Sunday, January 25, 2015

Computer Wizards of the Present-Future

Credit where credit is due for the form of the phrase.

I was thinking more on the trouble I have with psionics in science-fiction games, and realized the solution was staring me in the face.  In science fiction, the role of magic in fantasy is best filled by gear, equipment, applied technology.  By analogy, the wizard-equivalent character ought to be the technologist who works magic.

I nominate the hacker.

The hacker-wizard is very much a live hypothesis (to use Peircian language), a live symbol, in current media.  For the hacker to 'work magic' feels much more plausible than for a psion, who strains suspension of disbelief.  Killing a man with just your brain is patently ridiculous, but killing a man by remotely hacking his pacemaker?  Not merely plausible; totally doable.  You don't need the Force to lift an X-Wing out of the swamp, just remote control.

The flip side is that hacking takes a lot of prep and intel.  Psionics is very fixed; you have this set of things you can do with your brain and they're not changing, but they're also very generally applicable.  Hacking is not like that.  You need to know your objective and your target before the mission.  If you're lucky, they have misconfigured their software or have a straightforward injection bug that you can exploit easily, typically in minutes to tens of minutes.  If you're less lucky, you can find a publicly-known exploit against some software your target is running and a payload that accomplishes your objectives and will run on your target (could take anywhere from a couple minutes to an hour, faster if Metasploit has what you need).  On the minus side, publicly-known exploits might be patched or the target's intrusion detection system (IDS) might recognize them, or they might just be buggy, and then you're SOL.  If you're particularly unlucky, you may need to get a copy of the correct version of the software running on the target and go find and exploit a bug yourself, then write and test your own payload.  This can take closer to days or weeks for most "real" software, or even longer for hard targets or targets running on weird hardware.  This generates something much like ACKS' mage repertoire mechanics; if you know of other hackers, and you know they have access to exploit you don't, they're targets for bargaining, treachery, and hackery themselves.

This reliance on preparation does put the hacker firmly on the wizard side of the Fighter-Wizard Axis.  On the plus side, once you've got your exploit+payload working, you can throw it over the network pretty indiscriminately.  Putting together a little smartphone app with a big red GO button which when hit spams your exploit to everything on the same wireless network is not a difficult task.  We already have better.  Hell, you could even give your Big Red Button app to the party's muscle and stay in the comfort of a sketchy van with too many antennas (in near future settings) or the starship (in far future settings), safely removed from the action but still able to provide remote support.

The general consensus from the Shadowrun crowd is that the distant hacker is sort of a problem because they go off and do "decker things" in their own little subsystem while the rest of the party is rolling hot through hostile territory.  Switching to prep-focused hacking might help alleviate this somewhat; once the run is underway, you can only work the magic you prepped.  You also need to be careful to not attract too much heat - if you get hackbacked and the adversary can determine your location from your machine, or you otherwise give away your identity or location, you could end up with a black helo full of goons inbound on your position while the party's heavies are away (or a hunter-killer drone or an orbital strike...).  And if you're doing RF (radio frequency) hacking, it doesn't even take that much to fix a location for the local spectrum allocation authority to come visit (as long as anyone's listening).  In less serious consequences, you might get kicked off the network or blacklisted and effectively cut out of the action until you can find a different way on.  I honestly feel like heat/noise is the hacker's limiting resource in play - once you've prepped your exploits, you can use them as much as you want, but eventually someone will catch on, and they will come for you with overwhelming force.  This too lends itself to wizardly caution, to restraint, to risk-management.  You're playing with fire; if you use your capabilities too much, you're not just going to run out of psi points for the day and have to stop -  you're going to get the whole party into some deep trouble.  It's an interesting dynamic though because the more technically sophisticated the target, the higher the risk of being caught yet also the greater the reward for success.  The hacker lets a party punch above their weight at targets like cyborgs in TL14 powered armor, but doesn't bring much at all to dealing with random wildlife.

