Maps of some classic dungeons, 2: karst cave systems

December 22, 2019 3 comments

For just about as long as there have been cave dungeons, there have been people complaining that everyone does them wrong – that caves pose their own unique natural hazards and challenges, and that they’re way more interesting than 10′ corridors.
…and now I’m going to join them. Here I’m going to talk about (mostly) natural caverns. Mines and carved architecture deserve their own posts (and may get them, eventually).

One publication that doesn’t get it all wrong is Patrick and Scrap’s Veins of the Earth, which should get you back into caving after you were turned off it by the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide all those years ago.

Already know all about this? Here, have some maps. Note how the mapper has to deal with bits of cave crossing and recrossing at different heights.

Still want more help?

In brief, the cool things I know about caves are: 
1. they’re naturally totally dark BUT can have really, really long sight lines, so one sniper with infravision should be able to hold a whole underground river complex.

2. they tend to be really complex, ruffled, full of stalactites and overhangs and slippery bits and uneven floor, so you can probably hide a battalion in one and advance in little scurries and jumps.
So your lone sniper had better have a back door out, because a determined assault will always get them.

3. they’re full of surprise hidey-holes, some of which are only accessible by climbing up sheer cliffs or going underwater.
water link.jpg

Oh yeah, right: many, many caves have interesting water features, like rivers and flash flooding, and constant drip-drip-dripping from aquifers closer to the surface, which in theory you might think you could trace to the surface, but they’re completely treacherous, because the water takes weird snaky paths to get to you, which might actually delay it by a few centuries on the way down.
(oh yeah and: cave diving is about as dangerous as skydiving while firefighting in a phone box.)

So water (or other fluid) keeps the air pockets of cave chambers separate, so those chambers can be filled with choking smoke or depleted of oxygen or contain pockets of poison gas.

And you think you’ve got to the deepest point but then;

4. they’re prone to suddenly opening out into giant cathedral chambers where a whole city can hide and you wonder why the soaring ceiling hasn’t opened up to the sky in a sinkhole yet.
onondaga state park cave
And you also wonder how all the city-builders found this subterranean flask-hole, because you wouldn’t have stumbled across it (and nearly died getting in) if you hadn’t been pursued by armies of ninja goblins (or in my case been taken in by a tourist guide).

All this is because most big caves happen in karst country – where the local rock is a mix of limestone and something harder, but then water erosion strips the limestone out, leaving behind wild bubble and flask caverns, connected by narrow, twisty passages.

Natural karst tends to happen in limestone but it could occur anywhere you have mixed domains of hard and soft material – take the alternating layers of cooled lava and volcanic ash in Cappadocia, for example, where little chips remaining from a thin layer of basalt protect the soft tufa underneath them from being washed away in the rain:
(The great thing about ash is that you can carve it easily, so now you have rabbit warrens scooped out in your cave country. The bad thing about it is, once you’ve carved it, water can get in and then freeze in winter, forcing cracks and collapses. Which, for spontaneous opening of ancient dungeons, is kind of promising.)

…or what about post-apocalyptic deserts, where diggable sand and branching qanats lurk under the blasted, glassy surface?

Here are some things everyone should be doing with caves:
– underwater rivers mean underwater boats, which you row or punt. Being in a boat means being vulnerable to missile fire.
If they’re kayaks, you can totally roll them over and keep going through totally submerged passages, rolling back up where the ceiling allows.
(There’s a Sindbad story about this, where he comes up miles away from where he went into the cave, having followed an aquifer. It’s a one-way journey: the current is way too strong and the underwater passages too long to even think about trying to swim back.)

– narrow squeezes and swimming mean taking off your armor. All the best caves have rivers, every big cave has had cave-ins. I have been through a gap in the ATM cave in Belize where the only way to pass was to squeeze your neck through the narrow point between two fallen rocks, and to rotate your torso as you did so. I remember thinking “I don’t think there’s any way to get a breastplate in here.” And on the other side, the cave carried on for 5 miles, including a couple of caverns full of sacrifices of clay pots and a few bodies. So somebody managed to drag stuff in there.

– climbing after the swimming means soft or no shoes, to feel your way along narrow ledges. Even if you want to stick to the “floor” of a karst cave, you’ll probably do a lot of climbing. Floors tend to be littered with giant boulders from old cave-ins, or covered in shallow pools of chalky water that could be hiding anything, and cavern chambers are fairly often inconveniently placed at the top of exhaustingly long, ridiculously steep, glass-slippery stone slides with water running down them.
Here’s where you deal with the whole “how much equipment do I have?” question. The answer is: as much as you can swim and climb up slippery cliffs in. Whenever you’re in water, remember that the floor could disappear at any moment (karst bubble chambers, right? Also loose rocks wind up in the rivers, so footing is unreliable) so you’d better be buoyant.
The more detailed answer is: sure, by all means bring a load of equipment with you, in waterproof backpacks that float, with loads of rope and torches, and have the whole team relay that luggage to safe points and set up camps after every serious squeeze. Map and hammer in guide ropes and do all the professional taming of the underworld you can. But also remember, you may be under fire, and big cave systems can follow rivers for 30 miles or more underground, so torch longevity is a real issue.  You probably want to be thinking about extending your overall exploration by like a mile a day, then retreating to camp, and maintaining constant supply lines to the surface. 20 people should be enough if you don’t meet serious resistance. Actually, now I’m excited about running a game of slow exploration and fast retreats: first you spend a load of time really understanding and preparing the ground, then you get chased back over it at breakneck speed, using routes you yourself built: the players are apprentices in an alien environment but masters of their own constructions.

