Monthly Archives: September 2017

Sci-Fi D&D FTW 2.0

Mephit James' Blog

After I posted my last thoughts about Sci-Fi adaptations, I got a few very helpful responses from people. In an effort to leave no moonrock unturned (see what I did there?) I’m back with a few more additions.

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Here at the End of All Things

Longreads

Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)

1.

“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”

— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked…

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ESSAYS IN GAME DESIGN – Essay Three: Where Has All The Magic Gone?

ESSAYS IN GAME DESIGN

Essay Three: Where Has All The Magic Gone?

Why don’t they make Magic Items like they used to?

I was looking through my AD&D books tonight and noticed how versatile and multi-functional so many of the magic items were.

They were powerful, and they were odd, and fascinating, and most important of all a lot of them could do all kinds of things.

By comparison so many of the magic items of more recent editions are bland, plain, uninspired, and uninspiring. It’s like using a piece of technology from the eighties or something. The items are overly specialized, technical, usually limited to one specific function, top-heavy in design and capabilities. A drag to own and use and usually good only for specific encounter types.

Older magic items were magical. They had so many functions they seemed like a modern mini-computer/cell phone/PDA/wristwatch/GPS/tricorder all in one. Impressive and extremely useful. Versatile. Fluid. A joy to own and use, employable in a wide range of circumstances. They were the Renaissance Men of Miracles, the Polymaths of Magic. And in addition most were mysterious. You had to figure them out as you went along. They could always have extra, hidden potential that you’d never know about til you screwed around with just the right thing and accidentally tripped some concealed latch. And you had Artifacts, and Incredible Devices, and Relics, with strange legends and ancient lore surrounding them. They weren’t just treasure types, they were items of real magic.

(In a purely imaginative sense, of course, but then again freeing the imagination, and being able to free the imagination, is a type of magic. Being enslaved to limited, prescribed, and proscribed function, technique, or technology is not magic. It is in many ways the very opposite of magic.)

We need to get back to that in modern fantasy games.

It made fantasy gaming fun instead of a technical exercise in weaponry calibres and target types.

Magic should have some, “Boy, now you’re really gonna see something!” to it, instead of “how many rounds ya got in that wand and what is the total count of damage points inflicted by it? I’m trying to calculate exactly how long this combat will last.”

Also,  magic used to be truly weird and fantastically dangerous.  To everyone including the Wizard employing it. Nowadays, and far too often it is merely a form of binary technology, on/off. And very rare is it for it to ever even fail.

So, where has all the magic gone?

It’s basically gone to hell with the idea that magic is about power shots and ammo counts rather than about mystery and wonder.

Somebody needs to dig some real magic up out of the grave and see if they can put a resurrection spell on it…

Endnote: I actually tend to think, that as far as game design goes, and even as regards gameplay to a certain extent, that the situation of “magicless magic” has actually improved considerably. Especially as regards Dungeons and Dragons and many of the related fantasy type games and role playing games. However, and against this general state of “magical improvement” has come the counter-tendency to reduce magic to a mere secondary or substitute form of technology as is far too often the case in literature, films, and video games. So I posted this essay anyway to remind game designers (even video game designers), DMs and GMS, and even players that they can be pursuing, even demanding real magic in their games, and by that I mean weird, strange, truly dangerous, multi-functional, and unpredictable magic that is anything but yet another substitute, secondary, or typical human technology. 

 

ZERO GAIN

Exclusive: one of the greatest conceptual breakthroughs in mathematics has been traced to the Bakhshali manuscript, dating from the 3rd or 4th century

In this close-up image you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right.
 In this close-up image you can see the use of a dot as a placeholder in the bottom line. This dot evolved into the use of zero as a number in its own right. Photograph: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford

Nowt, nada, zilch: there is nothing new about nothingness. But the moment that the absence of stuff became zero, a number in its own right, is regarded as one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.

Now scientists have traced the origins of this conceptual leap to an ancient Indian text, known as the Bakhshali manuscript – a text which has been housed in the UK since 1902.

Radiocarbon dating reveals the fragmentary text, which is inscribed on 70 pieces of birch bark and contains hundreds of zeroes, dates to as early as the 3rd or 4th century – about 500 years older than scholars previously believed. This makes it the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today.

The ‘front’ page (recto) of folio 16 which dates to 224-383 AD.
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 The ‘front’ page (recto) of folio 16 which dates to 224-383 AD. Photograph: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford

Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: “Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and our whole digital world is based on nothing or something. But there was a moment when there wasn’t this number.”

The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in a village called Bakhshali, near Peshawar, in what is now a region of Pakistan. It was discovered by a local farmer and later acquired by the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Translations of the text, which is written in a form of Sanskrit, suggest it was a form of training manual for merchants trading across the Silk Road, and it includes practical arithmetic exercises and something approaching algebra. “There’s a lot of ‘If someone buys this and sells this how much have they got left?’” said Du Sautoy.

In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens. It features a problem to which the answer is zero, but here the answer is left blank.

