Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Stasi scent library

In the Stasi museum at Runde Ecke, in Leipzig, there are many examples of how far the East German secret police were prepared to go to maintain control over their own citizens.  Among collections of stolen mail, covert photographs, and disguises for their agents, there is one especially surprising example:

A row of sealed jars, each containing a seemingly innocuous yellow dust cloth, forms part of the museum's permanent exhibition. But these jars were part of the East German secret police's collection of scent samples used to keep track of dissidents.


Examples of the scent jars, photos from Maki Ueda

These scent samples were used as a kind of odour fingerprint.  When they got samples of materials being distributed by dissidents – like a flyer or a letter – those samples would have a faint trace of the people’s odour on it.  By matching it against their library of scents, they could identify who had been responsible.

When they found a piece of graffiti or a flyer then they took a dust cloth, which was usually yellow, and left it for a while lying next to the flyers covered by a protective piece of aluminum foil and then they had their sample. The cloth was then sealed in a pickling jar and stored. If the Stasi later came across a suspect in the process of the investigation, they tried to get a sample from this person as well -- of course, secretly. A trained dog was given the two smells, and if they matched, the Stasi had a concrete name.

They would often invite someone in for a talk with the police or other officials, for example, and undercover Stasi officers pretending to be police officers or an administrative person were usually present at this meeting. And while the person sat on the chair in the office, they would be, without knowing it, impregnating a yellow cloth hidden under the seat. When this fictive visit was over, the Stasi officer would then put the cloth in the pickle jar -- and they had their sample.


A store-room filled with thousands of jarred scent samples sounds would be a fine scene for a rather dark espionage or conspiracy game.  A dimly lit (or windowless) concrete building, row upon row of shelves with neatly labelled jars.  Can they find their own names there?  Loved ones, friends, people they have met?  The articles mention that apart from scents, they collected samples of hair, handwriting, even saliva – could the characters find a little cross-section of their lives?

Of course, you could also play this for laughs.  The characters have to collect scent, hair, saliva samples from various marks.  So they have to ingratiate themselves with the target and get close enough to take some swabs or snip off some hair.  Or break into their house to steal unwashed clothes, pull hair out of drains – but the suspect is at home and is hosting a dinner party, how are they going to talk their way out of this?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Hungarian suicide song – Gloomy Sunday

In 1933 the Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and poet László Jávor wrote the song Vége a világnak (‘End of the world’) which had the alternate title Szomorú vasárnap (‘Sad Sunday’).  The song gained a very special reputation: that dozens of people, on hearing it, had committed suicide.

The original version portrayed the image of a desolate and destroyed landscape; Javor changed the theme to be one of a man lamenting his dead lover.  He considers that if they will only be reunited again in death, then perhaps he shall commit suicide:

Gloomy Sunday with a hundred white flowers
I was waiting for you my dearest with a prayer
A Sunday morning, chasing after my dreams
The carriage of my sorrow returned to me without you
It is since then that my Sundays have been forever sad
Tears my only drink, the sorrow my bread...

Gloomy Sunday

This last Sunday, my darling please come to me
There'll be a priest, a coffin, a catafalque and a winding-sheet
There'll be flowers for you, flowers and a coffin
Under the blossoming trees it will be my last journey
My eyes will be open, so that I could see you for a last time
Don't be afraid of my eyes, I'm blessing you even in my death...

The last Sunday

[Literal translation from Phespirit] A year or so later the song was first recorded in English by Paul Robeson and then, more famously, by Billie Holiday.  The lyrics they used made the suicide theme clearer, although Holiday’s had to add an extra verse to say that the whole thing was a dream.  Suicide was a difficult subject to discuss in a popular song, after all:

Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless
Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless
Little white flowers will never awaken you
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you
Angels have no thought of ever returning you
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?

Gloomy Sunday

Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you

Gloomy Sunday

Dreaming, I was only dreaming
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, here
Darling, I hope that my dream never haunted you
My heart is telling you how much I wanted you
Gloomy Sunday

(Here’s a recording of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung by Paul Whiteman for your listening pleasure – if you dare!)

And then the stories began, stories of dozens of people killing themselves after hearing this song, leaving behind the lyrics in suicide notes.

