Friday, April 29, 2016

Mundane Urban Oddities in RPG Cities

One of the temptations when making a city for long-term use in an RPG is making it "perfect". I don't mean getting every detail (though that is another temptation) but rather to optimize every aspect of it - awesome public transport, carefully thought out highways, etc.

  • Real cities are awfully imperfect. Off the top of my head, here are some issues major cities have had to deal with (with a focus on the cities I'm most familiar with, Boston and New York City).
  • In Boston, whenever winds exceeded 45 miles per hour, giant windows would fall off the Hancock tower.
  • The London Underground tubes are too small to accommodate air-conditioned trains.
  • In New York City, the Second and Third Avenue Elevated lines were torn down in the the 1940s and 1950s in preparation for the 2nd Avenue Subway. Decades later, the very first part of that subway is due to open this year (2016) - a very small part.
  • Also in New York City, while subway service along the length of Manhattan island is common, traveling across the island by subway is very difficult.
  • In Boston, the two main railroad stations are North Station and South Station. While the T (the Boston subway) stops at both of them, there is no direct route between them.
  • After huge cost and time overruns, as the Big Dig neared completion (and large parts of it were open) a tunnel ceiling fell on a car, killing a passenger.
  • New York City has an easy to understand grid pattern in most of Manhattan. But south of this grid the street layout gets rather interesting (and in Boston you can forget about a grid).
  • In Boston, residents will reserve street parking spots they shoveled out after a snowstorm with a lawn chair. Heaven help you if you take that space.

Some of the things that have evolved in our superhero city of Port Henry:
  • Elevated train lines and highways cast shadows on the streets below them.
  • Built on land reclaimed from a swamp, street `flooding in rainy weather is a frequent problem.
  • Many of the trains, buildings, and roads built in the 1930s are beginning to exhibit problems owing to shoddy construction.
Image credit: WBUR Boston from 4 Things To Know About Space Savers In Boston

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Week in the 18th Century: Visiting Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. 
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. 
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

Text of the Lee Resolution, taken by the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg. Proposed to the Continental Congress by William Henry Lee of Virginia and seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts.

The family spent school vacation visiting Colonial Williamsburg and the surrounding historic areas. This was the fourth trip trip my wife and I took. Our elder daughter, now 13, went once with us and our younger, now 10, made her first trip. 

For those unfamiliar with it, Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia from 1699 to 1780. Prior to it the capital was in Jamestown and afterwards it moved to its current location, Richmond.

The restoration of Williamsburg  began in the late 1920s with surviving buildings being restored to their colonial appearances. In the 1930s the process of recreating missing buildings. Colonial Williamsburg is a "living history" museum, with character actors who portray characters of the late Colonial and Revolutionary era. The "current" year varies by events - in one visit the current year was 1774 with much of the talk being the recent Boston Tea Party and the closing of the port of Boston. It was great fun to interact with character actors, describing ourselves as being from Boston. We were able to see the full spectrum of attitudes, from blaming the Boston Patriots for causing trouble to sympathizing with them. It was chilling witnessing the governor dissolving the House of Burgesses in reaction to their formally expressing sympathy with them. 

In this visit it was the eve of the Battle of Yorktown, with General Washington having established his headquarters in the Wythe House. 

There are a variety of events one can participate in. In this visit we witnessed and participated in trials of a witch and a pirate. The witch trial was especially chilling, with much screaming, shrieking, and cursing taking place. We also got to participate in an interactive storytelling event where we learned how stories and moral lessons were passed down among slaves ("Mama said, Papa Said"). In past visits we learned about supernatural beliefs among the colonists, participated in a slave wedding (the jumping of the broom), and interacted with patriots and loyalists in taverns. The participation in the slave wedding was an especially memorable experience - after spending an hour with slaves you identified with them more than their masters, whatever your race. Which made the appearance of the master a chilling experience at the end - he came only to wish them well but after an hour with the slaves you felt the vast gap between you and he and were well aware of the total power he had over you.

Close to Williamsburg are Yorktown and Jamestown. We made a quick visit to Yorktown but didn't have much time to spend there. We spent a lot more time in Jamestown - both at the actual site of the original Jamestown and a reconstructed Jamestown. As I mentioned previously, you feel the ghosts of those who came before. It's amazing to contemplate what grew out of that tiny colony, for good and for ill. 

