Saturday, 23 June 2012

Updating Asimov: The race towards an all-human universe

About a decade ago, I read a non-fiction Isaac Asimov book. I can't remember much about it; not the title nor the main point of it. I think it was probably written in the mid to late '80s. The only thing that stuck with me clearly was a series of calculations he discussed in it, looking at rates of human population growth, using them to show how insane it is to assume that overpopulation "isn't a big deal."

The calculations assumed that the then-current population growth rate would stay the same (an intentional conceit that he drew attention to after the climax of the calculations had been revealed, a conceit I will repeat here) and he simply noted some interesting milestones as the population grew bigger and bigger. Things like the point when all the living humans standing shoulder to shoulder would cover the entire land area of the Earth, or when the total mass of all the living humans would be equal to the mass of the Earth, or the mass of the solar system, or the mass of the Milky Way galaxy, and ultimately the mass of the entire known universe, when every atom we've ever detected is part of a living human body, an all-human universe.

Annoyingly, I've never been able to remember the exact figures Asimov gave, which takes something of the punch out of this demonstration. It's also quite likely that some of the figures have changed since Asimov wrote that, not least of which is the total mass of the observed universe, because our observations have improved and we've seen more stuff. So, I thought I might as well just repeat his exercise and do an early 21st century update.

I got a little bit stuck on the maths - I'm quite rusty - until I saw this really great lecture by Prof. Albert A. Bartlett, which is clear and simple and to the point, but doesn't go nearly as far as Asimov did. It's definitely worth a watch, to understand how Asimov and I came to our answers.

I'll make a few trivial assumptions here, so feel free to adjust these if you think you know better. They will include:
Mass of one human = 70kg (a rough average, there might be a better figure available somewhere)
The floor area taken up by one standing human: 1 m2

I'll also draw on a few more important figures, calculated by people smarter than me. Sources will be given for each of these, though I'm sure you could find more accurate sources if you cared to hunt for them. They include:
The current total (as of the day I published this) human population: 7.014 billion
The current rate (as of 2009) of human population growth: 1.1%
The Earth's land surface area: 148,940,000 km2
The Earth's mass: 5.9736×1024 kg
The solar system's mass: 1.992 x 1030 kg
The Milky Way's mass: 2.983 x 1042 kg
The mass of the observed universe: 3 × 1052 kg

So when do we hit those kilometer stones? Check my maths, but I believe the assumptions and facts above resolve thusly:

Total living human population standing area = Earth's land surface area in 2,811 years

Total living human population mass = Earth's mass in 2,800 years

Total living human population mass = solar system's mass in under 4,000 years

Total living human population mass = Milky Way's mass in under 6,500 year

Total living human population mass = mass of the observed universe in under 8,500 years

Despite a couple decades of changing data and a population growth rate that's already dropped a bit, that's still all in the same ball park as the figures I remember from Asimov's book. So there you have it: 8,500 years ago, we were 5 million humans, covered in shit and only just getting the hang of domesticated beans and cows, and the maths is telling us that in another 8,500 years we'll have travelled billions of lightyears in all directions and consumed literally EVERYTHING!!!! that we're currently aware of.

Clearly. Not. Possible.

And this is exactly what Malthus, Asimov, Bartlett and now I want to draw your attention to. Picture our available resources as a road. Net consumption of resources drives us down the road, net restoration of them puts us in reverse. And there's a massive fucking concrete wall, all covered in spikes and shit, waiting for us at the end of the road. So frankly, we don't want to touch the accelerator unless we really have to, because even a slow crawl will eventually crush us into the Wall of Unpleasant Death. That wall represents starvation, drought, war over land and resources, avoidable diseases and everything else that a population exceeding its available resources will suffer. It really is bad, horrible stuff. And yet our collective foot is firmly on the accelerator.

(There is, of course, a second spikey death wall at the other end of the road, representing total extinction, so we don't want to just go into full reverse. Ideally, we don't want to move, but the road rolls up and down, so it's harder to stop in some places than others. This metaphor is now officially getting stretched too much.)

