Sunday, March 31, 2019

An Introduction to the Viking Age

Illustration by Angus McBride of the death of Olaf Tryggvason
 from "The Vikings" written by Ian Heath 

Luke Gearing has been blogging a little about a Viking campaign and it's got me excited. As readers of this blog may guess, I may have a more than passing interest in Scandinavian culture and the Viking Age. Though Luke is right that going a-viking can provide a strong start to a campaign, I've been constantly disappointed by how the Viking age Norse and their world is imagined in rpgs and in broader pop culture. There's a pervasive obsession with the Norse as a warrior culture, some subconscious idea that the raiding which defined the Viking age was the expression of a people whose primary trait was obsession with the glory of battle.

 At worst, this misconception gives us the Norsca of Warhammer, who are just barbarians who want to tear down civilization and spill blood. At best your Norse-themed fantasy civilizations emulate the aesthetics of Viking age Norse culture without replicating any of the historical context. The Banner Saga series of games is a good example of this trend. What you end up with is a series of symbols, runes, round shields, longboats, which are supposed to stand in for some eternal Viking-ness but only symbolize a wholly modern conception of who the Norse were. Granted, vikings are a popular theme in the tabletop space and there are several games which try to offer a more authentic picture of the Norse. Fate of the Norns and the fairly new Sagas of Midgard all try to offer an authentic Norse-ness in one way or another. However, I am still unsatisfied by these projects. These games want to explore Norse myth, more so than Norse history and in doing so sometimes perpetuate the same misconceptions which give us the Norsca.

While I would love to go into depth about the falseness of the warrior culture myth and the mess of misconceptions which accompany it, I do not think I could muster any argument or evidence able to completely overcome this great specter which haunts Scandinavian/Old Norse/Nordic studies. There is no way I can scoop all the romantic paintings of Thor with his winged helmet and all the modern pictures of Odin with a sleeve of runic tattoos out of peoples' heads with a few idle words. However, I can offer a different vision. I can show you what I find so fascinating, so enthralling about the Viking age. Hopefully, I can convince you that a game inspired by the historical context of the Viking age should be about a lot more than just raiding.

Introduction to the Viking Age

The Viking age (roughly 793-1066 AD) was a time of incredible change in Scandinavia and over its' course all of Norse society would be altered. The Viking age saw the first urban centers emerge where previously all of the region had been rural. It saw the rise of the first kingdoms in Scandinavia, the centralization of power to a degree unheard of before. It saw the creation of great trade routes which connected the White sea to all of Europe, the Eurasian steppe, and to the Islamic world. It saw the birth of new colonies and domains far from where any Scandinavian had previously traveled. And, of course, it saw the introduction and victory of Christianity over paganism which rearranged much of Norse daily life.

But trends don't tell us the whole story, they give us the impression that change occurred at a measured pace instead of in fits and starts. There were, for example, several waves of urbanization which saw trading posts built and abandoned before new ones sprang up. Similarly, the conversion to Christianity advanced piecemeal, with champions of the faith, like Olaf Tryggvason, coming to power and later being deposed.

Trends also don't tell us why things happened. The changes which occurred in Scandinavia were driven by a web of circumstances, actions, and reactions. The success of the Carolingian kingdoms probably inspired Norse rulers to construct the earliest trading towns based on the model of those across the Baltic sea. The settlement of Iceland may have been driven by the higher tax burdens imposed by the first king of Norway, Harald Fairhair, which encouraged many to leave the country. There are many factors which could have lead to the increased range and frequency of raids and increased exploration which defined the Viking age. A warmer climate, a growing population leading to a dwindling amount of land allotted to each son, advances in sailing technology, the previously mentioned political changes, all probably encouraged Scandinavians to reach out to the broader world.

