The portfolio and blog of David Bennett

Category: History

Mapping Monday: Travelers’ Maps and Itineraria

Most commonly, when we think of maps today, we think of detailed maps showing places in relation to each other geographically. Just as useful and more common in times gone by were illustrated itineraria or maps showing the relation between points along a journey. Maps such as those of Matthew Paris and his Stationes a Londinio ad Hierosolymam (Itinerary to the Holy Land) were of particular use to pilgrims. One of the most famous of these ancient iteneraria is the Roman Tabula Peutingeriana or Peutingerian Table showing travel routes between locations in the Roman Empire.

Detail from Tabula Peutingeriana, Section 1: Germania Inferior and Batavia

Here’s a different view of the same Peutingerian Table that sacrifices some of the feel of the original in favor of ease of usability and greater legibility.

Compare this to the 1866 map of the Mississippi River by Coloney and Fairchild, dicussed in this article. It’s fascinating to see the Mississippi River with all of its bends and turns straightened horizontally in a way that preserves the feel of the river and its major landmarks, while rendering it on a relatively narrow ribbon. The full Coloney and Fairchild map at the library of congress is recommended for the greatest detail.

New Orleans detail from Ribbon map of the [Fa]ther of Waters by Coloney and Fairchild, 1866

Mapping Monday: Adventures in Caves

As caves go, the Cave of Dunmore in County Kilkenny, Ireland, is a bit on the small side and not too terribly exceptional. As real-world locations go for the basis of game settings, there’s almost more going on in the visitor center than there is in the actual cave, apart from the somewhat dramatic sweep of the entrance that drops down steeply to the subterranean opening.

The story behind the cave and its history as the site of a Viking massacre is far more interesting and provides plenty of fodder for adventure, particularly if the dark atmosphere and reputation among the inhabitants is played up. For the gamemaster in a hurry, it’s relatively easy to make or find maps of limestone caves that are much more extensive and adapt them for adventure and to borrow all the description needed.

“we having, when led to the cavern for scenic illustration of the facts of this history, adventurously plunged our hand into the clear water, and taken therefrom a tibia of unusual length; and, indeed, the fact that such human relics are there to be seen, almost a quarter of a mile from the light of the earth, must, if we reject the peasant’s fine superstition, show us the misery of some former time of civil conflict, that could compel any wretched fugitive to seek, in the recesses and horrors of such a place, just as much pause as might serve him to starve, die, and rot.”
– from the Dublin Penny Journal, 1832.

Colorized image of Cave of Dunmore via Moja Zielona Irlandia from the original in the Dublin Penny Journal

Mapping Monday: Developing Cities

One of the more common issues I’ve seen with maps of cities in fantasy settings is their regularity. Short of a city being developed according to a master plan from the beginning or being rebuilt from scratch after a calamitous disaster, no city is going to be perfectly regular and even something like the Great Fire of London or the Kantō Earthquake still didn’t result in a uniform and elegant city design. There are many reasons for that, though I think the two chief reasons are human nature and natural features. People rarely relinquish their property, even if shaving off a hundred square feet on one side would allow a street to run in a straight line, and will rebuild on the same land, given a choice. For the same reason, rocky hills are notoriously hard to shift and rivers meander, so construction of houses and streets tend to conform to the landscape rather than vice-versa short of modern feats of engineering and, even then, only where the effort involved has a clear payoff. I live in Seattle and we’re quite familiar with the modern engineering that resulted in the Denny Regrade, whereby Denny Hill was leveled to allow for northerly expansion of the city. Even then, not everyone agreed to the plan and, like urban planners in modern China, the “spite mounds” in Seattle have their parallels with China’s “nail houses”.

Rules regarding cities may be thrown out the window in a fantasy setting and, as I’ve always thought, magic can substitute on some level for a degree of modern engineering. A sufficiently motivated dragon could substatially alter both the landscape and the disposition of human (or non-human) settlement in an area. Even more drastically, Japan’s legend of the yo-kai Namazu the Earthshaker was the cause of earthquakes and, if freed, could wreak much greater destruction and that’s just one of many beings around the world spoken of in myths and legends. Short of that, a more realistic city grounded int he real world is one that develops over time.