I guess one good reason to go on the run yourself is if the target uses an air-gapped network or is hardened against RF communications.  On the other hand, those sound like the sort of targets you really don't want to be attacking if you can avoid it...

So...  what sort of capabilities are we looking at, realistically?  Intelligence gathering from vulnerable remote servers is fairly obvious; break in, get data, get out.  There's also lots of good intel-gathering to be done in the radio frequency domain.  There is much to-do about disabling or misusing "internet of things" targets these days; pacemakers, cars, printers, nuclear centrifuges, factories...  pretty easy to extrapolate out to smartguns, powered armor, combat stimulant autoinjectors, guided missiles, and combat drones.  Likewise spoofing GPS can cause all manner of mayhem via RF.  At a lower level, convincing the badge reader at the megacorp office that you're supposed to be there should be about as difficult as getting free bus fare, and feeding info to the faceman about the person he's talking to from their internet footprint is straightforward too.

In conclusion: hackers > psions.  Less suspension of disbelief, more cautious / preparatory focus, more playing with fire (except for 40k-style psions, in which case it's a pretty comparable amount of playing with fire really).  Maybe I ought to roll a cyberpunk MongTrav variant after all...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Starship Geometry

So...  what would combat vessels in the starry sea actually look and be shaped like?  I think most science fiction does a lousy job of this.

It seems to me important to ignore two things: first, atmospheric reentry capability, and second, any manner of warp drive.  Building major warships with atmospheric capability seems unlikely to me because putting large ships into space is ridiculously expensive in terms of rocket fuel.  I think space elevators and assembly in orbit are plausible within the next 200 years, at which point you never really need atmospheric capability.  If you need to put something on the ground from orbit, use a dedicated small reentry vehicle (dropship) with the knowledge that it's probably a one-way trip unless you're willing to drop a ton of fuel to go with it or unless you've captured an elevator.

(There are probably some good thoughts to be had on the strategic importance of space elevators in orbital war if they're an assumption you're willing to make.  I think, though, of all the possible means to make achieving orbit common enough for most science fiction, the space elevator is the most plausible / scalable)

On the flip side, if you prefer to assume Traveller-style "free" multi-g reactionmassless acceleration in any direction, then you still don't really need to take aerodynamics into account - just strap more antigrav plates onto a hull built in a configuration actually reasonable for use in space, disregard lifting surfaces, and vector your thrust however you like.  This does get harder on planets with higher gravity, though.  Maybe an aerodynamic 'spaceship sabot', like a pair of droppable wings... ?

Second, warpdrive.  Alcubierre drive nonwithstanding, if you're willing to assume warpdrive, you can use that as a justifying assumption for pretty much any starship geometry you like.  "Oh, warp drive only works on ships shaped like donuts because technobabble."  But if that's the case, optimal starship geometry without warpdrive will still be a worthwhile question, because you can build your interstellar carriers as toroids and then launch ships of more practical configurations on your arrival.

So!  Assuming rocket propulsion, orbital assembly / no atmospheric operation, and no weird warpdrive constraints, what's a reasonable combat starship look like?

I think the two main things to consider are moment of rotational inertia and target profile.  Assuming uniform density, a sphere minimizes rotational inertia and presents a uniform target profile from all incoming vectors.  If you're willing to put maneuvering thrusters out on extended arms or booms, you could get a lot of extra torque and a sphere could be very maneuverable (such booms do present exposed targets, though, and it's true that you could put boomed maneuvering thrusters on most any shape).  A sphere also gives you potentially pretty broad traverses on turreted weapons, and turrets on half your surface area can aim at any single point.  As you reduce your target profile in any single dimension by flattening / smushing the sphere, your moment of inertia starts going up if you want to maintain the same volume.  The classical "flying saucer" pattern presents a small target from two sides and a large target from the third, and has tolerable rotational inertia depending on how flattened it is.  Bringing weapons to bear from a large portion of your hull is tricky, though.  The cone deserves mention, because while it has a pretty bad moment of inertia, a narrow cone presents a small target from the wherever it's pointing at and also provides a nice sloped area where one could mount forward-facing weapons that do not block each other's lines of fire.  Conical ships are also susceptible to raking fire from the direction they face, though (depending on your assumptions about penetration capabilities of weapons).  Cylindrical ships have slightly better moments of inertia than conical ones and smaller target profiles in their favored direction, but lose out on usable surface area for mounting terraced turrets and remain susceptible to raking fire. 