We couldn't even reach that first kilometer stone, where humans occupy all of the available land surface on Earth (ignoring for a moment the doubling of Earth's gravity due the doubling of its total mass at around the same time), because even dividing the actual land surface by 100 (by making all homes 100 floors high, a challenging but not insane option, even under double gravity) wouldn't help. The actual land area needed for one human is far greater than 1 m2, somewhere closer to 2,500 m2. We're already using about 11.61% of available land just to grow food for 7 billion humans, and in that future scenario we'd have to feed the same number of humans with only 4.2% (7/150ths of 90%) of available land, and that's assuming we're now using 100% of the land, excluding the 10% set aside for our standing-rooming-only sleeping-pod skyscrapers. At that stage, there are no more wild spaces, apart from non-arable mountains, oceans and other really human-hostile terrains. Even if you're only interested in humans and no other species, that's still not a win, as we've now lost all industrial and recreational space, so we're now just 150 billion farmers, sleeping in broom closets in massive skyscrapers, with nowhere to go but work or bed. There are also no major forests left to give us the oxygen we need to breathe, so we'd have to assume some sort of clever technological alternative to that.

And a couple generations later, we'd all be starving to death anyway, as there just isn't any land left but the population's approaching 300 billion. A couple generations after that, we'd have to make room for 600 billion. So never mind the 8,500 years to the all-human universe, we're going to struggle to cope with just the next few centuries, and the less we change our reproductive habits, the more we'll struggle.

So what to do about it?

Opinions are mixed. A lot of people seem to be quite happy with complete denial. Their own lives are currently tolerable, they lack the imagination to consider things being more shit in only 50 years' time, when they're too old to do much about it, so they don't give a shit about future generations. Let's assume these people are complete cockheads.

A more subtle form of denial is the "technology will fix it" crowd. They see a long history of things that have made massive improvements in humans' ability to survive and thrive another day - fire, the wheel, medicine, skyscrapers, water reclamation, the Green Revolution - and assume A.) that the admittedly huge advantages that these things give will always be repeatable with other, new technologies, 2.) that these assumed advances will always scale to match whatever our population happens to be at the time, and III.) that any waiting periods for that new technology will be tolerably short (within a generation, say). This is not just optimistic, it's impossible. If you don't believe me and you haven't watched Prof. Bartlett's lecture yet, watch it right now, and pay particular attention to the bit about bacteria growing in a bottle.

To be clear, I'm all in favour of colonising space, as far beyond Earth as we can reach. But that'll be slow and unpredictable, and ultimately, it'd just add more bottles for us to fill, unless we also intelligently check our population growth while we colonise. And once again, if population growth continues at the current rate, we've got 6,500 years to conquer and consume the whole Milky Way, the furthest bits of which are 80,000-100,000 lightyears away. In other words, we'd fail. We literally couldn't move through space fast enough to eat a fraction of everything we'd need to survive, even if it was all made of delicious toast, instead of fiery-fusiony stars and the occasional chunk of rock. But of course, this assumes we'd already learned to convert the whole of our own Sun into food 2,500 years earlier, so that's ok.

(There's also a totally delusional but common variation of the "technology will fix it" idea, which is held by the "magic/fairies/deities/space aliens will fix it" crowd. We could spend hours merrily debunking these, but in fact I suspect a lot of people who make these claims really fit better in the pure denialist crowd, and are simply bringing up their pet superstitions as an easy defence against hard and uncomfortable thoughts. The same may be true of some technologists, but at least they have real historical examples behind them, however misguided those examples are.)

The only really viable option is population control. For some reason, though, this freaks people out. I don't think there's any rational reason people have for objecting to it, I believe it's just a very deep-rooted instinctive urge to breed like mad, taking control of people's brains (and I mean this quite literally, if slightly flippantly) and making them generate whatever reasonable-sounding excuses they need to keep pumping out kids. From an evolutionary point of view, nothing could make more sense. Evolution doesn't care if half of us or even 99% of us starve to death this generation, so long as we also produce the next generation.

