Not exactly the last of the Interceptors, but...

It’s the little things that can do you in, and watching The Walking Dead recently I noticed that the group have made some serious mistakes in choice of vehicle for their road trip. Who is responsible for their vehicular management? That sanctimonious old meddler, Dale, of course. They really need to start viewing him as “just another mouth to feed.” Here is why they have made bad vehicle choices, and what I consider to be good choices for the zombie apocalypse road trip.

The Winnebago, the hi-tech liability and the chopper

The Walking Dead‘s group drive across America in a Winnebago camper van, a couple of urban runabouts and a Harley Davidson. Three of their four vehicles are bad choices: the Winnebago, the modern urban runabout, and the Harley. Their overall group transport strategy is flawed because the Winnebago is carrying too heavy a load and they haven’t built in any redundancy to account for it. Specific reasons for the flaws in each vehicle are easily identified.

The Winnebago

This is the big mistake in the road trip plan. The Winnebago has many flaws:

  • It carries too much material, which means that if it breaks down in a high-risk area (near a town or an obviously infected area) the group won’t have time to empty it before they need to move on. They’ll have to leave a lot of important gear behind if they’re in a hurry, because they have too much stashed in one vehicle
  • It’s not manoeuvrable, so when they reach traffic jams or narrow roads they have to go around. Worse still, if they see trouble ahead and need to turn around in a hurry, they need to do a three point turn rather than a u-turn. To avoid this they need to stay on large, wide roads which are likely to be heavily infested.
  • It’s inefficient, so that despite its large size it only really carries a couple of passengers and beds. As a hospital vehicle it’s little better than a normal van, but it also carries less people than a mini bus. Furthermore, all the heavy fittings and camping style are simply a waste of space. They won’t use the toilet, and they could get by perfectly well with camp chairs rather than heavy fixed tables. All this stuff is taking up space and using fuel but providing little comfort. As a source of shelter it’s not large enough for the whole group, yet the whole group is constrained in road choice by its size
  • It’s noisy and has high wind resistance, meaning it draws attention to the group and uses a lot of fuel. Fuel efficiency may not be a long-term issue in a world depleted of competition, but in moving between gas stations and fuel sources it is crucial. If you’re going to use a heavy, fuel inefficient vehicle you need good reason
  • It’s heavy: hard to push out of the road, hard to replace wheels

The worst case scenarios involving the Winnebago arise from the combination of its lack of manoeuvrability and its excessive storage usage. On a narrow road, if the group see zombie trouble up ahead they will need to turn the Winnebago around, running the risk that it will get bogged off-road. This could potentially trap other cars between the Winnebago and the zombie horde, meaning loss of those cars too. But even if this doesn’t happen, bogging the vehicle down will mean having to empty it into the other cars. This will take a long time, and as the zombies approach the group will have to choose to abandon large amounts of stuff. This wouldn’t happen if that stuff had been distributed between more, smaller vehicles.

The urban runabout

The group also has a green hatchback, quite modern, that is probably highly fuel efficient, comfortable, reliable and quiet. This is overall a good choice of vehicle, but it has a significant downside: it’s too modern. Modern cars can’t be easily repaired by unskilled users, and often require computer diagnostics and specialist service centres, sometimes affiliated with the company that sells the car. Also, parts are often specific to the car and can’t be scavenged. This means that any breakdown more serious than a simple puncture will put the car out of action. That’s fine if your group has significant redundancy, but the group in the Walking Dead don’t have this luxury.

The Harley Davidson

The Harley is probably a good idea for long road trips – I get the impression that these bikes are designed for comfort in long journeys. It also has the potential to carry a rider fairly comfortably on pillion, and carry a small amount of luggage, so is a good survival tool. But it suffers from the drawback that all motorbikes do: it’s uncovered, so dangerous. However, it lacks the advantages of other smaller bikes: it doesn’t have the speed, manoeuvrability and acceleration of a road bike, nor does it have the off road capabilities of an off-road bike. It’s also likely to be noisy and less fuel efficient than other bikes. What’s its use? If it is to be used for long range reconnaissance, a road bike – extremely fast, highly manoeuvrable and quieter – would be a better option, since it will be able to travel far ahead of the group in a short time, and escape any trouble. If short-range off-road scouting is necessary, then a standard farm bike would be better. This can be used to get through partially-obstructed regions (e.g. old road blocks and traffic jams) easily, is highly manoeuvrable so can be turned around quickly to escape sudden gangs of zombies, and can go off-road to investigate old houses and farms. In the hands of an experienced motor-crosser it can even potentially go over some obstacles, though at high risk. A Harley is only good for open-road cruising. But you can do that much, much more safely in a car, which at least has the advantage of seat belts.

