Confederacy and less stable, with even its political structure still undecided. There are not enough people in the Empire to police its borders or its polity. This means that on the edges of the Empire there are French forts and settlements (to the North) and English forts and settlements (to the East), and on its southwest side its border with the Empire of the Sun is undetermined. It also means that the “law” of the Empire is enforced at a tribal level – although the tribes are at peace with each other and part of a common nation, they often have disputes and resolve legal disagreements according to competing legal settlements. The Red Empire is the main way by which the other native Americans, French and English can trade with each other, though, so everyone is interested in maintaining peace within the Empire, so different tribes can meet and interact and travel (relatively) freely.

The Empire of the Sun covers the conglomeration of the Hopi, Navajo Chumash and Comache people of California, New Mexico and Arizona. They are the guardians of the Grand Canyon, and another ancient and proud culture. The Navajo are the central powers of the Empire. This Empire trades with Mayans and Incas to the South, is rumoured to have a navy, and also trades with nations from across the Pacific (especially Japan, China and Russia). The Empire of the Sun is close to a religious dictatorship, however, and lacks the same freedoms and chaos of the Red Empire.

There are other tribes in America which, untouched by colonialism (or victorious against it) are thriving and powerful cultures. These three nations are the primary agents in the Compromise and Conceit One-shot that I prepared, however.

A coward and a traitor!

A coward and a traitor!

On the weekend I ran a one-shot set in my Compromise and Conceit world, using my improvised high-speed Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) rules. This adventure was set in North America in 1865, in the Red Empire. This setting is 100 years after the death of George Washington at the hands of my London group, and the subsequent collapse of the British colonial effort in America. In the aftermath the British controlled a narrow line of territories on the East coast, and over the subsequent 100 years repeated attempts to regain colonial ground had come largely to nothing. In 1865 the great land mass of North America now consisted of a huge native American Empire covering the centre of the land, and smaller nations on the eastern and south-western corners. Our group consisted of a mixed band of native Americans from these disparate nations, all gathered on a mission of revenge in a remote northern area of the Red Empire, some days’ ride south of the border with New France (Canada). Our party consists of:

  • Wachiwi: a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya: a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe: a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish: an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

For these characters I introduced some new ideas to make the system more redolent of the type of adventuring I am most fond of in wild west epics, which I always imagine as being based on the movie version of Last of the Mohicans. This type of adventuring requires individual bravery and recklessness, with feats of physical prowess that are obviously magically based, and leavened with a heavy dose of purposeful savagery. I also, of course, needed to infuse it with magic (since this is the fundamental basis of the Compromise and Conceit alternative history), and include some famous people. To achieve this style of adventuring, I made some small additions to the fortune point rules:

  • I changed their name to “coup points”, and made them more powerful: in my hyper-lite version of WFRP 3 coup points can be used to reroll all dice of one colour in a dice pool. They can also be used to add an expertise die to a dice pool – not just two fortune dice as in standard WFRP
  • Coup points are regained through scalping! Each PC has a form of “counting coup” that they can use on an enemy they have killed themselves. This enemy must be killed in melee, and a PC can only count coup on their own victim. Each PC establishes their own specific style of counting coup – it doesn’t have to be scalping, but it has to be something that humiliates a dying enemy. When the PC delivers the killing blow their player declares that they will spend the next round counting coup: this means they lose their action for a full round, and spend it doing something horrible to their victim. They make a fellowship check, and if successful they gain a coup point – plus they may also recover damage, fatigue or stress. This mechanism ensured that the players would privilege melee combat over missile and stealth, and would have a powerful reason based in the rules for engaging in the kind of savagery that every western movie about native Americans naturally makes a centerpiece of the narrative.

I am aware that scalping was probably imported by the white colonists, and that this depiction of the “noble savage” is extremely contentious amongst modern native American activists (though I get the impression that Last of the Mohicans was well-received, and included a major role for a major native American activist), but I wanted to make this campaign fit the dramatic style of movies like Last of the Mohicans. Also, the Compromise and Conceit world is all about myths and ideological caricatures from western literature made real – Catholics in this world are demon-summoning hypocrites and everything in Dr. Faustus came true. Compromise and Conceit also involves confronting the colonial powers with their own stereotypes and mythical notions about the “uncivilized” lands they are colonizing – but making these myths and stereotypes real, and seeing how the colonial powers handle their enemies if even half the things they said about them were actually true. As a result of this, for example, the British lost any chance at colonizing New Zealand, and are trapped on the fringes of a hostile and inhospitable Australia where the land itself rises up against them. It seems natural that when trying to colonize America they should meet magical larger-than-life versions of all the fears they have about native Americans!