So someone always brings up China's one-child policy, and they always present it as an absolute disaster, representing the entire concept of population growth control, rather than a single example of a single type of intervention. I'd call it a failure, in that it only lowered the population growth rate without fully stopping it. But the fact that it had other unintended negative consequences? That's not a valid criticism; every real intervention has side effects, and you can't deal with those until you've discovered them, but that doesn't automatically mean the intervention is permanently unworkable. I also really don't buy the argument that people have a right to breed as much as they like; the creation of a whole new person is a hugely significant thing, both for that person and for the whole species. It is not a hobby, nor is it something vital to the parents' survival, and there's no reason (outside of religious dogma and animal instinct) to enshrine it as a fundamental human right.

But there are other options, beyond the Chinese model. I'm always in favour of education as the first response to any social problem, and there's some evidence that general education correlates with lowered growth rates. Specific birth-control education should, all else being equal, produce an even sharper lowering. Teach everyone what I'm telling you here, and I think most people would get it, and enough would take it seriously. Similarly, feminism's had a lowering effect on population growth rates in the West, especially the parts about letting women decide for themselves if and when they want to get knocked up; turns out, fewer wanted that than men have historically assumed. (This assumes that access to birth control is widespread and freely available, which of course it should be.)

But if that's not enough? Perhaps I'm over-optimistic. Instead, do we penalise breeders? Reward non-breeders? Both? Only permit breeding with a licence, with only a limited number of licences to be had? Somehow make breeding beyond your allotted limit medically impossible? Encouraging more varieties of non-reproductive sex more often could be an interesting one. It's all quite difficult and easily gets bogged down in real and imagined controversies. But it must be addressed, or it's the spikey, horrible Wall of Unpleasant Death that'll address us instead.

For a start, though, I think leading by example is good. Share this information, teach people the (really, really simple) maths behind it, and for fuck's sakes, stop breeding. I certainly won't. If you don't have kids yet, please don't add to the problem. It's no good when people say, "Oh, but we're only having one or two, just enough to replace each parent," when the majority of the world's breeders don't do the same yet. Then your one or two kids are just extras on top of the existing growth. That's like being careful to only light one match at a time while standing in a house that's burning down. If you really want to make a mathematically worthwhile difference, don't add any new babies at all AND ALSO do your bit to discourage others from breeding, so that your net effect is subtractive.

And if you've already had a kid or two, then you should now work extra hard to compensate for the additive effect you've already dumped on us. And also be extra careful in future, as accidents can happen (as many of you will already have discovered).

And for those of you who've already chosen to have three kids or more... For fuck's sakes!

The bottom line is that our reproductive instincts and the breeding culture we've built around those for the last few millennia are no longer appropriate. Our population is not in the thousands, limited to one environment, where we could easily be wiped out. It would take nearly as much effort to kill all the humans today as it did to end the dinosaurs 65 million years ago (and even then some of the small feathery ones survived). We can take our foot off the accelerator now. Realising this and adapting to it is going to be a massive new challenge for humanity, possibly the single biggest mental obstacle we've faced as a species. I don't promise Utopia if we do get a grip on our groins in time, but I do promise hell on Earth if we don't.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Pushing WFRP through the Storm

I may have mentioned in the past that I play roleplaying games, and that I run a game of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP), which is the roleplaying spin-off of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles (WFB) miniatures game. This post is a rules thing for that, reconciling disparate plot elements resulting from changes from one edition to another. Allow me to give a lot of boring background first:

The mini-players have a lot of background material (known as "fluff") to enjoy that doesn't really alter their game rules in any way, and a lot of it is thanks to material prepared for WFRP. WFB was launched in 1983 and WFRP in 1986, so there was a lot of overlap between the two, chronologically and in terms of staff, for a very long time. But, they did eventually drift apart quite sharply. WFB was up to its 6th edition when WFRP's 1st edition was officially killed in 2002, and the WFB writers had already started ignoring some plot directions from WFRP that the mini players didn't like or want or need or whatever the justification was. When WFRP 2nd edition was finally released in 2005, WFB was nearing its 7th edition and individual armies had already progressed the setting's plot a lot on their own. So the WFRP2 designers decided it'd be safest and easiest to set their edition a decade later than the 1st edition's default starting point of 2512 (by the Empire's calendar). This fitted neatly with the latest WFB fluff's "current" year of 2522 or 2523. And since the WFB fluff up to that point had revolved around a major war called the Storm of Chaos, it was decided that WFRP2 would be written mainly to fit the post-Storm of Chaos period, giving it a slightly post-apocalyptic feel.

If your campaigns are short and unrelated enough, none of this should pose any problems. You can run your WFRP1-era game, then stop it and start a completely separate WFRP2-era game, and nobody will mind. Thing is, the reason I bring all this up is that my campaign's turning out to be an unusually long-lived giant, one of the longest campaigns I've yet been involved in. We started in March 2010 and it's still running, with over 40 sessions played. And while we're using the WFRP2 rules, I've been drawing on classic WFRP1 campaigns for my story (primarily the acclaimed Enemy Within series). And if this carries on long enough, I may want to transition to WFRP2 material, which of course is written as if it were 10 years later. So I see four possibilities:

1. Treat the WFRP2 stuff as if it weren't in the future. This is a problem, as several prominent non-player characters are supposed to be earlier non-player characters' children and other such logical progressions. I tried blending the timelines in the other direction once (making all the WFRP1 stuff seem as if it fitted in 2523), and it's a massive pain, as making each conversion is a small pain but there are lots of them, there's always something you'll miss, and it does seem like a waste of lots of clever multi-generational setting material.

2. Intentionally draw a big, artificial dividing line between the earlier and later campaign series, forcing players to create new characters for themselves and forget their old ones. This seems like an unfortunate waste of established characters.

3. Find enough filler-plot that your campaign just naturally progresses by 10 years. This seems very over-ambitious. All of the published WFRP1 material is only likely to take you half that much time, and it's probably over-ambitious to try to play all of that plus making up a similar amount on your own. You'd also have to incorporate the whole of the Storm of Chaos into your game, which I wouldn't be keen on. It's mostly a lot of giant, vicious battles that make for really good WFB tournament scenarios, but which will seem insanely dangerous and yet also pretty repetitive to individual characters on the ground. It just doesn't seem like fun.

4. Account for what the old characters were doing during the <10 year gap between their last WFRP1-era adventure and their first WFRP2-era one, so that it's relatively realistic for them to carry on in play. The main point of this post is to provide guidelines for exactly that: Accounting for un-played character development, to push them through the Storm of Chaos.

The first, super-obvious step then is to increase the player characters' ages by the amount of time skipped over. WFRP never included formal rules for character aging (they aren't supposed to survive that long), so I propose to borrow a similar AD&D 2nd Ed. rule, which yields this table of modifiers:

If players rolled their characters' starting ages from the table in the rule book, then this is only likely to affect humans, but the rest are there just in case. The idea is that as a character's age exceeds the minimum needed for each category above, their stats are modified in certain ways. These modifiers are cumulative as each new age category is entered. You can apply this retroactively to any older characters you want to generate from scratch, but I think it's alright to assume that most published NPCs already have stats fudged by the authors to suit their ages well enough.

Middle Age: -5% base Strength, +5% base Willpower

Old Age: -10% base Toughness, -5% Intimidate skill, +5% base Intelligence or Fellowship

Venerable: -10% base Toughness, -10% base Strength, -10% Perception skill, +5% base Intelligence or Fellowship or Willpower

You'll note the biggest difference between my table and the AD&D equivalent is that I didn't try to be fair and balanced with the older characters. Youth isn't everything, but realistically, old age sucks. It's possible that some characters, especially puny elves, will drop below 0 Toughness when entering the Venerable category. Assume this means they died of natural causes or something mundane like that. Sorry.