The problem of redundancy and overloading

Another significant problem arises for this group from the combination of lack of redundancy and overloading of the Winnebago. If the Winnebago breaks down irreparably, the group will need to move all the stuff out of it into just two urban runabouts, which also need to transport all the people in the group. Short of the obvious solution – shooting Dale for the sanctimonious moralizing loser that he is and using his seat for storage – the group is going to face a hard choice between supplies and people, because their two small cars won’t have enough room for both. This choice is going to probably have to be made in a hurry, and will lead to the loss of a significant amount of important material. If one of the other runabouts dies, the problem is not so severe but they will be immediately forced to hunt for a new car, even if the only locally available cars are in very dangerous settings. They have no choice in this – if one of their runabouts fails and then the Winnebago breaks down in a dangerous place, they won’t have sufficient capacity to take the whole group to safety and will have to repair the Winnebago under pressure. Bad move.

Furthermore, lack of small vehicles means they don’t have the ability to circle the vehicles at night – not a perfect defense tactic but an important part of safe camping techniques. And of course, they don’t have a spare vehicle to use to block a street or set alight as a barrier.

The ideal road trip strategy

Cars offer the benefits of mobility, shelter and security. However, on a road trip one runs the risk of becoming stranded between locations with no source of supplies, so the key to any safe zombie apocalypse road trip is redundancy. Ideally you need lots of small cars with the following properties:

  • Fuel efficiency
  • Good storage space
  • Manoeuvrable
  • Easily pushed, for jump-starting or getting out of the way
  • Disposable
  • Easily accessible (four doors!)
  • Readily accessible spare parts

The thought of hooning along post-apocalyptic open roads in a Nissan Fairlady may appeal, but it has very few advantages. The group should choose cars that meet most of the above conditions, and ideally some of these vehicles should be able to be used as excess storage spaces, shelters, or hospital vehicles. Thus a good combination would be VW kombi vans (for space, shelter and repairability) or similar vans, four-door utilities (for storage and convertability), and older four-door hatchbacks. For the utes, ideally they would be the sort of ute that gets used as a “technical” by somali warlords – so an older Toyota or Subaru, something reliable and trustworthy that can use parts from any old car and can itself be cannibalized.

The group should have more vehicles than it needs to carry all its materials and all its people, and some of them (the kombi vans) should be sufficient to provide shelter and security in a pinch (bad weather, sudden unexpected zombie onset). All of them should be able to turn easily to get out of trouble, and be pushable by two adults. All the vehicles should carry enough supplies to be self-sufficient for a short time: basic materials for the engine (pipe, radiator, spark plug, battery, jump cables); a couple of days’ food; water; fuel; basic medical supplies. This means that if any one vehicle needs to be abandoned its contents can be stripped out quickly and moved to another vehicle, but can also be abandoned un-stripped without catastrophic loss of vital materials. All back seats should be left empty and the doors unlocked, for rapid transfer of people from broken cars in an emergency. The utes can be used to carry excess material that isn’t so important and can be dumped where necessary; the utes can also be used as emergency evacuation vehicles or even ambulances where things go wrong. All vehicles should be given a priority (High, Medium or Low) and this should be painted on bonnet and doors so that everyone knows which vehicle to head for if not all vehicles can be saved. The group should travel at the optimal speed for fuel efficiency, well spaced out, and stop regularly to rest and check maps – you never know when you might need to turn around, so it’s good for everyone in the group to be aware of potential hazards in the road behind. All vehicles should be driven with at most 2 people in them (to ensure redundancy) and single occupancy vehicles should be avoided – it’s not fuel efficient and it opens the risk of loss of communication. Ideally some kind of radio contact should be maintained between vehicles – hourly checking in, regular reports, etc.

All vehicles should also be fitted with a usable sharp piercing implement such as a sharpened iron spike by every door, so that zombies that break through window glass can be dealt with easily. When driving, everyone should wear seat belts – what’s the point of surviving the apocalypse only to die in a low-velocity car crash? Or worse, survive but be put down like a dog by your comrades because of a lack of suitable medical equipment to handle serious injuries… Finally, motorbikes should only be used if the group really sees a need for single-person reconnaissance. Otherwise they’re a dangerous luxury vehicle that should be avoided.