Uniform density is a silly assumption, of course.  Armor is probably dense, so you're likely to have sort of "worst-case" moments of inertia.  Spheres still win, though.  There's also an interesting conundrum in terms of reaction mass, ammunition, and other expendables - if you put them near the outside of the hull, then as you burn through them your moment of inertia falls more rapidly than if they were closer to the center of mass, so you gain more maneuverability as you burn through them.  On the other hand, if your fuel is kept near the exterior of your hull, it's more likely to be hit and then you will be sad and/or dead.

Anyway.  Once aerodynamics are out of the way, spheres make a lot of sense for low-orbital environments, where orbital period is low and the horizon is relatively close so an enemy can approach from a wider variety of vectors with less warning, and therefore maneuverability and uniformly small target profile are useful.  Ships designed for intercepting in interplanetary space, on the other hand, might make more sense as cones - if the enemy is on a long trajectory that they can't really alter (or they'll miss their target planet), then you can reasonably make an intercept, but you'll spend a lot of time closing while both sides know where the other is, at which point having a small target profile in one direction is useful and maneuverability is less important.  Cylinders continue to make sense for missiles and other impactors intended for large, less-maneuverable targets.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Orbital Bombardment and Giulio Douhet

There was a discussion the other week of what war in space will look like, and I have a number of follow-on thoughts to it.  This is one of them; others are probably forthcoming.

The general consensus was that if you can achieve orbital superiority over a planet, you've won.  You can bombard its population centers into glowing rubble with kinetic weapons, and there's jackall the defenders can do about it.  I voiced a minority opinion then, that the aim of one's campaign may preclude urban centers as bombardment targets, and that in order to conquer a population center one must necessarily have boots (filled with either flesh or sentient metal) on the ground for the messy work.  I'm also not entirely sure about the current state of antisatellite weapons, but I expect that at the very least you could fill the most likely orbits with shrapnel as an area denial weapon.

Further reading on my part has reinforced this suspicion.  I believe the predictions of Giulio Douhet are instructive.  Douhet was an Italian officer in the early 20th century and one of the fathers of Air Power Theory.  During the first World War, he advocated the construction of heavy bombers, which he believed could be used to bomb enemy population centers and cause the populace to revolt against their government.  He also pioneered the notion later summarized as "the bomber will always get through."  Douhet died in 1930, too early to see his theories tested during the second World War.

They did not stand this test well.  Extensive conventional bombing of civilian population centers was undertaken against Britain and Germany, and Tokyo was also bombed (with amusing preparations underway for further bombing).  Civilian morale did not crumble in any of these instances; in Britain "the blitz" as it was called strengthened civilian resolve, while the Germans kept fighting all the way to Berlin despite an absurd volume of bombs being dropped on them.

I think Douhet's theories about civilian morale were therefore misinformed.  The last half-century of guerilla warfare seems to agree that Douhet was mistaken.  As I mentioned in my previous short review of Fry the Brain, the essential method used by effective urban guerilla insurgencies is to incite security forces to inflict collateral damage on civilians, and thereby win the relatives of the injured to the insurgency's cause.  Indiscriminate bombing strengthens the morale of the enemy.  It lets mothers die in the arms of their sons, and there seems to me no surer way to make a devoted foe.  If you want to win by sapping civilian morale, you should instead strive to kill many sons in a distant land while leaving their mothers alive to lament over them.  Total war in practice relies on destroying the enemy's ability to fight, to resupply and reinforce (for which civilians are necessary), rather than his will to fight.  Infrastructure targets are still on the table, though, and pinpoint kinetic strikes against them do seem liable to reduce the enemy's ability to retaliate, but then you have the post-conquest problem of rebuilding all the dams and bridges you just blew up to make the conquered planet useful again.  So it seems to me that fixed military targets - command centers, missile silos, strategic fuel reserves, airfields, space launch sites - are probably the most promising for orbital bombardment.