– caves can be full of environmental treasure. Delicate spindly stalactites are beautiful, take millions of years to form, and are made out of minerals carried by water (or other solvents) from the inaccessible rock all around, so they tend to store up stuff gathered from the surroundings. Like for example magical essence from the demon killed centuries ago, or traces of rare isotopes from before The Fall.
tiny stalactites of padirac.jpgBig stalactites are also great cover. And if you have no respect for strange aeons, you can saw through them to look at deep time and figure out the valley you’re in is a ticking time bomb of volcanic activity or something.
And unrestricted time + slow drying out can lead to some insane crystal formations:
(note: crystals tend to be strikingly pretty, valuable, and sacred. Their regular structures mean they also tend to resonate when struck. ……..rock music)

As for life, you don’t need me to tell you about exciting subterranean fungus colonies or slime molds or blind fish or bats, but what about olms and 200-year-old salamanders – creatures that time forgot? Because….

– caves are time capsules. Stuff in them tends lie out of the sight of man for centuries.  Sacred texts, richly-appointed burials, sacrifices, statues, murals, dragon eggs. During those centuries, treasures are liable to get incorporated into the floor, as the cave floods and drains periodically, bringing minerals that crystallize as the waters subside. You may need a pick-axe. And regular deghosting.

– caves are mostly too complex, too stressful, and too secretive to be mapped on any convenient time scale.
“But Richard,” you whine, “my players want to map! On squared paper. That’s why we mostly do dungeons with 60′ corridors.”
Just don’t. Stay with me here – use different language. It’s not true to the experience of caving to say “the chamber is 60′ by 40′ with a 20′ ceiling, exits to the north, south and northeast.” NO. The cave is actually a completely mysterious space, wider than you could throw a shoe, full of interrupting, scalloped columns and silty pools, with a ceiling that’s mostly dark but has some glistening patches in it. You can see the river runs forward (no compass) and there’s a branching passage off to the right, but getting up into it means finding a path up 12′ or so of smooth rock surface, or trying to climb up a shallow but sharp-looking rock ridge, right round the edge of the cavern. Dark patches on the other side of the river might be entrances to other passages or just shadows cast by fallen rocks. You wanna trace your way back out of here? Bring a long ball of string with you.

Treat the cave as a point crawl or circuit diagram, with chambers connected by lines, and do what explorers did before the last few decades – just give the chambers evocative names, so the players tell them apart by reputation – Dead Drop, the Chimney, the Cathedral. Play on associative memory – a raised space in the middle of the Cathedral is obviously the Altar.

In short, go climb around some caves. There’s really no substitute for personal experience here (a two-edged sword, because if you do go caving, forever afterwards you’ll be saying yeah, words can’t really do it justice…). If you possibly can, it’s totally worth visiting even one big cave complex.

Sac Actun near the Mayan city of Tulun in south Mexico is completely flooded nowadays, but the maps are still worth your time, whether you want to fill it with Deep Ones/Yuan Ti or drain it and use it as a “straightforward” dungeon.


sac actun pic…yes, it actually is that blue.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize provided many of the photos in this post. The entrances, one above the other with a colony of bats, are waiting to be used for an Indiana Jones location shot:
ATM entranceActun-Tunichil-Muknal-Courtesy-of-Dr-Jaime-Awe-director-of-the-WBRCP.png

Gouffre de Paridac, which I’ve already mentioned, is in the south of France. And if you’ve been putting off going to the south of France for any reason other than lack of money, I just have to ask why?:
padirac map and elev.jpg
Closer to home for USians, obviously you know about Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. I hear Missouri also has a wealth of caves to explore. And I learned about NY’s Howe Caverns while writing this post. In Britain, I hear Yorkshire and the Peak District have good caves. I’m more familiar with the Cheddar Showcaves and Wookey Hole, which are worth a look, even if they’re pretty small potatoes (and really touristy. Like, cheesy not just because of the cheddar) compared with France’s riches:
wookey hole.jpg…and never again treat a cave like a wobbly-walled corner of the dungeon.


Maps of some classic dungeons, 1: The Pantheon, Paris

December 10, 2019 1 comment

Paris is for monsters.

I haven’t been to Beijing or Delhi and it’s quite possible that they are just as teratophilic but walking around Paris I have to say, it’s a perfect lair; seductively full of holes, it wears its unknowability on its sleeve.

Anyway. As usual, there’s some discussion of dungeon maps going on, and how generic they often are, and whether they accurately reflect any sort of known Earth architecture and so on.

And ever since I picked up DnD around the age of 10 or 11 I’ve wondered about a few of the architectural tics of the typical TSR module. Endless crypts under a ruined church/abbey/shrine. Weirdly industrial-looking extruded pseudo-medieval corridors, joining nicely defined rectilinear rooms, separated by regular doors so the whole layout looks like a flowchart, all right angles and neatly serialized vaults for the undead and their treasures. And as I wandered around some actual medieval buildings (or at any rate authentick 19th century reconstructions of them) I wondered where DnD got its putatively medievalish architecture because it certainly wasn’t Fort la Latte or Crac des Chevaliers or Rome.

