Friday, December 31, 2010

Treasure troves - finders keepers?

Imagine you were a builder that was hired to erect a shed on a farmer’s property, and while digging out the foundations, you uncover a collection of valuable items.  Who gets them: you as the finder, the farmer as the landowner, or the state/crown?

It should come as no surprise that this thorny question is the subject of laws governing what should happen, who will be the owner, and who should get rewarded.  In 1996 Britain introduced their Treasure Act (aka the Portable Antiquities Act) which essentially said that if the find is determined to be treasure and the owner cannot be found, it becomes property of the crown and the finder & landowner are rewarded (there’s a handy flyer on the subject that could be a good prop for a game).

That law replaced the Treasure Trove Law which had been part of English common law dating back to perhaps Edward the Confessor.  It was built on a few core principles:

  • To be ‘treasure’ it had to be predominantly gold and silver; other metals, ceramics, stone and wood didn’t count, and gems were so rare they probably never imagined them to make a substantial proportion of the haul.
  • The crucial question was whether the treasures were deliberately buried or lost by misadventure: if they were lost, they fell under the Law of Finders; if they were buried, the treasure becomes the property of the crown.

When a treasure trove was discovered, it was to be reported to the coroner who would then hold an inquest to determine what category applied to the find.  Failing to report a find was a crime punishable by fines or imprisonment; coroners were advised that such cases of concealed finds "may be well perceived where one liveth riotously and have done so of long time".  That is, people who formerly had little money who are now big spenders probably found a pile of treasure.

Scottish law remains very similar to the old English law, but is even stronger: all cases of “vacant goods” (ie things with no clear owner) belong to the crown.  American law was founded on the old English law, but has acquired the wrinkle that the finder, rather than the landowner or the state, is awarded possession (as long as they were acting on the property “in good faith”).

Sadly, common law doesn’t appear to say anything about treasures acquired through the ravages of dragons, giants, or goblin hordes, but I imagine that would count as “lost by misadventure”.  On the other hand, if the original owners could be determined, the treasures should be returned to them.  Likewise, any hauls taken from, say, a tomb would have been the possession of the crown. 

How would that play out in your game?  The characters just finished off the pirates and gathered up their booty; they head back to port and start spending, but get met by the merchants that the pirates were stealing from who want their stuff back.  Or they knock over the Tomb of Horrors with whatever they can carry, and the king’s agents turn up to demand they hand it over (being a deliberately buried hoard).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The treasure of the Madre de Deus

In 1592, a squadron of the Royal Navy attacked a Portuguese fleet and drove one ship, the Santa Cruz, aground.  Although the Portuguese had reclaimed much of the cargo of that ship, the English did compel (i.e. threatened to torture) some of the survivors to reveal that another group of ships was following them.  The raiders lay waiting for them to arrive.

In mid-August, they sighted, attacked, and, after a day-long battle, seized one of these ships.  I imagine that it was clear right away that this was no ordinary ship.

This was the Madre de Deus, an enormous Portuguese carack.  It was over 160’ long, 47’ wide, weighed some 1600 tons, of which 900 tons was cargo, and had a gilded superstructure.  It had a crew of something over 600 men, covered 7 decks, and carried 32 guns.  In all, it was some three times the size of the largest ship then in the Royal Navy - the great ships like the Mary Rose and the Henry Grace à Dieu having sunk - this ship must have been very imposing indeed.  But of particular interest to the English raiders was its cargo.

According to Wikipedia, the inventory reports:

… the following goods aboard, besides jewels: "spices, drugs, silks, calicos, quilts, carpets and colors, &c. The spices were pepper, cloves, maces, nutmegs, cinnamon, greene, ginger: the drugs were benjamin, frankincense, galingale, mirabilis, aloes zocotrina, camphire: the silks, damasks, taffatas, scarceness, alto bassos, that is, counterfeit, cloth of gold, unwrought China silk, sleeved silk, white twisted silk, curled cypresse. The calicos were book-calicos, calico-launes, broad white calicos, fine starched calicoes, course white calicos, brown broad calicos, brown course calicos. There were also canopies, and course diapertowels, quilts of course sarcenet and of calico, carpets like those of Turky; whereunto are to be added the pearl, muske, civet, and amber-griece. The rest of the wares were many in number, but less in value; as elephants teeth, porcellan vessels of China, coco-nuts, hides, ebenwood as black as jet, bested of the same, cloth of the rind’s of trees very strange for the matter, and artificial in workmanship".

In all, it was estimated that the cargo was worth some half a million pounds, almost half the value of the entire English treasury.  That number doesn’t seem terribly large, but if we were to imagine 3% inflation over the intervening 400 years we would have a value of something over 60,000,000,000 pounds.  It was, quite literally, a king’s ransom.  But not all of it reached the crown: the sailors in the raid had already started stuffing their pockets with the treasure, and when it reached England it attracted all manner of thieves with even the local fishermen making night-time visits to the ship.  By the time Walter Raleigh was sent to restore order, perhaps two thirds had vanished.  The English had learned their lesson – in the future the dockworkers would have to wear "suits of canvas doublet without pockets".

Among all those obvious treasures was one less gaudy but no less valuable: a document detailing Portuguese trade in China and Japan.  This was a critical find, the money on the ship may be lost or squandered, but with this information the English could kick-start their own trade in the east.  Again from the inventory at the time:

"Gods great favor towards our nation, who by putting this purchase into our hands hath manifestly discovered those secret trades & Indian riches, which hitherto lay strangely hidden, and cunningly concealed from us".

Raids like this really underline just how much wealth must have been coming back into Europe from the New World.  Here is a ship carrying the kind of wealth that nations formerly could only dream of (outside of, perhaps, the Papacy), sailing across the ocean largely undefended.  Did the Spanish and Portuguese treat these raids the way that a department store treats shop-lifting: as long as the losses are only a small fraction of the total takings it’s not worth trying to prevent them?

