You entrusted your money to people who eat smoked guillemot?

You entrusted your money to people who eat smoked guillemot?

I was in the UK in 2008 and 2009 when the Icesave banking disaster happened, and the UK government rushed to use anti-terrorism legislation to try and protect the money of British investors. There were something like 300,000 “ordinary” British and Dutch investors with money in Icesave accounts, and when the disaster happened all but the first 20,000 pounds or so were not protected by deposit insurance, so the UK government acted to try and protect the full deposits of the savers. I remember this clearly [although, probably not details of dates and money amounts] because one of my colleagues at the time had 120,000 pounds parked in such an account, the proceeds of selling her house, and was looking forward to using the money – inflated by the high interest – to buy her next one, and she was understandably distraught when she woke up to discover it had vanished into volcanic smoke.

I also remember at the time that there was a lot of anger in the British public, not only at Iceland, but also at the British government for guaranteeing the deposits of people who were basically risking their money to get a higher rate of return. I often heard the refrain “they knew the risks” and many people pointed out at the time that higher interest rates usually correspond with higher risk, and these people could have had their money protected if they had taken more reasonable risks in a UK bank. This rhetoric probably wasn’t based entirely in fact, since British deposits weren’t fully guaranteed, and the UK government had to rush to assure large deposits in Northern Rock after it failed[1], but the general rhetorical principle was correct, British banks were safer than Iceland banks and had a correspondingly lower rate of return. The question was asked: should we bail out people who knew the risks they were taking? (Incidentally, I didn’t actually know at that time that a slightly higher rate of interest in a country that I assumed had good banking laws was a sign of higher risk; as a result of the rhetoric of that period I reassessed my involvement in an ING online account that is now defunct).

I can’t easily find articles online from the time that say these things, but I don’t think my memory is wrong. This comment by an academic from McGill University (Canada) makes the point that investors should wear the risk; this blog roundup suggests that many economists thought it was right for Iceland to refuse to protect investors, and indeed Christine Lagarde of the IMF thought Iceland took the right approach. I can’t find any articles directly demanding that deposit holders should carry their risk, but I do remember it being a commonly-stated view at the time, and the view that Iceland did the “right thing” by telling investors to take a haircut is well-accepted, I think, as is the view that it has recovered better than those economies that did not. A subsidiary view, that deposit insurance creates moral hazard, is widely broadcast I think and is consistent with the idea that if you want to get a high rate of return on your deposit you need to be willing to accept the risk that you will lose it, pour encourage les autres. So I don’t think I’m wrong about this perspective and how it was broadcast at the time even if I can’t find written evidence.

The idea that “investors” should wear the risk they take when chasing big profits seems completely reasonable, until one remembers that in this case the investors (and ultimately the creditors) for Icesave included depositors, that is ordinary people who put money in a high-risk/high-return account hoping for a short term gain. It seemed at the time that a lot of people were comfortable with the idea that creditors should just put up with their haircut, and depositors “knew the risks.”

So it’s interesting to compare this rhetoric with the rhetoric surrounding Greece’s recent troubles. Much of the rhetoric about Greece focuses on its profligacy, the easy-spending nature of the Greeks, their corruption, their crazy ideas that they could just keep taking on more debt and spending it however they want. You don’t see much rhetoric (or at least, I haven’t) questioning why people were willing to lend them all this money, and why their creditors are now so heavily exposed. Remember that for every debtor there is a creditor, and the creditor wouldn’t be lending the money if they didn’t want to, i.e. if they weren’t benefiting from it. When Icesave collapsed the greedy motives of the creditors (and, implicitly or explicitly, the depositors who make up a certain proportion of those creditors) was front and centre in the debate, but it’s strangely absent from the Greek debate. We know that in the early stages of its crisis Greece had to take on a lot of public debt to bail out banks that were in trouble; at the time of writing it appears that private debt constitutes about 60bn euros of Greece’s total, which would have been about 30% of the total debt before the collapse. Why were these people lending money to a country that was cooking its books, had apparently obviously unsustainable pension and welfare systems, and an entire population that we are now told were slurping up ouzo down by the beach rather than working 12 hour days like Germans? These creditors didn’t have to lend this money, they could have bought German bonds or Iranian nuclear futures or something more solid and reliable. They loaned money to Greece because up until the crisis Greece’s economy was growing faster than anywhere else in Europe, everyone wanted a slice of that golden Greek sunshine, and basically they thought they could make their motza[2] and get out before the whole shebang went tits-up. i.e., they were greedy. Yet nowhere do we hear tell of their greediness – even though at the same time as their golden goose was turning barren, Icesave depositors were copping flak in the press and the public for being greedy and reckless.

Why is that?