Then there's the question of what the characters did during all that time. I have two thoughts on that, both revolving around the fact that there'd be a massive war to draw everyone's attention during a lot of this period. So, let's assume everyone was living fairly routine, uninteresting lives and then the Storm sprang up and was the main source of unseen adventure during the off season. With that in mind, my first thought is: Give everyone 200XP. If their former career(s) don't make sense in the context of a major war, then let them switch for free to a new path that would work better. Either they get pressed into service in an unfamiliar role, or they volunteer to learn something new (perhaps semi-related) to serve the Empire, or they're compelled to go underground in some way to avoid service, forced to pick up new skills to survive that way. And if their former career(s) do continue to make sense, then they can spend the 200XP on something pretty, as their established skills make them qualified to go on interesting missions.

The second thing I'd add to abstractly represent what happened to the character during the Storm of Chaos would be a single d100 roll for an Interesting Event modifier. This is just something that was the highlight (for better or probably worse) of the character's war experience, some single thing that can be used to show how these missed events affected the character, and perhaps to serve as a hook for future subplots and other character development. It's sort of like a mini version of the Backgrounds system in the Last Unicorn version of the Star Trek roleplaying game, if you're familiar with that. I believe Traveller has something similar too. The idea is to roll a very general wossname and maybe get some stat modifiers from it too, but then sit down and build a real story around how it actually played out. If the group doesn't want to split up during this time, they should look at their Interesting Events together and see how their results can fit together to weave a random but Interesting tale of their shared experiences.

I'd want different Interesting Event tables depending on what the player roughly intended for their character to try to do, based on their personality and such. The random element means the player can still face surprises, but at least isn't totally out of the driving seat. GM's might consider assembling other Interesting Event tables, for example one for each of the party roles described in Appendix III of the WFRP2 Career Compendium. Or they could be rolled according to which province of the Empire the player thought their character should be in at the start of the war. I'm sure there are other ways of splitting up the table options, depending on what the GM feels is most important. Especially close player characters (spouses, siblings, honour-bonded partners, etc.) might want to share the same roll on the table, so that the same thing happens to them both.

(The nice thing about these tables is that they actually work quite well for any new characters starting in the early WFRP2 era too, since every character is supposed to have lived through this period.)

Anyway, I'd want to have a table for each general way in which the character attempts to react to the war: Voluntary Combat, Press-gang Combat, Draft-dodging, Front Line Support, or Vital Homefront Work. To adjust for their generally better treatment, any character who counts as a member of the nobility, a legal mage, a senior academic, a professional military soldier, an elf or a dwarf, gains a +20% bonus on their table roll, to push them towards the "nice" results. Known criminals and the lowest peasants (manual labourers and servants) get a -20% penalty instead, to represent the disdain the authorities have for them. Some permanent effects may be reversible, with the GM's consent (basically allowing for side quests to fix past problems).

Interesting Events for Voluntary Combat
(volunteering for a fighting role, whether as a soldier, military mage or artillerist):
1 - 5: Press-ganged - Re-roll on Press-gang Combat table instead.
6 - 8: Terrible sights - Gain 1d6 Insanity Points.
9 - 11: Close call - Fate Points reduced by 1. Reaching -1 FP means the next FP you earn is forfeit.
12 - 16: War wound - Movement permanently reduced by 1. Swim or Scale Sheer Surface skill permanently reduced by 5%.
17 - 21: War wound - Toughness permanently reduced by 5%.
22 - 26:  Weary - Willpower permanently reduced by 5%.
27 - 31: War wound - Wounds permanently reduced by 2.
32 - 37: Tragic loss - Gain 1 Insanity Point.
38 - 42: War wound - Fellowship permanently reduced by 5%. Intimidate skill permanently increased by 5%.
43 - 53: Sent Home on vital business - Re-roll on Vital Homefront Work table instead.
54 - 74: Missed action - Your unit never saw any major fighting.
75 - 90 Quiet victory - Your unit achieved its goals without serious losses, but did not receive official recognition.
91 - 95 Minor victory - Your unit was commended for its successes.
96 - 97 Major victory - Your unit was rewarded and commended for its successes. Gain 2d10 Gold Crowns.
98 - 99: Hero - You are well known for your personal heroism. Command skill permanently increased by 5%. Gain a shiny medal and a small plot of land.
100: A busy war - Roll again on this table twice.

