Thursday, February 3, 2011


In this day and age of publish or perish history, it grows increasingly difficult to identify the turning point in the development of scientific theory.  Every scholar from the past made his or her minor contribution, and every contribution is embellished to the greatest degree by the tenure-hungry ... until finally the course of events is studded with unfamiliar names.  It becomes anybody’s guess who was responsible for what breakthrough – which supports the anti-Randian view that Isaac Newton’s steward was as wise and knowing as ol’ Isaac himself, and probably responsible for half the Principia Mathematica, though of course less well known.

Plunging into the subject of optics - even the history of optics - I soon found myself submerged, and waves washing many feet over my head.  I am no theoretical physicist.  I cannot explain the principles of refraction, or how it is accomplished by the eye.  I cannot offer the gentle reader a comprehensive and systematic analysis of optical theory.  I simply wouldn't know where to begin.  In any case, I fail to see where any of that would be applied to D&D ... but that could be the result of not understanding it.

I have been able to glean from sources that two significant leaps in optical 'theology' were made.  First, in a theory proposed by an Arab with the westernized name Alhazen (Ibn al-Haythem, early 11th century), derived from an understanding that every object reflected light in all directions ... but that we only saw the light which happened to be directly reflected into our eyes.  Furthermore, objects which were closer had a greater chance of reflecting light into our eyes than objects which were further away - and therefore objects which were further away appeared smaller to us, even though in reality they might be much bigger than objects which were close up.  Moreover, the color of the object was subject to inherent qualities of the object reflecting the light.

Second, that light could be refracted so that, depending on the position of the individual, different colors could be witnessed.  Theodoric of Freiberg proposed that light was "refracted,' and that as a beam of light changed direction it could produce specific colors depending upon the location of the viewer.  If the refracted beam of light did not directly enter the eye, then there would be no evidence of color; but if the refracted beam did directly enter the eye, the viewer could potentially see yellow, orange, red, green, blue ... and so on depending upon the exact location of the individual with respect to the refracted beam.  This effect was - is - most familiarly obtained through water droplets in the air, or what is called a 'rainbow.'  The rainbow does not cover the whole sky because it's appearance is due to a specific angle created by raindrops that convey the light falling to earth to 'change its direction' and meet your eye.  Believe me, this was heavy scientific knock-out theory in the 13th century.

It is, incidentally, the reason the sky is blue.

From these two leaps in optical theory (and at least a hundred minor leaps as described by historical science philosophers) would develop an understanding of perspective ... which in terms of Civilization IV, is the application of light mechanics that enables Astronomy.  Perspective is the application of mathematics to the visual angles produced by Alhazem's theory of reflected light.  To sum up briefly, being able to measure perspective allows painters and architects - along with a host of other professions - to copy reality with mathematical precision.  In addition, the mathematics of perpective allow us to build our own reality to exact specifications ... so that we can lay out how the interior of a building would look before it is constructed.  The exterior too, for that matter, along with groups of buildings, streets, civic defenses, roads, water systems, canals and so on, without end.

From a comprehension about the way we see things, we are able to construct things so that they will appear in the way we want to see them.  Such as an entire world.

Time to time, I receive a question about the maps I produce for my world along the lines that I could save myself time and effort by ripping off someone else's maps.  But as I write this post I am reminded that before I began to draw a single line of the maps themselves I calculated mathematically how the world ought to be hexed, how the various parts of the world would be plotted and to what degree the projection of the actual world would be skewed in order to manufacture the D&D world as I wanted it.  It occurs to me that in manufacturing my own world, I could not be restrained by the bias of others who before me manufactured their worlds ... and I would be restrained if I weakened and tried it 'the easy way.'  In fact, I would have wound up with something like a Frankenstein's monster ... slapped together pieces of other human beings, rather than a living entity in its own right.  Clearly, what I wanted to do was to give birth, and not to concatenate.

Perspective as a mathematical principle is an intrinsic part of the modern human experience (and the Roman experience before the understanding was lost).  The testament to its value stands in every direction the reader cares to look.  Whether the design is something to be done for a potentially existing thing, or something that will remain forever fanciful, the process of conception is the same:

Look at the whole 'thing' that is to be designed: world, dungeon, system, spreadsheet, what have you.  Start by expressing the thing's reality in mathematical principles - don't just draw random lines on a gridded page!

Take a dungeon, and consider those things an architect would consider.  How do the residents obtain the things they need in order to live?  What arrangements have been made to remove sewage.  Would the residents travel a long distance to reach their food, or would it be conveniently located to their sleeping quarters?  Where would be the logical location for storage?  How many storage locations would be required?  There should be particular caches for food and other supplies in defensive locations which could be locked down if necessary in case of invasion.

What are the arrangements in order to allow the residents to get to their weapons quickly?  How do they keep from being trapped inside one room, or inside one part of their lair, or inside the lair as a whole?  Rather than random secret doors that seem to provide convenient travel for players, how are the secret doors rationally placed to increase the power of the dwellers to defend their lair?  How are these doors set so that, once opened to allow access to invaders, they are buttressed to stop invaders from using them?