In a fantasy setting, especially one with a high-magic feel, just what kind of protection would a ship like this have to be carrying?  Would it be bristling with wizards or magical defences?  Or would there simply be too much danger in sending single large ships, that the treasure would have to come across in many smaller ones instead?

And what about those documents, would your players think to themselves, “Oooh, someone will pay well for these”?  Would they even know who to take it to?

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Wash and the lost crown jewels

[I suppose it’s only natural that you start thinking about treasure hoards around this time of the year.  And lost or hidden treasures seem especially apt after spending a day putting piles of wrapping paper into the bin,, only to have to take it all back out while searching to see if you accidentally threw out something that the kids can’t find.]

The Wash is a large square bay and estuary of four rivers (the Witham, Welland, Nene, and Great Ouse) in East Anglia.  The land around about is largely broad, flat moors and fens, much of which has been reclaimed and turned to farmland over the centuries, and the Wash itself is quite shallow with many large sandbanks.  That very flat terrain gives the area a large tidal variation, and in the past many of the inland areas were prone to flooding with the tides; these sodden areas also hide many large patches of quicksand.  All of which was a factor when King John lost the crown jewels.

John of England hadn’t been the most successful or popular of kings.  Born in 1167 as the youngest son of Henry II, under ordinary circumstances he would have expected no inheritance from his father.  But in the 12th century, and for the royal families in particular, ordinary circumstances were far from the rule.  After a period of machinations and rebellions from his brothers against his father, in which John had a reputation for plotting both with and against his brothers, his brother Richard became king in 1189.  Richard joined the Third Crusade in 1190 and spent the next four years warring in the holy lands.  In his absence, John attempted to overthrow his chancellor, a period that became part of the story of Robin Hood.

John ascended to the throne in 1199, when his brother died without an heir, and set about earning himself the title “Bad King John”.  After a series of military failures that lost the English kings their territories in France (earning him the nicknames “John Lackland” and “John Softsword” among the nobles), he had to raise taxes in England to make up for the lost French income.  He further angered the barons by his treatment of them, especially by the rumours that he was seducing their wives and daughters.  He argued with the pope and was not only excommunicated but had the entire English church cut off until he relented. 

The barons decided that enough was enough and obliged John to sign the Magna Carta.  John attempted to wriggle out of it and prompted a war with his own barons that saw a French army land in England in support of the rebel barons.  In late 1216, John was in King’s Lynn (then Bishop’s Lynn) on the banks of the Wash.  He was seeking a quick exit from the area without entering the rebel strongholds in East Anglia, and so attempted to head directly east, crossing several of the rivers in the area.  His baggage trains were too slow, the tide changes before they are done and the rivers start to surge.  Then, as Charles Dickens wrote:

… looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [the king] saw the roaring water sweep down in a torrent, overturn the waggons, horses, and men, that carried his treasure, and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be delivered.

Among that train was supposedly the English crown jewels, including those that were inherited from his grandmother, the Empress of Germany.  John proceeded on to Swineshead Abbey, with his monarchy in now serious financial trouble.  He contracted dysentery and ultimately died only a few days later.  The treasures with the baggage train have never been recovered.

Now, there are many questions left open in this story.  The first is, where exactly did the incident happen?  The terrain in the area is very different now than it was 800 years ago.  The boundaries of the Wash are different, the rivers have changed course, human intervention has both raised and lowered areas.  If the treasures are still there, then they could be buried under 20 or 30 feet of silt now.

The other is, were the crown jewels really lost at all?  It seems strange to think that John would have been dragging them around the country, but he had given himself plenty of reasons to be suspicious of people.  More interesting is that the most contemporary reports about the incident don’t mention the crown jewels; they certainly say that there was a lot of valuable cargo lost, but they don’t mention those jewels in particular.

The jewels certainly went missing: in John’s reign he ordered an inventory of all the royal possessions (the Rolls), but when another inventory was taken for his successor (Henry III) in 1220 much of it is absent.  There were rumours that John had used the jewels to secure a loan, or that they had been sold, to pay for the war and then fabricated the story of the lost baggage.  Of course, that’s rather typical of the stories that people do tell, of unpopular kings.  There was also a rumour that the monks of Swineshead Abbey had poisoned the king, perhaps then to have stolen the jewels and the concocted lost baggage train story, or perhaps just as further machinations in the scheming of the day?

There are lots of great things to pick up out of this story.  Apart from the lost treasure itself, there is the mystery story of the plotting treacherous king undone by treachery himself.  There is the detail of the royal inventories: what if the characters are tasked to find items that are missing from them?  Perhaps there is a coronation or marriage that has to be delayed until they can be found – admitting they are lost would be either too embarrassing or would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the throne.  It wouldn’t have to be a king either, perhaps a baron could be in a similar situation?  They will delay as long as they can, but they can’t keep a lid on the situation forever.

Finally, there is the Wash itself and the surrounding lands.  A terrain which is something of an adversary itself, prone to sudden flooding, home to quicksands, and hiding sandbars to make navigating by boat dangerous too.  And perhaps also the site of a lost, priceless treasure.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Much of the way that people write and speak in English makes heavy use of the various different forms of the verb ‘to be’ – for example, count how many sentences use the words ‘is’, ‘am’, ‘are’, ‘were’ (etc).  Some thinkers criticise this pattern, saying that it promotes a kind of mental laziness or imprecision: we say “the sky is blue”, but what can that ‘is’ mean there?  Better (more precise) to say “the sky appears blue”.

