Archive for the ‘roleplaying’ Category

Rationalist vs Empiricist Cartographies

January 15, 2019 6 comments

Some years ago I got into a massive misunderstanding with a smart, logical cartography buff about the limits of rationalism in map-making. I was contrasting rationalism with empiricism and saying the former played an important role in the history of cartographic disasters. They thought I was in favour of irrationalism and labeled me a flat Earther. So it goes across the social media beach.

Where empiricists rely on direct observation for making their maps, measuring and recording coastlines, verifying distances by traveling multiple routes, etc., (philosophical) rationalists use their reason and imagination to decide that there must be e.g. a Counterweight Continent or some place for the world’s oceans to drain into or a meaningful set of Antipodes on the other side of the world from major cities, where you could maybe find their opposites or listen through the earth to spy on their business or otherwise act on them at a distance.

nolin-world-wall-map-o344-For all this and more, this Nolin world map from 1708s (still for sale in the 1790s, in various hand-coloured versions) is a treasure trove. It features a vague but confident Northwest Passage connecting Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific via Estotiland (an apocryphal version of Viking Vinland), Antipodes conveniently marked for the enterprising Telluric surfer, and a gigantic Terra Australis Incognita, encompassing Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and a lot of the Southern Ocean.

These were ideas that either made sense to French cartographers or were too appealing to let go of – in 1708 New France encompassed Hudson’s Bay and, theoretically, most of the northern part of North America. A direct route to China that circumvented Spanish waters was the kind of thing that had to be true, economically and by the divine right of Louis XIV. Between the Revolution and the sale of Louisiana, the Republic could dream again of a Sino-French naval alliance against the perfidious English and uppity Americans. Before that, visions of enlisting Prester John’s help against the Moors and Spaniards inspired King Manuel I of Portugal to send a series of navigators around the bottom end of Africa. It stood to reason that the empires of the ungodly Hispanomoors must be bounded by True Christian goodness.

Counter-Colonial Heistcrawl, of course, makes extensive use of both rationalist and empiricist cartographies. It is currently undecided about adopting a Copenhagen interpretation to geography: the sea is wide and definitive means of location are lacking. Maybe that phantom island is misidentified, maybe it’s still out there, somewhere, and you’re just looking in the wrong place. The Isle of Pines, a celebrated free-love paradise first written about in 1667, was finally located (not without violence – cartographic, anthropological, anti-socialist, and bloody) in New Caledonia. Maybe that fabled fairyland of Calyferne (California) will yet conform to its poetic image and turn out to be an island.

(I can’t tell what this is from here, I don’t seem to have brought the right sort of telescope)

“First, eliminate the impossible.”

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

“First, eliminate the impossible.”
Sherlock Holmes, addressing the Miskatonic University graduating class.

“Then report immediately to the decontamination unit on level one. Under no circumstances should you approach the library, even… especially if you feel you suddenly understand something in the restricted section.”

I have a shameful impulse to run League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Cthulhu by Gaslight. I imagine it will pass.

A fascinating little biography of the creator of the Theremin

November 27, 2018 Leave a comment

A fascinating little biography via Adam Black.

After his successful tour of Russia, in the late 1920s Lenin sent Theremin to Western Europe, where the legend of his mysterious instrument quickly grew. “Theremin gathered huge crowds, because it was such a fascinating thing to see this man stand in front of what looked like a little wood writing desk with two metal antennas, and with nothing but his hands in mid-air, produce these melodies, sounding like a soprano singing,” Glinsky explains. “It was considered magic at the time.”

What audiences didn’t know was that Theremin was already working as a spy for the Soviet regime. While he wowed crowds with his ghostly tunes, played on what was then called the Thereminvox, or “Theremin’s voice,” he kept his eye out for any information that might be useful to report back to his homeland. “This was the great ruse, because everybody was so focused on this magician pulling music out of thin air that he was able to gain access to industrial places and patent offices and all sorts of things,” explains Glinsky.

While living in America, the gap between Theremin’s two lives grew more dramatic. While he cavorted in New York with the likes of Albert Einstein, taught the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and entered into a controversial marriage with the African-American prima ballerina Lavinia Williams, his espionage mission continued.

Though the theremin’s influence continued to grow in the US, it had no effect on the life of its creator, who after his return to the USSR was caught up in Stalin’s purges and sent to a Siberian gulag. Theremin was lucky – unlike the millions who died in these labour camps, he was released after three months, as the Soviet war effort ramped up and the government realized they might actually need some of the scientists they’d banished. So officials rounded up Theremin and others and sent them to a sharashka, a prison where scientists from a variety of fields were forced to invent and research for the Soviet regime.

