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?

To the Island of Madness…

Summer is nearly here, and I’ve been longing for that great mass of super-heated air to roll in off the Pacific and turn this whole island into a sauna, because since April I’ve had few chances to blog, role-play or really do anything except work, work work. I’ve been teaching to what the Japanese would call a “hard schedule” and finding it hard to keep work out of my private life, so blogging, role-playing and in fact pretty much everything else have fallen by the wayside. This Thursday my students sit their stats exam, and I get to cast off the restraints of my course and (hopefully) get my weekends back, which means – after 3 months in Tokyo – that I can finally start role-playing. This time around I’m going to give the Japanese-language gaming a miss (it’s hard work and I don’t have the time!) but I’m thinking of two campaigns that I really want to run:

For the latter, I think I might set it up as a semi-sandbox, with all the adventure ideas I wrote about in the post on Svalbard, plus a fair number of open possibilities. I’ve never done a Compromise and Conceit sandbox, but in my experience small islands are perfect for it. I will use Warhammer 3 (unadjusted) for Svalbard, because I think that Warhammer 3 is quite suited to the Compromise and Conceit world. It has dark gods, madness, chaos, and character classes quite suited to the setting. I may need to make some small changes but I reckon I can just fit it all together without much trouble.  Make You Kingdom will be easy because the rules are simple and it’s quite easy to read (comparatively speaking!) so I think I will start on that first (once I have a group!) I’m going to start translating bits over the next few weeks, and will put some up here (I hope).

I’m going to London in September for a course, so I hope to meet the previous group who played Compromise and Conceit with me (except Paul, who buggered off to Oz) and run a one-shot Make You Kingdom session with them… laughs! So practice in Japan would be good. But first I need to reduce my workload, and in the meantime I have to return to Beppu for a week to collect my stupid cat, which probably means not much posting for at least another two weeks. But it will be nice to be able to return to the RPG world after a 5 month break.

I don’t know if this happens to other people, but I find that I go through phases with RPGs. I spend a long time on an intense project, then kind of take a break after it finishes/ everyone goes overseas[1]. For the first few months of the break I don’t miss it; I find myself wondering “will I decide this time never to go back to it; to put up these childish things?” but then after a few months more I just naturally gravitate back to it, with new ideas and focus, and another round of crazy satanism begins. And so I find it happening again. For 3 months of my new Tokyo life I didn’t miss it, but now that things are settled and the craziness is about to subside, I’m itching to throw a polar bear at a priest.

What can you do, but go with your natural desires?

fn1: When I was younger, this would commonly happen in my friendship groups in Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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