I think if a group follows these principles it will be able to survive longer on the open road and escape from even quite dangerous and pressing situations without significant lives or material. As it stands the group in The Walking Dead are one breakdown away from either losing a significant load of supplies and/or having to abandon people; or becoming lunch. Don’t make their mistakes, and instead adopt an industrial design approach to your post-apocalyptic convoy: share the load-bearing and ensure redundancy.

A note on the zombie road-trip of the future

As the world shifts to a low-carbon future, cars are going to become electric. In the further future they may even become robot driven. This means that sometime in the far future, the apocalypse will see a collapse from a much higher-tech society than we have now, to a much lower-tech society, with no pause in the Mad Max zone. Isn’t that interesting?



Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

I once ran a campaign in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, shortly after the war of the ring during the period when it could be reasonably imagined that elves were still present in Middle Earth, and the kingdom of Gondor was still recovering from the war. I imagined that this would be a fairly free and lawless time, when political powers would be jockeying for position in the new order, Orcs and Goblins would be in flight and causing trouble, and enterprising adventurers could make their fortune. But the main reason I chose the Fourth Age was simple: its politics and culture are not set in stone in the canon of Middle Earth, and so it is a more flexible setting for the types of campaign I like to run. My preferred campaigns involve a lot of base politics and the exercise of temporal power, as well as many of the banal consequences of the evil that ordinary men do. For some reason, setting a campaign in any of the prior ages of Middle Earth – the ones that had been written about extensively by a better world builder than me – felt like it would be blasphemous unless I a) stuck to the setting faithfully and b) made it somehow directly connected to the canonical events and movements of those stories. This kind of campaign could also be fun, but it’s not the kind of campaign I’m best at.

Though not at all an exercise in post-colonialism, what I was engaged in was of a similar flavour to the post-colonial project in literature: adding political and temporal context to a work from the canon that is already, essentially, set in stone. In my case the campaign rapidly evolved into a story involving a small group of elven fascists attempting to recreate the ancient elven kingdom of Lindon, at the expense of the Dunlendings with whom the people of Beleriand had made an uneasy truce. I also slowly reconceived the Dunlendings as simply politically “evil,” that is they had served Saruman only for the purpose of regaining ancestral land as a crude political calculation, and had no native sympathy for his evil visions (though they were far from a nice people in my retelling). So it did have elements of a classic post-colonial rewriting: giving a bad side to the “good” people, or re-examining their inherent goodness through a political and temporal lens; and giving a political or cultural explanation for the behavior of the evil savage, or attempting to explain the savages actions as if their story were of equal validity to that of the heroes in the original text.

Good examples of this type of post-colonial reworking of the canon are Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which attempts to give context to the “mad wife” of Jane Eyre; and the frontier stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard, such as Brumby Innes and Coonardoo, which attempt to tell the stories of the Australian outback with a sensitive eye to how they affected women and Aborigines, and without the usual rose-tinted glasses that were applied to the conquest of the Australian frontier in her time.

One common argument mounted against my claim that Tolkien’s work includes a strong racial essentialist element is that in fact none of the “evil” of the Easterlings and Southrons is inherited or racially inherent, and their alliance with Sauron is a purely cultural and political decision, perhaps driven by cold calculations about the value of the alliance and what they can gain, or driven by particular cultural features that make these peoples more likely to be sympathetic to Sauron’s claims to their loyalty than those of the people of the West. Good examples of such possible arguments might include, for example, tension over land rights in the areas east of Mirkwood, or Sauron claiming to restore old empires in Harad. I recall Tolkien himself implying (or stating) in The Two Towers that part of the reason the Dunlendings sided with Saruman was anger about being driven out of their land by the Rohirrim, so the precedent is there. Unfortunately, Tolkien wrote nothing at all about the events in Harad or the East during the Second and Third Ages, and the Easterlings and Southrons only feature in the Lord of the Rings when they rise against the people of the West – this is exactly the kind of role allotted to savages in colonial literature, as essentially culture-less lumpen opponents, with no story or voice of their own. Since we don’t know anything about the stories of these peoples, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the claim that their alliance with Sauron was simply a calculated political move rather than an innate property of their race.