Overall the family had a good time. Our eldest had a few bouts of "grr, this isn't Disney World" (where we went last April) but she overall enjoyed herself - despite some character actors suggesting I might want to talk with some well to do folks about arranging a marriage for her... 

There's a stereotype of southerners being friendlier than northerners. After multiple visits to southern Virginia, with time spent out of tourist areas, I'm going to say there's definitely truth to that. Obviously it's a generalization but every visit I've made to the area I'm overwhelmed by the friendliness and kindness shown towards strangers.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Another Bucket List Setting - Colonial America

“That there is a Devil, is a thing doubted by none but such as are under the influences of the Devil.”

- Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft

I'm trying my luck with a superhero campaign right now, something I've really wanted to do for ages. We've seen the evolution of Port Henry as a place for adventure and over the next few months we'll see how good a place it really is for adventure.

While I'm not actively planning another game (I'm just starting this one folks), currently being in the Historic Triangle of Virginia (Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown) reminded me of another genre in my bucket list - that of Colonial America. I love the history of 17th and 18th century North America. Make no mistake, it's not some glorious noble epic. Jamestown was settled in search of cash. Plimoth was settled for religious liberty - but only for the pilgrims, not for anyone else. The many peoples living in North America were decimated by plague and war and Africans were brought over in chains. As in Europe, a conviction of witchcraft could bring the death penalty.

But it is a fascinating period. Over the past few days I've participated in the 1706 witchcraft trial of Grace Sherwood (I voted to acquit but she was found guilty) and a Vice-Admiralty Court of 1719 trying Israel Hands for piracy (I voted guilty and he was found guilty). I've walked through the old Jamestown settlement, having the opportunity to talk with knowledgeable park rangers and archaeologists. It's strange seeing the humble first permanent settlement of British North America - a settlement which to this day is quite isolated - with a number of dead cellular zones...

Gaming in this period is a bit sparse. There is Colonial Gothic, an interesting game with a default setting around the American Revolution, though it has visited other periods such as the French and Indian War. Personally, my tastes would run a bit earlier to the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with the British colonies more established but still very much a frontier feeling.

Sixtystone Press has been talking about Colonial Lovecraft Country as a Call of Cthulhu supplement. Being a fairly small company their release schedule is a bit on the fuzzy side, though I've been impressed with the quality of all their products and really hope this sees the light of day. While a number of settings suffer from the "just add Cthulhu" syndrome (and I know I'm guilty of that myself in my gaming), the colonial era seems perfect for this. Lovecraft himself was influenced by the era, often dating his letters two centuries early and viewing the American Revolution as a bad thing. Works such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and "The Dreams in the Witch House" make use of colonial history.

One game which I think is very well positioned for such a setting is Cakebreak and Walton's Renaissance game, the basic for games such as Clockwork & Chivalry and its follow-up Clockwork & Cthulhu. These games take place in the 17th century under the backdrop of the English Civil War. I think there's a ripe opportunity for a 17th century American game. I know a blogger with a strong interest in American history available for such a task... :-)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Make Certain You Arrive at Docking Bay 94 at Least Two Hours Early

"We'll leave as soon as you're ready. Docking bay 94."

- Han Solo

"To ensure you make it to your gate in time, please plan to arrive at least 2 hours before your flight."


It occurs to me that the Evil Galactic Empire isn't too horrible when it comes to port security. Though when one things about it, in the United States airline security was very minimal until the 1970s, which brought metal detectors into use. Again in the 1980s security increased with the Lockerbie bombings, requiring that the only baggage that could be checked in was baggage that accompanied a passenger.

Between playing Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu game set during Prohibition, and setting up Port Henry for our superhero game (with its international airport and harbor) there's been cause for consideration about spaceport/seaport/airport security. I noticed it is most prevalent with Star Wars, largely because our heroes are doing things the Evil Galactic Empire doesn't want them doing.

With Port Henry we've already had an incident of an Evil Commie Spy trying to explode a nuclear reactor (stopped by Our Heroes). Though in this case port security was not an item of concern, I can see in the future supervillains shipping in parts for their vile inventions. Even today, securing ports is a challenge - back in the 1950s I could see an entire supervillain lair being put in shipping containers. And fighting baddies at the docks definitely seems a superhero sort of thing to do...

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

I Really Doubt I Needed to Make a Map of Port Henry's Subway System...