I also introduced a system of totems. Totems are objects that the PCs carry that they can deploy for blessings in battle: only one per battle, and totems are largely the province of non-magical characters – they are charms carried into battle by those who lack magic. The party have to make a decision when they enter battle as to what they will deploy, and this is the only benefit they obtain through the whole battle. They cannot be deployed outside of battle, but everyone benefits from them. These totems are a unique magic item for native American characters – there is no equivalent thing for the British, for example.

On this basis we prepared a one-shot set in the Red Empire. Stay tuned for the record of battle …

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare de Lune is one of the characters I generated for the Compromise and Conceit one-shot. She is an ex-exotic dancer for the French troop known as the Cirque de Lune, probably kicked out for some kind of crime against the circus’s managers. Her magic uses nature, perception and deception. She has some combat skills, though she is a little fragile, and she also uses a large bird of prey as a familiar/battle ally, to make missile attacks and distract foes in combat.

This character description shows how simple and easy a character is to generate if you strip all the details out of the WFRP 3 system and just use the very basic dice, attribute and fatigue ideas. Note there are no skills – Clare de Lune is trained in four areas, and that is all. Also the spells I just made up – I didn’t aim for any sense of balance or usefulness, just designed spells to suit the character concept. I think this method works quite well, provide players are happy with a character that may have no use in some circumstances.

Character name:      Clare de Lune

Archetype-thingy:    Cirque du Lune bird dancer                        Feat Points: 3


Strength 3 Intelligence 4
Toughness 3 Willpower 3
Agility 5 Fellowship 5

Trained in:

  1. Casting spells
  2. Animal handling
  3. Perception
  4. Spotting lies and tricks

Combat stuff

Defense Wounds Max/ Current
Melee 5 Fatigue       3 /
Missile 5 Stress       3 /
Surprised 5 Criticals (max:   )       3  /
Armour (  warm weather stuff ) 1 (4) Wounds       13 /


Weapon Damage Critical Notes
Long knives 4+Str=7 2 Fast (+1 Initiative)
Crossbow 5+Ag=10 2  
Bird 3+Fellowship=8 3 Ranged Fellowship attack

Clare de Lune’s bird

Clare’s bird can be used to perform three tricks:

  • Attack (fellowship-based attack against opponents missile defense)
  • Hover over hidden targets (Clare de Lune can make missile attacks even if she can’t see the enemy, at +2 defense)
  • Distract (fellowship-based attack against opponent’s intelligence; success adds difficulty to enemy’s actions)

The bird can take 5 points of fatigue before it flies away; every failed attempt to do any trick causes 1 point of fatigue, as does any successful hit on the bird (defense 6). It recovers fatigue at 1 point per hour.

Clare de Lune’s spells

Name Difficulty Effect
Grace of Ages 4 Swap 1 blue die for green per success. Lasts WP rounds
Scarlet Pimpernel Highest Fellowship Assume a disguise, lasts 1 min/success (+1 hr/comet)
Riverdance 4 Walk on water for 1 rd/success.
Opium dream 4 Take opium, get a chance to do an overview perception check of all land within 1km / success. Boons/comets enhance the check
Soar with the eagles 4 Can see through the eyes of her bird for 1 min/success. Gain +1 training in perception


Clare de Lune begins her dance of death

Clare de Lune begins her dance of death

This blog has been quiet for the past few weeks because I have been traveling and working at the same time, and it has been very difficult to make the time to do anything interesting here. However, for the past 10 days I was in London, and during that time I was able to reconvene my old Compromise and Conceit group for a four hour one-shot.

This one-shot used a hyper-stripped down version of the Warhammer 3 rules. I was going to use Shadowrun but I just didn’t have time to prepare something new, so I decided to just muck around with Warhammer 3. We used diceroller apps, had no cards and I made up all actions for all the characters in an hour one morning. We dropped stances, conservative and reckless dice (except for spells that use them), group initiative, and recharge. I used stress as a consequence of spell-casting to limit spell use, and didn’t bother with skills: instead I just gave each player a list of four things they were trained in. Everything else was just a check on the appropriate attribute. This system is really fast and quite fun.