In February of 1936, Budapest Police were investigating the suicide of a local shoemaker, Joseph Keller. The investigation showed that Keller had left a suicide note in which he quoted the lyrics of a recent popular song. The song was "Gloomy Sunday".

The fact that a man chose to quote the lyrics of a little-known song may not seem very strange. However, the fact that over the years, this song has been directly associated with the deaths of over 100 people is quite strange indeed.

Following the event described above, seventeen additional people took their own lives. In each case, "Gloomy Sunday" was closely connected with the circumstances surrounding the suicide.


The stories were, in fact, all bunkum and just part of a promotional campaign for the song (an early example of viral marketing).  And they did grow steadily stranger and less plausible – perhaps the ultimate being “an errand boy in Rome, who, having heard a beggar humming the tune, parked his cycle, walked over to the beggar, gave him all his money, and then sought his death in the waters beneath a nearby bridge”.

It is true, though, that the song was banned by several radio stations, including the BBC who only allowed it on their playlists again in this century.  But it was banned by the BBC largely because of their opinions on the kind of hearty fare that the listening public should get during the war.  It is also true that the composer, Rezső Seress, committed suicide, but that was in 1968 and was likely from depression after never having managed to write another successful song in the 35 years since penning ‘Gloomy Sunday’.

I do wonder if this story might have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s skit of the weaponized joke.  Could a cursedly sad song fall into the hands of the army, would they refine it?  And what would happen if Lord Haw-Haw was broadcasting it into Britain during the Blitz?

Or what about a bizarre assassination attempt: a diabolical scheme to kill the king by a visiting bard singing the cursed song in his very hall?  Or at a Royal Command Performance at Albert Hall - a famous singer has been brainwashed by Hugo Drax and James Bond must stop his next plan for revenge on Great Britain.  Was that what really happened to Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre?

Hair thieves

The New York Times report that across America salons are under siege from thieves targeting their stock of human hair extensions:

The thieves pulled the iron bars out of the windows, outsmarted the motion detector that would have triggered a burglar alarm and did not give the safe or cash register a second look.

Instead they went straight for what was most valuable: human hair. By the time the bandits at the My Trendy Place salon in Houston were finished, they had stolen $150,000 worth of the shop’s most prized type, used for silky extensions.

The break-in was part of a recent trend of thefts, some involving violence, of a seemingly plentiful material. During the past two months alone, robbers in quest of human hair have killed a beauty shop supplier in Michigan and carried out heists nationwide in which they have made off with tens of thousands of dollars of hair at a time.

(from the New York Times)

When I saw the headline “Thieves target human hair”, I didn’t think of salon break-ins so much as razor gangs plucking the hair from their victim’s heads.

Imagine a dark city street, a young woman walking back to her car.  Suddenly a hand covers her mouth and she is dragged into a van; she sees the glint of a knife and feels her neck exposed by a rough yank on her hair; she fears the worst.  But the savage blow cuts only the tresses from her head; the van door opens and she is thrown out, shocked and confused, into the night street.

The motivation given for this spate of robberies is that the hair extensions are simply valuable.  Surely that’s just to avoid alarming the populace and the real objective is a more esoteric one.  Are they constructing some sort of hair golem?  Are they using them to make voodoo fetishes?  Will they be woven into a hair shirt, perhaps to summon back the spirit of some long dead monk or ascetic?

Or are they looking for some specific hair, was the hair of some ancient sorcerer turned into a wig that has found its way into the salon trade?  Maybe it was changed from a wig into a set of extensions, some of which were sold.  So the crimes escalate from break-ins to seemingly random street-side hair slashings as they search for the last strands to rebuild the wig.

And why stop at hair on the head, what about beards?  In a fantasy world, how would dwarves feel about people stealing their beards?  Presumably it takes an eternity for them to grow, and they’re commonly thought of as status symbols, it would be very emasculating to lose it.  Would that disrupt the social order?  A quest, perhaps, to reclaim a chieftain's beard?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Texas Towers – off-shore radar stations

NPR’s news blog reported that President Obama gave official recognition to “the 28 men who died when a massive radar tower collapsed in the North Atlantic 50 years ago.”  The radar tower was one of five that sat out in the Atlantic ocean off the north-eastern coast of the USA.  They were a hybrid of a radar station and an offshore oil-rig, which gave them the nickname “Texas Towers”.