Around 1965, David Bourland proposed a new dialect of English – E-prime, or E’ in mathematical notation, short for English-Prime – based around the mental discipline of deliberately avoiding all of the forms of ‘to be’.  Instead of saying “I am a lawyer”, say “I answer legal questions, I write contracts, I represent people in court”; by saying precisely what you actually do you are obliged to examine exactly what “being a lawyer” means.  Or consider the old ditty:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
Honey is sweet,
And so are you.

In E-prime, we might instead write:

Roses look red,
Violets look blue.
I like honey,
And I like you.

You can find further examples of E-prime in the books of the psychologist Albert Ellis or science-fiction author David Gerrold, each of whom wrote several books in an E-prime style.

This seems to me to be a viable explanation of “alignment languages” in D&D, not that they are actually separate languages, but that they are “mental disciplines” of talking or writing using certain forms and avoiding others.  The idea of a dialect built upon such precision sounds like something that could mark out Lawful-Neutral types.

It also reminds me of the pop-psychology therapy idea of using an “active voice” and avoiding nominative forms.  So instead of saying “you are an idiot”, saying “I feel frustrated when you do that”.  They share a feeling of saying “me me me” all the time; I feel frustrated, the sky looks blue to me.  All this self-centric talk would suit chaotic alignments too.  Imagine Chaotic-Good as a kind of touchy-feely, new-age types instead of the rugged individualists for a change.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The cenotes of Yucatan

If you look at a map of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a keen eye may notice that although it is located in the tropics, and therefore receives quite a bit of rain in its wet season, there are no major lakes or rivers to speak of, especially to the north.  There is water there, though, flowing underground through aquifer and cave systems known as cenotes.

Since Mayan times, people living in the Yucatan have relied on the cenotes as their source of drinking water.  Growing population in the region have obliged the government to make environmental assessments of the area, and that hydrological surveys of the cenotes.  As a result, the full extent of these underground water systems are becoming apparent.  Two of the systems in the region – Ox Bel Ha and Sac Actun – trade the title of the longest underground river in the world, each having over 180km of explored passageways. You can see an older map of Ox Bel Ha at the site of the group who did the first explorations.

Exploring a cenote, image from

Exploring the cenotes combines the dangers of diving with the challenges of caving.  The air in their tanks limit how long they can remain in the cave at one time, and the dark, narrow passages give many chances to become lost or stuck.

Exploring a cenote, image from

The explorers have found numerous relics in the caves, some supposed to be significantly older even than the Mayan culture, perhaps as old as 9,000 years.  They are thought to have been the centre of religious traditions in the area, with the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza possibly the site of human sacrifices to their rain god Chaac.

The cenotes have a connection to an even earlier history than that, far earlier than anything from human history.  In the north of the peninsula, many of the cenotes form a distinct ring, following the rim of the Chicxulub crater, the site of an asteroid impact from some 65 million years ago, and a candidate for the cause of the great dinosaur extinction.

Prehistoric geology, ancient human rituals, the encroachment of modern society.  Could the Mayans have been sacrificing not so much to a god in the skies as to a predator under their feet?  A predator that has been there for millions of years.  Shades of Colour out of space, perhaps.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

In the middle of the north Pacific ocean is a region that is estimated to be anything between twice the size of Texas up to the size of the African continent containing some 2,500,000 tons of garbage.

Welcome to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Trash floating in the Pacific gyre.  Photo by Cesar Harada

The world’s oceans each have more or less permanent currents that circulate through them: for example, the Gulf stream, the Humboldt current, the East-Australian current, the Equatorial counter-current.  These currents tend to form great circles on the map – clockwise in the northern hemisphere, counter-clockwise in the south – and in the centre of these regions (their ‘gyres’) the floating refuse (mostly long-lived plastics) is gradually accreting.

The oceans’ major currents and their gyres, from Wikipedia.

Some of the trash is still recognisable objects – bags, bottles, nets, even toilet seats (!) – but over time they start to break up so that the bulk of the trash is a giant cloud of small plastic particles.  This cloud is worse news than the larger pieces, as it essentially can’t be removed, the particles still pose serious hazards to marine life, and it may shade the water from the sun which slows the growth of plankton in these areas.

A sample of the region’s plastic “soup”, photo from Algalita Marine Research Foundation, via CNet

The image of a gigantic floating island of refuse seems very compelling to me.  Imagine those millions of tons of trash compressed together, mixed with dirt, seaweed, and dead fish and birds.  Could this be an alternative home for Dagon?  Perhaps the rotting hulks of abandoned ships are there too, ships that perhaps ran ‘aground’ (if that’s the right word).  I suppose this is now merging into something of the old popular image of the Sargasso Sea: located in a similar situation on the Atlantic ocean and named for the seaweed that grew there, it has often been imagined as something of a floating graveyard and a place of mystery.

Could someone have claimed this new territory as their domain, ruling from a decaying ship somewhere in the middle of this blighted floating land?  Is the land solid everywhere underfoot?  Are there sinkholes into the ocean beneath scattered around to trap the unwary, are there waterways through the mire?  What could be living beneath this land, what would survive in the toxic waters?  Perhaps it’s not stationary, perhaps it’s heading to the shore, perhaps even with the intent of invading?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Caves and cities

BLDGBLOG recently pointed to a survey of the caves under the city of Nottingham.  Using laser imaging, they are producing incredibly detailed 3D maps of caves that have been dug into the sandstone beneath the city.  The caves range from Medieval escape routes (such as Mortimer's Hole), to Victorian “gentleman’s caves” (enlarged cellars where they could host dinner parties).  But all were dug out rather than natural – something that was possible because the stone beneath the city is stable but comparatively soft.

Mortimer’s hole is particularly interesting because it is the real deal for fantasy gamers.  This is what a tunnel from the middle ages really was like, and I must say it’s not far off what is often portrayed, at least from the older versions of the games.  It’s a little narrower than was conventionally drawn (the tyranny of the 10’ squares, I suppose), it’s steep, it’s twisty, and there’s a couple of side passages along the way.