The PCs were:

  • Captain Nostromo, a wizard who specializes in manipulating machinery and infernal objects, probably Polish
  • Clare de Lune, an exotic dancer formerly of the Cirque de Lune, who fights with knives and is accompanied by a gyrfalcon that can also attack (a Large and Vicious Gyrfalcon!), she also has a selection of nature magic
  • The Sicilian, an ageing ex-mercenary who is preventing the decline of his martial prowess with age by an increasing array of infernal enhancements
  • Jack Cloudie (not his real name), an Iroquois Stormcrier who visited Europe on a mission and decided to stay so that he can civilize the savages of this strange and backward country

I will put up character descriptions in subsequent posts, along with some descriptions of how I simplified the WFRP3 rules.

The setting and the adventure

The year was 1830, and the PCs were on a ship bound for Svalbard in the arctic circle in mid-July. They had been employed by a rich industrialist in London to investigate the strange disappearance of a wizard working in Svalbard, one William Sealy Gossett.

Out of place and time

Out of place and time

Svalbard in 1830 was a huge whaling station, and William Gossett had been sent to Svalbard by the PCs employer as part of a project to research ways to imbue whale oil and whale bones with magical essence, and to design new magical tinctures and items. Svalbard was going through a kind of whale-oil-based gold rush, because whale oil fresh from the corpse is an excellent solvent for magical and infernal essences, and whale oil that cannot be enchanted can still be used in industry. William Gossett’s task was to conduct experiments to enable the whale oil to be treated so that it could hold the essence longer after the death of the whale, with the ultimate goal of shipping it back to Europe to be enchanted. Currently only a small amount of whale products were being enchanted, because there were very few wizards willing to live in the harsh confines of Svalbard and work long days enchanting whale fat. The PCs’ employer aimed to revolutionize this industrial process through developing techniques of magical preservation.

Unfortunately, William Gossett appears to have gone missing. He was supposed to send a letter of safe assurance with each ship that left Svalbard for Europe, but the June and July ships both brought nothing back. Although it was possible he could have missed the first ship, his employer is certain something must be amiss for him to miss two. It could be something simple (such as suicide during the winter darkness) but Svalbard is a lawless place in which whalers often fight physically for control of whale pods. The PCs were sent to Svalbard to find William, and punish anyone who has interfered with him.

Svalbard’s Bay of Blood

The adventure opens as the PCs’ ship enters the Svalbard bay, to a scene of horror sufficient to shock even hardened campaigners such as The Sicilian. The air was suffused with a red mist, and the sea stained red with the blood of a throng of dying whales. The bay was thick with the whales, passing through in huge groups, and in amongst them were multiple whaling ships and many small harpoon boats. Wherever they could, the whalers were laying about themselves with harpoons, and everywhere they looked the PCs could see dying whales floundering in the open seas. The whalers moved amongst the pods stabbing whales with harpoons tipped with leather bladders, so that once a sufficient number had been stuck into the beast it could not submerge. They then began to hack, beat and stab it to death, but usually they would haul it still half-alive back to their ship, where it would be tied alongside other dying members of its pod. Then, men would begin flensing the whales, cutting sacks of fat and meat away even as the dying whale twitched feebly in the water. No indignity was spared these hapless beasts: seabirds flocked to their ragged bodies, pecking at the flesh of the injured beasts as they waited weakly to die; a pod of killer whales moved amongst the gore, picking injured whales and eating them even as they fought to escape the whalers; and here and there a half-flensed whale would be set loose, its body no longer valuable to the whales, to die in a slow spiral of viscera and desperate shrieks, torn at by birds, fish and orcas alike as its unique voice faded.