Texas Tower 4.  Photo from the office of Sen John Kerry.

The radar stations were needed to extend the warning time that the USA would have in the event that Soviet bombers flew across the Atlantic towards them.  These early-warning stations would give the mainland an extra 30 minutes to respond to an attack.  Improvements in radar technology and the change from bombers to (much faster) ICBMs made the stations obsolete.  Texas Tower 4, however, suffered a disaster prior to this.  In 1960 it was damaged by Hurricane Donna and it collapsed during a winter storm the following year.

This tower had already shown several problems: it was built in much deeper water than the others (180ft deep, where the others were 50-80ft) which meant it needed longer legs, and it’s foundations were in sand rather than rock.  Now it lies below the waves, acting as an artificial reef for scuba divers.

I love the pictures of the old radar tower, with the domes standing over the (rather tall) base.  It sounds like a good starting point for a game - a radar tower out in the ocean, largely cut-off from the rest of the nation, even though they may only be a hundred kilometres away.  Doesn’t this look like it should be visited by Avrocars?  Or that it should be en-route to Camp Century?  Or was there something important left behind on a now collapsed tower?  Could they have detected something out in the sky or sea?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From Blackfriars to booksellers

With Bookhounds of London going to print right about now, it’s rather timely to see this story of a bookstore built in a 750 year old Dominican church.

From the store’s Flickr stream.

Whether you’re religious or not, this old Dominican church will certainly bring you the enlightenment you’ve been seeking. After months of renovation this magnificent structure originally constructed in 1294 has opened its doors to the public as a “brand new” bookstore in the heart of Maastricht. …

Dating back to the 13th century, the structure was a Dominican church until Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the group was forced out of the country. Since that point it has been briefly used as a parish, then a warehouse, then an archive, then a giant parking lot for bicycles (not such a terrible idea) and finally made over into a bookstore.

One thing that strikes me as slightly odd is that while the whole design looks really classy, the crucifix shaped reading table in the nave seems a bit kitsch.

From Crossroads magazine.

Aside from this rather marvellous bookstore, what other things might be put in a disused church?  As the article mentions, this church has also been a warehouse and bike parking-lot, and there are many other churches that have become nightclubs (so many that it’s something of a cliché).  Might a church have become a hostel, a hospital, or even a home?  Might it be a factory, a restaurant, or a school?  Or perhaps one of those discount stores that seem to pop-up in malls to fill empty store-fronts.  And wouldn’t it surprise the new tenants to learn that the treasure of Abbot Thomas was still hidden there?

Reburying the dead

[Via BLDGBLOG]  The British government has given their archaeologists a very difficult condition to work with: all human remains must be reburied within 2 years of being excavated:

The dispute centres on legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008 which requires all human remains excavated at digs in England and Wales to be reburied within two years, regardless of their age. The decision, which amounts to a reinterpretation of law previously administered by the Home Office, means scientists have too little time to study bones and other human remains of national and cultural significance, the academics say.

The ruling applies to any pieces of bone uncovered at around 400 dig sites, including the remains of 60 or so bodies found at Stonehenge in 2008 that date back to 3,000BC. Archaeologists have been granted a temporary extension to give them more time, but ultimately the bones will have to be returned to the ground.

[from The Guardian]

No doubt the government has reasons for this imposition that they aren’t prepared to reveal!  Is it that they want to restrict how long the scientists may study these early remains so that they cannot learn some shocking truth (such as that they are really white apes)?  Or is it that the bodies must be returned to the earth to prevent something from happening?  Or even that someone with influence over the government requires the bodies to return to Stonehenge soon so that some ritual may be completed?

And the law covers all digs in England and Wales, but not Scotland.  What’s going on there – are they trying to encourage more activity in the north?  Could there be something that someone wants uncovered that isn’t getting sufficient attention?