Mortimer’s Hole–via the Nottingham Caves Survey

And look at this drawing of the cave from 1934, it could easily have come from some Gygax-era D&D product.

Drawing by Edward Flewitt from The Forest Fortress, via the Nottingham Caves Survey

A nice example of a gentleman’s cave is 13 Newcastle Drive.  A much smaller and more recent cave, it’s essentially the cellars of a merchant’s houses from 1864 – just the thing for a Cthulhu gaslight game.

13 Merchant Drive

This reminded me of an earlier story on BLDGBLOG, of the caves beneath the city of Naples.  Like Nottingham, they have been dug out, and over a period of millennia.  As happens when you are surrounded by history (so I hear), much of them have been forgotten or lost, and they are now being re-explored by the University of Naples.  According to this report from the BBC, so far they have mapped 900 caves covering about 1,000,000 square metres (roughly 10,000,000 square feet, or 100 hectares), and believe that there is twice that still left to uncover.

Photograph from 1944 issue of Life magazine

Interior of one cave from a proposal to build an underground flower factory, via BLDGBLOG.

The mysteries that could be hidden under a city have been gaming fare for a long time, of course, but it’s fascinating to see real examples of these things.  I’m particularly impressed with the size and scale of the ones from Naples, they are truly cavernous.  And largely lost and forgotten, who knows what they could find down there?  Could a team of anthropologists working at mapping out the subterranean levels of a city stumble on something unexpected, something best forgotten?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rainforest insects macro photographs

An Assassin Fly (aka Robber Fly) feeding on a Cranefly; photo by Mark Berkery.

Mark Berkery is an Englishman now living in Australia who is steadily producing a very fine collection of macro photography.  His focus is on the insects of the Australian rainforest and his images combine incredible sharpness with fabulous, saturated colours.  Here is a small sample from his site to whet the appetite.

A beetle with an almost human face; photo from Mark Berkery

The head and tail of a centipede; photo from Mark Berkery

Wasp emerges from a branch; photo from Mark Berkery

Macro photographs like these (especially when you view the full-size versions) make it much easier to see the old fantasy game staple of giant insects as legitimate threats.  Imagine going eye-ball to eye-ball with that Assassin Fly, or facing a wasp the size of a cat.  The “giant centipede” has always struck me a vaguely comical, but when you look at them properly they look otherworldly and alien.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Glowing trees, a thousand blooms

Trees, but not actually glowing ones; image via Engadget

A pair of interesting plant related stories came out recently.  First, researchers in Taiwan reported that they were able to stimulate plant’s leaves to produce a red glow.  Their work involved infusing the leaves with gold nanoparticles, apparently shaped like sea-urchins and “dubbed nano-sea-urchins or NSUs”.  The researchers are hoping to refine the technique to the point that suitably treated street trees could replace street lights, so they clearly believe that the glowing trees are capable of producing a significant amount of light.

I love the idea of a town bathed in the light of their glowing trees.  Perhaps it’s actually part of the forest, the town is built right in the middle of a dense forest within a section of bio-luminescent trees.  Or a secret glade of trees, even a single special tree, that glows at night.  A sacred place, perhaps, with a temple of some kind and a gathering place for worshippers.  And it could work in either a futuristic setting (where it would be ecological high technology), or fantasy (druidic or elven mystical rites to ‘feed’ gold-dust to the trees).

Would the effect on the trees be permanent, or would they require constant replenishment to maintain their glow?  Would the people need a constant supply of gold to feed to the trees?  Would the trees be evergreens or deciduous?  If they’re deciduous, what happens to the leaves themselves – are they allowed to decompose and feed the trees again, are they worth something to a thief?  And if they’re deciduous, would that mean going without their light over winter?

The other story was of a master chrysanthemum grower who has produced a 1000-bloom plant.

The thousand bloom plant, via Gizmodo

The plant was produced by a long system of pinching and training the shoots, with the whole plant fitted into a metal structure to preserve the shape.  This doesn’t suggest some use to me beyond simply looking spectacular, but sometimes that is use enough.  Insert something like this into the halls of some royalty, or have this as one of these glowing trees – what if the flowers, rather than the leaves, glow at night?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Cave of Crystals

A film-maker walks among 10m long crystals.  All images from stormchasers.

The Naica Mine is a lead and zinc mine reaching some 300m below the surface of Chihuahua, Mexico.  In 2000, miners broke through into a chamber filled with gigantic crystals.

The cave was filled with hot, mineral rich water for the last 500,000 years.  That environment was ideal for crystal development, and the result are selenite (a form of gypsum) crystals that have reached 11m and more than 50 tons.

Mining drained away the water, but the cave remains a challenging environment.  A magma pool nearby keeps the temperature up at 58C (136F), with the humidity up over 90%.  These film-makers needed to wear suits to let them cope; their equipment struggled and the camera broke down at the end of the day.

A cave deep underground that looks like Superman’s fortress of solitude, that says adventure to me.  It also reminds me of Doctor Who’s visit to the cave of the Great One on Metebelis III.  Hmm, and that was a planet he first visited in a story arc revolving around a mine.

Beyond that, the idea that this was something stumbled on by miners is intriguing.  People toiling in already dangerous conditions break through to something unexpected – another cave or something else?  I wonder, what was it that happened to Juan Romero?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Into the unknown

Continuing this spate of posts on caves, a clutch of images from National Geographic.  Fine examples of the magazine’s long history of outstanding photography, all these photos leave me wanting to explore these places myself.  In an imaginary, make-believe kind of way rather than actually abseiling, of course.