This scene so horrified The Sicilian that he was forced to act. Declaring that the murder of helpless enemies was beneath a warrior, he ordered the ship’s captain to sail over to a particularly large whale. This whale had been caught and tied to the stern of a whaling ship, but the ship’s crew were in violent dispute with the crew of another ship over possession of the poor giant, and as they fought it simply floundered in the scarlet water, unable to escape because of the ties to the ship and the many harpoons that held it at the surface. As his ship approached The Sicilian leapt onto the whale’s back, slicing the ropes that held the whale to the ship with his soul-bonded infernal sword and running along the whales back, smashing harpoons as he passed them. He noted in horror that, as a final indignity, the harpoons were themselves crafted of whalebone – the majestic giant was being killed with tools made of its own kind. Unfortunately the beast did not understand the purpose of The Sicilian’s mercy mission, and in anger it thrashed its newly-freed tail, flipping The Sicilian high into the air. Moments later he found himself lying on the deck in between the two competing whaling crews, a shattered harpoon in his hand. The crews, realizing what he was doing, joined forces to attack him. The Sicilian was just preparing to sell his life dearly to this gang of reprobates when the whale resurfaced, smashing into the ship from below in a fury of revenge. He found himself flying through the air at the whale’s behest again, and landed close enough to his ship that he could be rescued by his fellows. As they sailed away and the whale made its escape, the sailors on the stricken ship yelled threats and imprecations at him and his team.

The Sicilian was unimpressed. No human threat has scared him since winter, 1812. But something else in the atmosphere of Svalbard unsettled him. He and all the group felt as if some dark and imposing force watched from the deeps of the sea, waiting for … something. As they turned away from the carnage and headed into the Svalbard docks, a shiver ran down The Sicilian’s spine. Though he lacked empathy for human emotion, he was finely attuned to the infernal world, and he felt it pressing close about him now …

The wizard’s lab

This scene of horror did not relent when the ship landed, and the PCs wound their way through a street lined with flensing sites and pots of boiling blubber to the town’s only inn, The Bloody Spout. Here they dumped their meagre possessions and inquired as to the whereabouts of the wizard, William. They were directed to “go outside, turn left” and walk until they came to his lab. This they did.

At the lab they found the door snowed shut, and the lab deserted. It showed no signs of a struggle, and it appeared that the wizard had been on a journey recently. They also found two notes, both addressed to the wizard but unsigned. The first said simply:

William, don’t waste my time with your ludicrous theories and propositions. I’ll have no part of this.

and the second said

William, you’re still crazy but let’s meet. Under the gallows tomorrow.

The PCs knew the gallows – they could see it from their hotel room, at the top of the gravel-and-ice-strewn hill behind their hotel. However, they had no idea who had written the note. In order to find this out, they visited the harbourmaster’s office post-haste. The harbourmaster handled all mail for everyone on the island, so must surely know the hand-writing of every person in the town. Sure enough he knew the writing, and immediately identified it as belonging to the other wizard in the town, who ran a lab at the opposite end of the town.

They visited this wizard immediately, and were received with an air of suspicion and threat. This wizard obviously did not like the thought of people investigating goings-on in the island, and was not inclined to be cooperative. However, eyeing The Sicilian and Jack Cloudie with an air of obvious concern, he was convinced to answer their questions honestly. He told the PCs that William had found evidence that the population of whales was crashing under the pressure of human hunting, and that they would soon disappear altogether, taking this boom town with them. William seemed very agitated about this and claimed to have a plan to save them. He told the PCs that William ran a secret lab (that everyone in town knew about) on the far side of the Island, and suggested that perhaps he had travelled with his apprentices to this lab. The PCs decided to follow this lead.

Journey to the secret lab

The PCs found a whaler who was travelling around the island and who agreed to take them to within an hour’s walk of the “secret” lab, though he would be no further diverted from his whaling mission than this. Since it was unwise to travel overland while the ice was breaking up in early summer, the PCs were forced to accept this journey plan. The next day they found themselves standing on a wind-blasted expanse of fast ice, with instructions to head northwest and “don’t fall in or you’re dead.” Thickly swathed in their winter furs, they began to walk, picking their way carefully over the empty ice. However, their journey was interrupted halfway through when they stumbled upon a pool in the ice, in which lurked a submerged polar bear. This beast emerged soaked and roaring from the pool to attack the group, and another emerged from a similar hiding place behind them. With its first strike the bear nearly tore The Sicilian in half, and the second bear tore deep gashes in Nostromo’s armour, but between them they soon killed one, and drove the other away.

