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.