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?