Bjorn Levi Gunnarsson is an Icelandic MP for the Pirate Party but also an avid roleplayer. He says that being a roleplayer can be really helpful while working in the Parliament. Perhaps more politicians should be roleplayers? Let’s hear from the MP who plays D&D.
A little while ago we had a small roleplaying convention in Iceland. As such, Icelandic roleplaying conventions are small and most of the participants know each other by name. Still, many great games were played there and the convention was one of the largest for years.
One of the participants frequenting these conventions, both as player and as game master, is Bjorn Levi Gunnarsson. A tall, dark haired man with serious look to his eyes, the jeans and t-shirt type of guy, you know, just an ordinary roleplayer like you and me. However, he is bit more than that, because he is a member of the Icelandic Parliament, now serving his second term.
I’ve played with Gunnarsson a couple of times in these conventions and I couldn’t resist when I spotted him at the con to reach out and ask him a few questions about his work, how he manages to fit roleplaying into his hectic schedule and how being a roleplayer helps him in the Parliament.
Gunnarsson was born in 1976, and studied computer science. After working in that field for a few years, among others for CCP, the developer of EVE Online, he joined the Icelandic Pirate Party and got elected in 2016. He has been quite vocal and criticised both the government and the ministers.
For how long have you played roleplaying games? When did you start and what games did you start out playing?
My first game was a book. The kind of books where you read a chapter and then you get to decide to turn to page x or y to continue and sometimes you had to fight a monster by rolling a six sided dice, that was at around when I was 11 years old or so. My first role playing game in a group was during my secondary school years, 16 year old playing AD&D. My first character was a ranger who decided to try to stop a rampaging bull. Unfortunately it was a Gorgon that first turned me to stone and then to gravel.
Man, that must’ve been something, losing your first character like that? Did you only play AD&D these first years?
First session. The second character rolled that session survived well into the next couple of sessions.
Mostly AD&D, there was a bit of Vampire: Masquerade, some Toons, Warhammer fantasy roleplaying and some others. But only a couple of sessions of each really.
Are you still playing? What is the last game you played? How do you find time to play? Game master or player?
Yes, still playing. Last game I played was yesterday with my wife and older kid. I was DMing them in the Sunless Citatel. Otherwise I manage a game night every two weeks or so. You just have to make time really, meeting up with friends is very important. I am currently a player in my group, playing a fallen Aasimar hexblade warlock who is picking of the pieces of her life after years of enslavement by an evil necromancer.
The Sunless Citadel, are you using the edition from Tales from the Yawning Portal or did you update the old 3.0 module? Do you like to go through the old modules/classics?
TftYP this time around. I’ve updated a few of the old Planescape modules for one offs or just used the stories on the fly in the new edition. So, yes. The old modules are a gold mine.
What is your favorite game/setting and why?
I’m an old school AD&D Planescape fanatic. I like the 5th edition version a lot more than the old AD&D system. I like the setting because of the philosophical challenges it so readily hands out to you as a DM and a player. I like the game system mostly because of the familiarity of it.
Do you have a favorite module? The Great Modron March? Dead Gods?
I was a fan of the Deva’s spark. The “something new” aspect of it was interesting. Mostly we did adventures that we created ourselves though. I didn’t go through the Modron march or Dead Gods back in the day unfortunately. Not sure why. I am reading through some of the old modules these days, collating the old modules into ideas for new campaigns. I’m liking Dead Gods a lot while not liking the Modron march that much. It’s a great prequel story for Dead Gods but I’m not looking to DMing the march, more looking towards having it as rumours the players get. But who knows, the only time I really get to DM are in my own head, reading through these old modules. I’m just collecting ideas and stories to put together for later.
What is it in Planescape that you feel more philosophical than other D&D settings? Do you prefer games that are more in line with that than your classic dungeon crawl?
The system itself is based on belief. All of them. And the premise that you can find any belief to be true somewhere. If not, you can just make it so… or try at least.