Possibly Sotano de las Golondrinas

Fingal’s Cave, the outer Hebrides

Sotano de las Golondrinas, Mexico

Majalis al Jinn, Oman

Xkeken Cenote, Yucatan, Mexico

Isometric cave maps

While reading about caves with massive vertical drops, I found a some isometric maps of caves around Mount Velebit in Croatia.  First, Lukina Jama, the deepest pit in Croatia.

Lukina Jama, from the Croation Speleology Server.  Click through for full size.

At the bottom there is a system of ponds that houses one of the largest colonies of subterranean leeches.  Now, what exactly are those leeches feeding on (apart from lost explorers)?

The trogolobitic leech, Croatobranchus mestrovi.

Second, Velebita.  This has the longest single vertical drop – 516m.  I love that this map seems to have included diagrams of where the ropes go, and pictures of trees and boulders at the surface.  Are they like markers to help you find the place: “it’s easy to spot, there’s a big fir tree there and a rock that looks like Groucho Marx’s nose – you can’t miss it”.

Small sample from the Velebita map, again from the Croation Speleology Server. Click through for full size.

These caves, and several others, are all clustered around the one location in the Sjeverni Velebit national park.  This cross-section shows just how close they are to each other – shades of the Caves of Chaos?

Cross-section, click through for full size.

The Miao Keng shaft

The 500m deep Miao Keng shaft, image via the Daily Mail.

The area around the mountain village of Tian Xing seems to have an incredible assortment of caves.  It has the four deepest cave systems in China and “numerous 200m+ vertical shafts” including the 491m Miao Keng shaft.  A half a kilometre (1600 feet, for the metrically challenged) of sheer vertical drop.

At the bottom of the shaft, the lights are the cavers’ headlamps.  Via Daily Mail.

The descent down this shaft takes hours, all performed abseiling on a single rope, and this particular team of cavers spent a week exploring the area.  As long as this drop is, it’s not quite the longest in the world: there are several in Croatia and Slovenia that are somewhat longer than it.

Those pictures of the descending cavers are spell-binding.  Descending a shaft like that must take some serious nerve, a real act of faith in the strength of your equipment.  Would your characters have what it takes to face a thousand foot drop into the unknown?  Would they even be able to deal with the logistics of traversing it?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Revenge of/on the nerds

Recently, I was walking down the street reading Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane when a group of kids (shall we guess 13 year olds?) passed me in the other direction.  We were a little way past each other when one of them called out “NERRRD”.  Another thought he’d repeat the dose, and throw in an F-bomb for good measure.

Momentarily overcome by the impression that I had just met the reincarnations of Voltaire, and dwelling on the thought that my own children would live in a world benefitting from their mighty intellectual prowess, it gave me the chance to think on anti-intellectualism.  Clearly, demonstrating an interest in reading and the ability to read and walk at the same time marked me as something ‘other’ to those kids who had so recently mastered chewing and breathing, and the other is something contemptible.  But there have been times when this has gone rather further than childish name calling.

There are frequent examples of populist movements of various kinds (socialist, fascist, and anything in between) portraying themselves as being “of the common man” in contrast to some intellectual elites.  Usually it comes from attaching stereotypes like honest hardworking simple folk versus self-indulgent, good-for-nothing smarty pants.  Of elections in Indiana back in 1843, the Rev. Bayard Hall wrote:

We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one … since, unhappily, smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and [like-wise] incompetence and goodness

Generally this remains at the level of just encouraging distrust of people who spent too much time in “book learning” – once in a while it crosses into open hostility.  The best known recent example would be the Khmer Rouge whose persecution of intellectuals went to the point of targeting people wearing glasses (under the presumption that the reason you would wear glasses was to read).

Far earlier than that, during the reign of China’s First Emperor there was a period that earned the title the burning of books and burying of scholars.  Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi was very concerned at anything that he perceived as a threat to his rule, even destroying histories and writing his own to defend his legitimacy.

Chancellor Li Si Said: "I, your servant, propose that all historian's records other than those of Qin's be burned. With the exception of the academics whose duty includes possessing books, if anyone under heaven has copies of the Shi Jing, the Classic of History, or the writings of the hundred schools of philosophy, they shall deliver them (the books) to the governor or the commandant for burning. Anyone who dares to discuss the Shi Jing or the Classic of History shall be publicly executed. Anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed. Any official who sees the violations but fails to report them is equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be subjected to tattooing and be sent to build the Great Wall. The books that have exemption are those on medicine, divination, agriculture and forestry. Those who have interest in laws shall instead study from officials.

What affect would it have on your game if reading was made illegal, if books were being destroyed?  What would become of the brainy characters, the wizards, professors, or librarians?  How will they get the information they need, is there a black market of some kind?  What kind of persecution would they have to deal with?

In many ways, having the anti-intellectual side being the bad guys is the soft option, it’s too easy a choice for the typically bookish RPG player.  Why not swap it around and act out that narrative of ignorance being close to godliness?  What if people were right to distrust knowledge – what if there was something that people need to avoid knowing?  Like the eponymous play from King in Yellow, but more widespread, there’s some information that people have to be protected from.  What if it was something that was the inevitable result of science or philosophy, so that the enemy isn’t a single book, but learning in general?  Do the players have to take on the role of the Firemen from Farenheit 451?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The plague doctors

‘Doktor Schnabel von Rom’ (beak doctor of Rome), via Wikipedia

Like the church, cities had to deal with the growing numbers of people ill with the plague.  But, like the priesthood, doctors were hardly clamouring to get the chance to spend time with the most dangerous disease they had seen.  A new group of doctors were hired – the plague doctor.  Often they were second-rate doctors who were not able to run a successful practice (a case of “those who can, do; those who can’t, become plague doctors”, I guess).  Not that this really mattered as 14th century medicine had no answer to the plague.