But, the absence of a story for these peoples qualifies their regions of Middle Earth for the same treatment as I gave the fourth age: they’re a blank slate, there for their story to be explored by enterprising GMs or writers. I think their story would be an interesting one. How did Sauron corrupt them, and what political and cultural battles were being fought within the Empires of the South to decide who to follow and what to do? Did colonialism by the Numenoreans turn the Men of Darkness against the West? Was it something to do with their failure to receive the same birthright as the Men of the West. If the shadow of Morgoth is real, could the Men of Darkness fight against it and if so how did this manifest in their society? Were most Southrons inherently corrupted, but small kingdoms held out against them? Were their political currents opposed to working with Sauron? Did he present himself as an anti-colonialist, in a similar way to the Japanese in World War 2?

I think the general view amongst Tolkien’s fanboys is that his canon cannot be touched and reinterpretation is impossible, but role-playing doesn’t allow this view 100%: those who play in Middle Earth will always change it in some way. But the peoples of the South and East only enter the canon as two-dimensional faceless enemies, and so reinterpretation of their story need not affect the core of the work at all. I think a post-colonial rewriting of their story – to give the context and background for their alliance with Sauron – would be an interesting and entertaining phenomenon, whether done as a role-playing campaign or in fiction. I don’t know if it has been tried, and I guess many would disapprove, but it could also lead to a very interesting and rich gaming or reading experience.

This is a semi-sandbox adventure module for Warhammer 3rd Edition, and my god would it have been useful a year ago when I was running a semi-sandbox campaign in Ubersreik. My adventure even had Skaven, just like The Edge of Night. Though I think my approach to the skaven was better, my map definitely wasn’t, because The Edge of Night is a well-presented product, with a great deal of content.

The Edge of Night presents an adventure in the town of Ubersreik, based on a skaven conspiracy, against the backdrop of a political conflict between three noble families. To facilitate this adventure, the book provides background information on the town of Ubersreik sufficient to, essentially, ground an entire campaign in the setting. The adventure itself builds up to a climax that occurs at a ball held by one of the noble families, but the path by which the PCs can reach this ball is left open, with the adventure description making it clear to the GM that he or she has an almost infinite range of ways of handling the PCs progress to this ball. In order to facilitate the adventure, the book contains a map of the town, with key locations described not just in terms of their contents, but their relationship to the three noble families, and a couple of rumours at each location that may or may not be relevant to the adventure. These rumours can open up into whole other adventures if the GM wants to do the work, or can be dead ends or red herrings or clues to the adventure plot. This gives the GM an almost infinite amount of time to track the main adventure; or if he or she wishes, to have the events of the main adventure happen anyway if the PCs fail to get in tune with it, which leaves the PCs having to deal with the fallout. It also means that the adventure setting essentially can be turned into a campaign setting with a bit of extra work, which means that you’re getting a lot of value out of your 56 page module (and this is important with Warhammer 3, because the products aren’t cheap).

A key part of the build up to the adventure is the development of patronage with one of the noble families, and as is typical with a WFRP 3 product, the designers have developed the progress tracker/party sheet mechanism to include a system of patronage. Basically, each noble house provides its own “family sheet,” which the PCs advance along according to how their actions affect the noble family. As they advance, they gain recognition, an invitation to the ball, and finally patronage. Each house has its own traits and allies, and each family sheet provides benefits in the form of a talent accessible to the whole party when they achieve patronage. Because the map describes which locations contain people sympathetic to specific houses, it is easy for the PCs exploration of the town to lead to opportunities for patronage. Furthermore, the adventure itself contains a few simple encounters for the GM to use to offer advances along the family sheet. Patronage is valuable in its own right, so the family sheet is of use if the GM decides only to use the town as a campaign setting; or, if the GM decides to deepen the political intrigues, the patronage system could be useful in helping to place the PCs on particular sides of political and military conflict, possibly without their having realized what is happening. The family sheet is a good example of the way Fantasy Flight Games have developed a flexible mechanic and found ways to extend it to cover a wide range of possible contexts. It’s a creative idea.

Like other modules, The Edge of Night comes with a wide range of suggestions on how to lure the PCs into the adventure, including but not limited to references to other modules. It also comes with a set of new cards (actions and magic for skaven), new adventure locations, new cardboard standups, and the new mechanic for patronage. I don’t use the standups in this system very much at all (I’ve never been able to incorporate miniatures into my gaming) but the patronage mechanic is useful not just in its own right, but as yet another example of the versatility of the progress chart mechanic, which I thoroughly recommend to all gamers.