Another thought occurs to me, it would be an interesting purpose in life for a priestly character in a fantasy game not just to be a foe of the undead, but to give these misused corpses a proper burial.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Carnivorous furniture

Rather like the vermin accessories, here’s another strange meeting of design and dead animals.  This time it’s furniture – furniture that draws power out of dead insects or animals.  The devices capture insects or mice and deposit them in a fuel cell that uses bacteria and enzymes to generate electricity from their corpses.  All of these machines are very simple, but there is mention of a robot that can be powered by dead flies.

In a sci-fi setting this would add a macabre edge to things.  After all, by harvesting electricity out of human brains, the machines in The Matrix were essentially treating people as a fuel cell, why not just go the extra mile?

Alternatively, in a fantasy setting there may be machines that are artifacts of some ancient culture.  Devices that now require sacrifices to generate their power – something like Blackrazor only it devours flesh rather than souls.

Dad’s Army – the last line of defence

The early 1970s were still a prime era for WWII nostalgia, and at that time the BBC produced one of my favourite TV series – Dad’s Army.  Set in the early years of the war, it follows a Home Guard unit in the fictional coastal town of Walmington-On-Sea.

Captain Mainwaring presents his troops.  From the BBC archive.

The Home Guard (originally called the Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV) were civilian units formed out of volunteers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to serve: some too young, too old, or medically unfit.  As supplying equipment to the fighting troops was the primary concern in the early war, initially the LDV units had no more uniform than an armband and no weapons at all.  Instead they had to improvise weapons out of what they had at hand.  It was hard to say what they would actually be capable of doing: their name LDV was said to stand for “Look, duck, vanish”.

Eventually they were given uniforms and issued with rifles (albeit a mix of types), and their role was redefined from observing for German paratroopers to a more active kind of service.  Now their purpose would be to harry and obstruct an invading German force (although it’s hard to see how much obstruction they would have actually presented).  Once there was no threat of invasion, the Home Guard remained in service to man guard stations and free up the regular army from those duties.

Hiding from a runaway ancient Chinese rocket launcher (requisitioned from a museum).  Note the armbands in lieu of uniforms, and their improvised petrol bombs.  From the BBC archive.

Dad’s Army touches on many different aspects of Britain at the time, and of the Home Guard in particular.  The men of Walmington-on-sea are a rag-tag lot: 70 year old Lance-corporal Jones served under General Kitchener in the Sudan, Pike is too young (a 17 year old who acts like a 12 year old), and Joe Walker was discharged from regular service due to an allergy to corned beef.  They don’t have uniforms or weapons for most of the first season, parading and marching around town in work-clothes carrying fence-railings or golf-clubs in place of rifles.  Later they must deal with various unwanted weapons from the army -- such as sticky bombs or a Panjandrum rocket-cart -- or inventions of their own -- using the butcher’s delivery van as an armoured personnel carrier.

This is a Britain that is still living on the past glories of the now disappearing empire, that still has a sense of “British specialness” and that Britons by nature have some special reserves of ingenuity or resolve that will overcome all obstacles.  They are very class conscious even while it shows those class rules changing: middle-class Mainwaring leads the unit rather than upper-class Wilson, and having a butcher and a black-marketeer in the group keeps them in “essential supplies” when the home-office fails.  And there are the petty rivalries between Mainwaring and the air-raid patrol warden Hodges, each of whom let their imagined authority go to their heads.

There have been a few games that have gone for a “weird world war” setting – Weird War, The Day After Ragnarok, and some Delta Green materials.  That seems like a distraction: do we really need to make WWII more horrific?  I fancy tempering it with some of the nostalgic humour of Dad’s Army.   An assortment of unlikely war heroes are patrolling their town when they see something strange at the vicarage.  Their calls for assistance from the regular army get no response as they had their own problems to deal with.  Forced to rely on their “can do” attitude and good old British ingenuity, can they keep the world safe from this unknown threat?

Toasting “To Britain’s Home Guard” at the end of the final episode.  From the BBC archive.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleveland’s frozen lighthouse

In December last year, freezing winds turned Cleveland’s West Pierhead lighthouse into a giant ice sculpture.  The wind drove waves against the lighthouse, covering it in spray which was then frozen in the intense cold.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Image from Albino ©'s Flickr stream.