The typical settlement may develop at the bank of a river, atop an easily defended rocky outcropping, beside a sheltered bay, and many other such places that offer arable land, fish or game, or other ready source of food along with protections from storms and flooding or other natural disasters like fires, mudslides and volcanic eruptions. Even then, settlements may arise in inhospitable areas if that’s the only place to live close enough to rare resources like precious metals or gemstones. If the settlement exists along a trade route or main path of travel (for example, as a seaport conveniently located as a stopover point), it may grow. As it does, walls and fortifications develop and other structures are added to facilitate travel, trade, and mercantilism. Increasingly, housing for permanent and transient populations multiply and entertainment venues also develop. In a planned sense, a Roman settlement offers all of these, typically following a fairly uniform plan with a fortified camp, a forum and basilica, an amphitheater, several temples, markets, and bathhouses, all enclosed by a wall. As cities grow, they often incorporate other settlements and expand beyond the bounds of their original walls. Those existing structures may constrain development much the same way natural land features do.

Ankh Morpork river crossing thumbnail by Charles D. F. Board

For all of the reasons enumerated, I think it’s great when an experienced urban planner offers up his rendition of the evolution of Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork. Not only does it offer some great insights into how the great circular city might develop, but it allows for comparison to a similar riverine city like London from its beginning as a Roman settlement to its later habitation during Anglo-Saxon times and its later fortification in the Middle Ages.

Roman London known extent with major structures

SPQR Or Pontifex Maximus, A Game Of Rome Part 1

I’ve decided to create a web-based game set in early Rome. It’s intended to be about the leaders of the time with an emphasis on politics rather than military strategy. I want the latter to happen “off-screen” as it were, but with the option for legions to show up at the gates of Rome when needed to influence political events.

The biggest difficulty was selecting a time period that provided the right amount of variety, particularly political in-fighting and manuevering without too much military action (such as the wars with Carthage). In that regard, the early and late periods of the Republic offered some interesting options, as did the time of the First Triumvirate and the period following the death of Caligula, to name but a few points in the turbulent history of the Romans.

I’m particularly fond of the political manueverings described in Imperium by Robert Harris and in the BBC production of I, Claudius (for which I must confess that I haven’t read the book by Robert Graves). There’s an immediacy to the politics combined with a certain degree of brutality that keeps one from longing overmuch for the good old days. So the more I thought about it, the less Imperial Rome appealed to me and the more I wanted to go back a little further in time. At the same time, Lavinia by Ursula Leguin brings the events of Virgil’s Aeneid to life brilliantly with the interplay between the tribes of the area and the followers of Aeneas.

Out of all the time periods that I think would make for an worthwhile game, the period immediately following the Social War, a crisis point in Roman history, sounded extremely interesting. Sulla’s First Civil War with the struggle between the optimates and populares (and I’m simplifying matters greatly since it wasn’t that black and white) made for some turbulent times with lots of political and military manuevering. Throw in assassinations, exiles, plagues, riots and external threats like Mithridates of Pontus, and you have a good deal of elements to work with.

As they say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The politics of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire have much in common with the infighting during the War of the Roses and the gangland warfare of the Roaring Twenties. For that reason, I wanted to capture some of the feel of the Avalon Hill game Kingmaker, minus the board and tediousnous of moving armies around, with the fast-paced play of Family Business, but with a more historical feel and slightly more elaborate mechanics.

Before starting work, I did some research on already existing games that covered both the time period I was interested in with the politics in a card game or simple board game version. I was positive there’d be a plethora of games of all stripes, some very similar to what I had in mind. Surprisingly, the list wasn’t nearly as long as I expected, though I’m sure I missed more than a couple. My short list of games that aren’t strategy games and that otherwise capture some of the elements I was looking for are as follows:

Certainly, some of these games are ones that I’d really like to play, particularly Triumvirate. But before I do that, I’d like to get my game up and running. First up, a paper prototype. Much like website usability testing with paper mockups and wireframes, I plan to make some cards and to try some mechanics so I can see how they play out. I’ll discuss that in my next on this subject.

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