what is your game about?

When I first seriously considered designing and publishing a game it was in the mid-2000s and the Forge was ascendant for independent designers. It was churning out strange and wonderful games from strange and wonderful people — Vincent Baker had produced Dogs in the Vineyard, Paul Czege had made My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls. I and the authors knew what these games were about since they were built with great deliberation and starting with that knowledge. I didn’t really understand what these games were for, though. Not at the time.

(I hold no malice towards any of these people. What I will describe is not about a person but rather about a culture. Many of these folks made great games and would go on to make even greater games. I respect most if not all of them. I have learned a great deal from them. I still like you.)

Still, I very much wanted to be a part of this group, to have my work taken seriously. When I tried to engage, however, I encountered several obstacles.

First, a lot of discussion was around the Forge’s sacred texts, the essays of Ron Edwards. The relevance of these has since been minimized by most parties but at the time they were important enough to both be adhered to and yet also be debated. I read them and found them interesting where they were penetrable. At the core they implied you should be deliberate: understand what you want to do and then set all design effort towards doing that. This is pretty good advice. Be deliberate. In the details it got more contentious.

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This is actually one of my own diagrams.

Second, the group was entrenched. There was a core group who did the bulk of the interpretation and many wrote elliptically (echoing the style of the texts) rather than plainly, alluding and planting metaphors. They used diagrams that buried meaning under a layer of more coded language, obfuscating rather than clarifying. The core group, the ones that had been there forever and helped established the culture, nodded and winked in understanding. From the outside it was less explicable but not nonsense — you just found that lacking a few years of immersion in that culture that you didn’t know the language. You were a foreign visitor with limited language skills and the locals weren’t really interested in teaching it to you. As with any local, they may not have been aware that their dialect was unusual.

Finally, the group had a gate that was well kept.

When approached to consider a new game idea, they would (almost in unison) ask: what is your game about?

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Because laser.

On the surface this sounds like a deep question. And it is! But it’s also a way to guard the gate. The question, see, determines whether or not you embrace a top-down design methodology. And it does so unquestioningly, disregarding any other methodologies. If you couldn’t answer this then you couldn’t make a “coherent” game, which was the holy grail of the sacred texts. I’m not actually against this: I think coherence (as in tight focus, like a laser, not as in comprehensibility — people get hung up on this word unnecessarily) is a very desirable trait in a game, though perhaps I came to understand it in a more general sense than it was intended at the Forge.

I would use this question afterwards as well but that was a mistake. If I “helped” you with this phrase and you found it demoralizing, I apologize. It would be a while before I would realize what it does.

Knowing what your game is about before you design is part of a top-down design process: you decide and define what you want to accomplish (your requirements) and then you start designing mechanisms that all further that goal. You start with your intention and you develop your realization, drilling down into greater detail as you go. You develop mechanisms that serve your purpose.

This is a really good way to design things (especially very large and complex things). It’s not a bad thing to teach this methodology and expand on it.

But when I was asked that question and couldn’t answer, I felt rejected. Like I couldn’t answer what my favourite colour was at the rope bridge of doom. The gate was shut (and it doesn’t matter if this was the intent — this was what happened regardless of the intent). And so I bounced off the Forge and while I made some effort to understand it, I was never welcome and I never performed the necessary genuflection to be accepted. I could mouth the words but I didn’t believe.

That’s because there are other ways to design. There really are. You can start with a cool setting idea and start planting mechanisms in it that you dig and slowly assemble a game. And then refine it. Along the way you may well discover what the game is “about” and at that point you can continue to refine it, gradually focusing it on the target. Coherence does not only emerge from one design methodology. I often wonder if that metaphor can be pushed further — it seems like the top-down Forge methodology produced great accuracy: the games hit the nail on the head when they work (I had so many play well one night and fall flat the next). They did what they were supposed to do, usually. By contrast, other methodologies may be better at precision: whatever they do, they do it reliably again and again.

Anyway, I always felt rejected by the Forge. In point of fact I bounced off the gate so hard that it would be wrong to say they rejected me — you have to have some kind of deliberation, some assessment in order to reject. I was never given enough attention to reject. I just ricocheted.

guilds

This is a bit of a deviation because it’s not about tabletop games, but rather about video games. Specifically big multiplayer “role-playing” games and a specific element of them: the guild. And honestly there’s a little political science in here because I think some people misunderstand the politics in them because they are not remotely like real world politics at their core. The drama is of course the same.

izh_classicWe want to look at power and at legitimacy. Legitimacy is the part that works similarly to the real world (in that there are no game mechanics to create legitimacy) except that it is so easy and so cheap to change your guild, that abandoning a failed leadership is not remotely the same as in real life. The end result of that is that there is no real need for democracy to establish legitimacy because the consequence of a failed leadership is not actually all that interesting. In part this is because there is very limited power.