The most remarkable feature of the plague doctors was their beak costume.  Their wide-brimmed hat was a symbol of their profession; the long overcoat, leggings, and gloves were made from waxed leather; they carried a cane to use for examining the patient rather than touching them.  Their beak mask contained fragrant flowers, herbs or oils, all intended to ward off the noxious vapours that they believed to be responsible for spreading the disease.  The sight of them at the door of your house must have been terrifying, a sure sign that the end is near.

Colour version of the beak doctor engraving, via Wikipedia

The plague doctors may have had little effect on the plague, but they were paid very well for their services.  Giovanni de Ventura in Pavia received a salary of 30 florins a month, which was several times the wage that a skilled person would receive.  The doctors were subject to lengthy contracts that obliged them to visit the sick several times a day, to remain in quarantine, and to not enter the town without being accompanied by a representative of the town.

I love the idea of the healers in a city being dressed in costumes like these.  Perhaps with some bird-like mannerisms, tilting their head from side to side as they look at you, saying “hmmm, hmmm” like a crow’s ‘caw’ or dove’s ‘coo’, poking and proding with their canes.

The Art of Dying

Plate from ‘The Art of Living Well, and of Dying Well’, from the Library of Congress

The Black Death had a significant impact on the church.  The priesthood suffered as many deaths as any other part of society: of the 600 bishops, 230 died during the plague, 13 “disappeared” and there are 20 who cannot be accounted for.  These senior clergymen would have been relatively isolated by comparison with the huge majority of the priests.  They were expected to give last rites and hear a final confession for the dying, which meant being exposed to the disease.  It reached the point that the priests simply refused to visit the sick, which would have been a real problem for a deeply religious culture: without a final confession, would they miss their place in the afterlife?

To make matters worse, the lost priests needed to be replaced, and to do that the church had to lower their standards.  They ordained many people who would have been passed over in the past, people who had limited understanding of the faith they represented.  And, of course, this compounds the problem of having so many people dying: more people than ever needed last rites, but if you actually managed to get a priest to visit they may not know what needs to be done.

People had to take matters into their own hands, and to do that they needed instructions on what was expected.  To fill that need came the Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying.  These were books that set out what a dying person should do, what temptations they should resist, what prayers they should make to give them passage into heaven.

Devils tempt a dying man with crowns, via Wikipedia

These books were particularly popular with the growing middle-class, who could both read and afford to buy the book.  The advice in the books may also have become part of the noblesse oblige, the duty that the lords had to care for their serfs.  In the absence of priests, it was the responsibility of a lord to guard his serfs’ souls.  The church didn’t exactly sanction these texts and they weren’t responsible for making them.  After all, the church wasn’t known for giving away something that kept them important in their society.

Suppose in your game world that the dominant religion has been struck by a catastrophe, something that prevents them from aiding all of their faithful.  The gap is filled by unofficial books of religious instructions.  Perhaps these books are incorrect, even malicious – what if they were written to deceive people and that by following them they are participating in something terrible?

[You can see more about the Ars Moriendi in this paper at the University of Ottawa]

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Dance of Death

The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, via Wikipedia

The Great Plague was an indiscriminate killer.  Certainly it affected the poor (especially the urban poor) the most, but the wealthy, the nobility, and the clergy were not spared.  Nowadays there are differences in the quality of medical care that the wealthy would have access to, but 600 years ago the only advantage they had was being able to flee an outbreak.  It was a great leveller: rich and poor alike could be victims to it.

This gave rise to image and tales of the Dance of Death: Death leading leading people of all walks of life, from emperors and popes to peasants and children, to the grave.  Frequently it would show living people being taken by the hand by skeletons, as if in a dance, while Death plays a flute.

Image from Antiquarian Booksellers Assoc.

One thing that’s striking about these images is that the tone is not altogether morbid.  The message may be “no one will be spared, death is inevitable”, but the skeletons seem to be laughing, positively jubilant.  Even the victims don’t see terribly upset; perhaps when it’s time for you to go, it would be best to have one last dance before the end.

So here’s an option to add to our games: a death-cult with a sense of humour.  So many times the death imagery that appears in a game is of a very simple sort – everything’s bleak and horrible, the clergy are all sombre and/or insane.  Instead, they could have a rather dark sense of humour, that they “remember that the last laugh is on you” (and they could be insane and have a sense of humour).

For that matter, the Danse Macabre was a Christian image used to encourage people to prepare themselves for death.  They weren’t worshipping death, just reminding people that it was inevitable.  So take a look at the pantheon in your favourite setting and ask which of the gods might want to remind people that “death comes as an end”.

Life in the time of plague

There are several periods in history whose events led to radical changes in society and whose influence would continue to be felt for generations, for even hundreds of years.  Narrowing our focus down to Europe, we might choose: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; the spread of Christianity and then of Islam, and the Reformation; the Renaissance and the Enlightenment; the French Revolution and the two World Wars.  These were all human events, the result of people’s actions, but there was one natural event whose influence was at least as great: the arrival of the Black Death.

Image from the Toggenburg Bible, via Wikipedia

The plague was incredibly devastating to the population of Europe.  During the great outbreak of 1348-51, as much as 60% of Europe’s population died.  If you contracted the disease, there was a better than 90% chance that it would kill you, and the disease was terribly contagious.  The spread of the plague wasn’t even, though, with some places suffering far more than others:

The trend of recent research is pointing to a figure more like 45% to 50% of the European population dying during a four-year period. There is a fair amount of geographic variation. In Mediterranean Europe, areas such as Italy, the south of France and Spain, where plague ran for about four years consecutively, it was probably closer to 75% to 80% of the population. In Germany and England ... it was probably closer to 20%

[historian Phil Daileader, quoted on Wikipedia]

Those numbers are bafflingly large.  Look around where you live and try to imagine what would happen if half or three-quarters of the people there were to die in the space of four years.