Interesting Events for Press-gang Combat
(either accepting or failing to resist crappy, junior military roles and cannon fodder duty):
1: Buggery - Roll once on the Odorous Piratical Sodomy table.
2 - 4: Terrible sights - Gain 1d6 Insanity Points.
5 - 14: Close call - Fate Points reduced by 1. Reaching -1 FP means the next FP you earn is forfeit.
15 - 21: War wound - Movement permanently reduced by 1. Swim or Scale Sheer Surface skill permanently reduced by 5%.
22 - 28: War wound - Toughness permanently reduced by 5%.
29 - 35: Weary - Willpower permanently reduced by 5%.
36 - 42: War wound - Wounds permanently reduced by 2.
43 - 48: Tragic loss - Gain 1 Insanity Point.
49 - 56: War wound - Fellowship permanently reduced by 5%. Intimidate skill permanently increased by 5%.
57 - 60: Got away - Re-roll on Draft-dodging table instead
61 - 81: Missed action - Your unit never saw any major fighting.
82 - 92: Quiet victory - Your unit achieved its goals without serious losses, but did not receive official recognition.
93 - 95: Minor victory - Your unit achieved was commended for its successes.
96: Major victory - Your unit was rewarded and commended for its successes. Gain 2d10 Silver Shillings.
97 - 98: Promotion - Re-roll on Voluntary Combat table instead.
99: Hero - You are well known for your personal heroism. Intimidate skill permanently increased by 5%. Gain a good-quality hand weapon.
100: A busy war - Roll again on this table twice.

Interesting Events for Front Line Support
(operating in dangerous war areas along with the military, but not in a combat role, e.g. surgeon, smith, camp follower, undercover spy)
1: Buggery - Roll once on the Odorous Piratical Sodomy table.
2 - 5: Press-ganged - Re-roll on Press-gang Combat table instead.
6 - 15: Terrible sights - Gain 1d6 Insanity Points.
16 - 18: Close call - Fate Points reduced by 1. Reaching -1 FP means the next FP you earn is forfeit.
19 - 20: War wound - Movement permanently reduced by 1. Swim or Scale Sheer Surface skill permanently reduced by 5%.
21 - 22: War wound - Toughness permanently reduced by 5%.
23 - 28: Weary - Willpower permanently reduced by 5%.
29 - 30: War wound - Wounds permanently reduced by 2.
31 - 36: Tragic loss - Gain 1 Insanity Point.
37 - 38: War wound - Fellowship permanently reduced by 5%. Intimidate skill permanently increased by 5%.
39 - 44: Got away - Re-roll on Draft-dodging table instead
45- 88: Uneventful - You keep safely out of harm's way, whether you like it or not.
89 - 94: Promotion - Re-roll on Voluntary Combat table instead.
95 - 99: Hero - You are well known for your personal heroism. Charm skill permanently increased by 5%. A relevant Altdorf (or other city's) structure is named after you or a public statue of you is erected.
100: A busy war - Roll again on this table twice.

Interesting Events for Vital Homefront Work
(avoiding combat with an acceptable excuse, e.g. vital state administrative or planning work, supporting civilians or returning veterans, manufacturing or agriculture):
1 - 4: Caught behind enemy lines - Re-roll on Front Line Support table with a -20 penalty instead.
5 - 25: Tragic loss - Gain 1 Insanity Point.
26 - 30: Suspected enemy agent - Re-roll on Draft-dodging table instead. 
31 - 45: Botched effort - Your work was inadequate to meet the war demand and you were penalised for it. Lose 4d10 Gold Crowns' worth of cash or property, or have Charm, Command or Haggle skill permanently decreased by 5%.
46 - 55: Sent forward -  Re-roll on either the Front Line Support or Voluntary Combat table instead.
56 - 85: Humble cog - You did your work quietly and adequately.
86 - 95: Prized contribution - Your work proved to be unusually important, and you were well rewarded for it. Gain 4d10 Gold Crowns.
96 - 99: War-winning contribution - A key battle was only won because of your work and everyone knows it.  Charm, Command or Haggle skill permanently increased by 5%. Gain 2d10 Gold Crowns.
100: A busy war - Roll again on this table twice.