Instead of a dungeon that's created to be dull-dull-dull-dull-dull-action, how can a dungeon be created so that it hits an invading party from every side in a succession of designed consequences which first induce a party to leave, get out ... and only after that surrenders to the idea that these invaders will need to be killed?  How are the traps arranged so as to drive the party into the parts of the dungeon where we want them to be?  Like links on porn sites that dump children on the Disney page, how do the traps inside a lair repeatedly dump parties back outside, until they give up trying to get in?  How does the compartmentalization of the lair fool parties into thinking they've succeeded in killing everyone, when in fact they've only seen a small piece?

This may seem a long way from 'optics,' but really it is in how you see a thing that is to be created.  If your perspective as a DM is to create dungeons which are jolly funlands for players, how do you perceive that your world is anything but a cheap sham like any video game?  And if it is a party world for players, call it that.

But if your purpose is to create something that will stand the test of time - if you ache to build the Taj Mahal rather than Disney's Matterhorn - then change your perspective to that of the enemy, those who are actually building the lair for their purposes.

The technological leap in optics is not in the manipulation of light, but in the comprehension of it.  Puzzling through the substance of the world one bit of logic at a time, to the point where its possible to understand how a rainbow works even though it can never be touched, handled, moved or applied to anything.  It is lifting oneself up from the simplified mechanics of tossing rocks one upon the other and fabricating in your head how those rocks could be arranged so as to produce a standing, soaring tower into the clouds.

Stop looking at what the ground offers.  Close your eyes and picture what you want.

Now make it.


Pat said...

The theory of dungeon design you're proposing is the same thing that everyone at TSR/WotC post-Gygax has gone for.

You don't end up building the Taj Mahal by enslaving yourself to dungeon realism - you build an apartment building.

For small lair-type dungeons, I'll concede quite a bit to realism, since nobody will be spending a lot of time in it, and the reasons the party is there isn't just for the sake of exploration.

For any larger underground structure, please give me the jolly funland any day over dreary realism.

Pat said...

To be pithier:

I don't design a dungeon to the needs of its inhabitants. I bend the inhabitants to the needs of the dungeon.

Alexis said...

Some fine 2-dimensional logic, Pat. Well done.

James C. said...

Sometimes internal consistency and depth can be misnamed realism when looking for a straw man. I didn't see any advice in the essay encouraging one's dungeons to be dull, just to reflect the realities of your world. They should have depth. Bad pun intended.

Serendipity being what it is, I've been spending my game time away from the blogs and on dungeon design now that the party has decided to delve another dungeon. Thanks for the focused view on the matter, Alexis. Worse pun intended.

Pat said...

A lot longer than your essay, but says pretty much the same thing. I don't like the end results. Too simulationist.

Alexis said...

A review to the link Pat included reads, "When I bought this thing, I couldn't wait to open it and learn all the cool secrets I thought I'd find.
I didn't find much.

This guide has a few cool benefits, especially for novice DM's and DM's who need to throw together a semi-believable dungeon hack in a hurry. However, it serves no other rewarding purpose. The concept of tracing and piecing together the different geomorphs is a great starter if you suffer occasional imagination block, but don't use it as a crutch. It's not comprehensive enough for that.

The suggested traps are absolutely ludicrous. If you're the kind of DM who likes to torment your players with lots of "instant death" situations and completely absurd concepts, then this is your kind of book."

So. Not really simulationist after all.

Porky said...

Pat does make a point I can see the value of, which is that a dungeon is by it's nature a fictional thing, and fiction does seem to need something of an existing approach to give rise to a new one. To get this 'enough' it likely needs to meet certain expectations of the audience, whether or not those expectations are justified by more than the mores of the moment.

That said, the post is essentially a challenge to create, a challenge to really challenge oneself and others. With that I'm very much in agreement.

Pat said...

I actually own the book (not that it was particularly worth the purchase price), the reviews are a bit more scathing than it deserves.

Anyhow I shouldn't have crapped on your blog post, I'm in a lousy mood today for no reason I can tell, but that's no excuse. I'm sorry.

Alexis said...

Certainly accepted, Pat.

Oddbit said...

There are some benefits to creating a logical dungeon. Mainly in the way of assisting players in making their own conclusions and increasing the tension.

Assuming there are living creatures, they will leave trails and signs of not only what each area is used for, but who uses them. Big caves for giants, simple routing for lower intelligence, more complex for higher. Big chairs, little chairs, stools but no chairs for backs (tails are such a bother with those), nests, cots, or even lack of any living facilities are all signs of what you may encounter.

With enough 'logical' planning characters can draw conclusions on what they will, or likely wont encounter. It also helps to immerse the player and intrigue them to have 'odd' furniture or accommodations.

This gives the player an opportunity for an 'I told you so' moment to the other party members, or to let them begin drawing conclusions to all the wonderful and terrible things that could be coming. There's been more than one adventure I've been in where the players have asked... "What the hell was it eating anyway, and how did it get IN here..." which of coarse there was no answer.

Your environment is a strong reflection of a lot of the other game content. Should you expect anything to be anywhere, I'm guessing the plot just as easily could be random. 'I throw it in because it's fun' leads me to believe that the king will turn out to be a polymorphed marmot from the next kingdom over planted to replace the old king, because it's fun.

This also lets a player explore more easily and understand their progress better. If they find themselves in what appears to be living quarters, they might look at that door and reason it's the pantry and most of the stuff in the immediate vicinity should be safe except for 'inhabitants'. If they're looking at a bridge over a moat, you don't assume you've seen the worst of it yet.