We never really did vanilla dungeon crawling, or when it happened we tried to make it into something else. There was a time of course where the goal was just to get to roll on the treasure table. I guess that is a phase you have to go through to appreciate the important parts of roleplaying. What you can do isn’t because of something you looted in a treasure chest. Being able to stop a horde of angry dwarfs with only the threat of drawing your sword, is in my opinion more what the game is about.
On being an MP
In what way does being a roleplayer help you as an MP? Do the roleplaying skills come handy when dealing with the other MPs?
The hours I’ve spent digging through various rulebooks. The number of times we’ve argued about interpretation and wording for this rule against another rule. This skill, rules lawyering, is at the heart of the MP job.
Roleplaying is also mainly a social activity where you experience various characters, motives and social situations, even if they are in high fantasy, horror or some exotic setting, the experience you gather from those ‘mock’ situations train you for real world social activities.
So, you’ve never given any thought to what attribute scores this or that MP might have or if they have this or that feat? All, jokes aside, would you say that having an experience as roleplayer has better prepared you for a life as MP?
Until now, no. This is actually kind of surprising to me. I guess now I won’t be able to stop wondering about that whenever some other MP takes the podium. What would his or her Charisma score or Persuasion skill be?
But yes, all jokes aside. The skills picked up from my years of roleplaying do prepare me for quite a few of the things I do as an MP. Perhaps I do them differently because I have those skills, I have to acknowledge that possibility of course. But at the same time I can easily match some of the things an MP can do with what I’ve learned through roleplaying.
In what way does being an MP help you become a better roleplayer?
Diplomacy. Seeing how and what people do to get what they want, even if it is out of character. I’m not sure it makes me a better roleplayer, but it sure helps with my DMing skillset. Even after having played a lot of games that rely on social engineering you don’t really ‘connect’ with how people perform in real world situations. People that you know are good people might use the worst tactics to get what they want, bullying and threatening for example. You might understand their motives and agree with them, but the means and methods used can be totally different.
They say that power corrupts. This is true, and research on the brain says so. Experiencing it is totally different though. Being in a position of power creates a perspective that you don’t know how is going to affect you until after you’ve tried it. For me, I realized that I can ask questions and people have to answer. It is easy to transfer that kind of realization into roleplaying royalty and BBEG.
Power corrupts, you say, I can imagine that you must get tons of adventure hooks and ideas for BBEG working in the Parliament? Have you ever used any of the other MPs as a model for a BBEG?
Not yet, no. I’ve mostly been a player since becoming an MP. It takes quite a bit more time to prepare and do all the things a DM has to do. Time is something an MP doesn’t have much of. Well, that’s not entirely true though. The MP job takes as much time as you allow it to take. There is always more you can do but not enough hours to do it. So you can either choose to be uninformed or less informed than you’d like to be. Doing DM stuff would leave me less informed about the topics in parliament than I’d like.
Would being an MP be easier if more MPs played roleplaying games? In what way could the work in the Parliament benefit/learn from roleplaying games?
In a sense MPs are roleplaying. There is a system to it, laws even. I guess it would be closer to LARPing (which is something I haven’t done yet so I can’t say for sure). There are encounters, for example a particular news story that was revealed. That encounter then gets played out in parliament in various ways. At the podium in the form of a question (challenge) to a minister. As a point of view statement that either encourages other MPs to counter or ignore. Or through various other actions defined in the rulebooks.
The one thing MPs could benefit from by playing roleplaying games, and this might be a disappointment to some people, would be through the rules lawyering aspect. This would be for the MPs that didn’t study law themselves though. The ones that did have picked up that particular debate skill through their formal studies. That path towards picking up that skill is just a lot more boring than doing it over a d20.
Do you know if there are more MPs that share your experience with roleplaying games?
Some might have tried a game or two. I don’t think anyone else is a roleplayer. There are different types of gamers in parliament though.
It’s good to know that all these years spent on playing roleplaying games are not in vain. The skills you learn, all the countless hours you spend on discussing tactics or fighting over rules, finding the best way to solve a problem or negotiating with the other players and/or the game master are actually great and can help you in almost all jobs where you have to interact with other people… which is more or less almost all professions. Even in high responsibility and stressful roles like being an MP the skills you learn and develop through roleplaying come in handy. Gunnarsson is a great example of this.