The most amusing thing is it's actually still under development. The version I'm working on actually has rerouted some of the lines and given some thought to peak hours service. And I'll need to come up with street names. This probably isn't something that'll actually get any use in our campaign, it's more a function that I'm (1) having fun making a fictional city; (2) have a bit of break between game sessions; (3) love maps; and (4) had a career ambition of being a subway motorman once upon a time. One of my favorite things was going on trips to all sorts of interesting places with my grandfather on the New York City subway. I thought it was so amazing how we could walk a few blocks on Avenue W, take a right onto East 16th Street, a left onto Neck Road and we'd be at the subway station which could take us anywhere in the city. On our walks to the station my grandfather would tell me all sorts of interesting things - bits of what the city used to be like decades earlier, how my mother would get to school when she was a girl, tidbits about where we were going, etc. Once on the train I'd hope to get my spot at the front so I could stand at the window on the front door and see where we were headed. My grandfather introduced me to subway maps which we could use to plan our excursions. Originally we used the Vignelli map of the 1970s:

Vignelli was not a fan of relying on subway maps having a strong geographic bias - he felt their usefulness was in showing you how to traverse the subway system. While his map works well in that matter, it greatly distorted geography. It was very unpopular - my grandfather, for example, hated it. He much preferred the new map which debuted in 1979:

I have to confess that over time I've come to prefer the Vignelli map - in our home office I actually have a reprint of the Vignelli map hanging up (along with maps of colonial New York City). 

Actually, working on my maps did have some impacts on the game.

First, even before one of the players in our group brought it up, I knew I had to think of some reason why Port Henry even has houses with basements, much less the ability to have a subway system and skyscrapers. Building a city over a swamp does not really give much an opportunity for that. There's two things going through my mind on that front... I decided one of the first, if not the first, Golden Age superhero was some superhero based on, if not actually some sort of avatar of, the Norse god Thor. One who went Nazi in the war. I'm thinking Port Henry lies at some sort of dimensional nexus and is greatly influenced by the metaphysical nearness of Nildavellir, the Norse underground realm of the Dwarfs, giving a layer of solid bedrock under the swamp - one that should not have been there. I also think Deep Ones may an abandoned city carved out of this bedrock.

Also, the public transportation situation in the city helped lead to the loss of its National League baseball team. The red line in my subway map represents a monorail line above the city. Two of those stops are at the ballparks for the National League and American League teams of the city. The NL ballpark is in a rundown area of the city and the new owners of the team wanted to move it to another location. But given the investment in routing the monorail to stop at the ballpark the city would have nothing to do with such a move - causing the team to join the Giants and Dodgers in moving west - da bums! If some crazy supervillain were to want to use the ballpark as a lair. Well, he's got opportunity...

Monday, April 11, 2016

Fiction Review: 11/22/63

"I have never been what you'd call a crying man."

- Opening line of 11/22/63

Hulu recently aired a miniseries based on Stephen King's 11/22/63 and with me geeking out in a superhero game set in the late 1950s, I've recently relistened to the audiobook version of the novel.

The novel tells the story of Jake Epping, an English teacher in Maine of 2011. He's recently divorced with no children, mid-30s.

Jake is a patron of Al's Diner, home of the insanely low-priced FatBurger. On the last day of school Al calls Jake at his school. Jake is a bit puzzled, as while they were on good terms, they weren't friends. Al asks Jake to come to the diner. Arriving, Jake is shocked to discover Al has aged several years and is in the late stages of terminal lung cancer. When last Jake saw Al, just the day before, he was a healthy man in his late 50s.

Al quickly introduces Jake to a time travel that he discovered in his diner. Rather than deal with the disbelief the story will cause, Al sends Jake on a brief trip.

The time portal has the following rules:

  • It always takes you back to September 9, 1958.
  • When you return, two minutes will have passed in the present (i.e. 2011). 
  • The past can be changed. However, it does not want to be changed and will resist you, sometimes violently.
  • Even though the past can be changed, every trip is a reset, undoing everything you did the last trip. For example, if you were to carve your initials in a tree in 1958 and come back to 2011 the tree will now have your initials. However, if you were to go back again to 1958 and this time not carve your initials, when you return to 2011 the initials will no longer be there (and indeed, will have never been there).
  • Lots of unexplained paradoxes occur. For example, Al initially used the portal for very mundane purposes - buying meat at 1958 prices. He has bought and served the same meat hundreds of times. 
I'll not dive much more into the plot - what I've described can barely be considered spoilers, as this is essentially the basic setup. 