One thing that’s not commonly understood about the plague is that it wasn’t a single event.  The 1350 plague was only the most spectacular of a long series of plague outbreaks over then next 400 years.  These later outbreaks were more localised – to a particular city or region – but each saw the same horrific mortality rate.

The identity of the plague is still a matter of debate; it’s widely believed to have been the bubonic plague, but there are no solid medical records or samples that can be used to diagnose it.  Even the name “the Black Death” was only attached in the 16th century, back in the 14th century they called it “the Great Pestilence”, “the Great Plague”, or “the Great Mortality”.

Although they don’t tend to make much of an appearance in fantasy literature (compared to, say, war), plague and famine were part of the back-drop of life in the Middle Ages.  It’s only really in the 20th century that this started to change.  Over the next few days we’ll look at some specific things that the plagues caused or changed in Europe.  In the meantime, just ponder what life must have felt like in the shadow of the plague – it’s something that I don’t think many people consider as a possible backdrop for a game.

[I suppose that I should actually read Love in the Time of Cholera before I go punning its name.  I do like the ‘magical realism’ of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his One Hundred Years of Solitude was a breathtaking book.]

Monday, November 1, 2010

The church with a fossil in its walls

Via BLDGBLOG comes the story of a church in northern Italy, the Cathedral of St. Ambrose in Vigevano, whose marble balustrade holds the fossilized skull of a dinosaur.

The balustrade, image via Discovery news

The skull in the balustrade is visible because it was cut in two, leaving a cross-section of it “like a CT scan”.  To an amateur like myself, the skull is hard to make out, but the experts say that it “clearly shows the cranium, the nasal cavities, and numerous teeth”.

The skull in the balustrade, via Discovery News

As BLDGBLOG explains, the bright red marble comes from a quarry that’s known to have many fossils within it:

The rock itself—called Broccatello—comes from a fossil-rich quarry in southern Switzerland and dates back to the Jurassic. According to the book Fossil Crinoids, "The Broccatello (from brocade) was given its name by stone masons; this flaming, multicoloured 'marble' has been used in countless Italian and Swiss baroque and rococo churches"—implying, of course, that other fossil finds are waiting to be found in Alpine baroque churches. "In the quarries of Arzo, southern Switzerland," the book continues, "crinoids [the fossilized bodies of ancient marine organisms] account for up to half of the bulk of the Broccatello, which is usually a few metres thick."

Imagine a church or a temple whose walls were made from marble housing the remains of some ancient cataclysm.  Is the church related to them somehow, built to preserve their memory or to maintain a reminder of the price of wickedness?  Or is it a coincidence and there is no real connection, the church perhaps built some story around the fossils, but in fact they have no idea what they have?  Could something be preserved and waiting within the walls: the ones that were cut through and exposed are destroyed, but the intact ones within still capable of emerging?  Or has the stone not left the quarry yet, the masons have just uncovered the skeletons and panicked?

Map of Chicago's Gangland

Image via the Newberry Library.

One of the successors of the London Wondeground map is the 1931 Map of Chicago’s Gangland.  Created by Bruce-Roberts Inc. (strangely, I can’t find a record of the actual artist), its full title is the suitably baroque

A Map of Chicago's gangland from authentic sources: designed to inculcate the most important principles of piety and virtue in young persons, and graphically portray the evils and sin of large cities

And around the outside is the little rhyme

Sing a song of gangsters,
A pocket full of dough,
Four-and-twenty bottles
Make a case you know

Like the Wonderground map, it is full of humourous vignettes, but this time the subjects really are gangland killings:

Chicago gangland sample

Sample of the map, from the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago has a viewer that lets you explore the map, albeit in only a small window, but the quality is good.  The map can be purchased from  the Newberry Library shop.

Apart from making a fine prop for a game, this seems like something that would be useful in driving a kind of sandbox game.  The players have this map, they know how to get around Chicago, but now it’s up to them to explore what’s on here.  Let’s suppose that the game is set in 1931, when the map was published: most of those big boxes of text are (more or less) well known parts of Chicago’s history, and then there are the little jokes – what if they are actually giving hints of other incidents that hadn’t reached the public attention?  Who, then, is the mapmaker that had this information, and why did they choose to reveal this and hide it at the same time, putting it on a map for public sale but disguising it as jokes?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deduction or suggestion?

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one character admits to stealing some money.  Her mother defends her by suggesting that she may have been fooled into confessing to something she didn’t do:

My dear doctor, you know what girls are nowadays.  So easily acted on by suggestion.  You, of course, know all about hypnosis and that sort of thing.  The inspector shouts at her, says the word ‘steal’ over and over again, until the poor child gets an inhibition – or is it a complex? – and actually thinks herself that she has stolen the money.

Which made me think: what if this was actually how Poirot was ‘solving’ all these crimes?  Not by deduction, but by suggestion.  Further, what if he was in fact committing them?  After all, he always seems to be on the scene, in the hotel, on the train, when the murder happens.  He commits the murders and then, with his skills in psychology and persuasion, he brainwashes or hypnotizes people into confessing to the crimes.  He speaks with such authority and such clear logic, the pieces all fit and there can be no other explanation; I rise to my feet and say “Yes, I killed him”.

Innocent confessions are a real problem, there have been a number of people who have confessed to crimes that they didn’t commit.  Part of the reason for this is that the playing field is not equal, the police have training in the psychology of interrogation that the average person does not.  This article describes the process that is commonly used for an interrogation, the combination of psychological tactics that are used to draw a confession from a suspect.

