You gotta ask yourself... are you feelin' lucky, punk?

I think this idea could work well with warhammer. I watched the 8th episode of the BBC documentary Oceans today[1], hoping to see video footage of polar bears killing whales, and the documentary featured a visit to the old whaling town on Svalbard. Apparently – according to the scientists who were chatting on the screen while something actually interesting happened in the water just out of sight – the whaling station was established in the 16th century and caused massive slaughter, whales being so plentiful that it was like shooting fish in a barrel. They would drag them onshore and boil the blubber down to fat, in a town called “Blubbertown.” This immediately conjured up an image of a group of people approaching that town, perhaps through a couple of scenes of horrific whale-killing, to a small and brutal settlement overhung with the foul stench of burning fat, its frozen streets piled high with bones and reeking smoke drifting across every rundown doorway. It would be a mixture of brutal environment and charnel house horror, all enacted in plain view on the beach[3].

Of course, this group of people would be our heroes, arriving in the small town on business. I imagine the town a bit like Deadwood, a frontier outpost still in the process of creation, its big men still forming and breaking alliances, and acutely aware of the risk to their nascent enterprise from the big powers in Europe. Their work is hard and brutal, the environment harsh even in its best season, and the future unknown – these would be the toughest of frontier workers. The setting offers some natural details which lend themselves to role-playing:

  • Omnipresent horror: the setting itself sets a grotesque and vivid scene, that lends itself to a natural atmosphere of horror and dread. The drifting smoke, the reek of fat, the cold hard winds and the continuous visual and olfactory reminders of the presence of death all combine to give a grim and unsettling feeling to the environment
  • The Environment as enemy: any expedition out of the town carries with it the risk of death just from the environment. A wrong path taken, staying away from camp that little bit too long, misjudging the weather – everyone would need to be on their guard, and it’s fine work for weather-witchers and charm salespeople. But you can easily turn even the simplest adventure (“that guy stole my walrus tusks! A gold for the man who stops him!”) into a death trap
  • Big nasty beasts: All those dead whales would attract a few polar bears, and in the water of course you have killer whales and some very large walruses. You can spice up any period of quiet by chucking a polar bear into the mix, particularly in the more brutal game systems where every encounter with a random polar bear is to be dreaded
  • Regular minor fracas: the whalers would of course be jealous of each others’ possessions and catches, and stealing whalebone, fat, etc. would be common, as would ships fighting each other over kills. So there would be regular simple jobs – stealing back someone’s goods, guard work on a whaling ship, tracking hidden caches, getting vengeance, etc. – in fact ideal for making a table of random minor adventures

There are some more detailed scenarios which I think could make for excellent adventures and campaigns in the frozen North, though:

  • Hidden civilizations: Much is not known about the North, and perhaps there are lost Elven kingdoms in Svalbard; or worse, dark secrets in deep holes in the ice… hidden chaos cultures, or maybe the secrets of cthulhu… this kind of stuff begs for a good, sturdy group of adventurers to go and find it, and come back mad
  • Horror: From the very mundane (ghouls picking over whale corpses) to the cliched (Vampire nests coming to Svalbard to take advantage of the deep night of winter) to the particular (ghost ships crewed by Undead whalers) the continual atmosphere of death and slaughter begs for horror.
  • Native incursion: Maybe there are a native people in Svalbard who were driven off by the first whalers, or who live alongside them, and take up arms against them. They could take up arms for venal reasons (they want their share of the loot), reasons of justice (they were pushed out) or environmentalism (the whales are gods) or all three. They don’t have to be human either. Imagine a scenario where a Northern Orc tribe were pushed into the wilderness, and the humans are killing off the gods they have always worshiped. So they take up arms out of a sense of injustice, to kill their oppressors, and also to replace them in business, so that the Orcs can kill their own gods and sell their fat to Europe…
  • The starving cult: an idea I got from the novel Sun Dogs, perhaps the characters on a routine mission stumble on a tiny settlement of crazy religious ascetics, who are living in the deep wilderness, fighting off native marauders and slowly starving to death, but who refuse to leave until their prophecy is fulfilled. Maybe a few of them want to leave secretly and ask the characters for help… or maybe the cult are really sitting on a magical source of great power, and great evil
  • Industrial rivalry: the classic, in which two whaling groups set out to destroy each other, and the characters get involved
  • Industrial takeover: the Whaling town is composed entirely of small operators, but a big company from Europe has sent agents with the intention of taking over all the operators and turning the whaling town into a plantation-style whaling factory. The characters find themselves in the middle of it, able to take sides – or take over
  • Industrial espionage: the characters are sent to the town by a wealthy alchemist in Europe, who thinks he has found a way to synthesize the key ingredients of the whales’ oil[5] but needs a certain amount of samples from a part of the whale not usually harvested. In doing so he will destroy the economy of the island, but he doesn’t care. A local interest finds out about his mission and sets out to stop (or mislead!) the characters, and they have a fight on their hands. The characters need to find a sympathetic whaler to help them get the parts while dealing with their enemies. Perhaps the aforementioned natives find out about the characters, and, seeing a chance to pull the bottom out of the market and stop the slaughter, they step in to help. Better still, to help they need to kill a certain number of the whales they revere (for the greater good!), a responsibility which creates splinter groups amongst the natives, and against a backdrop of armed insurrection the characters are in a race against time to harvest their whale parts through theft or slaughter…
  • Environmentalism: perhaps in killing so many whales the locals have aroused the ire of some local spirit, which turns the environment against the camp, and the characters have to help. Or perhaps the whalers turn their attention to a rare and supernatural beast, and arouse the ire of some sleeping avatar
  • Creeping chaos: perhaps Svalbard’s remoteness and potential wealth makes it a perfect target for chaos agents, who want to turn it into a secret settlement of chaos, trading oil to the enemies of chaos while building up wealth and land for their own purpose. Or perhaps the oppressive atmosphere of death and flensing affects the spirits of the locals directly, causing some to corrupt and become agents of darker powers. Eventually a witch-hunter arrives from Europe to investigate, and it all becomes very grim…
  • International conflict: several countries start a low-grade diplomatic conflict to annex Svalbard. The characters are asked by the independent locals to intervene in some way. But why are these nations suddenly interested? Is there something the locals don’t know about?
  • Oil: A gnome turns up with a lot of strange bunch of heavily-guarded equipment, which he sets up just outside of town. Someone discovers that he has found a new, vastly larger source of the same ingredients they are killing the whales to sell… perhaps something needs to be done about that gnome…

I might suggest this as a locale to my warhammer group. There’s a double element of peskiness in running a role-playing campaign for a Japanese group in a whaling station…

fn1: Which isn’t very good, by the way. What’s with the modern practice of making wildlife documentaries more about people than about animals? There are belugas hopping around in the background and the doco is focussing on some poorly-spoken British scientists telling each other how beautiful Belugas are. I’d know if I could see them, instead of seeing the stupid scientists. I blame it on global warming[2].

fn2: No really, I do. Before the general acceptance of global warming – e.g. back in the 70s – nobody believed that humans could actually affect nature. Sure, we were killing off the odd species here and there but nobody believed we could actually step in and change the work of nature itself, so all you could really do was stand back and watch in stunned amazement as the Earth went about its business. But now we know that actually humans can affect minor details like whether or not a planet has frozen poles, it’s pretty clear that all that shit happening in the background with polar bears and belugas and great big animals being majestic is a sideline to the central egotistical fact of the 21st century, which is that we can fuck the entire planet. Who cares if lions can fuck each other? Wildlife documentaries are now explicitly about the human race to understand nature, whereas before they were subliminally about that, and primarily about nature itself.

fn3: When I was in Langmuir in Tibet someone slaughtered a yak by the river. In the time it took me to have breakfast and lose at Chinese chess[4] it had been reduced from a fully functional and quite aggressive animal larger than a man to a blood stain.

fn4: an excellent game, incidentally, though fiendishly difficult to play when the locals are interfering with your every move and refusing to let you move a piece while they argue amongst themselves about how you should move.

fn5: Apparently Beluga fat can be turned into a lubricant for watchmakers. Who knew?