A guild leadership cannot imprison you. It can’t take your stuff. It can’t injure, torture, or kill you. And if it does anything you dislike outside those bounds (like demand your stuff, ghost you out of events, or be cruel to you verbally) you can leave. So even the game mechanical power that is held over you (like inviting you to raids, determining what loot you can get, removing your ability to invite/kick members) is transient. You can always go somewhere else. This is something that a lot of guild leadership has not embraced: the incredible weakness of their position.

Things that increase the power of a guild leadership are social and organizational and not game mechanical then.

So if you have a guild that is regularly running large raids (which are a substantial organizational challenge) then being allowed in that raid is a desirable thing that can be withdrawn. So that’s a real power over a subset of the membership. Finding another guild that is achieving the same things is not as easy as just finding another guild. But it’s not all that hard either, and so this power is not as strong as we sometimes imagine. The mechanical power here is in the distribution of loot and is restricted to raid behaviour. And you can get what you want elsewhere.

If you have a guild that creates a comfortable, welcoming, and safe social environment in some ways you have even more power since that is somewhat more rare than a solid raiding behaviour. This develops some genuine loyalty (rather than the material loyalty that raiding offers — if someone offers you more, absent any social element, you of course take it) that has some durability. You come to like the people you are playing with and you want to continue associating with them. And the mechanical power a guild has here is the threat of ostracization: you can be kicked from the guild and therefore its social space (chat window, discord server, and so on). But again, you can get what you want elsewhere. But it can be much harder to find a safe friendly and active social environment than a raiding environment that delivers loot.

So a guild controls weakly access to loot. It controls strongly the social environment.

fact 1A successful guild then has to be competitive in raid management (if that’s your schtick) but there are potentially more gains to be had by excelling at social management. Of course there are people who don’t care about the social environment, but because of the very limited power a guild has through loot control alone, these players will move between guilds at will anyway. There is nothing you can do to keep them that someone else can’t do as well or better. The people who are likely to stick, are going to stick because of other reasons. And those are the people you want to stick anyway.

This also means that the work of the guild members to expand a guild is social work. Not just the leadership, but the whole guild. People have to prefer being in your guild even if it’s less attractive for loot generation than another guild (because that is certainly the case) and the only attraction there is social. That also means that the membership that does not raid (and therefore does not impact loot availability) is at least as important as the membership that does. A guild that leverages their social power necessarily attends to its whole membership.

It is easy to forget the social element when you are concentrating on raiding. But that is where your core is and if you reflect on your time in game (what you find fun, who you interact with, what you say and do that’s not raiding) you’ll see that that is true.

Any competent player can get into a raid. Not everyone can find a home.

law and chaos

One of the things people like about Good and Evil is that it provides a space for a supernatural (maybe meta-natural) conflict between deities that personify these extremes and the world in which we play our games is a battleground for these forces. In general this is a potentially fun conceit to work with, giving you people with varying dedication to these divine forces and fulfilling their roles as champions of their divinity. All potentially awesome.

But, in addition to the problems alluded to earlier, there is practical trouble with this particular dichotomy: while many say that there needs to be a balance (and there does, practically, need to be a balance in order for this battle to work since otherwise there might be a winner), it’s perfectly clear that there is absolutely no need nor desire for a balance between Good and Evil. Any rational being would want a world of Good, full stop. So where would allies of Evil even come from? Who would want that shit?

Weird_of_the_white_wolf_daw_1977Originally this was not the driving dichotomy in D&D. It was originally Moorcockian, an hilarious word I have just invented. In Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series (of which the Elric stories are just one facet) the divine dichotomy is between Law and Chaos. Now this is where it’s at: if you want a divine dichotomy, this is one you can work with.

First, there is no moral bias here. You can have good people on both sides. You can have awful people on both sides. In order to exploit the dichotomy for story purposes you don’t have to simplify anyone’s position and you don’t have to suppose that free-thinking individuals would credibly desire a world in which it was ordinary to get murdered.

More usefully, we can imagine people who would desire the extremes of course — perfect Law were everything is ordered and predictable and safe or perfect Chaos where individual desires reign and things are constantly new and unsafe but exciting. But we can also see that the middle ground, a balance, is in fact genuinely desirable. You don’t have to cart out the obviously specious claim that “good can’t exist without evil” and therefore that evil is somehow necessary. Even if Good has no interesting definition without the contrast of evil, that’s just fine! It’s still Good!

But Law and Chaos genuinely stress against each other in a fun fashion. Pushing more towards one has amusing possibilities for story without forcing a particular morality on anyone. And the gods themselves can be interesting now! Gods of Evil are inexplicable elemental things that make no intrinsic sense since they have no believable agenda. But Law and Chaos do! These are gods you definitely want to have a chat with. An audience with an Evil god is not going to go well. An audience with a Good god is going to be dull since their position is obviously good (it’s even called that). But an audience with a god of Law or Chaos, well that’s going to be interesting. It has no obvious arc. And their agenda is credible and either could be persuasive. But ultimately most people are going to want a little from column A and a little from column B.