I would go so far as to say that The Edge of Night, in addition to providing a fairly complete setting and an interesting adventure, is easily as good as the classic warhammer settings, but with the addition of some very nice descriptions of, and mechanics for handling, political tensions between families in the world. I think this aspect of the game makes it possibly on a par with the classic warhammer modules, and reaffirms for me that WFRP 3 is providing a lot of new and interesting ideas for both Warhammer and for role-playing games generally. I’m hoping to set up a gaming group during the next year, and I will be aiming to run a campaign in Ubersreik with the material in this module. I think that, even if you are planning on sticking to WFRP 2, this module could provide some useful material for your campaign, as well as a complete setting. It’s another example of Fantasy Flight Games’ commitment to high quality work, and to maintaining the authentic feel of the warhammer setting.

… in Japanese, for my work. Yesterday a group of 40 first year high school students came to my department from Soma City, a town in the tsunami-affected region of Tohoku. I’m not sure why, perhaps as a quid pro quo for research we’re doing up there, but they were brought down for the afternoon and as part of the day’s events we organized them a two hour workshop on Global Health Policy. How do you do this for a bunch of bored 16 year olds? My department’s students, being very much closer in time to bored 16 year olds than me, managed to come up with a cunning scheme. After an initial greeting, they divided the students into eight countries, and set them a role-playing task based on public health.

The task: the students had to imagine they were representatives of their country at the UN. A new disease, “Disease X”, has been identified and declared an international emergency, and they have to decide what their country is going to do about it. Each group was assigned a “policy advisor” from the country in question – i.e. one of the students or staff – and where necessary a Japanese graduate student to help translate. They were given background information on all the countries in the room, including a few salient details about the country that might be relevant to the disease. Then the properties of the disease were explained. Disease X was in fact tuberculosis, so the basic properties were:

  • one third of the world population is affected
  • Treatment takes 6 – 9 months
  • Vaccines are only effective in children
  • It’s potentially fatal
  • It is transmitted by coughing and sneezing

Because there weren’t enough grad students to go around, me and my student from Hong Kong (whose Japanese is very good) were given our groups without a single translator – the grad student who organized the session was nearby and could come over if we had any trouble. Our task was to guide our students to a plan for what to do, in 20 minutes, including time to write up the intervention on a shared presentation (conferenced through google).

The Plan: The background for Australia gave the students the salient numbers about Disease X (low incidence, low prevalence, low death rate) and the key aspects of Australia’s health challenges, which were high migrant inflows, inequality in health between Aborigines and non-Aborigines, and inequality in health between urban and rural areas. In fact, I had downloaded an article from the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health that makes these differences pretty clear: incidence in Australia is 5.4 per 100,000, but in native Australians[1] is 0.9, and in new migrants and Aborigines 6.6. Also in some parts of Australia it is even higher amongst Aborigines, as high as 13 times the rate for non-Aboriginal Australians.

My students didn’t have these detailed figures, only the bullet points highlighting Australian health challenges, and they immediately fixed on migration as a possible key driver of the disease. I had already told them about the three possible levels they could intervene (regional, national, international) and so, when they settled on migration as the challenge I asked them whether they would do national or international-level interventions. After a bit of debate they decided that there’s no point in trying to better control it at the border if the disease is going gangbusters overseas, so they decided to focus on development work in countries with high rates. They then started scrabbling through the country descriptions, comparing incidence and prevalence, and found the two countries with the highest incidence. Once they had identified which one had higher immigration rates to Australia (Bangladesh, made up by me on the spot – I guess the immigration rate is higher than Nigeria but I really don’t know), they examined the challenges written on the Bangladesh country sheet. One of the key ones was lack of access to healthcare amongst the poor, so they decided to send doctors and medicine to Bangladesh, in collaboration with local doctors (I had to point out this detail).

They actually decided on Bangladesh because (in their words) there’s no value to Australia in providing aid to a country it has no migration connection with, so it’s better to spend the money a country where the aid will benefit both countries. This may seem harsh, but it means they recognized a basic principle of tackling inequality (whether global or local) that I try to focus on in my work: with infectious diseases, there is a significant benefit to the community as a whole from reducing inequality by targeting those worse off, since the people with the highest disease incidence are also the ones who will drive the epidemic. By recognizing this they had identified a key difference between targeting those easiest to reach (who usually have the least problems) and those hardest to reach (and having the most benefit both in that group and in the community as a whole).

Once they had done this I told them the statistics on incidence amongst Aborigines, and pointed out that they didn’t necessarily need to look to Bangladesh to target a group that might be vectors for the disease. But actually rates of TB are much, much higher in Bangladesh than in Aboriginal Australians, so they probably ultimately made the right choice.