It was there that Theremin invented the other device for which he’s remembered. The Great Seal Bug, alternately known as “The Thing,” was an ingenious invention, a passive bug placed inside a wood carving of the Great Seal of the United States and presented to Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to Moscow, by the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts. Harriman happily hung the spy device on his wall. The bug was undetectable to the sweepers that were used to find such devices at the time, as it used no electricity. Spies a few houses down from the embassy would point a microwave beam in the direction of the seal, activating a small antenna that picked up noises in a resonant cavity carved out of the seal’s bald eagle’s beak. When turned on, the bug broadcast noises in Harriman’s office for anyone with a radio receiver to hear. The bug remained, unexposed, for seven years, before conversations were picked up accidentally by a British radio operator nearby, who alerted authorities and prompted an investigation.

A “hotspot” is melting the base of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the South Pole. The area affected is three times that of Greater London. Scientists suspect a combination of unusually radioactive rocks and geothermal springs may be responsible.

November 20, 2018 Leave a comment

A “hotspot” is melting the base of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the South Pole. The area affected is three times that of Greater London. Scientists suspect a combination of unusually radioactive rocks and geothermal springs may be responsible.

The warm bedrock is removing some 6mm a year from the underside of the 3km-thick ice sheet, producing a mass of meltwater that then flows away through sub-glacial rivers and lakes towards the continent’s coastline. The roughly 100km-by-50km hotspot came to light when researchers examined radar images of the ice sheet at 88 degrees South. This revealed a startling sagging in the ice layers directly above the hotspot.

_Antarctica is in no danger of melting away as a result of this hotspot.
In the grand scheme of things, the area affected and the amount of melting is simply too small to have a significant impact. But the knowledge adds to our understanding of the under-ice hydrology of the continent. There is vast network of sub-glacial rivers and lakes in Antarctica and they influence the way the ice sheet moves above them._

one for Paolo Greco: #itsMageblade!time

October 11, 2018 Leave a comment

All games are theories about the world

October 10, 2018 1 comment

1. The announcement that G+ is going to shut down reminded me that I should’ve always been posting everything here and just linking to it on G+. And if I didn’t have anything worth writing on the blog then maybe I didn’t have anything worth writing. This will be the new policy going forward, we’ll see if I can stick to it.

2. I’m planning to rescue any actual creative work I did on G+ and repost it over here so that it doesn’t just get deleted. I don’t know when, but it should give the blog a weirdly healthy look for a while, like a septuagenarian with a facelift and cortisone injections.

3. Here’s the actual post:

I’ve been writing some sailing ship combat rules and playing some sailing ship combat games, and it’s reminded me of how good Civilization (5) is.

All rules present a model of the world, which is to say a theory about it. When you play the rules you explore the theory. Really good, ingeniously written rules help you understand the theory. If they’re informed by smart theories, they might even teach you something about the subject at hand. But this hardly ever happens, especially in video games, because there are lots of competing interests demanding stuff from the rules that don’t have anything to do with theory building.
– They have to present a certain incline of learning curve or the player won’t bother with them.
– They have to offer frequent little stresses and rewards or the player will get bored.
– There always has to be a path to victory, but not too broad a path.
And the interface has another set of rules it needs to follow – it needs to be quickly grasped and then it needs to disappear, letting the game shine through.

There are lots of failure modes that video game rules tend to fall into, but maybe the most common is that the stress/reward structure and the “feel” of the interface tend to win all arguments, so that the experience of playing the game ends up having nothing to do with the theory it wants to have. And this tends to happen in particular with ship combat games. Interfaces get complex quickly, if they try to represent the systems of the ship, the weather, and the tactical space. Sea battles don’t happen at a pace that’s satisfying for a twitchy action game – the haptics of controller-manipulation are not naturally fitted to the anxieties of ship captains. A ship shouldn’t feel like a car – if it does, it’ll be a frustratingly unresponsive one.

The Pirate: Caribbean Hunt is a great example. The theory is, you can command a fleet of ships, get involved in big, 18th century naval battles, deploy round, chain and grape shot in historically plausible ways, and revel in the life of a sea captain (inevitably a pirate, because after all you’re a gamer and therefore a greedy libertarian) – swabbing blood off the decks and avoiding going into irons and getting the weather gage and so on. And almost all the ingredients are presented to let you do that – combat kills lots of people, whom you keeping needing to replace. Not only is it annoyingly impossible to sail into wind, the big ships even make you fiddle with the sails a bit to turn faster. The economics of ship upkeep and repairing battle damage are just present enough to keep you busy without becoming a big chore. So far, so good.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.55.38 AMScreenshot

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 10.11.53 AM.pngSource material

But the actual fighting… that’s where the theory breaks down. Because real sea battles are all about making less bad decisions than your opponents. There aren’t many repeatable tactical flourishes that will let you get out unscathed, instead it’s about showing up with overwhelming force, having better supplies, constraining your enemy’s movements, and deciding what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to win. Sometimes you need to charge in and board before they can blast you out of the water, sometimes you need to hold them off while you do the blasting. Nelson said he owed his success to his love of gambling – once you’ve committed your forces, you generally can’t extricate them again without catastrophic losses. Most of all if you’re in a sloop and they’re in a frigate, you’d better hide behind some islands or pretend to be a merchant of a friendly power or something.