Clare de Lune was unfazed. No animal had scared her since her childhood in the Siege of Paris. But that thing, that sinister spirit that watched the battle with cold detachment – neither she nor her bird could see it, but she could feel it following and watching them. No animal this, it disturbed her in a way that nothing in the natural world had done since she was very small…

A short walk later they found the secret lab. This building was open to the elements, and showed signs inside of a savage fight, though there was little blood and mostly mess. One wall had once abutted a kind of earthwork rampart extruding from the hills behind the lab; this wall now had a huge hole in it, which opened into a tunnel. This tunnel clearly extended into the earthworks, and thence under the hills behind the lab. Whoever had attacked the secret lab had done so through this tunnel; but the tunnels were old, and the lab relatively newly built – had William known of them when he constructed this laboratory?

The Trolls and the ritual

The PCs soon found the answer to their questions. After 10 minutes’ walk down the darkening tunnels they emerged into a sheltered bay, carved out of a cave that faced the bitterly cold arctic ocean. Between the tunnels and the sea, sheltered under the archway of the rock above them, was a beach of black gravel and stone. The sea was held back from this stony shore by broken icebergs floating in the water inside the cave, but it still boomed inside the cavern and crashed against the ice, scattering spray throughout the cave. The sense of being watched and of foreboding was very strong here in the wilds under the looming rock, and they felt they could almost see something out in the wild ocean, watching them with grim intent.

The wizard William Gossett stood on the shore, and behind him stood a gang of trolls. None of the group had ever seen trolls, of course, and to the enlightened European such beasts are merely figments of the Scandinavian imagination, but what else could these things be? Over 3m tall, beast-like creatures walking on two legs, with huge clawed hands, their skin alabaster smooth and obviously hard like stone. They had narrow, black eyes deep-set in vaguely humanoid, monstrous faces that looked as if they had been carved from flint. Spines lined head and shoulders, and they wore ragged clothes of polar bear and walrus fur. They also looked angry.

Between the group and William and his friendly trolls stood his apprentices. They were roped together and standing motionless on a broad slab of stone, onto which had been carved a complex magical pattern. Some enchantment held them still, and they obviously were intended as sacrifices in some horrid sacrifice, probably to the looming dark thing in the sea.

The PCs approved. They had seen enough slaughter and brutality on this island to know it was no place for human hopes and dreams, and that it should be turned back to the wild. They had also seen no evidence of anyone on the island who deserved to be saved or to have their dreams of wealth rewarded.

They turned and ran, leaving William and his little army of trolls to complete his unspeakable ritual. As they ran they felt that presence again, bearing in towards the shore to do … something.

The Flensed Ones

When they reached their rendezvous point with the whaler, they found it empty. They waited for two days but no whaler came. Finally they realised that they could die out here if they did not move on; they began to carefully pick their way over the broken ice of the shore, and after several days’ walk they returned, exhausted and starved, to the town. Walkign down the hill from the gallows, they immediately noticed that the sea returned to a pale natural blue. The town swarmed with seabirds, and when they entered its outskirts they soon saw why. Every single person in the town was dead, their body reduced to a withered husk. Some vile magic had swept through the town, killing every human there by the simple expedient of sucking out their fat.

The entire town had been magically flensed.

The PCs walked to the shore and stood there, looking out at the cold and desolate sea. The sea stared back at them, that same dark malevolent force now fully in possession of it. A cold wind blew in, and somewhere in that wind they sensed a hint of gratitude.

Whaling at Svalbard was over, and the Kingdom of Trolls had begun. The only witnesses to its creation, and indeed the wardens of its formation, were Captain Nostromo, The Sicilian, Clare de Lune and Jack Cloudie. Turning away from the sea, they looked out at the desolate hills and the bird-tattered corpses of the flensed victims, and shuddered at the horror they had created.

No Place for the Warm-hearted

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Simple, surely?

You must gather your party before venturing forth ...