Anyway, to return to Douhet - by the 1960s, "the bomber will always get through" had fallen by the wayside.  A British study in 1964 concluded that a strategic bomber inbound to the Soviet Union would meet on average six SAM/AAMs, each with a 75% probability of destroying it if countermeasures were not employed.

I think Douhet's case is much analogous to our own.  We see a novel means of offense, possible today but not yet deployed, and we cannot conceive of an effective/cost-effective counter to it.  We therefore are inclined to think that it will be an end-all-be-all of warfare to achieve orbital superiority over an enemy world, much as Douhet thought of air superiority.  But there is a concept in Filipino martial arts called tapi tapi; it means broadly "counter for counter".  There's always a counter, and for that counter a counter, and so forth.  We maybe haven't found the best counter to orbital bombardment yet, but I think we will.  Maybe we can't bury our command centers beneath any reasonable amount of concrete in the face of tungsten rods at Mach 10...  but such weapons are also fairly lousy for hitting moving targets.  Perhaps a widely distributed, redundant mobile command center is the answer (to the cloud!...  half-sarcastic, but half-serious).  If, as it is said, "fixed fortifications are monuments to man's stupidity", perhaps fixed installations and formations are as well.  Welcome to the digital age!  Granted, you're not going to be able to get unenhanced humans to move continuously at such a pace in peacetime...  but that's what machines are for.  If your enemy has a big hammer, become as a swarm of flies; present too many targets, each of which is waaay overkill for a 12 kiloton kinetic weapon if you can even hit it with one.  And keep them in or near population centers, so you get some collateral damage morale out of them...

(As for the computer security implications of a cloud command center...  well, some might call that job security d: )

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Saga of Egil Skallagrimson

I came upon this work through an odd path - first Faun brought me its name, then the Saga Project got me listening at work, and then when her reading ended a third of the way through (and just as things were getting interesting), I finished reading it here.  It's an story, from which I believe we could steal much.

It starts off really slow, with a distinct lack of mighty deeds of arms.  Having an icelandic? woman with a lovely voice narrate this bit was very helpful in getting through it (her pronunciation of the names was also very useful later, when I switched to the text version).  A long time is spent setting up the geneology of the hero, which is important because the main conflicts of the narrative are between families rather than individuals.  This background turns acts reminiscent of the best D&D murderhobo tradition into worthy deeds of vengeance for wrongs suffered by Egil's kin.  Context is everything.  The background also nicely establishes that Egil's family's enemies are cowardly and cunning rather than honorable (Hildaleda's sons use slander rather than force of arms, while Gunnhilda uses magic), though the grievance of Hildaleda's sons against Thorulf (Egil's uncle) is also clearly established.  They're not evil for evil's sake, which is nice.

There was one battle early in the story that had a good line: "None forward of the mast were uninjured, except for the king's twelve berserks, whom iron bit not."  Combat is as a rule quick and deadly, often with loss of life and limb for the losing party.  It is also interesting that typically the side that has the moral high ground gains a substantial advantage; that would be a cool mechanic for a game.  The troop strengths mentioned are also noteworthy: we see groups of 12, 30, 90, and 300 men.  This is about a threefold increase at each step, which falls between Sun Tzu's thresholds for attacking in a pincer (with a 2:1 numerical advantage) and attacking outright (with a 5:1 advantage).  In any case, 3:1 is a decisive advantage and likely to determine the battle.  Having a retinue size based roughly on one's social status and holdings would be a lot easier than managing mercenaries, too - any respectable landholder can raise 12 men from surrounding farms without promise of plunder, or 30 for raiding.  A typical nobleman (or a weak or ill-respected earl) keeps a retinue of 30 men, and can raise closer to 90 for raiding or war.  An earl or respected baron with many properties (like Thorulf) can keep a retinue of 90 men and raise closer to 300 for raiding or feasting, but might be considered a threat to the king if he does so, who can raise 300 men on short notice and many more if necessary.  So that's straightforward to track in play, and then your mass combat system is that a force outnumbered three to one is defeated unless they have some notable advantage (a terrain feature at their backs or a narrow defile so that they cannot be engaged by all their foes, or surprise or an attack from the side or rear of a formation, or a hero with a righteous cause and a case of shape-strength).