I think the underlying concept of alignment is a compelling setting choice. That doesn’t mean every setting should have it, but it’s a choice that makes some sense. It makes a particular kind of world that’s fun to play games in. It’s the moral alignment that makes no sense and creates a dull (and, ultimately, racist and stupid) world. One agenda is obvious and the other is not credible. You can’t help but fight cardboard cut-out enemies since if you argued with the Evil ones you would have to conclude that they were either automata or insane.

If you imagine a plane of each extreme, a plane of Good and a plane of Evil, you find that the Good place is paralyzingly boring and the Evil place is perfectly undesirable (and unsustainable — the Evil places imagined in D&D have absolutely necessary non-Evil behaviour in order to persist: they cannot be “perfect” representations of Evil because Evil doesn’t function). But if you imagine a perfect plane of Law and a perfect place of Chaos you can imagine interesting (however undesirable) places where interaction still makes sense. You’re not murdered as soon as you show up and you still have something fun to do, beating down both Good and Evil planes for playability.

So it’s not alignment that a rail against (though I have little use for it, it’s because it’s just not a setting conceit in my games — don’t need a divine presence of this kind) but the insistence on using it for a moral dichotomy. A moral dichotomy is not a choice because one side is obviously, perfectly, inarguably, better. How’s that a fun way to run a universe?

look, mythology is crap

(A warning — my knowledge is mostly of “western” mythology, so Roman and Greek, and so one should read this with that in mind. But if you are an expert on other mythologies, I’d love to hear your thoughts as well, because the basis of the problem lies in technological facts of early human history and I would be excited to hear about exceptions.)

Okay it’s not. There is poetry, there are ancient ideas that are embedded in cultures. There are even cross-cultural motifs that echo something deeper within us (perhaps) than just the pre-Christian near-Eastern fantasies. But it’s also crap. So is history. The past is crap.

These stories are entrenched in a world where:

  • women cannot practically and safely avoid pregnancy, a reduced physical state without modern medicine, hygiene, and technology
  • rapid reproduction is essential to a population’s growth because of the high mortality rate in both children and mothers and consequently women become a resource rather than a human
  • slavery is the petroleum that fuels productivity — until we can burn oil, this is the technological accelerant of the day and the pure utility of it eclipses the inhumanity of it
  • warfare centers on the destruction or enslavement of whole civilian populations, sometimes just as revenge
  • warfare is entirely thinkable (something nuclear weapons, for a while, half solved for us but is now back on the table)

And so these stories embody these horrors. At their best they present exceptions to these horrors as wild fantasies. Imagine a society where women had power! Weird! Strange! What magic and puissance would be needed to make this a reality?

Our gaming should be fantasy (even when it’s cyberpunk or whatever) — it should be about us wondering what could be (for good or ill) in the context of some imagined alternate world. It’s a creative process that I find very exciting. It’s where the fun is.

But mythology is not that. Mythology is the fantasizing of people who were stuck in the world I previously described. Co-opting those mythologies uncritically is placing yourself back inside those assumed horrors in order to imagine wonders that, frankly, either could or do actually exist now. This doesn’t strike me as interesting nor valuable. And so the worst possible defense of a game or its setting would be, to me, “but this is how the myth goes” or, more obviously indefensible, “this is how history says it was”. Even when it embodies deep truths about ourselves it warrants critical examination, because it really embodies deep truths about who we were 2500 years ago, and some of those truths might not be true any more. The assumption that these revelations are both universal and transcend time is lazy.

I would much prefer a fantasy that extends from now. It doesn’t have to be set in the modern age nor in the future; that misses the point. Thematically, it must be a fantasy of how things could be better than they are now. It can also be worse (maybe much worse) but ideally in ways that spawn from the new fantastical context and not just rowing backwards into some BCE backwater.

File_002Most mythological presentation of women, especially as avatars for concepts, is pretty dismal. Women are idealized based on the ways they are of use to others. Or are amazing exceptions when they are not mothers and caregivers. This should not be amazing now, and I very much want to be amazed. We have maidens and mothers and literally wombs. We have muses, which are basically the uncredited authors of men’s art. We have goddesses that dote on boy heroes and tolerate husbands who don’t just cheat on them but casually rape. I want the rare show of autonomy and strength to be common. It is no longer amazing.

Of course mythology contains things worth mining. The stories are ones you can bet almost anyone has heard and that kind of commonality, those touchstones, make story telling much easier. We can speak few words and be sure that the audience knows all the missing ones. They contain images that are similarly entrenched. They contain powerful concepts such as the concrete realizations of abstractions like The Furies and that kind of realized metaphor is awesome. There’s a reason I always dug the D&D monsters, The Inevitables, the forces of elemental Law. That is an amazing opportunity for fantasy.