Imagine a tower frozen like this as the result of some magic or magical creatures.  Was someone casting a great spell that had the unexpected side-effect of freezing the tower (perhaps with them in it)?  Was it frozen from outside to seal something within?

How might you safely enter such a place?  Are those icicles waiting like spears to fall on people?  Is it also frozen within the building, with treacherous icy floors?  Has the freezing caused the stone itself to become brittle, so that removing the ice too quickly (with intense heat or smashing it off) makes the structure even more fragile?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Building with ice and snow.

On the subject of living in frozen landscapes, last year BLDGBLOG mentioned a fascinating thesis project from University of California, Berkeley student Taylor Medlin: Towards a new Antarchitecture.  First, the subject matter itself: making sustainable buildings in Antarctica out of ice. 

Datasheet comparing blocks of ice treated in various different ways.  Via Taylor Medlin’s Flickr stream.

Pure ice, crushed ice, or pykrete (ice infused with sawdust) and enhancing their strength with steel or glass rods were all examined as ways of building in Antarctica with the materials that are available there (ie ice and snow).

But for a game, I think that it is the presentation itself that is the most inspiring.  Medlin made a series of dioramas with wax human figures in ice structures and housed them in a glowing box surrounded by magnifying glasses and fish-eye lenses to view the scenes.  The box itself is covered with lazer-etched text and diagrams explaining the project.

The box containing the dioramas.  Via Taylor Medlin’s Flickr stream.

The dioramas themselves depict various scenes from hypothetical frozen buildings, from a world where buildings made of ice can be habitable by people.  Most of these scenes make particular use of ice being translucent – building out of ice would make possible special lighting effects that are not possible in stone or concrete.

A sampling of the dioramas.  Via Taylor Medlin’s Flickr stream.

The figures in these scenes seem to be looking around their world with a sense of interest, in some cases almost wonderment or awe.  Apart from this guy, he looks like he’s had about enough of these lights and he’s getting ready to dish out some hurt.

A miniaturized frozen world contained in a glowing box covered in cryptic symbols, that’s an idea that could work in all sorts of settings.  In a fantasy realm, it’s Glacial rift of the frost giant jarl meets Rob Kuntz’s Bottle City.  In a Cthulhu setting, the frozen box reminds me of both Cool Air, where the diorama scenes are rather like Polaris – a magical box created to preserve someone’s life by shrinking them into this cold dreamland, perhaps?  And in sci-fi, shrinking has been a staple for a long time (Fantastic Voyage, of course, and wasn’t there a Superman story arc involving a miniaturized city?); in that case, the diagrams on the box are technical displays from the computers running the system.

There are many options for how you might play with this.  Can the players travel into the box, and once there how do they get out?  The inhabitants of the box can be observed from the outside, but can they see out themselves?  Is it possible to communicate between the inside and out?  For that matter, is there actually any shrinking going on, or is the box actually a portal of some kind that allows you to view some faraway place?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Camp Century, a city in a glacier

In 1959, the US Army Corp of Engineers built Camp Century into glaciers in the far north of Greenland.  To do this, they dug broad trenches into the snow, put a corrugated iron roof over the top, and then covered that with snow for insulation.  Inside the trenches they could then build shelters or facilities for their work.

Camp Century during construction.  Both photos via Frank Leskovitch.

Map of the facility.  Again, via Frank Leskovitch.

It was a nuclear-powered research centre, with a particular focus on deep-core ice drilling.  They were the first to the bottom of the Greenland ice-sheet, reaching 4550 feet in 1961, and when you’re drilling so far below the ice, who’s to say what you will find?

Power came from a portable nuclear reactor (which sounds like something from Back To The Future), which was still part of an experiment.  Only eight were produced, and the Army’s nuclear power program was abandoned a few years later.

The portable reactor.

If a nuclear powered research centre in a glacier isn’t exciting enough, Camp Century was partly a proof-of-concept for Project Iceworm – a plan to develop a series of nuclear missile facilities under the arctic ice-sheet.  And then, to cap it off, in 1960 a pair of boy scouts were given the chance to be “Junior Scientific Aides” at the camp, spending five months living there (October – February, right through winter).