The Pirate isn’t going to commit to that, so its battles inevitably become this:
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.56.39 AM

you running away just a little bit faster than the enemy (this is a corvette, the fastest ship in the game, indestructible in a player’s hands), throwing gunpowder barrels off the transom for the other force to run over.

(Historical note: sea mines did exist from the 19th century on, but they were big bulky purpose-built things and only sometimes worked. Nobody has ever won a sea battle by heaving barrels of gunpowder into the water for the enemy to run over.)

If you don’t use the gunpowder barrel trick, you can try this:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.58.43 AM.pngrunning away and turning to shoot occasionally. As long as you’re faster, the only limit here is your ammunition and your patience.

So this has 3 basic problems:

1. it’s boring – the very thing the designers didn’t want – because the smart way to win every battle is to spend hours doing repetitive, fairly easy things: run away, turn, fire, barrel, run away, turn, fire, barrel. (Don’t even get me started on why I don’t have a fleet – it’s because the AI for your other ships is so miserable that they just get in the way.)
2. it’s not what they sold you. This is not piracy, even if they gave you a bunch of the trappings. This is a reskin of a ski slalom game.
3. if you have any theory of ship combat you might bring as a player, it’s no use to you, because the theory they wanted to present has been abandoned in favor of some other emergent theory they didn’t even know they had – about what the player will tolerate in terms of deadliness and difficulty/failure as a learning mode. About how you should be able to fight your way up from small ships to big ones, rather than getting those bigger ships by negotiating or trickery or night-time theft.

Civilization, on the other hand, is all about its theories. And although some of those are suspect, its basic idea of combat is good – even illuminating. It’s all about concentration of force (the very thing The Pirate promises with its Line of Battle dressing but doesn’t deliver with its nugatory fleet command system).
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.45.19 AM.pngCiv’s artillery units are weak and slow, so you keep them behind your infantry. Its shock troops can take and deal a lot of damage, but they’ll get slaughtered if they’re not adequately defended by ranged weapons. Its ranged units are only strong when defended by fortifications. The way to win is to deploy all of that quickly, architecturally, so that you rain the combined forces of several units down on an isolated enemy piece, so that each individual battle is short, so you overwhelm the enemy locally (defeat them in detail), and so you don’t get bogged down over giant fronts in equal exchanges that just kill lots of people on both sides.

It’s simple, it’s abstract, it’s obviously not aiming for realism… but it feels right and it feels like it can teach you stuff about historical battles. Force concentration is how smaller Roman squares broke up enormous Greek formations. Missile support won the Battle of Agincourt, grave of the French cavalry. The theories are clear, applicable, and they’ve survived through the whole game’s development.

There are concessions – Civ plays out over millenia and no real country has military units more than a couple of hundred years old, and those that are don’t actually level up through all that time, so this Supermurderer Class Battlecruiser is strictly ahistorical, a sop to players who get sentimental about their units:Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.04 AM
(that’s the good ship Semarang, evolved up Pokemon style from this ancient galley:)Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.31.37 AM
and when the theories do break down – when the battles get so huge as to be unwieldy – they decay more or less gracefully, not catastrophically. The question of who will win the exchange below comes down to the order in which units move and shoot, and the unpredictable performance of the submarines… the sort of thing people actually wrote about WW2 naval battles.Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.44.34 AM.png

I guess only playtesting will tell me if the rules I’m writing are more like The Pirate or more like Civ… but I’m making a good faith effort to write a game theory that will deliver historical-type outcomes.

So this is a call for playtesters – the sort who will test the theories, do the stupid things that exploit the rules, and show me what the rules actually say, rather than the kind who will imagine co-operatively with me and try to behave like historical captains. If you’re interested in being such a tester – and if you can be patient, because there may well be months between sessions, then I’d like to hear from you.

I don’t know where I’ll land yet, but for now I’m checking each of these every few days:

Oh yeah, and The Pirate? After I figured out how to beat it, I devoted my time to assembling a museum collection of ships in Miami.
Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.29.12 AM.png
Of these, the 1st Rate Liverpool is useful only as a troop transporter. The faster-turning xebec and corvette are the conquerors.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 9.30.07 AM.png
The Pirate says it’s 1770 but it has galleasses, fluyts, clippers and paddlesteamers. So I guess that’s 1770 +/- 100 years.


Now that g+ is officially closing down, I have adopted the following alter egos:

October 8, 2018 1 comment

Now that g+ is officially closing down, I have adopted the following alter egos:

Richard.G on MeWe,

I don’t know which one of these I’ll settle down as, but you should be able to find me if you want to with that.
At each of those places I have some variant on this identifying text:

Hi, this is Richard G from Google+
You may also know me as the guy who runs and Counter-colonial Heistcrawl and Tartary.