But that commonality is also a drawback. I’ve heard the story before. It’s the fantasy of people stuck in a world that doesn’t need to exist any more. I want fantasies for my world. What if something other than capitalism drove the motives of societies? What if there was no more oil? If magic worked, what would we really do with it beside solve ancient problems we’ve already solved? What if we encountered beings who were not like as at all — not palimpsests of known beings, but something entirely new?

Our stunted fantasies often revolve around the realization of deities — they are certainly concretely real. You can talk with them and they answer. What if there was a world with the similarly practical and perfect knowledge that there were no deities, that mortal consciousness is the ultimate consciousness?

What if power was free?

What if we were free?

So please, feel free to cloak your work in the imagery of mythology, but let’s not mire ourselves in ancient fantasies about escaping a world we already escaped. Let’s write (and perform) some genuinely new myths. Let’s take for granted the things we know we can do (even if we haven’t yet) and wonder harder about what else could change. Let’s make new things.

(Saw this morning that KatieQuixotic is talking about similar things on Twitter today. So thanks for sharing my brain a bit!)

orcs and evil

I recently was involved in a twitter discussion in which I concluded that a rational and natural evil was nonsensical. The path to there is a little convoluted, but it hinges on motivation: what is the objective of evil? Most rational objectives I can think of are pretty bad but not really what we think of as Evil. Maybe evil but not Evil if you follow.

Say, for example, orcs really hate humans. They kill all humans and destroy all human things. But if they are natural and rational, then they have an end-game, a perfect world. They have an agenda that is not just external to them (kill everything) but internal: something they want and strive for. Clearly this is just a world without humans but otherwise kind of nice — everyone rational wants things to be kind of nice, at least for them. This is extreme and aggressive but, depending on the backstory for their hatred, not necessarily evil and not innate so certainly not Evil. Maybe their human-free world is awesome. Too bad for us but more power to them.

But if evil is rational and supernatural we can kind of get our teeth into something meaty. Perhaps our Evil is a deity that despises this reality and wants to destroy it to replace it with their own (whatever that looks like doesn’t matter since it doesn’t have us in it). A kind of failed god like Morgoth in The Silmarillion — they hate the existing reality and are jealous of the power of creation. Their dedication to the destruction of everything is rational but supernatural: they want their own vision realised. That’s their rational end game.

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There we go, a hate elemental maybe. Or a failed god.

Or perhaps it’s supernatural but irrational — it’s just a kind of hate elemental, a realization of pure nihilism that only destroys. Maybe that’s not even Evil but it’s a neighbour. It is interesting however simple its agenda is. It will be content in its end-game to rule over ashes. But it has to be irrational: there is no constructive agenda, no genuine plan for the future. Just wreckage and horror.

But where do orcs go? It seems to me there are few places for orcs and evil. One is that they are an autonomous species with their own culture and a complex agenda (not Evil intrinsically) but they are unwillingly or unwittingly under the command of our hate elemental or jealous near-deity. They will ultimately be consumed as well. These orcs have a complex relationship with the world and are, to my mind, very interesting now. They can be saved or, much better, save themselves. They don’t really need a variation in shape, though — they could as easily be humans. Again, their evil is situational and not innate. They can and would likely prefer to find a different path.

Another way to read them would be as beings that do not have a culture, that do not exist as normal biological organisms do. That is, they bear no children and have no relationships but are fabricated by our Evil entity with only enough autonomy to serve as soldiers. Not even that, but really as just appendages of this Evil entity. These orcs cannot be saved because they are just semi-detached tentacles of the Evil. They are not “like” people beyond the fact that they sort of look like people. They are the best our hateful and destructive demigod of the ashes can do as far as creation goes and they will be expended in the end. Since they are basically automatons they can’t really be Evil themselves — they are an expression of our hate monster’s evil.

But I don’t see a way that rational, natural beings can be intrinsically evil (or Evil really) because there’s no end game to a philosophy of pure hate and destruction. They have no agenda that makes any sense. Anything you try to make them want requires either supernatural power (re-create the world as something functional for them), lack of rationality (a pure hate for everything), or not being actually evil (a complex and destructive relationship with the status quo).

Thanks Levi, I didn’t need to sleep anyway.

now it’s personal

Okay brace yourself because this isn’t going to be about science or about gaming.

Queen_The_Game
The sharp reader will note that I was 15 when this came out. It’s not an album from that summer but there were a couple of summers.

I fell in love for the first time forty years ago. It was summer and I was 14 and I met a girl a grade ahead of me (to be fair I already knew her, but I fell for her that year) and we spent the whole summer together. Shopping, talking, listening to music, and making out. It was a sexual awakening with no sex and it shaped my life forever. Kelly’s still out there and we still talk and she’s still on my mind. Chatting with her tonight I had a bit of a revelation about that and about exactly how it impacted me.