But then in 2011 I visited a near-ideal D&D dungeon, and now I know. Not the catacombs, although those are inspiring enough, nor the metro, nor the infamously nauseating sewer tour. No, I’m talking about that monument to 19th century National Piety, the Paris Pantheon.


(shown here as a pantheon-in-a-Pantheon – the old conceit of the miniature model of the building you’re currently in, so you can play God but then discover you, too, are the subject of your own play)

Granted, the crypt corridors are vaulted and therefore not perfect Gelatinous Cube runs, but the vaults spring high enough up on the walls that they don’t interfere much with sword-swinging and it features regular torch sconces and abundant grave goods in cramped little rooms just waiting to be disturbed and yes, the corridors really are 10 feet wide.


Above ground there’s a lofty temple with a stacked triple-dome (so there’s some secret space tucked away in the walls like the Opera Garnier, to keep the ghost of Victor Hugo happy)

triple domePantheon_modelsecret dome

and just a bit of mortuary gloom hinting at its weird culty appropriation of 18th century church enlightenment.


Underground it’s a like a Better Homes and Gardens high-class tomb, all orderly ancestor veneration, before the earthquakes and tree roots and goblinoid squatters move in, haunted (mostly) by great dead French writers.


And it truly is deeply weird – I’ve always thought the default D&D dungeon lacked flavor – that it was a neutral background for events like doors and monsters. But no: instead it’s heavy with sacred geometries and secret doors and blind alcoves. It has its own architectural logic, which has nothing to do with light or air or access. Its inhabitants don’t need to get around. They have reached their destination.


In floor plan it’s like a motherboard or a space station.


You see, the style of the enlightenment mausoleum is that it should remind you of a house while absolutely not being one – so it’s full of incidental details and frames for doors and windows which are just… blank, neatly-fitted stone. Its faceless character – a uniform maze – has its own malign power, to be played on by the DM. Caves look all the same because they pile up unmanageable, inhuman detail, so the mind fails to navigate their unfamiliarity. But neoclassical tombs are designed to slide off the brain using a uniform blend of yellowish ashlar stone blocks.

Paris1665Le Pantheon

And right in the center there’s an enlightenment-era particle accelerator (running off, as is typical for crypts, into a blind wall – because obviously the particles continue in the afterlife, where you cannot follow).

Screen shot 2011-12-15 at 9.46.07 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-12-10 at 2.51.44 PM.png

Did you know there’s a real particle accelerator under the Louvre? I bet it’s a mere material echo of this spiritual one. Which, by the way, lurks directly below Foucault’s Pendulum.

So 30-odd years later I’ve learned to love the strangely uniform DnD dungeon. It’s a Napoleonic tomb. Napoleon, that grandiose psychopath obsessed with Egypt and the Valley of the Kings.

It’s a post-apocalyptic pharaonic copycat. Which can’t help being made as well as its people could make it.

As befits a longdeferred post about a mausoleum, I have no idea if these links are dead.

An ill-considered paddle in political literary commentary, or: whither the SAT essay?

November 22, 2019 Leave a comment

This year has simultaneously cast the Trump impeachment hearings and the SAT essay across my desk, and the coincidence is not a happy one.
I promise to keep this essentially non-partisan. I also promise to get back to blogging about games and adjacent matters right after this.

My point is one of style in writing, arguing, and, ultimately, thinking.

The Standard Aptitude Test (SAT) is a rite of passage for any US kid planning to go to college. The essay portion of the test, where you have to analyze a text and show how it works, is theoretically an optional add-on, but it’s important for some colleges, so for practical purposes, it’s required.

The task of the essay is always the same:

Consider how the author uses;
       – evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
       – reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
       – stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add              power to the ideas expressed.

The text to be analyzed varies, but it’s almost always a speech by a politician. Usually it’s something classic, like JFK’s Rice Stadium speech, where he talks about going to the moon before the end of the decade.

So every ambitious kid in America gets acculturated into norms of political speech-writing by being required to explain what speech-writers are up to. They must recognize glowing phrases, persuasive tactics, and sprinklings of statistics. They are expressly told not to engage with them as content, just to describe their operation as elements of rhetoric.

And I’ve been thinking that in this, the writers of the SAT exams are terribly out of date. Let’s imagine applying this discipline to a speech by Donald Trump. Say, his press conference with Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India:

“Well, my personal chemistry is as good as it can get, I have great respect, I have great admiration, and I really like him, that’s another thing. And he’s a great gentleman and a great leader. And I remember India before. Now, not intimately, but I remember India before and it was very torn, it was a lot of dissension, a lot of fighting, and he brought it all together, like a father would bring it together, and maybe he’s the father of India, we’ll call him the father of India that’s not so bad. But he brought things together, you don’t hear that anymore. So I think he’s done a fantastic job, but what the event showed is how much I like the country of India, and how much I like your Prime Minister. There was tremendous spirit in that room too, and they love this gentleman to my right, they really do. Those people went crazy. That was like Elvis, that was like an American, he’s like an American version of Elvis, it’s like you brought in the middle of an all-American deal, Elvis Presley came back. It was, he was quite something. They love your Prime Minister. It’s a great thing.”

Am I being unfair, putting off-the-cuff remarks from a video up against JFK’s prepared speeches? Yes. But, to be fair, Trump hardly ever sticks to his notes and rambles off the cuff on any and all occasions. If the quotable political speech is not dead, it’s not because Trump hasn’t been trying to kill it.