So, 20 minutes of group work, largely free of railroading by me, and my students had managed to come up with a fairly reasonable intervention plan that might even have some chance of working, and mostly through their own efforts to analyze the data in front of them – and this was their first ever experience of thinking about public health. It wasn’t entirely sandbox-y, but close enough – you can’t run a completely open session in 20 minutes. All but one of the other tables completed their work on time, and I like to think that this is at least partly because in our planning session the day before I gave a few basic pointers to the grad students about how to GM. I didn’t tell them they were GMing, of course, but that’s what they were basically learning how to do.

The denouement: Once the groups had all presented their results, one of the grad students gave a 10 minute presentation on what disease X really is – TB – and the important role Japan has played in developing prevention strategies. He then gave an overview of international health and our role in it, and one of the high school students gave a very cute bouncy speech – in English! – thanking us for the experience. It was all very cute and effective, and the students seemed genuinely happy to have solved the world’s problems in 20 minutes.

Reforming the WHO: Now, many people might have criticisms of the WHO, and might have expected that if our High School students were genuinely going to role-play a WHO experience, they would all sit down and refuse to compromise, and ultimately come up with a wishy washy motherhood statement that enabled every student to go home and make empty promises to their families[2]. They didn’t do this! So this leads to three possible suggestions for ways to reform the WHO:

  1. Send the students from Soma City to the WHO and give them 20 minutes to solve the world’s problems
  2. Send the grad students from my department, whose boundless energy is truly a wonder to behold, and whose ability to ignore the magnitude of actual barriers to implementing a plan, and just do it anyway, is quite amazing
  3. Teach the current representatives at the WHO how to role-play, so they can come to solutions more efficiently

Which would be most successful? I’m guessing suggestion 1…

A well-rounded Graduate Education: I’m sad to report that the students of my department, though great in many ways, lack all the fundamental principles of a well-rounded classical education. None of them have watched Star Wars or Aliens, they don’t even know what role-playing is, and the primary texts necessary for a good understanding of public health – Lord of the Rings, Bladerunner, Conan – are not in their curriculum. How can they assess a problem if they haven’t been taught the critical skills outlined in the clash between good and evil in Star Wars? How can they be qualified to research women’s health without the basic grounding in feminism provided by Aliens? How shallow is one’s understanding of the human condition if one hasn’t been led to consider one’s basic humanity through the eyes of Deckard in Bladerunner, and indeed – how can they properly comprehend the real social and political impact of shortened life expectancy if they haven’t heard Roy Batty’s final speech? My god, at the end of the presentation they were reduced to quoting from a completely peripheral text by Jeffrey D Sachs. But I like to hope that yesterday they learnt a little bit about how to GM, so I’ve gone one small step towards laying the groundwork for a proper classical education. We’ll see if I can get them through the other texts by the end of their degree.

In fact, it’s essential, since they won’t understand my jokes until they have watched those movies …

fn1: since the early 80s, Australia has had a principle of not recording race on census and hospital forms. Instead, we record country of birth, so anyone who is a second generation Australian is recorded as “Australian.” We also record language spoken at home, and Aboriginality, but when we talk about “Australians” we don’t identify race. Eventually, one hopes, Aboriginality will also be able to be dropped from hospital records, but that’s a long time coming.

fn2: This is unduly harsh on the WHO. I know bashing international institutions is like shooting fish in a barrel, but actually the WHO does some pretty good work, in e.g. polio eradication, disaster response, handling outbreaks like SARS, etc. They may not be the best model or the best institution, but given their circumstances they’re doing an okay job, I think

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?

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

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

Tripods are for Pussies

Iceland, where elves and volcanoes meet a high-tech viking society with a history that blends into myth. I visited for 4 days, and I was enchanted.

I went to Iceland because my partner has always wanted to go to Iceland, and I was in London for two weeks for work so it seemed like a good idea for us to go. Of course, I’d also heard things about Iceland as inspiration for myth and legend, and as perhaps the last living repository of the kind of stories that inspired Tolkien. Iceland is a christian society, but it’s clear as well that the Icelandic people retain a strong connection with their folklore, and like all successful implementations of christianity, the Icelandic church has made sure that it appropriates, or deals flexibly with, the pre-christian forces in Icelandic culture. I don’t think you can go past the excellent documentary Screaming Masterpiece as an example of the careful blend of the fantastic and the religious in shaping Icelandic culture (in this case, their music), and the result of all this blending is a fascinatingly different island that on the surface is completely accessible to your average uncultured Australian – everyone speaks English, the place looks and behaves like a chilly version of an Australian country town[1], even the landscape is strangely familiar – but is at the same time intoxicatingly different.