Several ancient cultures independently came up with similar placeholder symbols. The Babylonians used a double wedge for nothing as part of cuneiform symbols dating back 5,000 years, while the Mayans used a shell to denote absence in their complex calendar system.

However the dot symbol in the Bakhshali script is the one that ultimately evolved into the hollow-centred version of the symbol that we use today. It also sowed the seed for zero as a number, which is first described in a text called Brahmasphutasiddhanta, written by the Indian astronomer and mathematician Brahmagupta in 628AD.

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“This becomes the birth of the concept of zero in it’s own right and this is a total revolution that happens out of India,” said Du Sautoy.

The development of zero as a mathematical concept may have been inspired by the region’s long philosophical tradition of contemplating the void and may explain why the concept took so long to catch on in Europe, which lacked the same cultural reference points.

“This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite,” said Du Sautoy. “That is exciting to recognise, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs.”

Despite developing sophisticated maths and geometry, the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, for instance, showing that while the concept zero may now feel familiar, it is not an obvious one.

“The Europeans, even when it was introduced to them, were like ‘Why would we need a number for nothing?’” said Du Sautoy. “It’s a very abstract leap.”

Carbon dating reveals Bakhshali manuscript is centuries older than scholars believed and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age.
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 Carbon dating reveals Bakhshali manuscript is centuries older than scholars believed and is formed of multiple leaves nearly 500 years different in age. Photograph: Courtesy of Bodleian Libraries/ University of Oxford

In the latest study, three samples were extracted from the manuscript and analysed at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The results revealed that the three samples tested date from three different centuries, one from 224-383 AD, another from 680-779 AD and another from 885-993 AD, raising further questions about how the manuscript came to be packaged together as a single document.

The development of zero in mathematics underpins an incredible range of further work, including the notion of infinity, the modern notion of the vacuum in quantum physics, and some of the deepest questions in cosmology of how the Universe arose – and how it might disappear from existence in some unimaginable future scenario.

Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Library, said the results highlight a Western bias that has often seen the contributions of South Asian scholars being overlooked. “These surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition,” he said.

The manuscript will be on public display on 4 October, as part of a major exhibition, Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, at the Science Museum in London.

ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN: To Hell With Balance

ESSAYS ON GAME DESIGN

Essay Two: To Hell With Balance

I’m gonna say something that might shock some of you guys. Then again, maybe not.

Balance, go to the Devil, and burn in hell. And while there sip septic tea with him til you’re really needed again. And chances are it won’t be often. But whatever the case, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

I’m working on a fantasy Role Playing Game, I’m not designing an algorithm, doing covalence equations, or writing a computer program to calculate a moonshot at apogee.

So sometimes in-game my players get their noses busted and spleens ruptured by a dragon that in real life they couldn’t ever easily kill. Not with bow-sticks and knives and harsh words anyways. Good, it’ll teach em a lesson about danger and risk and what it actually costs people.

And sometimes they’ll whip out their Horn of Resounding and bring down the walls of Jericho, or slay a few giants with the Jawbone of an ass. Good, sometimes you catch a miracle in midair, deserved or undeserved. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes he gets you. That’s life.

But in any case, as far as the game goes, the player is fascinated, interested, intrigued, involved, worried, anxious, and maybe even occasionally excited again. Perhaps shocked and ecstatic from time to time too, just to boot.

Balance, he ain’t my god. I don’t owe him any real sacrifices. He’s more like the grey-skinned Graeæ sisters than bright Apollo. Only one eye to see with, a lot of double talk, the bite of a one-toothed wonder – and in the end, disaster, not glory. You can’t trust Balance to point the way to the future, cause he’s more consumed with his own reflection in the mirror than with anything remotely heroic happening. Static, stale, sterile, sluggish, and simple-minded. A dotard of dullness. No poetry of soul, just an arrested arithmetic of tedium. More Echo and Narcissus, more Sound and Fury, than Thunder and Lightning.

I liked the original version of D&D. I like the 4th Edition, at least many things about it. But I see now that this pernicious idea of “balance” that crept in like the Serpent at Eve in Paradise, balance as an end in itself, especially in a fantasy game of all things, is more assassins’ poison than golden Ambrosia. If I have to kill wonder and potential just to achieve balance, then I have to kill fantasy just to achieve boredom. Thank you modern RPG Fantasy Game Theory of Balance, but I think you’d be happier working as a stock-boy in the warehouse of modern mediocrity, than a gate-keeper to the temples at Mount Olympus.

So Balance, my fine feathered fowl of gutless acquittal, go to hell and burn awhile. Maybe you’ll cook into a decent potpie.

Invention is as invention does. So, I’m gonna start designing fantasy games and adventures again, even D&D ones, where magic happens, miracles save the day, monsters are dangerous and feral, the voice of God rumbles across the sky, kingdoms topple, heroes struggle, players say, “Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” and imaginations catch fire.

Balance can burn in his own oven… and stew in his own juices.

 

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