Is there anything in the speech that one could build an SAT response out of? There’s a brief nod to evidence and reason, in the appeal to India’s supposed “fighting” before Modi and its supposed “togetherness” now, but we don’t actually know what “togetherness” means or what Modi did (in truth, nothing. Also there’s a genocidal war going on in Kashmir, so um plenty of fighting and dissension). It’s essentially all emotional appeal but of a curiously blank sort, based on the most general of personal impressions – “great,” “tremendous spirit,” “went crazy.” The assertion “we’ll call him the father of India” actively advertises the fact that Trump just made the epithet up. Maybe that’s emotive use of language, but I’m not sure what emotion it’s supposed to conjure up, nor whom it is supposed to serve – Modi (the “American Elvis”), or Trump himself as bestower of honors? If students are supposed to understand this sort of speech making (or that of Lindsay Graham, or of Jim Johnson or Devin Nunes in the impeachment hearings), they will need very different analytical tools – maybe some sense of how memes spread on social media and the rates at which different catchphrases decay or distort in collective memory. The essay should probably be submitted in the form of a series of retweets, to be read only in real time.

But then this week I heard two exemplary SAT type speeches, from Fiona Hill and Alexander Vintman, and it seems the art has not been entirely lost. Both deploy evidence, argument, and emotive elements aplenty (logos, ethos and pathos, in the parlance of the NY school system). And I suspect they both made the writers of the SAT exams breathe a huge sigh of relief: now they have fodder for a few years to come.

Funnily enough, as testimony they’re not supposed to take pains to persuade, they’re just supposed to be submitted as evidence – fuel for later persuasive political speechification. But;
(a) who cares about nonsense like that, this is Congress!
(b) both speakers evidently felt they needed to do some persuading, as a matter of self defense against smears, partly from the people they were speaking to directly. In particular, both speeches take enormous pains to excuse their speakers’ foreign origins and to cast those speakers in the mold of ideal American patriots.

Vintman, born in  Ukraine but raised from a very young age in the US, can point to his uniform and purple heart as signs of his right to speak as a proper American. He concludes with a reliable heart-tug call-out to family, while doing proper obeisance to American myths (or values) of freedom and civilization:

“Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials, is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family.”

The US just beat the USSR all over again, right here in this speech. Truly, we are better. And Vintman also cleverly adds potential blowback to any attempt by friends of Putin to have him assassinated for his role in the proceedings: he was just saying how we’re better than that. It’s like that time Caliph Uthman was killed while praying and his blood splattered on the Koran – not a good look for the killers.

Hill has a harder time with the patriot talk because her voice is so obviously British – specifically, Yorkshire. But, having heard Vintman’s tour de force a few days before, she manages to hook herself onto Vintman’s shiny star via her father’s WW2 service, making him into an American patriot who suffered the misfortune of being born in the wrong country, and herself into the belated realization of his destiny:

my father loved America, its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world. He always wanted someone in the family to make it to the United States.”

Then she repeats Vintman’s obeisance to the myths of American freedom and opportunity by, ironically and ingeniously, talking about her accent:

this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. This background has never set me back in America.”

So as part of her speech apologizing for her unAmerican accent, she makes a virtue out of how America disregards her accent. It’s a rhetorical coup de main.

I think if the SAT essay can teach an appreciation for that sort of use of language, then it’s still absolutely relevant.

Here are the two speeches in full, not so that you feel you have to read them but because the internet is a fickle mistress and if I just link them, sooner or later those links will die:

Alexander Vindman’s opening statement at today’s impeachment hearings
(reproduced with ads removed from Politico, 11/19/2019 09:53 AM EST)

Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member, thank you for the opportunity to address the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence with respect to the activities relating to Ukraine and my role in the events under investigation.

I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America. For more than two decades, it has been my honor to serve as an officer in the United States Army. As an infantry officer, I served multiple overseas tours, including South Korea and Germany, and I was deployed to Iraq for combat operations. Since 2008, I have been a Foreign Area Officer specializing in European and Eurasian politico-military affairs. I served in the United States embassies in Kiev, Ukraine and Moscow, Russia.

In Washington, D.C., I was a politico-military affairs officer for Russia for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff where I drafted the Armed Forces’ global campaign plan to counter Russian aggression and Russian malign influence. In July 2018, I was asked to serve at the White House’s National Security Council.

At the NSC I am the principal advisor to the National Security Advisor and the President on Ukraine and the other countries in my portfolio. My role at the NSC is to develop, coordinate, and implement plans and policies to manage the full range of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic national security issues for the countries in my portfolio. My core function is to coordinate policy with departments and agencies partners.

The Committee has heard from many of my colleagues about the strategic importance of Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian aggression. It is important to note that our country’s policy of supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, promoting Ukrainian prosperity, and strengthening a free and democratic Ukraine, as a counter to Russian aggression, has been a consistent, bi-partisan foreign policy objective and strategy across various administrations, both Democrat and Republican, and that President Zelenskyy’s election, in April 2019, created an unprecedented opportunity to realize our strategic objectives.

Relevant Events
In the Spring of 2019, I became aware of two disruptive actors–-primarily Ukraine’s then-Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, President Trump’s personal attorney— promoting false information that undermined the United States’ Ukraine policy. The NSC and its inter-agency partners, including the State Department, grew increasingly concerned about the impact that such information was having on our country’s ability to achieve our national security objectives.