Interesting Events for Draft-dodging
(avoiding combat without an acceptable excuse or due to serious disability):
1: Buggery - Roll once on the Odorous Piratical Sodomy table.
2 - 5: Caught behind enemy lines - Re-roll on Front Line Support table with a -20 penalty instead.
6 - 9: Press-ganged - Re-roll on Press-gang Combat table instead.
10 - 12: Terrible sights - Gain 1d6 Insanity Points.
13 - 15: Close call - Fate Points reduced by 1. Reaching -1 FP means the next FP you earn is forfeit.
16 - 18: War wound - Movement permanently reduced by 1. Swim or Scale Sheer Surface skill permanently reduced by 5%.
19 - 21: War wound - Toughness permanently reduced by 5%.
22 - 31: Weary - Willpower permanently reduced by 5%.
32 - 34: War wound - Wounds permanently reduced by 2.
35 - 55: Tragic loss - Gain 1 Insanity Point.
56 - 60: Arrested - Charm, Command or Haggle skill permanently decreased by 5%.
61 - 70: Struggled - Lose 2d10 Silver Shillings' worth of cash or property.
71 - 90: Got by -  You keep safely out of harm's way, whether you like it or not.
91 - 94: New purpose - Re-roll on either the Front Line Support or Vital Homefront Work table instead
95 - 98: Lucky find - Gain 2d10 Silver Shillings.
99: Very lucky find - Gain 2d10 Gold Crowns or 1 good-quality hand weapon or 1 small rural house.
100: A busy war - Roll again on this table twice.

Now all I need is for James Wallis to finally publish his long-awaited Odorous Piratical Sodomy table.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Neither Empty Nor Full

Working with high schoolers, I get to hear quite a bit about their future hopes and dreams; they're not always interesting or inspiring to me, but they do throw me back to when I was in their position, looking only forward. And almost all my colleagues are still students (I got a small shock the other day when I realised that after me the next oldest person present wasn't even 21 yet, thus 8 years younger than me), and their chatter takes me back to my own varsity days. I have a lot of nostalgia forced on me at work, and the nature of tutoring is that this will never change; the kids will always stay in the same age band, the majority of the other tutors will always be students looking for pocket money, and I'll just keep getting older until I eventually find my own exit.

All of those thoughts congealed in an interesting way recently, and I thought I'd get them out of my head by putting them here. Enjoy.

I tend to have rosy memories of my 4 years at university. There were certainly good things to be had then. I met some great people, and I'm even still in touch with a few of them. We had The Table, which I shall write about separately one day, which was our general social group's fantastic-and-awful regular spot. I had a lot of time off, compared with high school, which I always appreciate. I learnt a lot (which is probably the main point of an educational institution). I became a relatively experienced GM during those years, including running my first properly regular long-term campaign (a Star Trek series titled Last Voyage of the Rutan, and a sort of sequel with the same crew but a different ship, titled Quantum Anomalies). I went vegetarian and then vegan. I had a fucking 30cm-tall Mohawk for about 10 months. And we had our semi-regular social soccer Saturdays, which were great and, together with my habit of walking 15km home from varsity, probably got me as physically fit as I've ever been (that's declined now, but not as badly as most of my friends' fitness declined over the same period, so I'm still alright). And beer! There seemed to be a lot more parties and clubs and booze back then. Where'd that all go?