This would make an awesome setting for a golden era Doctor Who game (of course, transposing it be the British military) or an atomic era Cthulhu.  Combining the Greenland ice-sheet in winter with nuclear power and weapons does sound like a marriage of Pagan Publishing’s Walker in the Wastes with Pelgrane Press’s Castle Bravo.

Isolated in the arctic circle, have they accidentally disturbed something?  Or could it be that this is part of some plan to release something on the world?  Have a pair of boy-scouts been invited to this unlikely situation to provide sacrificial innocents (virgins being hard to find among the service men)?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

When fashion meets taxidermy

British taxidermist cum designer Reid Peppard produces a collection of accessories and jewellery made from the skins of vermin found in London.  They are, to say the least, striking and confronting pieces.

Reid’s point with this is that while the majority of people wear the skins of dead pigs and cows without question, the skins of animals that produced by our great cities (the “prolific, consequential vermin result of London’s excess”, in Reid’s words) still produce a shock.  It seems that we are unhappy when the origin of pieces as dead animals is made too clear, rather like people who are happy to eat meat but get a little queasy if it looks too much like an animal.

This is rather like the basis of the sanity rules in Call of Cthulhu: what is really sanity blasting is realising that the conventional view we have of the world – our notions of history, science and our place in the world – is an illusion.

Apart from being just the thing to wear to a game (or even a convention), wouldn’t these make interesting additions to the items found in a game?  Especially in a game set in a decadent era; the fin de siecle or roaring twenties, periods filled with extravagance and indulgence.  Perhaps as magical items: a headpiece with bird wings might grant telepathy or clairvoyance (as in letting one’s thoughts take flight), a fox stole grants slyness or cunning (moving silently, a gift for lying?).

The rats that figure quite prominently (understandably, there are vast numbers of rats in a city), what might they grant?  In many cultures, rats are regarded as being clever and skilled in acquiring items.  I recall a native American story of someone who wanted to become a great gambler and so he prayed to the rat spirits “teach me to gather to me as you gather to yourselves”.  In that spirit, a bag made out of a rat could be some sort of “bag of acquisition”: brush it against someone, open it up, and there is some item that had been in that person’s pockets.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kombucha tea

Yesterday my brother introduced me to kombucha tea, a drink reputed to have healing properties.  Not being the sorts to just buy ready made bottles of something that they can make themselves at home, he and his wife brew the drink in a large container, and it’s a quite an eye catching process.

Kombucha tea brewing in a jar.  Image from More Intelligent Life.

Like a sourdough mother or a ginger-beer plant, kombucha is brewed by a placing a kombucha “mushroom” into a container of sweetened black tea.  The mushroom eats the sugars in the tea and ferments it into a drink that combines some of the flavours of tea, cider vinegar, and rustic beer.  The mushroom isn’t actually a mushroom, of course, it’s a floating raft of bacteria and yeasts forming a symbiotic organism known as a zoogleal mat.

The floating kombucha mushroom.  Image from Green Tea Today.

Apart from being an interesting element to add to the description of a place in a game, this would also be a cool prop to put out on the table.  Describing the inside of an apothecary shop, the attendant pulls out a jar with a cloudy, sour smelling liquid with some floating collection of organisms floating in it.  At this point, you might reach down and pull up onto the table a jar of kombucha that you’ve prepared.  Pull the mushroom (also called “vinegar mother”) out of the way and pour out cups of the cidery, slightly carbonated drink and offer it to the players.  Or fill a flask with it, and insist that when their characters drink a healing potion, they need to take a swig from the kombucha?

Friday, January 14, 2011

The beaver’s ultimate defence

According to a story dating back to Aesop, beavers were hunted for their testicles.  Somehow, the beavers understood this and so when they realised that escape was impossible, they made a last desperate manoeuvre.  Bending themselves double, they would bite off their own testicles; then the hunters could take the testicles and leave the beavers alone.

An exceptionally flexible beaver attempting to escape hunters.  Image from the British Library, via Medieval Bestiary.