On April 21, 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected President of Ukraine in a landslide victory on a unity, reform, and anti-corruption platform. President Trump called President Zelenskyy on April 21, 2019, to congratulate him for his victory. I was the staff officer who produced the call materials and was one of the staff officers who listened to the call. The call was positive and President Trump expressed his desire to work with President Zelenskyy and extended an invitation to visit the White House.

In May, I attended the inauguration of President Zelenskyy as part of the Presidential delegation led by Secretary Perry. Following the visit, the members of the delegation provided President Trump a debriefing offering a positive assessment of President Zelenskyy and his team. After this debriefing, President Trump signed a congratulatory letter to President Zelenskyy and extended an invitation to visit the White House.

On July 10, 2019, Oleksandr Danylyuk, then Ukraine’s National Security Advisor, visited Washington, D.C. for a meeting with National Security Advisor Bolton. Ambassadors Volker and Sondland and Secretary Rick Perry also attended the meeting. I attended the meeting with Dr. Hill.

We fully anticipated the Ukrainians would raise the issue of a meeting between the two presidents. Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short when Ambassador Sondland started to speak about the requirement that Ukraine deliver specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with President Trump. Following this meeting, there was a short debriefing during which Amb. Sondland emphasized the importance of Ukraine delivering the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma. I stated to Ambassador Sondland that this was inappropriate and had nothing to do with national security. Dr. Hill also asserted his comments were improper. Following the meeting Dr. Hill and I had agreed to report the incident to the NSC’s lead counsel, Mr. John Eisenberg.

On July 21, 2019, President Zelenskyy’s party won parliamentary elections in
another landslide victory. The NSC proposed that President Trump call President Zelenskyy to congratulate him. On July 25, 2019, the call occurred. I listened in on the call in the Situation Room with White House colleagues. I was concerned by the call, what I heard was improper, and I reported my concerns to Mr. Eisenberg. It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent. It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and
Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan support, undermine U.S. national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.

I want to emphasize to the Committee that when I reported my concerns — on July 10, relating to Ambassador Sondland, and on July 25, relating to the President — I did so out of a sense of duty. I privately reported my concerns, in official channels, to the proper authorities in the chain of command. My intent was to raise these concerns because they had significant national security implications for our country. I never thought I would be sitting here testifying in front of this committee and the American public, about my actions. When I reported my concerns, my only thought was to act properly and to carry out duty. Following each of my reports to Mr. Eisenberg, I immediately returned to work to advance the President’s and our
country’s foreign policy objectives. I focused on what I have done throughout my career, promoting America’s national security interests.

I want to take a moment to recognize the courage of my colleagues who have appeared and are scheduled to appear before this Committee. I want to state that the vile character attacks on these distinguished and honorable public servants is reprehensible. It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate, this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers, but we are better than callow and cowardly attacks.

The uniform I wear today is that of the United States Army. The members of our allvolunteer force are made up of a patchwork of people from all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds who come together under a common oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. We do not serve any particular political party, we serve the nation. I am humbled to come before you today as one of many who serve in the most distinguished and able military in the world. The Army is the only profession I have ever known. As a young man I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression, and for the last twenty years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country.

Next month will mark 40 years since my family arrived in the United States as refugees. When my father was 47 years old he left behind his entire life and the only home he had ever known to start over in the United States so that his three sons could have better, safer lives. His courageous decision inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service. All three of us have served or are currently serving in the military. Our collective military service is a special part of our family’s story in America.

I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today, just like the courage of my colleagues who have also truthfully testified before this Committee, would not be tolerated in many places around the world. In Russia, my act of expressing my concerns to the chain of command in an official and private channel would have severe personal and professional repercussions and offering public testimony involving the President would surely cost me my life. I am grateful for my father’s brave act of hope 40 years ago and for the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant, where I can live free of fear for mine and my family’s safety.

Dad, my sitting here today, in the US Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth. Thank you again for your consideration, and I would be happy to answer your questions.

Opening Statement of Dr. Fiona Hill to the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,
(reproduced from the NY Times, Nov. 21, 2019)

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Nunes, and members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I have a short opening statement.

I appreciate the importance of the Congress’s impeachment inquiry.

I am appearing today as a fact witness, as I did during my deposition on October 14th, in order to answer your questions about what I saw, what I did, what I knew, and what I know with regard to the subjects of your inquiry. I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and moral obligation to provide it.

I take great pride in the fact that I am a nonpartisan foreign policy expert, who has served under three different Republican and Democratic presidents. I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth.

I will not provide a long narrative statement, because I believe that the interest of Congress and the American people is best served by allowing you to ask me your questions. I am happy to expand upon my October 14th deposition testimony in response to your questions today.

But before I do so, I would like to communicate two things.

First, I’d like to share a bit about who I am. I am an American by choice, having become a citizen in 2002. I was born in the northeast of England, in the same region George Washington’s ancestors came from. Both the region and my family have deep ties to the United States.

My paternal grandfather fought through World War I in the Royal Field Artillery, surviving being shot, shelled, and gassed before American troops intervened to end the war in 1918.

During the Second World War, other members of my family fought to defend the free world from fascism alongside American soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

The men in my father’s family were coal miners whose families always struggled with poverty.

When my father, Alfred, was 14, he joined his father, brother, uncles and cousins in the coal mines to help put food on the table.