Scandinavians found success as conquers mostly in the same places where their raids were successful. The Baltic sea, the British isles, Eastern Europe, the west coast of Europe were all subject to raids and to a lesser extent the creation of Norse kingdoms and settlements. These Scandinavian founded dynasties would eventually be absorbed by the groups they dominated and frequently came into conflict with each other. The nobility of the Rus states, in what is now Russia and the Ukraine, were Scandinavian in origin but began to take Slavic names as time went on. The Normans, also originally Norse, spoke French by the 11th century and clashed with the originally Scandinavian Saxons for control of England. Though raids are certainly dramatic, most of Scandinavia's connections to the broader world were formed by trade not by violence. Saami and Finnic populations provided many of the furs and walrus ivory which formed the heart of Viking age trade routes. Of course, the Arabs, Byzantines, Irish, Carolingians, and English also played a vital role by providing the demand for goods brought by Norse ships. Both Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate were victim to a small number of raids, but all were largely unsuccessful. The only way for the Norse to access the greatest riches of the world was through trade, in fur, in amber, in slaves. These trade routes brought massive amounts of silver and lesser quantities of gold to Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, allowing rulers there to line their pockets and better cement their power. The Byzantines also made use of Scandinavians in a military capacity as guards to the Emperor, though the members of this Varangian guard would eventually stop being sourced from Scandinavia.

The raiding, conquest, exploration, trade, and settlement which defined the Viking age were both the cause of and effect of a web of changing circumstances which originated in Scandinavia and were brought to it, which transformed the homeland of the Norse and the world abroad. Though the Norse did often interact with the world in violent ways, it is critical to note that the majority of the cultural and economic relationships they formed were not. It was age when people and places which had never been connected before were drawn into lasting patterns of encounter and exchange. At the forefront of these budding relationships were people willing to risk life and limb, leave the safety or danger of home behind, to pursue gain in the broader world. It was not just the fiercest warriors who succeeded in the Viking age, but those who had the skills to turn a boat full of furs secured from the Finns in Vipuri, into a boat full of silver in the city of Itil, and finally into an army in Denmark able to take power. But not all needed a throne to be happy. Those who settled down in Iceland, Greenland, were just motivated to find a new home, for some the profit motive must have been a draw, and perhaps the call of a yet unknown world was too hard for some to resist.

But the Viking age would not last forever. There were only so many kingdoms to build, so many beachheads to take, so many rivers that lead to the sea. Some would only realize this when it was too late, once they'd already run aground on great sandbars their boats could not overtake. In 913, stranded in a city in Azerbaijan, a beardless youth from somewhere up north took his own life rather than be captured by the forces of the governor Marzuban ibn Muhammad. The party that the nameless child was part of had occupied the city for months, intending to hold it indefinitely. Things were changing in Scandinavia too. Traditionally, power was held together by familial relationships and promises sworn between charismatic rulers and their supporters, but these foundations of blood and bone were to be replaced by ones of brick and parchment. New institutions were being born in Scandinavia, ones which were much more immune to change. Castles and Churches built side by side would replace the old halls and scared groves. In 1066, in an English field, Harald Hardrada was struck in the throat by an arrow. Harald had adventured across the world for 15 years, amassed great wealth fighting wars for Yaroslav the Wise and Byzantine emperors, before returning to Scandinavia to seek the throne of Norway, Denmark, England. Could he see that the strength of his right hand would not be enough this time? Were he and that anonymous boy aware that an entire age was ending with and around them? 

 Change progresses like the tide, going in and out, but slowly reshaping the coastline. Earth is undermined, then falls away. Grain by grain the sand is replaced. In the long view, from up high, it is clear that there is only a slim chance things could turn out any other way, but on the ground, when it seems each transforming wave could be the last, the outcome is impossible to tell. I think this is how it was for the vikings, the explorers, the merchants. Though many would go unremembered, though many would be dashed against the rocks, they could see the world had given them a chance to reach out and hold their own destiny. The pages of history were yet blank, the mortar was still wet on the stones. This is why I love the Viking age. There was still time to write your name or carve it on the walls of the Hagia Sophia. There were still new lands to see full of new people to meet, new faces to kiss, new fruits to eat which are gathered in no other orchard, and new sunrises to gaze upon.