Here are a few of my observations on Iceland, based on four days in the country (and thus thoroughly authoritative) with pictures.

Icelanders do Churches Better than You

Could you pray here?

The Churches in Iceland are amazing. I’m guessing this is a unique combination of the nordic sense of design, the Pagan sense of the joy of devotion (as opposed to its dour protestant alternative) and a peculiar Icelandic appreciation of the joys of light and airy spaces. The main church in Reykjavik is a joy to behold, and also has an amazing organ; but I passed many other beautiful churches in Iceland during my brief time there. The stained glass depicted below is from Skaraholt, the church that the bishop of Iceland occupied for many years before he moved to Iceland, and this is now rebuilt as a cultural monument; it is designed in every way to maximize the light available to its worshippers.

Icelandic Disco Jesus wants You, Baby

When I go to London I’m always struck by the difference between Britain and other Northern European countries – British people squat in the cold dark eating their own young, while Scandinavians build houses with enormous windows to catch every bit of available light, and also make good coffee by default – and Iceland has extended this tradition to churches. British churches are splendid in their architecture, but dark and cold and silent (and sometimes grim) inside; Icelandic churches are not so splendid (though their design is beautiful) but they are brilliant and airy inside. I blame this on the elves.

A Land on the Edge of the Earth

You genuinely feel, in Iceland, that you are on the edge of the world. You could go the same distance away from the equator in the opposite direction, to New Zealand, and you will feel like you’re in a country that isn’t, to quote a great man, on the raggedy edge. But Iceland is a country where you really feel like civilization stops beyond your porch. It’s the kind of country where anything imported is genuinely expensive, where the population is so small that they endure monopolies (including import monopolies!) on products we take for granted. A country that could not grow its own fruit until the 1930s, when they designed their first geothermally heated greenhouses. This is a country that has traditionally eschewed the death penalty, because the worst possible penalty to an Icelander is exile – in Iceland, exile means you take ship for a new land or you die.

A Parliament So Old it is Myth

Cast your vote into the rift

Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, was formed in 980 AD, and is the oldest extant parliament on earth. The early years of the parliament are recorded in the Book of Settlements, a book so unreliable that scholars have rejected its description of Iceland’s natural environment; the parliament itself is so old that no one is 100% sure of where the famous Law Rock was placed, though they have a good idea. For the rest of the world, this is like not knowing where the Speaker of Parliament sits, or where the president lives. And democracy was no easy task for the early Icelanders, either: the parliament was held every year in the gap between the Asian and American tectonic plates, in a gradually sinking zone called the Thingvellir, which was in the geographical centre of Iceland but was a good two weeks’ march from many communities. How’s that for getting out the vote!

A Land of Astounding Vistas

When glaciers run to the sea

The countryside in Iceland is breathtaking, and very changeable. It has deserts of volcanic rock, plains of lichen, little forests of stunted and hardy trees, mountains, glaciers, farmlands and waterfalls all in a few hours drive. The open spaces, compounded by the clear air, give the feeling of vast openness that all Australians are familiar with, and some of the colours are the same; but it also reproduces the russets, yellows and reds of a British autumn in its mosses and lichens, with mountains, glaciers and volcanoes glittering icily on the far horizon, further than you’ve ever seen in your life before. This is countryside to inspire legends.

Environmental Purity is Underrated

How's the tranquility?

I had never experienced an environment as pure as Iceland’s before. With such a low population density, and entirely renewable energy, as well as Atlantic winds to carry away vehicle fumes, Iceland’s air and water is clean in a way that most of the rest of the world has probably forgotten is possible. You can see further than you thought possible on a sunny day, and the rivers and streams are so clear they’re almost not there. There’s also very little noise in most of the country I explored – just you and the sky, and the ever-present wind. I think until you experience a genuinely pure environment, you don’t realize what you’ve been missing – just as, until you experience a genuinely low-crime society you don’t realize how horrible living with the threat of crime really is.