When the last of the local mines closed in the 1960s, my father wanted to emigrate to the United States to work in the coal mines in West Virginia, or in Pennsylvania. But his mother, my grandmother, had been crippled from hard labor. My father couldn’t leave, so he stayed in northern England until he died in 2012. My mother still lives in my hometown today.

While his dream of emigrating to America was thwarted, my father loved America, its culture, its history and its role as a beacon of hope in the world. He always wanted someone in the family to make it to the United States.

I began my University studies in 1984, and in 1987 I won a place on an academic exchange to the Soviet Union. I was there for the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and when President Ronald Reagan met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. This was a turning point for me. An American professor who I met there told me about graduate student scholarships to the United States, and the very next year, thanks to his advice, I arrived in America to start my advanced studies at Harvard.

Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.

This background has never set me back in America. For the better part of three decades, I have built a career as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical national security professional focusing on Europe and Eurasia and especially the former Soviet Union.

I have served our country under three presidents: in my most recent capacity under President Trump, as well as in my former position of National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In that role, I was the Intelligence Community’s senior expert on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine.

It was because of my background and experience that I was asked to join the National Security Council in 2017. At the NSC, Russia was a part of my portfolio, but I was also responsible for coordinating U.S. policy for all of Western Europe, all of Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and Turkey, along with NATO and the European Union. I was hired initially by General Michael

Flynn, K.T. McFarland, and General Keith Kellogg, but then started work in April 2017 when General McMaster was the National Security Advisor.

I—and they—thought I could help them with President Trump’s stated goal of improving relations with Russia, while still implementing policies designed to deter Russian conduct that threatens the United States, including the unprecedented and successful Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

This relates to the second thing I want to communicate.

Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.

The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.

The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.

U.S. support for Ukraine—which continues to face armed Russian aggression—has been politicized.

The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country—to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe, including in Ukraine, where Moscow wishes to reassert political and economic dominance.

I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. I do not think long-term conflict with Russia is either desirable or inevitable. I continue to believe that we need to seek ways of stabilizing our relationship with Moscow even as we counter their efforts to harm us. Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States, and it plays an important role in our national security. And as I told this Committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine—not Russia—attacked us in 2016.

These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes. President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a Super PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.

I respect the work that this Congress does in carrying out its constitutional responsibilities, including in this inquiry, and I am here to help you to the best of my ability. If the President, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention. But we must not let domestic

politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm.

I am ready to answer your questions.

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)

The implicit game in original Traveller’s ship loan rules

December 11, 2018 16 comments

Back in 2018 when Google+ made it easy to have unending-yet-still-highly-focused chats about specific topics in gaming, I threw a hook out about LBB Traveller careers, which wound up in a general discussion of capitalism, Han Solo’s loan terms, and just what you’re supposed to do with a Free Trader anyway. Archaeologically, the most interesting presentation of this discussion would be in its original stratigraphy… but we’re all about the museum artifact here, so here it is polished up, co-authored by myself, Scott Martin, John Till, Viktor Haag and Maxime Golubchik. Guest appearances by Joshua Kubli and Isaac Kuo.

There is a certain authorial tone in the LBBs that I’ve never quite been able to pin down. Personally when I first got Traveller I found it very alien indeed – it assumed a load of cultural orientation that I didn’t have (in the US military, in 60s American SF, in technical manuals and US engineering education) and it was my first brush with an RPG, which neglected to say anything about what an RPG was. So although I understood it was supposed to be generic, I really had a hard time grokking the stakes – what you were supposed to do when playing it. Your motivations, your scope, what it made sense to build, run, destroy.

D&D was easier. Moldvay said you go into dungeons and get loot and in the Basic book that was it. Aside from the equipment list, the only thing to spend loot on was xp. You leveled up and could fight bigger monsters. A nice, closed loop.

But Traveller had no dungeon, it had the small chance of getting a ship… and then what? I started reading Heinlein and Clarke to answer that question (they didn’t answer it. Harry Harrison did better). Nowadays we know “you can do anything” but
(a) the LBBs didn’t really explain that and
(b) still, what are your goals?
At the time, Star Wars and Elite stepped in to fill the gap and it sort of worked about as well as Tolkien did for DnD’s kitchen sink US pulp fantasy… in both cases, I knew I didn’t have the intended answer.

Years later I’m still trying to figure out what might propel a Traveller game if you didn’t use it as a simple ruleset armature for your own otherwise fully-formed campaign with its own society and motivations. Also I’m writing 17th century Traveller right now and I think I should answer these questions more clearly than Marc Miller did.


1: just to cover all the bases, what if, like nearly everyone, you don’t get a ship as a mustering-out benefit?

Well, you can extend the famously lethal chargen experience and maybe die on your first Low Passage jaunt, or you can use your one precious High Passage to try to make powerful friends during the long night of hyperspace, or you can try to cosy up to some high rolling High Passengers as a Steward. Any of these can wind up generating an adventure, even the Low Passage option, as the party’s gunner is mistakenly ejected while frozen somewhere between the starport and the asteroid-mining colonies or the whole party wakes up, Arthurian Sleepers style, a thousand years later and it turns out you’re playing Vancian fantasy after all.

Under these circumstances you’re either going to stay in the starting star system for a good long campaign or execute one heist and hope your mustering-out ticket is just good enough to get you to a place that has easy money and poor record-keeping. If you’re smart, you’ll stay put, build an empire, and hire down-at-heel, recently-demobbed space cowboys to do the stupid vacc suit antics for you.