I gained a great deal of inspiration for role-playing from my trip to Iceland, and I hope that much of what I saw and experienced there will inform a Compromise and Conceit campaign run in Svalbard. Much of the inspiration gained from my trip to Iceland will come simply from amazement at the stark beauty of the landscape (useful background information for an Australian planning to set a campaign in the far north) and from an appreciation of the general coolness of the Nordic universe[1]. But there were also some particular ideas, and some specific information, that I gleaned from this trip, which I think is useful for grounding a campaign in particular historical periods. Some of what I learnt is very general, some specific to Iceland, some generalizable (perhaps) to a Norse-specific campaign. I was simultaneously reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, so I can’t guarantee it hasn’t been coloured by his very specific view of how pre-medieval pagan societies worked, but I hope that at least some of what I found in Iceland has currency beyond my own campaign ideas. So here it is, in no particular order. A lot of these ideas serve to establish a campaign in which the majority of the community is living in poverty and pretty low settings; this may not be to everyone’s tastes, and so some of what’s suggested here may not be worth adopting (and it may be exaggerating the state of life in 12th century Iceland, which I’ll use as my focus for a campaign setting).

Travel and the Weather as Adversary

Until the 19th century Iceland had no proper roads, and to travel from one part of the country to another required trudging over essentially wilderness on tracks beaten out by other travellers. In winter this meant passing over snowy ground, and the path was not kept clear. Instead it was marked by little cairns of stones every couple of hundred metres, and travellers simply moved from cairn to cairn. Traveling a modern road in a comfortable bus on a perfect Autumn day it was easy to forget what this means for your average 12th century traveler, but our guide told us that in winter or fog the weather could be so bad that, even quite close to Reykjavik, travelers could easily lose sight of the next cairn, and become lost on the moors easily. Getting lost in a winter storm in Iceland would be a death sentence for all but the very lucky, and the natural consequence of this is that one would not travel in winter. This has huge ramifications for much of human society – trade, war, adventuring and life in general would grind to a halt, and the whole world would be waiting with baited breath for spring. In turn this places huge stress on festivals that mark the thresholds of seasons and changes, because they also represent the return of life, motion, and human congress.

I remember speaking with an Afghan doctor about his research project when I was teaching statistics a few years ago. His interest was in reducing maternal mortality (a huge problem in Afghanistan, and intricately related to infant mortality), and he told me about a very simple problem that does not exist in modern Nordic countries. In winter in many parts of Afghanistan the heavy snows block passes and roads and prevent all forms of travel. This means that if you’re giving birth in winter, you get no support of any kind beyond that which is available from your immediate neighbours. Given the single best protection against maternal mortality is access to medical care (or, in a fantasy world, clerics) when complications occur, this basic lack of infrastructure (cleared roads) that we in the west take for granted presents a huge barrier for Afghan women’s health. The same would apply in any rural town in 12th century Iceland, but even worse – food and other vital supplies would also be frozen in, making preparation for the winter of crucial importance. One need look no further than this to understand why brutal strongmen were capable of popular rule in such societies: no one cares that they demand a virgin a year, if they guarantee security for your winter preparations. To return to Afghanistan, an interesting article in today’s Guardian suggests westerners have misunderstood Afghan support for the Taliban for these kinds of reasons:

Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviours they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).

and they credited the “good Taliban” with not doing these things, as well as the ability to provide justice swiftly and fairly. In dark ages societies this was no doubt a very easy way to be liked: guarantee your subjects security to prepare for winter, and you can take what you want from them (within reason) in spring.