But it wasn't all dandy back then. I had some serious problems with depression, low self-esteem and social awkwardness (especially around women), which led to poor academic performance (because of several things, ranging from lack of motivation to a phobia-like inability to go into the bookshop and buy the necessary textbooks) and an awful lot of soured social opportunities. I'm always most sorry about the needless aggression I directed at my (mostly innocent) friends. I still enjoy a vigorous, healthy debate (which some people will never be comfortable with), but too often back then I was excessively stubborn, pushy and unreasonable. A lot of the time, I was also just wrong.

But the same problem extended to most of my social or potential social interactions. I mostly just avoided people, because I felt that was easiest. It took me a long time to re-learn how to socialise properly after that. One good example was a sociology prac we did one day, where we had to each compile a list of everyone in class we'd like to meet ("over a beer," I think was the circumstance they specified); I forget exactly what the stated purpose of the exercise was, but something to do with social networking, back before that was an internet wossname. Soon, everyone was talking back and forth, exchanging names with people they hadn't met yet. It'd be fascinating to pick all of that interaction apart, to see why people felt like approaching some peers but not others, and why everyone automatically reciprocated, always getting the name of each person who'd just taken their own name. Except me. At least half a dozen people approached me (quite a feat, considering the impenetrable wall of empty seats and deliberate eye-contact avoidance I normally built up around myself), and I intentionally didn't get any of their names in return, nor approach anyone myself. I just sat there, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, hoping it'd all end quickly. I felt like that a lot of the time back then.

And then there were women... I'd love to have a better understanding of exactly why I was so very awkward with women (and especially with romantic or potentially romantic situations), but it was really awful. My prime randy young bugger years were squandered staring at my feet. And let's be clear, I'm a real catch: Handsome, intelligent, witty, healthy and not excessively modest. I had a fair number of women throwing themselves at me. Some literally (actual literally, not metaphorical literally) just fell into my lap. And yet I spent pretty much all of 2002-2008 inclusive as a complete celibate, not even a single little kiss. I kick myself now, thinking back on all the missed opportunities, and should probably also apologise to everyone who tried with me. (Would it be crazy to offer second chances this late?)

Perhaps my "favourite" story of that sort was the time I'd arrived at The Table between lectures, to find only 2 people there (unusually empty), one of whom was a young lady I'll keep anonymous. She was writing a poem and I was kind of reading it over her shoulder, and eventually she asked what I thought of it. I said, honestly, that I liked the first verse, but the second seemed too bleak and depressing by comparison. So she took it back, crossed out the second verse and replaced it with one line that read, "So what I'm saying is, will you go out with me?"

My brain literally (metaphorically this time) froze. Absolutely no thought went through it for a period of time that I'm not actually sure about. Could have been half a second, could have been 5 minutes; I blanked out too completely to notice time passing. Just as gears started turning again and I was gradually forming a thought similar to "Say Yes," she obviously decided that my silence was a negative response, and instead made a joke of it with the other guy at the table. It never came up again, as I always felt too awkward around her to correct my mistake.

By the time I got to honours year, my mind was on the mend, and while there were still some bad patches ahead, honours was a fantastic year, full of hard work, fun people and the greatest period of learning I've yet had. So even if everything before it was shit (which it wasn't), it would still have been completely worth it. And now I feel mentally quite healthy again, so that's nice.

But my general point is this: I've been forced by my current work conditions to mentally re-live my youth a lot. And the conclusion all of that remembrance has brought me to is that those were neither the best nor the worst years of my life. Or they were both simultaneously. Neither extreme is appropriate on its own. But I can't even bring myself to fully loathe the bad bits; they're a part of who I am now, they shaped my mind and I learned a lot from them. While I might point at some specific bits I wish I could do over differently (specifically, having lots of sex with lots of pretty ladies), I don't think the current version of me, the one writing this, would want to miss out on all of those experiences and thus become a different person. If anything, I'd want more bad (or rather, challenging) experiences earlier in life, so that I could have learned from my mistakes earlier and enjoyed my 20s more. But that's life: There's always something you wish you'd learned after it's too late, and the best we can do is to keep learning as much as we can and make the best  of whatever opportunities arise.