Footnote: there’s 1 steward for every 8 High Passengers vs. 1 medic for every 120 persons. Stewards need no formal training, in theory they earn 3000/month vs the Medic’s 2000, and you can work your way up to Chief Steward if you do learn some skills, for a 10% pay bump. Are the medics mass-produced replicants, or the stewards all runway models/entertainers/courtesans? Probably not: tending to High passengers (and I use the term advisedly) is like herding cats – painful and unrewarding. And you inevitably get let go after your 3rd voyage so you never make it onto the regular payroll. It turns out 99% of all stewards are un-unionized, unpaid refugees, just trying to get to the next star system without being recognized. Which is why they all wear eyepatches and comedy prostheses. Of these, 40% are running from the Pinkertons following their first, botched heist, three star systems ago. The millions they stole are nothing compared with the bill the pursuing detectives are racking up, which will be charged to their account on capture.

2. You’ve got a scout service surplus Type S Scout/Courier, the transit van of spaceships.
** following Faoladh’s comment I went back to CT book 2 and checked my facts and it turns out I did the Type S a serious disservice here. This is now edited to reflect the ship’s significantly better performance than I remembered.

This ship makes sense for the scout service, where it can work as an adjunct to a cruiser big enough to carry the necessary maintenance crew. For a crew of independent operatives it’s harder to imagine in law-abiding roles, with a tiny 3 ton cargo hold and 4 staterooms, allowing maybe 3 middle passengers (24000 CR) if they’re willing to put up with the rules-mandated smell and the fact that the pilot also does the cooking and cleaning. A couple of enterprising retirees can turn it into a pony express postal carrier by filling the cargo hold and one stateroom with mail. They may even make money on the 25000 CR/month mail contract because they don’t have loan installments to pay. The Type S really shines, though, as a nail-bitingly slow getaway vehicle: the ship and its auxiliary air-raft can take off simultaneously, fly in different directions, and meet in orbit. 2G is fast for a private commercial spaceship but achingly bovine compared with all the ships’ boats and pinnaces and fighters that don’t have to carry jump drives around. Which brings me back to diamond heists and other kinds of high-value, low-bulk smuggling (where “diamonds” actually means whatever thing is hard to replicate and valuable in small quantities in an interstellar empire with easy gas giant and asteroid mining. Probably information and exotic life-forms). Most intriguingly, it turns out hardly anyone ever really retires from the Scouts – they can go on Detached Duty, where they might be called upon by the old service to do a little favour here or there, keep an eye out for trouble on the frontier, pass the odd package through blockades, that sort of thing. And maybe get paid in official amnesia for that one time they were spotted slipping “mail” to the criminal cartels.

scout_courier viper_photo
Type S Scout/Courier vs. Elite’s starport police Viper

Maybe this is the early 80s talking, but for our group there was only one prototype for this sort of roving mercenary adventuring band.image-thumbnail-full
Now there are probably really smart things you can do just by being mobile. An expert strategist, consulting detective, interior designer, repo team or psychic bioweapon ninja wouldn’t need anything more to ply their trade. The ship’s anonymity (artificially boosted by millions of mustered out “scouts” ie. intelligence agents) is its greatest asset. But there is an irresistible suggestion in the fact that its cargo bay is just big enough to hold an air-raft or ATV.

You can carry a transit van in your transit van.

3. The Han Solo game: a 40-year loan on a Beowulf class Free Trader.
Free-Trader-T5-Core-Rules-Pg-358_25-July-2018a cobra mk3
Is the Cobra Mk.3 really a fair equivalent to the Traveller Free Trader? I think it’s significantly better at fighting and maneuvering, but it’s hard to translate between the videogame and tabletop experiences. The Millenium Falcon, being an extreme hot-rod, is just obviously part of a different design idiom.

Scott Martin reminded me that the entry level offer for a high-performing merchant captain is a shipyard loan on a new-built Free Trader: capital cost 36-37 MegaCr at 6.2% interest, working out to a monthly payment of 150,000 Cr – roughly equivalent to room and board for 500 average Imperial citizens or 6 mail contracts to different systems, meaning you’d need a 6-week month to break even as a mail carrier. Used (ie partly paid off) Free Traders are in high demand and short supply, going only to the luckiest/best-connected captains. The malfunctions table and the prevalence of piracy suggest that few ships make it to their 40th year, which further suggests that there’s something going on with the economics of the whole thing.

In the afterword to book 3, Miller tells us: “The typical methods used in life… (thrift, dedication, and hard work) do not work in Traveller; instead, travellers must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power.” Looking at the terms on a Free Trader, that seems pretty evident for anyone saddled with such a miraculous gift. Here at last we have a plot-generating engine: how are you going to raise 150,000 a month?

Firefly, Traveller’s grandchild, has to convince its audience that it makes sense for Mal to tramp-trade his Free Trader around the backward Rimworlds. Its answer is to make Mal a social outcast, welcome nowhere – a defeated Confederate captain forced eternally to Go, Move, Shift along with his motley crew of conspicuous misfits, who all generate plots with their back-stories. It’s a classic stress loop, like MAR Barker’s Tekumel opener, “you are all barbarians fresh off the boat.” Not only does that excuse you from knowing anything about Tekumel, it also gives you immediate goals – get food, shelter – and a strong incentive to take any job that comes along. Mal must solve this week’s problem or die trying. Traveller does the same thing with raw economics… suggesting that it’s not so easy to escape the long arm of the Merchants’ Guild.