Hang it, smoke it, mash it, and wash it down with ammonia

This brings us to the topic of Icelandic food, which is an interesting mix of the delicious and the horrific and, in some ways, still recalls the food culture of old. Iceland still relies on imports for most of the things we take for granted, and until the 1930s couldn’t grow most vegetables or fruits locally, so a lot of the old-fashioned foods still persist. The worst examples of these are thoramatur, a disgusting series of foods that obviously derive from a period of history when food was less reliable than it is now, nothing could be wasted, and much had to be cured or preserved using gross or stinky methods[2]. More generally, the food that Icelanders ate 100 years ago was very limited in its variety, very simple, and indicates a very limited palate. I have found in GMing that food can be used to add elements of vivid realism to a campaign setting, and can serve as an indicator of e.g. hostility, poverty, welcome, and the importance ascribed to meetings or deals[3], and food in an Iceland-style setting could be easily used to establish that sense of living-on-the-edge that a medieval Icelandic setting should have. Consider the examples in the picture above, which I ate at the Loki Cafe near the main church in Reykjavik. From top right, going clockwise, we have smoked trout, smoked lamb, mashed fish, in the middle we have wind-dried cod with butter, and at the rear (thankfully hidden from view), rotten shark. For Icelanders over a certain age, these last two are a delicacy. I have to say the wind-dried cod is palatable compared to your average Japanese dried smelt (though I didn’t try it with beer – Japanese dried fish tastes fishy before you have a beer, and then it literally explodes with a new dimension of fishiness once you take your first sip). The dried shark, hakarl, tastes very strongly of ammonia – it goes up your nose like horseradish or mustard, only it’s ammonia. Why anyone would eat this I don’t know, but I guess historically this served a very useful purpose. Your village catches a 5m long Greenland shark, which would provide enough meat for your whole town for a week, but it’s poisonous, so you have to rot it to get rid of the poison. You lay it down in Autumn, stick it in barrels before the snow comes, and by mid-winter you have a week’s supply of meat when everything else has run out. Imagine sitting in your wind-blasted, freezing 12th century hut, with 3-5 hours of sunlight a day, down to your last few kilos of smoked lamb, drinking nothing but intensely strong rye spirits (because beer doesn’t exist), eating stale rye bread, and knowing that in a week you’ll be down to nothing but the rotten shark. That, my friends, is living on the raggedy edge. I don’t know if Iceland was that poor in the 12th century (they also had trade items that may have made them very rich) but I’m guessing that away from the centres of cultural life things could go this way in lean times – and remember that the little ice age struck Iceland at that time too. By varying the food culture as your PCs travel across the frozen land, you can easily give them a sense of increasing poverty and/or desperation, as well as a sense of realism.

Women’s roles and Inequality

Not a nice way to end an affair

Iceland prides itself on its feminism and its advances in women’s status, and there is some evidence that women had some form of equal voting rights to men (at least at a local level) before they did in the rest of Europe, enacted through the peculiar system of Iceland’s local parliament and its local voting system. Early rules in the settlement era (from 980 AD onward) suggest that women were allowed to own land (as much as they could walk a heifer around in a day!) and be the head of a household. During the reign of the Danish monarchy it’s likely that a lot of these rights were ignored or stripped away, but in general it seems like Iceland had a (relatively) progressive outlook on women’s rights from an early era. My guidebook suggests this may have had a lot to do with the precarious environment – not many Icelanders would have had much leeway to keep women sequestered in the farmhouse in this period, and the right to work is a huge driver of women’s equality. More generally, this tells us something about women’s equality in medieval societies in general, and how it is a much more nuanced and complex issue than modern lay interpreters of medieval history generally believe. Modern views of women’s rights in history seem to generally be that women had none, had few leadership chances (either covert or open) and were victims of an intensely patriarchal society. I don’t think it’s that simple, and my general guess is that women’s equality was actually at times and places quite advanced amongst the peasantry, and quite restricted amongst the nobility; conversely, the poverty of the lower classes worked against women’s health and welfare much more harshly than it did men. For example, most modern images of marriage in the medieval era see it as a restrictive bond on women, but in fact before the Victorian era in the UK (for example) marriage was a pretty haphazard institution, not particularly well adhered to amongst the lower classes and implemented in very different ways at a local level. Thomas Hardy’s description of a registry office in Jude the Obscure gives a nice insight into the way the lower classes may have looked on marriage at that time. Meanwhile, of course, high-class women in the medieval era were definitely used as pawns in political games, but this may not have been a general problem for other women. One common feminist critique of Victorian and Regency literature is that it was propaganda for a new form of marriage that took an absolute and regressive view of women’s bondage to men within the marriage compact[4]. As another example, two of Britain’s most vigorous, most expansionist and most culturally active and successful periods were under the reign of powerful and well-respected female leaders (Elizabeth and Victoria), and I think it would be hard to say that they were figureheads.

So while the popular fantasy of medieval countries may be of women oppressed and powerless, the reality is likely much more nuanced. Obviously in our fantasy worlds female warriors, thieves and wizards are a dime a dozen and this is completely ahistorical and something most of us aren’t going to ditch from our campaigns, but it’s not necessarily ahistorical to have these women supported by a culture in which women’s rights may be contested, diverse, and at times quite liberal. Women farmers, spokespeople, politicians and criminal masterminds are not outside the realms of possibility in the real world, so it’s perfectly possible to extend that further in the fantastical world without stretching the truth overmuch; and it’s perfectly possible to smooth out the worst historical abuses of women in the interests of having a campaign world that isn’t completely detestable, without making the political and cultural landscape unrecognizable.