The story's dealings with wealth are likewise abstracted.  Some treasures are said to be "great wealth", like a cargo ship full of grain and honey or a beautifully-worked axe.  Some are said to be merely wealth, like a fur cloak.  If one wanted to run a viking game (entirely hypothetically, of course), it would seem reasonable to track treasure in these categories, and then also to classify treasure as perishable (as in the grain and honey case) or not.  Then a sizeable farm produces one unit of perishable wealth for its holder per summer as a baseline, which is enough to feed a family for a year with some leftover for guests and whatnot.  A notable baron might have a handful of such farms, as well as fishing or whaling rights to a few places, and so earn an income from his domains measured in single-digit integer amounts of perishable wealth, which he might use to maintain a large retinue or throw grand feasts (thereby gaining renown/status) or exchange for non-perishable wealth like ships or armor (which is interesting in that it never shows up!  I do not recall it being ever noted that Egil bore more than a helm and shield for defense; in one pitched battle on dry land it is explicitly noted that he went without mail) or objects of art.  Managing one's enterprises carefully (ie, remaining at home through the summer) might cause them to produce somewhat more than the baseline, but certainly less than double, while raiding might produce substantially more wealth and renown in a summer than farming (particularly, one can loot nonperishable wealth in addition to perishable wealth), but also bears the risk of you being captured or maimed or killed or soforth.  Meanwhile, commanding a merchant ship and trading lets you convert between perishable and nonperishable wealth at more favorable exchange ratios than can be obtained by employing craftsmen directly, or for goods not locally producible.

At the end of the day the structure of the narrative ends up looking rather like a Pendragon campaign - the characters go on an adventure or two during the summer and then spend the winter at the homes of their allies, telling tales, feasting, writing poems, and perhaps pursuing a marriage suit.  Many of Pendragon's cultural values are shared in Egil's Saga as well; duty to family rates very highly, and one had best observe hospitality or risk having one's beard cut off and an eye put out.  Men are praised and rewarded for their strength and honesty and vigor and generosity and so forth.  But Egil's Saga is much more pragmatic than romantic about religion and madness.  While bouts of rage are not uncommon, they don't last the same way a Pendragon knight's passion might consume him whole and reduce him to permanent insanity.  Instead, they typically end when the aim of the rage is accomplished, or if the rage were misguided, when an innocent has been killed (how would that be for a mechanic!).  Likewise, while piety and devotion to kings play a large part in Pendragon, Egil's family habitually defies kings (to their own peril) and while they may participate in sacrifices to the pagan gods, they're also not averse to taking the "first sign of the cross" in order to be able to trade with English christians (in accordance with English law at the time).  Most mentions of gods come up in the poetry rather than in actions taken by characters; prayer is almost unheard of.  Perhaps it was so common as to go unmentioned implicitly; I don't know.  So as much as Pendragon's traits / passions system is very cool, it feels like a poor fit for modelling Egil's Saga; the vikings are too calm and collected (there's a sentence rarely uttered...).