Ever after I lost partners (well one, anyway) because I wasn’t interested in sex. Well, that’s not quite right. I was interested but I also wanted my romance to be that same clunky romance I had at 14: I loved kissing and knowing it was not going (much) further. I wanted that to happen forever. And it doesn’t — I had an intuition that sex would change everything and I was right but I put it off for as long as possible. I wanted adolescent fumbling for as long as I could get away with it.

We would normally say “she broke my heart” but I think it’s unfair to put that on Kelly. She didn’t break my heart. We wanted different things and what I wanted was her and so I broke my heart and frankly it was a … great feeling? Not that. It was awful, it was agonizing, it was tear-my-hair out horrible but there is also a certain joy in that heartache. When you feel so much so hard and it’s all about you, all about your pain, about your loss, it’s kind of addictive. And, I think, extraordinarily selfish after a certain point. You’re allowed your pain but it’s a little weird to cling to it.

And I think for a long time afterwards that was my model for romance: infatuation and heartache. And kissing. Those were basically my romantic goals for what seems like decades but was in fact only one (at most). Why does the short time in our youth seem so expansive and the later years tick by like seconds? It feels like I spent almost all my life between 14 and 24, pursuing heartache.

elvis_costello_the_attractions_-_this_year_s_model_base
Oh Elvis. You’re so broken but you spoke to my own broken.

My musical tastes tracked this (this was the thing I realized while chatting with Kelly this evening). Before that summer I listened to the Beatles and Queen and I can’t even remember what else. Afterwards I moved to early David Bowie and then Elvis Costello. Elvis was lyrically in the same space I was — clearly in love with his angst, with his heartache, with his bitterness. And he made it angry, which was kind of vindicating. It would be many years before I could see the degree of selfishness needed to make a heartache all about yourself. Enough to be angry rather than just sad. So it resonated — it was how I felt and the message was that I could keep that pain for as long as I liked. And I liked it.

The_Cure_-_The_Top
Around the time I found the Cure I was spending my angst dancing. A lot. Not necessarily with anyone.

I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. Just in constant pursuit of heartache. I wanted that summer back, the strongest feelings in that summer, and one of those was the heartache. I still kind of love it. It’s not very different from falling in love. The ending and the start have the same clutch and pull. Being in love for me was a constant joyous terror that it was all going to end at any point. Is that a kind of masochism or does everyone feel that? Well if it’s unusual then clearly that summer was a defining moment for me, because that pain still brings a kind of joy. I like to feel hard. I cry at a well-crafted commercial. I’m cool with that.

Tom_Waits-Heartattack_and_Vine
Tom Waits was part of my recovery period. I wasn’t craving the heartache any more. I was enjoying a deeply flawed stability.

I won’t go through the relationships up until now. There was a pattern and then there wasn’t. I hurt some people and yet I loved every one of them dearly. I wanted each relationship to last forever unchanged and I wallowed in each ending. I fell in love with people who didn’t even like me, possibly so I could skip straight to the heartache. It was a strange decade. I behaved badly but, at least, earnestly. If I could find all those people I’d apologize but finding people who are now in their 50s is surprisingly difficult. And stalkery. So I’m sorry. You know who you are.

I put a paragraph in there about music because this period of my life has a soundtrack and it’s important: the music triggers the feelings. If I’d figured this out earlier I could have just replayed one heartache over and over with a song or an album or an artist instead of inventing impossible relationships to agonize over. And maybe I still do that to some extent. Maybe we all do.

There is no gaming content here and no rocketry. I contain multitudes, as they say. You get all of it. I can’t pick and choose what I write.

Well, I choose not to anyway.

…in space!

Usagi_02I remember my wife bought me a copy of Space Usagi in the distant past and I was very excited — after all, I love science fiction and I love Usagi Yojimbo! And I read it and I was bitterly disappointed.

You see, what they did was just paint the science fiction on. They had ray guns and fought aliens on alien planets, but the tropes were largely the same as the non-sf version and the imagery was the same but with space-bits glued on. Japanese fortresses hovered in space. Space armour looks remarkably like samurai armour. They have laser katanas.

This felt like, well I want to say “betrayal” but that’s pretty harsh, but I did feel betrayed. We have a masterful storyteller and artist and it feels like they just didn’t put the work in to really adopt an alternate genre. They just painted the old one a new colour. There is no attention to how technology changes things. There’s no effort to understand the differences between Edo era Japan and some distant future. And so the stories are completely transplantable: there is nothing new or exciting here other than amusing new space art.

This lack of intentionality happened a lot in early popularized science fiction as well — surely we all recall mentions of technologies like “space pills” and “space wrenches”. This just lacks effort and it’s kind of insulting.