Role-playing Inspirations

All of these properties make Iceland a really inspiring place to visit for your average nerd, and also a very useful source of ideas and source material. I’ll be revisiting this in a subsequent post…


fn1: minus the restrictive gender stereotypes and dogs called “blue,” of course[2]

fn2: I should do a blogpost on my Australian Deliverance moment, really

Commenter Paul suggested that a Harry Potter RPG would be limited by the problem of knowing the characters and the world too much, in his words:

1. You’re stuck playing a game where the grandest things that can happen are the books and your characters a left with a feast of crumbs. Harry Potter is facing Voldemort! Can you keep the Dementors from the folk of Hogsmeade while he saves the world?! Or
2. You avoid the Harry Potter setting either in time or location, but these strip the familiar elements from the novels and rob you of the reason you’re playing it in the first place. Or
3. You play Harry and friends, but you already know the plot that you’re playing through

I think this is a similar problem to the kinds of situations you’d run into with, for example, a Dresden game or a LoTR RPG (or Dragonlance, as Paul noted). I’ve got around this in LoTR by choosing option 2), for example – and once ran a LoTR game where the players did 1), in Mordor – they were captured soldiers just trying to escape while the war of the ring continued somewhere far away. There’s no reason to think that the problem couldn’t be surmounted in a Harry Potter RPG.

So here’s some ideas for two different layers of a Harry Potter RPG.

For Younger Children

You could have quite an entertaining little game getting up to hijinks in Hogwarts itself – it’s virtually a sandbox campaign if you want to play it that way, but there are specific inter-house rivalries and shenanigans that can play out against quite a deadly backdrop. I did this for a group of schoolkids I was GMing in Japan, having them start in their school club house and save the town of Matsue from a demon-conjuring older student[2]. You could set up a kind of Ars Magica style of multiple-PC setting, where all the PCs are from the same house, but with different (house-specific) skills, and perhaps with the players having a starting preference. Then, for different challenges in Hogwarts you choose your PCs to match. Maybe there isn’t even a death option, but if something goes horribly wrong you don’t die, you get Dumbledored: one of the teachers turns up and saves you, but then you’re in detention and suffer an xp penalty, or you have to play a different member of your school’s house while you wait for your previous member to get out of detention. Also the goal of some adventures could be mischief against older kids, and you could even define a term or school-year timing process, so that at the end of a fixed number of adventures all the students gain a level; the amount of individual adventuring the kids did in their year partially determines how much they gain from their year’s education (so you tie the adventuring to doing better in school). Thus a good campaign arc also follows the arc of the stories across multiple years; you could have event tables for the summer holidays and for the school as a whole that follow a Make You Kingdom kind of style. This gives the game a more campaign-y, abstracted style, with the players not having to care about getting too bogged down in individual PCs and getting to fully explore the environs of Hogwarts (and maybe it’s a different Hogwarts each time, if enough random tables are used). They can move onto the hard stuff as they get older.

For “Young Adults”

(To be said in a yobby English accent, while dancing[1]). Here the game gets darker and more focussed, with a more intensive character generation process and the assumption that the stories will involve only one PC each, in a more traditional style (we’re making a gateway drug here, remember – we need these kids to grow up and head over to the rest of the RPG world). So they can die or get injured, can carry psychological baggage with them (they’re teenagers, so there should be a lot of psychological baggage tables!) and they can come from multiple houses, with the possibility that they’re working for the interests of their own house as much as the group. This style of gaming can allow for hidden magic, forbidden magic, secret exits to town, wandering monsters in and outside Hogwarts, and the possibility of statting-up and fighting some of the teachers, who of course have their own agenda. It could also allow for post-graduation adventures, and the possibility that the PCs go on missions or quests either during or after their training – basically using Hogwarts, the Ministry of Magic and the strict rules of the Harry Potter world to construct a standard exploration/adventure campaign – with some additional mechanics for teenage angst, and a lot of cool narrative tricks for avoiding death, and for deus ex machina-type GM interventions (via Dumbledore). In fact, student-teacher relations could act as a kind of resource in the game, which would encourage players to hide their PCs shenanigans from teachers.

I reckon that could be a lot of fun. There are fun spells from the books, monsters, lost secrets, there’d be pocket dimensions and monsters and forbidden potions and shagging behind the broomstick sheds – who wouldn’t love it? But in progressing through the system the innocent Harry Potter fans learn to love role-playing, and then at some point they think “ooh, I can do this in a world of my own invention!” and then we have a million new converts to our hobby.


fn1: gratuitous Young Ones reference!
fn2: looking back on that post, the note I left the students as a clue really should have had a classic English translation of Japanese like “Let’s enjoy summoning a Demon together!!!!”