For the PCs, this works by driving them to take risks – probably smuggling to start with, in the longer term, probably finding profits that nobody else has noticed. For the shipyards… how can it possibly make sense? If lots of traders fail (and we can safely assume they do, given the profit margins they need to keep payments going), what happens to their ships? How are new-built ships the main option? Do they just get rolled over as “new” when in fact they’re reconditioned – so that the only certified-pre-owned ships are the ones with a clean set of papers and a famously successful previous owner? Are you liable to find fingers in the cargo hold door jamb, from that time the repo agency came to “follow up on the loan”? Is there something in the “mail” that activates when you miss a payment and flies you right back to the bank? Or are they still flying but on out-of-the-way tramp runs, where authorities are willing to overlook their lack of proper transponder records? It’s worth noting that according to the rules 1 in 36 of all commercial craft has skipped out on its loan, so that repo-men may show up on any commercial voyage. Yes, even liners.

Viktor suspects that the multi-ton computer systems on board are so heavy and seem primitive because they’re mostly doing stuff for the guild or the shipyard – constantly monitoring and auditing what’s happening on the vessel, the audit log being regularly dumped every time the ship reaches a starport for the benefit of analysis by the ship’s underwriters, mortgage holders, insurance providers, guild overseers, etc.

I suspect the answer is venture capital. Free traders do cost a lot to build and hardly ever survive more than a few years. They’re effectively mercantile scouts, drumming up new business, supplying backwaters, finding new products that are too risky for the regular steamer lines. They’re an acceptable fiscal risk for the big boys because just occasionally they discover a new route for a Fat Trader, and those routes get monopolized in-guild – the obvious thing to do, in fact, is to give the captaincy on the route to the person who’s developed it – creating a second-stage domain game for Merchant characters. The new Fat Trader captain might even get a financial interest in the bigger vessel, while being able to pass on their Free Trader to… a family member, trusted associate, or new aspiring captain from the guild.

So being a free trader captain is a bit like starting a punk band used to be: you’ll probably fail but there’s a lottery-like chance that you’ll invent a new line of business, which the guild will try to grab off you as soon as it learns about it. If you can survive its contract terms and IP lawyers and just maybe a couple of friendly assassination attempts, you get a full partnership, maybe a supervisor role over a stable of new Free Trader captains, and a foot on the admin ladder.
Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 2.51.51 PM.png fat trader
Free Trader vs. Fat Trader

How can this work with a paltry Jump-1 ship? Because the frontier is not “around the edge” of the empire but “in between” those systems that looked richest at first blush during the early years of colonization – all those less obviously promising worlds that got officially passed over because they lacked exotic fuels and super-strong materials but which were occupied by squatters and prospectors, who are liable to start up New Vegas anywhere the Imperial Bureau of Investigation doesn’t monitor too closely.

And how do you keep making those monthly performance assessments, while you’re hunting for the big breaks? Well there is one commodity that’s theoretically tightly controlled, expensive everywhere (200,000Cr a dose in my 1981 book!), and in especially high demand with you and all your merchant guild buddies –  anti-agathics. Because you’ll all be 80+ years old by the time you escape your first contracts, if you’re lucky. Following this logic, the Company directors are probably all over 300 but don’t look a day over whenever it was they started making the system work for them.

How do the shipyards support their wild speculation in flooding the galaxy with free traders?
Drug trafficking.
Just like in the 70s and 80s.
Go watch Narcos. Seriously, it’s the best thing on TV this decade. Get over the subtitles. And Traveller/Narcos is a match made in heaven The Colombian Reach.

Oh yeah, and remember that Detached Duty for Scouts? You know who the anonymous, autonomous Type S is made for? CIA Bill, the guy who always shows up just when the real trouble starts.

Elite, then and nowlite ship scales

…did you think we were done? Not quite.
Reviewing the ship design rules, it occurs to me that there is one horrible hack you can do to the Type S scout/courier – the sort of thing Narcos’ Bill Stechner would do.
The scout/courier carries 4 staterooms (4 tons each), a 4-ton air-raft, and has a 3 ton cargo hold. Structural modifications are frowned on, if you’re on the sort of Detached Duty the rulebook talks about, but maybe they’re implied by what Detached Duty carefully doesn’t say. Strip out 2 staterooms and ditch the air-raft in favour of a parachute-and-motorbike. There are now 15 spare tons (and loads of space, since a Traveller shipping ton assumes hydrogen at 14 cubic meters each). A 6G fighter is 10 tons, including 1 ton of cargo space, and carries 2 people. If you have a plan to kidnap a planetary leader or heist anti-agathics (which are apparently worth over 100,000CR a gram), then a gutted Type S, a fighter, and a docking module just might be the unbeatable blockade-running combo. You’re restricted to a 4-man team (3 if you’re kidnapping) unless you bring a second ship.
Also not mentioned here but kind of obvious: the more droids on your team, the less you have to spend on life support. Does a droid need a stateroom? How many can you strap to the exterior and still make hyperjump?

we apologize for the explosion of posts

December 11, 2018 Leave a comment

just trying out an exporter from google+ and hey look 600 blog posts.

They’re being edited down. Remain calm, keep you limbs inside the vehicle.

“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.