So anyway, what I never ever want is for my science fiction gaming to be that. When I choose science fiction for play I am not choosing it because I want space ships and lasers. I am choosing it because I want to explore a world impacted by the fact of space ships and lasers. It’s not enough to say you can easily change your physical body, growing a penis or a vagina at will. You have to address how this makes the place different from where we are now. And, at least as importantly, how it’s the same. Or at least how it’s relatable, how it’s an extension of where we are now. An important question I want to ask is “how did we get from here to there?”. And what were the costs?

This is why the cluster generation system of Diaspora (and the upcoming Diaspora Anabasis) is what it is: we create random solar systems with various technologies, resources, and environments and we ask at least these questions of you: what does this society look like given its attributes? How did it come to this? How does this affect its relationship with its neighbours?

My thinking was that if you start with making sense of these things — and likely making sense of apparent impossibilities like very low technology and very low environments — then your stories would necessarily start in a place that is not just a paint job over a place you know already. It might wind up caricatured that way (we all get a little lazy) but it doesn’t start that way and you are not invited to imagine it this way. You have all the cues you need to wonder about how technology affects a world (and not our world) and how it creates power imbalances and how those gradients affect every other system.

And I think this is the heart of the paint job problem: when the setting begins as something totally familiar but with lasers, there is nothing to grab on to and wonder about. If you’re even slightly lazy then you are stuck at the bottom of a false minimum, a place that’s easy to get to but not nearly the best you can do.

Thermodynamic_stability_EN.svgAnd since — oh! shiny! — we’re on to false minima…. A false minimum is a low spot on a curve that is not the lowest spot but is surrounded by increasing values, so if you are using a simplistic algorithm to try and find the minimum point on the graph, you can get stuck there. Sometimes they are stable (there is no easy way out) and sometimes they are unstable (a minimal effort would need to be put in to find a lower minimum. So you have points that are “metastable” (in thermodynamics, anyway) which are false minima — you need a lot of energy applied in a direction you don’t want in order to get free. You have points that are unstable (curvature around them slopes flat or down) and require only a small amount of energy to go one way or another. And you have stable points where there is no lower to go no matter how much energy you spend.

We think of low as bad but low here is good.

The reason this gave me an oh shiny moment is because it might be the case that our universe is in a metastable vacuum state — that is, the vacuum of space might be at a very low energy state but not at the lowest possible energy state. We call this a false vacuum because the real one is at the lowest energy state. If this is the case, that we are in a metastable universe, then it is possible for changes in local energy to push us out of that trough to plummet down to a lower energy state — possibly a stable one but also possibly just another false minimum. If this happens then we get “bubble nucleation” and the laws of physics may change (a little or a lot) in a bubble that expands from that point at the speed of light. And at the speed of light means there’s nothing you can do about it — you will literally only know about it when it happens to you.

The effects of a shift from a low vacuum energy to an even lower vacuum energy are speculated to vary between unnoticeable (which may have happened before) to survivable (which also may have happened before) to catastrophic. A bubble nucleation could end not only life, but the very form matter takes.

Now that’s exciting!

solar sails

Okay, there’s more ∆v out there for free: photons from the sun!

To understand these slow but sure space ships we need to understand two things: how orbits work in a bit more detail, and where momentum comes from. So first, orbits.

Okay, let’s say you’re in a nice circular orbit with altitude r (for radius).

orbit 1

Now let’s say you want to leave here and go somewhere else. You need to expand this orbit. What you do is accelerate along your path of travel (a tangent to the orbit). We’ll show this acceleration with, of course a vector. We’re not showing the vector for your existing velocity (which is in the same direction) and the gravity vector. But they are there. What we’ll show instead is how your increased vector changes your orbit.

orbit 2

As you burn, your orbit begins to elongate (and widen, but mostly elongate) on the opposite side of the orbit from your burn.

orbit 3

Let’s say you continue this burn and eventually you wind up with something like this:

orbit 4

If that long side reaches out close enough to, say, the moon, then eventually the moon will dominate in the gravity equation and you will be able to transfer from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. If you burn long enough the ellipse will expand until suddenly (when you reach escape velocity) it’s a circle centered on the sun instead of the Earth! Then you have escaped the gravity well of the Earth and are on an interplanetary journey.

The same principle exactly applies to your solar orbit. If you continue to burn then your nice circular orbit will elongate until you cross the orbit of, say, Mars. Then you can slow down a bit while close to Mars and orbit there.

To shrink your elongated orbit, you decelerate while on the short side of the orbit. To circularize you accelerate while on the long side (which runs this process in reverse).

Point is, all you need to do to get to Mars is, barring some fine tuning, accelerate and decelerate along the tangent to your orbit at the right time.

So how does a solar sail do that?