Of course, this is total nonsense.  Much of the science of the ancients was built on the same principles as story-telling, the ideas of what related to what often seemed to be built on the same reasoning that would make sense in a story.  As when a knight in a story finds a sword with a snake inscribed on the blade and concludes that either it will be poisoned or will be deadly to snakes, so too did the ancients see that the seeds from the Echium vulgare resembled snake heads and concluded that it could cure snake-bite.

In this case, it’s a moral tale, related to the bible saying that “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off”, or the story of Saint Lucy cutting out her eyes to dissuade an admirer.

This would make quite a scene in a game: the characters are hunting an animal for some part of its body (if the players are too squeamish to hunt for testicles, perhaps the horn, mane, or tail?).  At some point in the chase, the characters find the animal standing at the other side of a clearing just finishing the task of tearing off the very part that they wish to get.  The animal looks at the characters as if to say “there, you got what you came for, now leave me alone” and walks off into the wood.  What would they make of that?  Is it really just an animal if it can make such a decision?  And what might it be hiding in the forest if it’s prepared to cut off parts of its own body protect it?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

K2, the mountain with no name

Among the world’s great mountains, K2 stands out for having a remarkably impersonal name.  Where other mountains had dramatic names like Kangchenjunga, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro, K2 has little more than a catalogue number.  And, indeed, that’s just what it was.

In 1856, as part of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India undertaken by the Royal Geographical Society, Thomas Montgomery was mapping the Karakoram range in northern Pakistan (then part of India).  From a base camp atop Mount Haramukh, he was taking a series of exacting measurements of the peaks in the region.  Multiple results from different locations would then be combined to determine the position and height of these mountains.

The 1870 survey map of India, from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society

Montgomerie was simply cataloguing the peaks that he observed, ‘K’ for Karakoram and then simply numbering them.  They made sketches of their outlines to help identify which peak was which between all the sets of observations.

Montgomerie’s sketch of K1 and K2, from Wikipedia.

The policy of the survey was to identify the mountains using their local names.  This certainly hadn’t been the case in other surveys, hence Denali and Tahoma became Mt McKinley and Mt Rainier.  (I wonder if the reasons for that policy had something to do with military intelligence, to avoid confusion when getting information from locals?)  K1 was Masherbrum, K3 was Faichan Kangri, K4 & K5 was Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II, but what was K2?

It seems that K2 had no name, and likely because it was so remote.  It couldn’t be seen from any of the nearest settlements, and even the glaciers at the entrance to the range only gave fleeting glimpses.  Despite K2 being a good 500 metres taller than any other peak in the entire range, it had seldom been seen and hadn’t earned a name.  There was a proposal to name it after Henry Goodwin-Austen, who explored the region as part of the survey, but the RGS rejected that and the name K2 remains to this day.

What an incredible thought: through the thousands of years of people living so close to one of the grandest mountains in the world, it had remained undetected.  I think that sense of discovery is the essence of the old school megadungeon, that feeling that you’re the first person to see what is hidden there.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Trango Towers

In the north of Pakistan, in the Baltoro Muztagh mountains and not far from K2, the Trango Towers feature several of the most significant granite cliffs in the world.  The eastern face of the Great Trango Tower, the highest peak in the group, features the largest “nearly vertical” drop in the world: 1,340 metres, but not with the true vertical drop of Mount Thor.

Looking across the Baltoro glacier, the Trango group are on the left of this picture.  Image via Evert Wesker.

Great Trango Tower.  Image via Askole treks.

The image of those towers rising up out of the Baltoro glacier is very impressive; especially when you consider that the glacier itself is up at 4,000m and yet they still rise a kilometre above that.  What really caught my eye was that among this group of mountains is one particularly striking peak with the equally striking name of Nameless Tower.

No attribution, but image found via these forums.