We also shouldn’t stop with these faceless private lenders, who are no doubt lounging around in a gold-plated yacht off some private Greek Island, fluffy white cat firmly en-lapped. We can also wonder why none of this rhetoric of recklessness extends to the dour and responsible Germans. Germany has 60bn Euros sunk in the Greek project, and it is earning a healthy rate of interest. Germany, the country that has never paid its debts, the ultimate trust fund kid, is now strangely insistent on Greece paying its debts, and no one anywhere is questioning why Germany is so exposed to the economy of a country it has deplored as reckless, irresponsible, intransigent and wayward (indeed, worse than Iran if we are to judge by their negotiating results). A handful of eurozone countries have something north of 200 bn Euros sunk into the Greek project, and we now know that they are making a lot of money from this little act of charity: the Guardian’s live blog today tells us that David Cameron is contemplating demanding some of the 1.9bn Euros in profit that the ECB has made from its loans to Greece (though it doesn’t tell us over what period that profit was made). How come this fact – that the eurozone lenders are making fat scads of cash – is not being broadcast widely, as the Icesave depositors’ greedy winnings were being broadcast in 2008? Instead of this morality play, we are constantly reminded that the German taxpayer doesn’t want to have to cough up his or her hard-earned dollars to cover Greek mistakes. Yet right now the German taxpayer is making money from this debacle, so shouldn’t we be instead asking why the German taxpayer tolerates his or her government sinking 60bn Euros into a high-risk, high short-term profit venture in junk bonds? Germany is a responsible country, we’re told, whose taxpayers don’t take risks – at the same time as the media carefully avoids reporting on the big money Germany stands to make if Greece doesn’t default.

The situations aren’t exactly the same of course, and people could argue that the eurozone nations didn’t have a choice – they aren’t loaning this money because they want to, the poor darlings, they’re doing it to save Greece and the euro project. But they did have choices, many choices: they could have told those (primarily French and German) banks to fail, as Iceland did, back at the beginning of the crisis; they could have rushed through some changes to the welfare transfers in the EU to ensure that Greece received direct payments rather than loans[3]; they could have printed money and handed it to the banks, as the UK and US did; they could have raised debt in their own countries, which are much less financially at risk, and provided it as a grant or something; they could have told Greece to find the money on private money markets. But they didn’t, they chose to lend money to Greece on terms that just happen to deliver them large profits – profits that are likely larger than they could have got from e.g. buying each others’ government bonds, or investing in the kind of low-return portfolios that would be politically acceptable to their electorates. And it just so happens that, since they control the mechanism by which Greece generates the repayments of those debts, they are able to turn the screws to ensure the money keeps coming – unlike those investors in Icelandic banks, who have no direct means of control over Icelandic politics and economy (and anyone from Britain who is old enough to know about the Cod Wars should surely know how hard it is to control Iceland!)

And all while this was going on, we were being told about how irresponsible ordinary depositors were to put their money in a bank that had a high interest rate. It’s almost as if the morality underlying the rhetoric depends entirely on the people who took the risks …

Fn1: Northern Rock was then run by famous climate change denialist Matt Ridley, which one should always remember when one is considering how far our modern banks have sunk, and how much one should trust the risk assessment abilities of climate change denialists.

Fn2: This is a Greek word, trust me, I’m Australian so I know Greek slang

Fn3: Something you might argue is hard to do, but it appears that today the leaders of the ESMF have been able to magic up 20 billion euros from the Common Agricultural Policy, in order to find a way to provide rapid finance without leaning on the ECB[4]

Fn4: Which makes one wonder, doesn’t it? Have these people been listening to the Greek government when it tells them how fucked it is? Had they not noticed? They just spent two days arguing with a Greek dude about whether to give him any money, and after they agree they find they don’t have any mechanism to provide the money, and he needs it now and he’s been telling them that for weeks! Perhaps instead of spending that two days arguing, they could have spent it more productively looking for their wallet.

A novel I picked up in (surprise!) Iceland, Zombie Iceland is exactly what it says, no more and no less. It’s the tale of a group of survivors in Iceland after a mysterious gas explosion at a local geothermal powerplant turns the good folk of Reykjavik into Zombies, written by a journalist and comedian called Nanna Arnadottir. The book is billed on its official website as a kind of kooky travel guide, and certainly contains a lot of interesting information (in footnotes) about Iceland, which is cool. In addition to wanting to give foreigners information about her country, Ms. Arnadottir seems to have an excellent nerdish pedigree, according to her website:

The Nannasaurus is a small, bipedal nerdivorous dinosaur of the Theropoda genus native to Reykjavík, Iceland.

The Nannasaurus’ distinctive features include small feet, tiny nose, as well as a decent rack and a sizable brain.

The Nannasaurus’ diet predominantly consists of horror films, fantasy books, kókómjólk and whales tears.

It is widely agreed among respectable scholars that the Nannasaurus’ dream is to own a pet Taun Taun and make goats cheese in her basement.

Also she has a blog, though it doesn’t seem to be much in use.