Well it turns out light has momentum. Photons from the sun reflecting off your space craft provide a very tiny amount of thrust. It’s not much, but it’s enough that it will deflect your ship by hundreds or thousands of kilometers from your careful orbital course. Our space probes must deal with this to arrive safely. It’s a real thing.

But if you build a giant, very light, reflective sail then you can reflect enough photons that their momentum is significant. And continuous. And free. You don’t need any reaction mass because this isn’t a rocket. It’s slow to build, but build it does.

solar 1So if you orient your sail at 45° to the sun, the photons will bounce off as shown in the dotted line. In doing so, thanks to Newton, you will get a vector full of momentum following the solid line. You are now accelerating and your orbit will elongate as desired! To slow down, just flip around 180° and bounce the light the other way. With these two moves and some minor adjustments you can fly anywhere there are enough photons from the sun. Practically that’s probably out to Jupiter or so.

But wait a second: photons have no mass. Momentum is mass × velocity. So where does the momentum come from? Well it turns out that mass is very intimately related to energy. It’s a pretty famous equation: E=mc². And the energy of a photon is its frequency time Planck’s constant. So though it seems like magic, photons have momentum. It’s not a lot since a little algebra gives us m=E/c² and c is huge. But again, it’s constantly on and it’s free.

This seems useful to me for a number of things:

Space probes. Since no one’s on board it doesn’t matter that it can take a while to increase that orbit usefully.

Cargo trains. If you wanted to move a continuous stream of cargo, it doesn’t really matter how long any given deliver takes since one is leaving/arriving every six days (or whatever your launch period is). And your six million tons of ice doesn’t care how long the trip takes.

Emergencies. It’s pretty scary that you might lose all your reaction mass and drift forever. Packing along a solar sail is like carrying a parachute. And it will be really bright!

In the context of Diaspora in particular, this is a pretty much perfect way to station-keep a space station at the slipknot.

questions about the ∆v diagram and aerobraking

I also had some excellent questions about this diagram:

Delta-Vs_for_inner_Solar_System

Specifically, the places where aerobraking can occur to assist (decrease the ∆v cost). The first thing we need to understand is what these places even are.

Well, they aren’t all places, per se, and that’s where it gets confusing. They are orbits. GEO, for example, is a “geostationary orbit” meaning it’s an orbit at an altitude such that you are moving around the Earth at the same rate the Earth spins, meaning you hold your position apparently stationary over one place on the planet. Sri Lanka is fine; that’s where Arthur C. Clarke put his space elevator in Fountains of Paradise. Since there’s no air there and there’s no air on any direct path to its links (GTO, L4/5, and LEO) there’s no opportunity for aerobraking.

You would guess from this diagram that GTO is further away than GEO. But that’s an artifact of the diagram which is not showing distances at all. GTO is a “geostationary transfer orbit” which means it’s an elliptical orbit with one end in a potentially geostationary position. The other end will be much closer to the Earth:

aero1
Approaching the GTO orbit from C3=0 and using aerobraking to reduce the cost of that burn.

So we can see that if you were entering GTO from somewhere else (say, C3=0 which we’ll explain later), you could enter at the shallow end of the orbit and use the atmosphere to slow down enough to complete the burn for the orbit and wind up in GTO.

C3=0 is the escape orbit of the planet (Mars or Earth in this diagram). This is the velocity at which you are no longer orbiting the planet but rather are now orbiting the sun while in the rough vicinity of the planet (or not, but that’s where the transfers take place).

aero2
The blue dot is Earth. The little spaceship is your little space ship. It is no longer orbiting the Earth–its orbital velocity is past Earth’s escape velocity but less than the Sun’s. This is C3=0.

So if you wanted to burn into a GTO around Earth you need to slow down. Nothing’s stopping you from doing that so your vector passes through the atmosphere, using that friction to make the burn cheaper. However, going from GTO to C3=0 needs more velocity not less, so aerobraking is no help and that’s why the arrow only goes in one direction on the chart. It’s only useful to go through atmosphere when you’re slowing down.

Similarly, in “deep space” at your Mars transfer orbit you want to enter the C3=0 of Mars. While there’s no air there, you can plot your path such that you pass through some air on the way. Why would you want to though? If you have an elliptical transfer orbit you probably want to speed up to reach C3=0. I am guessing that they mean that you could be on a longer elliptical orbit for transfer such as:

aeri3
Earth is blue, Mars is red, and you are clearly in way too much of a hurry to match up with Mars’ orbit so you are going to plan a path way past it and brake in the atmosphere as you pass.

 

In this case you want to slow down or possibly change direction and it seems like there’s an opportunity to use Mars to do it. I’m not sure I see exactly how that would help, but you certainly can pass through Mars atmosphere from a transfer orbit. I’m just not sure why.