The main plot is clearly going back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy. Al tried doing that, but was not able to make it to 1963 - he caught lung cancer and was forced to return to the present and recruits Jake to try in his place. While Jake is hesitant, he does have his own motivation, inspired by the essay of a GED student he read - where the student's entire family was murdered by his father on Halloween of 1958. 

Jake makes  a trial trip in an attempt to stop the Halloween murders, followed by the full visit to the past to save Kennedy. However, he also must accomplish what Al failed to do - make absolutely certain Oswald is the killer and not part of a conspiracy. 

A large part of the book is dedicated to Jake adapting to life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He is confronted by a largely non-digital world. In many ways he grows to like this world, finding it in general a more trusting and less suspicious world and finds food tastes much better. He also discovers just how much everyone smokes like a chimney... He also discovers the casual racism and sexism of the past.  

The murders he attempts to stop take place in Derry, Maine, the town of King's earlier novel It. He meets some of the characters from It, with the earlier part of the novel, set in summer of 1958, having recently finished. 

Jake supplements his finances with substitute teaching (enabled by a diploma obtained from a degree mill) and via gambling, using a list of long-shot bets that Al provided him with. While this gives him a way to get large infusions of cash, it also attracts the attention of organized crime. Not an ideal situation. He eventually finds his way to Texas and falls in love both with a small town he gets a teaching job in and a woman who comes to that town. He is forced to balance his mission and the secrets he must carry with being open and honest in his new life. He doesn't always succeed, if for no other reason than his 21st century colloquialisms sometimes slip out.

11/22/63 is one of my favorite books. It is an ideal platform for one of King's greatest strengths, constructing engaging characters (and turning their lives into a living hell). He does a superb job taking you to the 1950s and 60s from Jake's perspective. We experience the simple joys Jake gets to experience in being a teacher, in finding a way to make a difference. And in many ways it's a sad novel, with Jake forced to make some brutal and heartbreaking decisions. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Beyond the Map - Capturing the Feel of a Superhero City

As I work on mapping out Port Henry for our Icons game, I'm finding myself reminded of a challenge I often have when setting the scene. How much detail is enough? What is too little? I myself tend to be a bit on the sparser side, something which has its advantage as it allows players to fill in blanks, but presents its own challenges, especially if different players have fundamentally different views of what something looks like.

At times like that I really wish I had some talent for drawing. I'm pretty handy at maps, especially when using digital tools like Campaign Cartographer. But my ability to produce a non-schematic/map-type drawing is limited to Risus-like stick figures. I'm not sure the diagram here is quite evocative enough to use as a visual aid tool during a game.

What I'm thinking about now is how to best give a feel for the environment of the city. As an example, I'm picturing the various incarnations of Gotham City, each of which has its own personality though for the most part they could all be visualized by the same map.

Take for example my favorite incarnation, that of 1989's Batman, as designed by Anton Furst:

This to me is the perfect urban environment for a superhero RPG. The city's character is oppressive, making the inhabitants feel small at the bottom of canyons of concrete. Bridges connect buildings over the streets, emphasizing the third dimension. Its a city that can be hiding secrets in alleys, underground tunnels, or up above you. This incarnation of Gotham City is also reflected by the Dini/Timm Batman animated series as well as the comic book of the early 1990s.

The later 1990s brought us the Schumacher films. While I found the films themselves mediocre (Batman Forever) to an icy abomination (Batman and Robin), they did bring an interesting look, one of a brighter neon, evoking an almost cyberpunk feel:

It's not my favorite look - not even close. But I can see this being the Gotham City one might want to evoke in a city of corrupt corporate scheme and high-stakes heists. And its an image I would want to keep my players clear of in most games I would run.

After the Cataclysm and No Man's Land events of the 1998-1999, Gotham City was rebuilt with more modern look.

Any of those incarnations of Gotham City are valid and could likely be represented by the same map. However, each has its own distinctive feel.

Image Credits
  • Risus Swordsman by S. John Ross,
  • Gotham City from Tim Burton's Batman, 1989.
  • Gotham City from Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, 1995.
  • Gotham City from DC Comics post-Cataclysm (uncertain of exact source)