Baptism of St. Princess Olga, Sergei Kirillov, 1993

The Viking Campaign

As we have seen, the Viking age was about a lot more than raiding. If you want to run a proper viking campaign then what matters is not that you preserve a Viking age Scandinavian aesthetic, but play in a world where the historical context of the Viking age is preserved. I wouldn't recommend reproducing the exact circumstances of any decade or century in the Viking age, but rather trying to capture the major and most gamable aspects of the period as a whole. 

The homeland of the player characters should be on the edge of domains which are not immune from raiding or conquest but have superior technology, higher populations, and more centralized authorities. Nearer to the homeland, should be populations able to provide valuable trade commodities (fur, ivory, amber, ect). Forming lasting relationships with these populations can provide steady streams of income, but they'll probably need the party to help them fight their local rivals or send them on a quest. 

Beyond this, the world should be mysterious and mostly unknown. The game's mercantile element should come from having to find the wealthy empires who'll provide the most silver for the party's goods. There will be many trade routes, some dangerous, some full of middlemen looking for tariffs and duties. The elites of the world's empires may also have an interest in the party. Having a group of foreigners with a slightly different attitude towards violence on hand is always useful for those with power. 

 There should also be a kind of adventurer diaspora forming. The party may have rivals who set up kingdoms and settlements close to theirs, compete for access to the same trade routes. The trajectory of the viking game should see the party doing small scale raids and exploratory missions which lead to greater opportunities for profit and eventually transition to more domain focused play, abroad or back in the homeland, in classic old school fashion.    

For players, a viking campaign should be an opportunity to play as a character who is half a rogue trader from Warhammer 40k, a risk taker looking for profit in the unknown, and half Conan the Barbarian, an outsider come to see and judge the heights of civilization.

For GMs, a viking campaign is an opportunity to describe an orange to a character who has never seen one before, to test their player's skills in areas beyond dungeon level problem solving, and to design a political sandbox for players to mess with.

So that's my introduction to the Viking age. I will stress that it is just an introduction. There's a lot more to say about Viking age Scandinavia and its context than what I have presented here is not uncolored by my own reading of history. If you want to learn more about the history of the Viking age, there are many books which serve as deeper introduction to the material than what I provide here. However, I prefer reading the original source material. 'The Viking Age: A Reader' provides a wide variety of sources from many perspectives. I'm a big fan of 'Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness' personally. The doctoral thesis: 'The Rus in Arabic Sources' is also a big influence on the way I see the Viking age. If you want a book with a more rpg focused book, let me recommend 'GURPS Vikings', which does a good job of dispelling common misconceptions about the Viking age.

Thank you for reading this whole thing, hopefully in a few weeks I'll have more details about my own viking campaign  (which will basically be Meager Country v2) ready to show you all.

Hour of the Wolf, Minna Sundberg, 2019

This post is dedicated to that Arch-Lair, that Deceiver, that Great Poet and Preserver: 
Snorri Sturluson

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Welcome to the Ashlands

I took a little break from the Meager Country to write a one page setting, a science-fantasy wasteland ravaged by a war that can't be remembered. Old weapons and old mysteries abound, check it out!

Various Ashlands Visual Inspirations:

Image result for ww1 trenches forests painting

Sanctuary Wood, Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, 1916

Related image
The Adoration of the Magi in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Entrance to the First Temple of Karnak; a square court, partly ruined, surrounded by double columns of the closed lotus form, covered with paintings and hieroglyphics, near the foreground r an Arab seated on the sand heaped up round the bases of the pillars, one of which has half fallen, another court visible through doorway beyond Watercolour and bodycolour; on buff paper
Untitled (Entrance to the First Temple of Karnak), William James Müller, 1812-1845 

The Forum, Rome, David Roberts, 1835

Moaning Wall, Piotr Jabłoński, 2017

The Menin Road (1919) by Paul Nash, amongst the First World War artists that will be subject of talk in Diss. Picture: Diss Corn Hall
The Menin Road, Paul Nash 1919

This post is dedicated to T.S. Eliot