Although the atmosphere at Mars is much much thinner, at high speeds and with a high cross section, it will still slow you down a bunch. The Odyssey mission, for example, used aerobraking to slow down. They burned from capture orbit (the orbit at which they just start to move slower than the escape velocity of Mars and so are now orbiting Mars instead of just the sun) to what they called an “aerobraking orbit” which was designed so that every time the craft passed through the short side of the orbit the vessel would slow down, slowly circularizing the orbit until it was suitable for the mapping work.

Over at the moon there’s no atmosphere at any of the adjacent nodes to lunar orbit so there’s no aerobraking. At the moon you have to do all the work. It’s also pretty cheap to land and take off from though!

Thanks to Pierre Savoie for the questions that spawned this

questions about the ∆v science

20190602_010436

I got some excellent questions on the last few articles and the answers deserve some space, so here’s that space.

I’m about to reveal how clueless I am about these topics, but these are making me reflect on recent sifi fiction. Could weapon recoil provide ∆v significant enough to be strategic (assuming weapons use power that doesn’t steal from thrust capacity)?

This will become clearer in a later answer but the short version is: probably not. Ships are going to be very hard to move due to their mass. Additionally, you probably don’t want a weapon that costs you ∆v unless you point it in exactly the right direction: the odds of that being both the direction of your target and opposite your desired vector change is mighty small.

Could you use weapons as thrust in an emergency? You could probably use some weapons to rotate the vessel rather than apply ∆v. Rotating your ship is comparatively cheap! In fact any weapon with recoil probably has a compensating jet to avoid this. I believe this is the case with the Rocinante in The Expanse! From the entry on PDCs in the fandom wiki:

They also utilize thrusters on their rear to counteract the recoil of the firing cannon, that would otherwise knock the ship off course.

To be clear, though, it probably wouldn’t affect the ship’s course, but it would rotate the ship. And I suppose if you’re burning the drive while firing that would indeed knock you off course.

Or nearby detonations (does space conduct shockwaves)? It’s intriguing to weigh the ∆v cost of any sort of space confrontation or skirmish.

Since there’s no atmosphere in space (by definition) there’s nothing intrinsic to transmit a shock wave. There will be some shock from the expanding plasma of the explosion of course, but we normally call that “damage”! And maybe a little photon push as well. Nothing that you would want to use as thrust.

However! If the explosion is energetic and close enough (and ideally shaped for the task), you can indeed propel your space ship with nuclear bombs. This would be a very poor ad hoc solution to a problem, but not an infeasible design. Obviously there are significant drawbacks to the design.

How does starship mass impact ∆v strategy? I’m probably wrong but I’m assuming greater mass requires greater thrust to achieve the same vector, and more thrust requires more fuel or efficiency, which all rolls into a single measure of total ∆v capacity.

rocketChartThumb
I’ve only put the thumbnail here because it’s massively detailed and you should go to Winchell’s site to read about it and download the whole thing.

You are absolutely correct! For any given drive capability you can calculate the ∆v of the whole system by estimating the proportion of reaction mass (the mass you store only so you can shoot it energetically out the back) to the payload mass (the mass you have to keep). This is because of the “rocket equation” which I’m not going to go into, but Winchell Chung has an awesome chart showing ∆v for any given hypothetical drive type and any given mass ratio! It’s the basis of the game design that’s emerging here.

So yes, one of the joys of using ∆v as the core resource is that it encapsulates all kinds of information about the ship.

But would reducing your mass increase ∆v capacity through fuel efficiency?

IMG_0711
The Marie Therese before ejecting the spin-grav luxury cabins and swimming pool.

Essentially yes! Let’s say you were the players in my last Diaspora campaign and were escaping in a luxury liner with a huge rotating spin-gravity living space. And you’re being chased. Ejecting that useless mass (which was huge) would change your r-mass:p-mass ration substantially, and give you a ton of spare ∆v.

Mass also impacts gravitational vectors, right?

Nope. The force you experience is dependent on your mass, but the acceleration you experience is not — it’s pretty much 9.8 m/s² for everything on Earth (but an elephant gets a lot more harm falling from a height than a mouse does — that’s the force). But not everywhere, and certainly not at different altitudes. But that’s way more detail than we need.

Does anything in space provide opportunity for aerobraking other than atmospheres?

Atmosphere is all I can thing of. Most interstellar gas clouds are way too tenuous to be interesting at this scale. Doesn’t mean you can’t invent one though!

Renewable sources of ∆v reserves look increasingly important (e.g. rechargeable solar vs consumable fuel?).

Well, basically your ∆v is going to be based on how much and how fast you can throw something out the back. So renewable is pretty tough unless you have a way to convert energy into mass. At least for rockets anyway. Remember for a rocket we’re not talking about power (although you might need some power to run the rocket, and that power supply will have its own energy needs which might include solar) but rather reaction mass.

Many thanks to Adam Minnie for the questions!