Which isn’t to say that women’s life in Iceland was easy. The picture above is of the “drowning pool” at the historical parliament, where women were drowned for “sexual crimes” and infanticide. Men were burnt at the stake or hanged for the same crimes.

Inclusion and Consensus

Having shown that rather disturbing picture, it’s worth noting that very few people were executed in Iceland during the era of drowning pools and burnings; although empowered to use capital punishment, Icelanders generally considered this punishment abhorrent, and opted instead for blood money or outlawry as an alternative. The worst punishment in Iceland was considered to be outlawry, in which a criminal was driven out of society. In fact, this is how Greenland was settled. This points to a society which considered exclusion to be a terrible fate, and I think there is a very simple reason for this: in a place like Iceland, being driven out of the polity is a death sentence, because of the need to work together to survive the harsh climate. In other places (especially, e.g. large parts of Asia and Europe) it would be very easy to make one’s life anew if cast out of one’s local society, because the land was bountiful enough to live off of without much support. Not so in Iceland. I think the same thing applied historically in Australia, and the result is a political and cultural system based on consensus rather than conflict. It was for this reason that the althing (the parliament) was established, and it drives a certain type of politics. The flipside of consensus cultural models is that there is an extremely strong pressure not to deviate from cultural norms: witness the restricted range of roles available to men in Australia, and its historical disapproval of homosexuality, as an example. Most British will tell you they find Australian men alarmingly macho, and this is because British men have a more diverse range of roles and available characters. There’s more space for cultural play in a society which doesn’t value consensus so highly. This type of politics will go to huge lengths not to exclude people, and will respond warmly to a cultural group once they are granted the status of “included” (see, e.g. Australia’s rapidly changing views of Aborigines since the 1960s). The downside is that once you’re out, you’re really out. You don’t get to live in a contested space like, say, the Travellers or asylum seekers in Britain – you’re gone. In historical Iceland you were also, literally, gone – you sailed over the seas and that was that.

In gaming terms a consensus society probably doesn’t figure highly until it comes time to resolve conflicts between powerful groups. Then, the players will need to find subtle ways to deal with their political opponents, and may need to come to terms with the fact that they can’t kill them but have to settle for subversion, or even maintaining their enemy’s public facade while removing the source of their power. In my experience this type of adventuring – political intrigues, problems that can’t be resolved with a blaster – is harder to do and very hard to do well. But many players like games of subtle intrigue where covert action is essential, and it certainly enables the GM to keep his favorite bad guys alive and causing trouble for longer. Even though Iceland comes from a Viking heritage, it doesn’t necessarily present the kind of climate where you can just bash your enemy until he hands over his potions – unlike a lot of classic fantasy adventuring worlds. Such a world probably also means that the PCs will be accepted even by communities that might side with their enemies, but once they cross the rubicon they are doomed – no one will take them in even if threatened, and even if not on the run from the law they will face a miserable existence. Can they turn this on their enemies? And how does it change play to be aware of these rules?

I think it’s for these kinds of reasons that the Icelanders came to a parliament so early, and in the next post on this topic I’ll try to talk about the costs of war, variants of slavery, and the cultural sophistication of the early medieval period.

fn1: I guess it’s hard for Europeans to grasp, but for Australians a place like Norway or Denmark is exotic; for Japanese, the UK is exotic. So while Europeans might look at Norway and think, “meh, Vikings” and consider Australia a foreign and alien landscape, for me everything Nordic is new and exciting.

fn2: It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry on the mid-winter foods and festival of Iceland makes it clear the festival was revived (or created!) in the 50s, and that although it was based on historical foods these foods weren’t necessarily staples of the diet. This is a really cool and interesting example of invented culture, but I’m guessing that the foods used served the role I ascribe to them here, as mid-winter survival foods – just like sausages and smoked meats elsewhere in Europe, or that weird and disgusting rotten fish in Sweden.

fn3: I think I should elaborate on this in future

fn4: I don’t claim to agree with this view, or to know much of anything about it

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