The basic theme of the book is your standard zombie fare: outbreak happens, people have to survive. The particular points that make it interesting are that a) it is set in Iceland – particularly, in Iceland, so that individual streets and place names are given, and we even encounter a zombie Bjork – b) it sets the zombification in a particularly modern context and c) the lead character is self-consciously Zombie Aware: her childhood was spent playing a kind of zombie preparation LARP with her dad, so their house is basically set up for a zombie plague and she has prepared herself for the inevitable…

Which when you think about it is completely reasonable. There’s no chance of people in the modern world seeing the shambling dead in their street and not understanding the context: as a material threat, the zombie plague is not going to win through unpreparedness. So the lead character, Barbara, has a “bug-out-bag,” a kind of survival backpack; and she and her dad have stocked their basement with food and an old generator, and even considered survival tactics. Unfortunately, they haven’t factored in the behavior of her antisocial sister Loa, or her idiot brother Jonsi.

The book proceeds on this basis, and follows all the usual tropes, except that they happen in Iceland and are interspersed with a range of footnotes describing Icelandic life. There is also a moment of Icelandic cultural insertion, where one of the characters’ deaths is described in a classic Icelandic poetic form. But this book’s biggest contribution to the zombie genre is its incorporation of this self-referentialism into the story. Everyone knows what a zombie is, no one is going to be surprised by zombification, and there is a lot of debate about the particulars of zombie science. This is what I expect would happen. Furthermore, there is a chapter in which the zombie plague is tracked through facebook updates, which is exactly what one expects would happen in a modern plague. Google are no doubt already tracking flu alerts in googleplus, and I bet they’re keeping an eye out for zombie alerts too.

Unfortunately, these good points are somewhat impaired by the fact that the book is terribly written and one of the main characters, Loa, is completely awful. Kind of fun awful, but awful. This makes it kind of hard going at times. It’s a short book, however, and the zombie plague self-referentialism makes it interesting, as does the comedy aspect, so if you’re interested in spending 3000 ISK on a badly written book that has some interesting new ideas to add to the zombie-lite (Zlit?) genre, then I recommend it. Otherwise, you can probably skip it…

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

I made two trips to see the Northern Lights, because the first was unsuccessful. During the first, unsuccessful trip, our guide was a cheerful middle-aged Icelander who seemed to have a great love for the Northern Lights. Our tour guides on both nights gave us an explanation of the science underlying the phenomenon and on the first night our guide was particularly interested in explaining the details. He was halfway through describing the role sunspots play in generating charged particles when our bus passed a pair of large rocks on the side of the road, and he broke off his explanation to tell us about the other half of Icelandic natural lore, with a tale of the elves who lived in the rocks.

The elves and the motorway
When the motorway was built it was only two lanes wide, so in the ’70s it had to be widened. The process of widening the road would have put the two huge rocks squarely in the median strip between the two sides of the road, and this would be a huge problem. The rocks were home to a couple of elves, and it would be unseemly to expect them to cross the motorway. The rocks would have to be moved. So, as any sensible road-building company would, the engineers called in a local resident with knowledge of elves, and she (?) gave them the advice they needed to move the rocks outside the motorway in a sufficiently respectful manner. Our guide explained to us that “only” about 20% of Icelanders believe in elves, but the rest of Icelandic society respects this belief and try wherever possible to be respectful around places where elves are believed to live “as if we were in someone else’s garden.”

He then went on to explain the effect of charged particles on the excitation states of atoms, and the role of valence band transition in determining the colour of the aurora. Once he had got through that he gave some theories the Icelandic people came up with to explain the aurora before the advent of atomic science. They actually came charmingly close: one theory held that the aurora was caused by glaciers re-radiating light captured during the day. But my favorite theory, which he explained on the way home, links the aurora with the milky way and Viking religion, and I think includes a much nicer explanation for the milky way than the greeks gave us.

The winter road
Icelanders call the milky way the “winter road,” because it is only visible in winter. This is because of the high longitude, but actually when we saw it the milky way was stunning, really like a road paved with stars rather than a faint smattering of stars (of course you can’t see it at all in Tokyo[1]). So the early Vikings saw this and imagined that the Winter Road was the path that their warriors took to Valhalla. They then guessed that the Valkyrie met the warriors halfway, and the Northern Lights are the reflection of the valkyrie’s radiance from the warriors’ armour.

I think that’s much more romantic than milk sprayed from a jealous goddess’s breast. Iceland itself is a romantic, wild and majestic place, and its history seems to merge with myth in some ways, lending its politics and culture a similar air of romance. I’ll be saying more about this soon, and also talking about historical Iceland as a role-playing setting.

fn1: actually the clarity of light in Iceland and the purity of the water really is stunning, and has me thinking that we who live in more polluted countries really underestimate the value of clean air. In the debate about nuclear power, for example, opponents of nukes tend to assign clean air a very low value in their arguments, even though air pollution is a significant cause of mortality. Iceland with it’s entirely renewable power system, low population density, and atlantic winds to blow away car exhausts, has incredibly clean air and water, and it’s noticeable as soon as you arrive here. It’s amazing, actually.

Standing on a frozen plain under the milky way, listening to Sigur Ros and watching great shimmering sheets of light dance across the sky in gossamer waves. That’s why I came to Iceland!