They are in some cases very stubborn, though, about what they believe is rightly theirs, to the point of multigenerational bloodshed.  "Enough to live on" is not really a concept recognized by Egil and kin in these matters - if an old man died and your wife was to inherit half of his lands, then your family shall have them regardless of your current wealth or how many people you have to kill to get them.  They are rightly yours, and to fail to defend your rights is cowardly and unmanly I guess.  It sets one up as a target for ne'er-do-wells who might further infringe on one's rights, and causes one to lose face among one's peers.  On the flip side, they're also not a stingy people, and readily give gifts of land and furs and poems and such to those who do them good.  Sort of a romanticized violent libertarianism I guess, when men would die to defend their rights against kings, though you might have to ignore the raiding and the enthrallment.

Other interesting things about the narrative structure: for covering a couple hundred years, it's very short!  Sometimes things happen like "and then he went sea-roving for a summer, and failed to find any good booty, and then he stayed with Arinbjorn for the winter," and most of a year passes in a single sentence.  Characters pop in and drop out with little notice, but often some backstory ("He was the son of so and so who was the son of so-and-so, and so was Egil's kin"), and then stick around for a chapter or two and then are never mentioned again.  The poems rather grew on me, and it would be a funny game mechanic to get bonuses for composing probably-terrible poems in the viking style.  Two named weapons appeared!  Neither really lived up to my hopes for them, unfortunately. The viking travellogue bits were neat.  Their journeys take them throughout Norway (sometimes in confusing details for one unfamiliar with the region), into Finland, Kvenland, and Bjarmaland (now part of Russia) in the east, to Denmark, Holland, and Flanders in the south, and to England, York (or Jorvik as once it was called), and of course Iceland in the west (again in confusing detail, though it is kind of cool to be able to look at Google Earth and go "OK, so that would've been right about thereish?").

Anyway.  Woo vikings!  Maybe I'll read another saga this weekend.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

More Board Games

Folks were in town this weekend, so many games were played.  I probably don't remember them all, but here are some that I do:
  • Pandemic: We played with three normal players and a malicious bioterrorist player.  I drew the Generalist for my role, and quite liked it.  We did pretty well, with cures for two normal diseases and the bioterrorists's disease, and another cure forthcoming, but ultimately lost as usual by running out of cubes during the last epidemic.  The bioterrorist made the game take longer, but all involved remarked that it was somewhat more satisfying to lose to a human than to the unyielding and impassive system.
  • Bang: I do not make a very convincing deputy, especially when I am actually the deputy.
  • Flashpoint: We actually saved almost everyone before the building collapsed, despite drawing through all the dummy markers / not-people tokens.  My first successful game of Flashpoint, though I did get blown up by explosions three or four times.  I continue to like the Generalist.
  • Hanabi: One perfect game with four? players.  Then we decided to quit, because we weren't going to be able to outdo ourselves.
  • War on Terror: Not a great simulation, and not a very playable game, but sort of amusing.  General consensus was "would not play again."
  • Tsuro: New to me.  We played one regular game and one game with the optional dragons-who-eat-everything.  The more players are still in the game, the more disruptive the dragons get, leading to a chaotic early game and a relatively sedate endgame.
  • Sentinels: Played one game as Knyfe, in which I was killed but we ultimately won, and one as Ra, in which we won fairly handily.  I rather liked both Knyfe and Ra; direct damage is pleasingly direct.
  • Race for the Galaxy: We played much faster than I'm used to; I failed to track what other people were doing and take advantage by leeching actions.  Had a decent military start with New Sparta, Mercenary Fleet, and Imperium Troops but failed to turn it into points very well.  Did poorly as a result.
  • Power Grid: Managed second place of six by pushing for endgame a turn earlier than most other players were prepared for, despite it being my first game and competing in close proximity with another player during the early game.  Might shouldn't've stockpiled as many resources as I did; I tended to keep a turn's worth of resources in reserve, by buying when they were cheap, but probably could've just kept one or two resources available to reduce the cost of resource price spikes and then reinvested the rest.  The resource market presented a very intuitive and playable model of supply and demand; well done.
  • King of Tokyo + Expansion(s): I sat this one out, but the evolutions from the expansion made it look like something I might enjoy slightly more.