Image via Todd Skinner

Image via Todd Skinner

Anything that we might call ‘nameless’ immediately brings Lovecraft to mind.  Those towering cliffs all remind me greatly of scenes from Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (I must get around to reading At the Mountains of Madness, which I imagine is rife with these places).  The Plateau of Leng and the mountains separating it from Inganok, the mountain Ngranek (although that was a solitary extinct volcano), even the great carved mountains that protect Kadath.  And there is also the granite island that was referred to as “that nameless rock”:

On the twentieth day a great jagged rock in the sea was sighted from afar, the first land glimpsed since Aran’s snowy peak had dwindled behind the ship. Carter asked the captain the name of that rock, but was told that it had no name and had never been sought by any vessel because of the sounds that came from it at night. And when, after dark, a dull and ceaseless howling arose from that jagged granite place, the traveller was glad that no stop had been made, and that the rock had no name. The seamen prayed and chanted till the noise was out of earshot, and Carter dreamed terrible dreams within dreams in the small hours.

That final image of Nameless Tower by night, with that lonely light peering out, gives me the distinct feeling of a place where people are not meant to be, where we are not welcome.  In a sense, the advances that climbing technique and equipment have made that allows them to scale all of these places – so that now the challenge is to find newer, more difficult ascents – has removed some of the feeling that people must have had in previous generations of places that were simply inaccessible, mysteries that could only be penetrated in the imagination.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Mount Thor–the world’s tallest vertical drop

There are times when the landscapes in movies, art, or games give me the feeling that the artists and animators had too much time on their hands.  “Come on,” I think, “look at those ridiculous mountains.  Real mountains are impressive enough, why make them so unrealistic?”  And then you see something from our very own world that makes you realise that those images aren’t so fanciful after all.

Mount Thor on Baffin Island (part of Nunavut in Canada) is a 1675m (~5500ft) granite peak that features the world’s tallest purely vertical drop.  At an average angle of 105 degrees, it is more than simply vertical – it is an overhang.  It cuts into the air like a mighty hooked thorn or knife, towering over the broad glacial valley below.

Mount Thor, viewed from the north (I believe)

Again, viewed from the north.  Note that the figures in the foreground are considerably closer to the camera than the mountain is.

Viewed from the south

Further back to the north, Nana Peak in the foreground.

The vertical drop totals some 1250m (4100ft).  Put in context, the Eiffel Tower is 324m, the Empire State Building is 381m, the CN Tower is 553m, and the Burj Khalifa 828m.

A magnificent prominence in a remote location, a wonderful setting for a game.  It would be a real challenge to bring the full sensation of this mountain to the table.  How do you make the players feel like they are under its shadow, or perched atop the peak?  Are words enough, or would it need pictures, or perhaps even a model?  If you put a 70cm tall clay model of the mountain on the table, then at that scale a 6ft tall character would be about 1mm.  Alternatively, if you’re playing with 28mm scale miniatures, Mount Thor’s drop is a little over 19m (64ft) tall – something like an eight-storey building.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sleepycity - urban exploration

Cities are full of left-over places, abandoned places, places that people aren’t really meant to go to but can be reached by the suitably determined.  These places are very attractive to a certain sort of person – people who are just plain curious about the cities around them – who then explore these urban environments to see what can be found when we peel back the skin of the city. 

Sleepycity is the photo blog of one such group of explorers who combine insatiable curiosity with a taste for high-class photography.  The result is a collection of fabulous images that underline the strangeness, the otherworldliness, of places that are just below, over, or beside the commonplace world we live in.  The result is something like a modern fairy story, the old kind of fairy stories where they steal children rather than sip tea from buttercup blossoms: they too were about magical worlds that were always nearby, but just out of reach.

I won’t do more here than scratch the surface of their collection to encourage you to go there and see for yourself.

The now undergrounded River Fleet in London

Atop a bridge in New York

An abandoned NASA rocket test-firing site

Apart from a wonderful store of images that could help illustrate a game, the nature of these urban explorers is also very interesting.  Insatiably curious people are the fundamental kind of character for a Lovecraft story, indeed any kind of “investigative” tale.  Of course, in any of these stories the curious people are liable to find more than they bargain for (in Lovecraft’s work, being curious is almost a death sentence).

Perhaps a group of such explorers has learned of something terrible in their city and are now being hunted down; the characters have to find these people, learn why they are being picked off and put an end to it.  No easy task when both the hunters and the hunted are so adept at not being caught!  Alternatively, perhaps such a group of explorers are a source of information for the characters, telling them how to access parts of the city that may be off—limits to others.