The techniques are similar to those used in brainwashing, and there are several documented cases of these techniques convincing vulnerable people to confess to crimes they had nothing to do with.  If this is possible from psychology alone, would it not be even more potent in a world with magic?

Rounding this thought out, in the final Hercule Poirot story, Curtain, Poirot is not investigating a murder, but trying to prevent one from happening.  Suppose that our detective is not himself the evil soul but is possessed by one.  Within him there is a terrible conflict, and with a great effort he is able to reach out to the characters and ask them to help him prevent a murder.  The effort leaves him invalided in hospital, where he is scarcely able to help or hinder them.  It is up to the characters to learn that he meant the murders he himself would commit, and to decide how to resolve this problem.

The London Wonderground map

The Wonderground map, much larger version here.

In 1914, the artist Macdonald Gill was commissioned to design a new map of central London and the public transport running through it.  The map had an extra job to do, promoting the tube outside of just commuting to work:

[Frank Pick, marketing manager for the underground] saw the importance of turning the firm’s loosely connected routes into an integrated transport system, making it, and by extension the city, a comprehensible entity, while simultaneously using the power of suggestion (new places to see…new things to do) to generate increased ridership in off-peak hours, holidays and weekends.

[Elisabeth Burdon from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association]

Gill’s map is a fanciful, fairy-tale version of London.  He styled it after medieval maps, with vivid colours, cartoonish little buildings lining the streets, and an assortment of playful characters sprinkled throughout the city.

Wonderground Sample 1

This sample shows Buckingham Palace (top left) and the Houses of Parliament (by the Thames).  The three red buildings that look a little like circus tents are tube stations.  In the bottom left corner someone is hauling on a railway switch; towards the top someone is feeding ducks in St James’ Park; there may be a couple of other figures in the centre, but I can’t make out what they are doing.

The map’s little cartoons includes groan inducing puns such as this one around Earl’s Court:

Wonderground Sample 2

Or these two characters in the Zoo:

Wonderground Sample 3

One is saying “Dear Giraffe, here is a bun”, the other says “Dear Tom, do you not see that he is fed up?”.  Get it, a giraffe, fed up?  Ho ho ho.  On the scroll appears to be William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”, or at least a sample from it.  There are many other snippets of poems or songs on the map, including (I believe) one from supernatural story author Algernon Blackwood.

Among the jokes are some little pictures that are rather odd.  Here is one from the area around Hyde Park:

Wonderground Sample 4

‘The Serpentine’ is the name of the lake that divides Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, here has a dragon emerge from it and chase people out of the park.  But what’s that hanged man above the dragon’s head?  He seems to be saying something about going “when my neck gives out”.

This version of the map only lasted a couple of years, but it influenced similar maps in many other cities.  Sydney produced one for the opening of the Harbour Bridge, Boston, Manhattan, and Philadelphia each had maps in a similar style, as did Chicago and Mexico City.

Its later replacement, the 1933 London Underground map, is one of the world’s great iconic images.  Henry Beck’s notion to remove all detail from it produced a map uniquely suited to answering questions like “how do I get from Shepherd’s Bush to Highgate”?

The 1933 map, from Alan Gryfe’s collection

The Wonderground map is better suited for the question “Do I want to go to Highgate or to Shepherd’s Bush?”  Where the London of the 1933 map is all about efficient people in pinstripe suits and bowler hats getting from A to B, the Wonderground London is full of possibilities and stories.

So here’s a reminder that there are two things that a map may do in a game: tell the characters how they may get to a place, and suggest places that they may want to go.  And further than that, what if the cartoons on a map like the Wonderground were actually clues of something happening, what if they depicted a second esoteric London that was happening alongside work-a-day London?  What if an Earl was caught at Earl’s Court?  Perhaps someone may have acted as judge, jury, and executioner in place of a court?  And likewise with the hanged man and Serpentine dragon?

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Mercer & Fonthill Museums

The Mercer and Fonthill Museums were started by the historian Henry Mercer at the start of the 20th century to collect examples of handmade items and crafts that were dying out after the Industrial Revolution.  He collected over 30,000 pieces and, in order to display them all, built a museum to house them in.

But this was no ordinary museum: in 1916 he built a 6 storey tall castle out of concrete.  Indeed, he had earlier built a smaller one as his home (which became the Fonthill museum)

View from the street; larger version here.

Opposite side; larger version here.

Apart from being a huge manor house filled with a strange collection all from a single determined collector, which I hope sounds intriguing enough for someone to start building a game, the museum has a second appeal.  The museum’s guide book includes floor plans: with just a little editing, these could be used to create maps for this museum/castle location.

Gothic revival houses

It might not quite be Miskatonic University, but the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth does have a collection of issues of the 19th century magazine American Architect and Building News.  From that they have made a special collection of examples of drawings and floor plans of house and building designs.

These could be very useful images, both because the simple ink drawings are very atmospheric and also because the floor plans do most of the work of providing a map to use.  Print out large versions of them, touching up the diagrams, and start adding your story.

A pair of large houses, via UMass Dartmouth

All of the designs are examples of Gothic Revival architecture, and specifically they are stick style, meaning that they resemble half-timbered Tudor buildings.

As old and romantic as they look, these are not the kinds of buildings that Lovecraft is forever talking about (in The Dunwich Horror, for example).  Those houses are generally the starker, simpler Colonial style, the “gambrel roofs” that feature so prominently being the arched roofs you would see on a Dutch barn.  These designs are more recent than them, and are harking back to an even earlier time.

But if the colonial houses suggest the decay of isolated, impoverished people, the Gothic style suggests the madness of excess and indulgence.

Two more houses from the UMass

Apart from the numerous large homes, the collection has several other kinds of buildings, ranging from small cottages, various public buildings (fire stations, train stations, churches), and even a couple of asylums.

A cottage and an asylum, each from the UMass collection