Sunday, 15 January 2017

Never Built New York - Meagpolisomancy

I'm a sucker for concepts. If it's intriguing and at least semi-plausible I'll wait eagerly for the denouement, provided it hits enough of my conceptual buttons. One of my big please-oh-yes buttons is Art Deco, which is why I fell so hard for Bioshock. It's also why I fell so hard for Raymond Hood's vision of a New York Bridge, as featured in a recent Guardian article.

I love the concept not simply because it's beautiful - though it is - but because it reminds me irresistibly of London Bridge, as it was once upon a time.

Old London Bridge was a gorgeous mess, with houses, shops and latrines - all the joys of modern life - along its length. It couldn't bear its own weight, it caught fire frequently, it was a traffic nightmare, but it supported buildings seven stories high at a time when a tall building was an unbelievable feat of engineering. It supported grain mills and water pumps through its massive, and ultimately overburdened, arches. There's a romance in that image of a bridge that defies its design that draws me in.

I look at that Hood scheme and see a New York that ought to exist, in the same wistful way that people think of flying cars and jetpacks as hallmarks of a future that never was. It's conceptually perfect, in the same way that Andrew Ryan's city under the sea is conceptually perfect.

The movie High Rise hits a similar button. 'Almost no reason to leave,' the trailer promises, and yet that is very far from the truth. Ballard creates a world in which the inhabitants of the High Rise have everything they think they need and yet fail to live the way they think they ought to live. The end result is destruction, chaos and death, and in the film version the viewer's left to wonder whether this is a failure of the people in the High Rise, or of the design.

Art Deco is the first breath of Modernism, where we embrace our faith in social and technological prowess. Ballard's vision is Modernism's death rattle, where we accept that our faith is misplaced. Or perhaps that we lack the innate goodness we'd need to embrace that pure faith. In between those two extremes we have Hood, and his vision for a bridge that lives and provides everything we need to live. Not simply apartments but shops, schools, colleges, workshops, factories, from the least to the most. Somewhere in that bridge there is a kindergarten, and somewhere else a crematorium. Both have to exist for the whole to function.

A very similar concept - to go off on a slight tangent - lies behind the idea of the eco-city, which is a current architectural design obsession. The design profile isn't Deco but the base idea is the same as Hood's, that mankind's self-destructive and messy tendencies can somehow be tamed, controlled and shaped in order to create the perfect urban environment. But that's a by-the-by.

Bookhounds of London introduces a game concept borrowed from Fritz Leiber, Megapolisomancy. 'A megapolisomantic working uses the city as a sorcerous engine to accomplish magical effects,' as described in Bookhounds p76. 'With the Megapolisomancy ability you can ... recognize places of power, vortices, dread zones, etheric windows, lay lines, sacred architecture, etc, in cities.'

This carries with it the implied statement that you recognize places which actually exist within the city. Suppose for a minute it also means you recognize places that ought to exist within the city, but don't - or perhaps don't yet. Suppose as part of a sorcerous working the megapolisomancer could draw on a concept as well as a reality, such as the Hood scheme. Designed but never built, schemes like Hood's capture the imagination of the people within the city and therefore, perhaps, the imagination of the city itself.

Cities are constantly being reimagined. Le Corbusier, for example, spent much of his career proselytizing the idea that a house is a machine for living in and reimagining those houses on a grand scale, creating entire cities in which people's lives reach perfection in perfect dwellings. Thousands of architects' imaginations caught fire along with his, and they tried to put his concepts into practice again and again, sometimes successfully, often not.

Suppose for a moment that epochs like these aren't about architects and their ideas. If you use meagpolisomancy as a concept in your game then you accept the possibility that the city generates sorcerous energies, which implies that changes which affect the design of a city either reshape those energies, or, intriguingly, are inspired by whatever it is that creates those energies. So Deco, Modernism, the machines for living in, eco-cities are all in turn part of the city's grand megapolisomantic design, and the only question is whether those design changes are humanity's way of shaping the environment, or the city's attempt to shape humanity.

Say London's megapolisomantic resonance is ultimately the result of a God or Titan, and that the city is intended to chain that entity. Deco could be inspired by that entity's dreams, or be part of its attempt to escape its prison. In turn megapolisomancers could be the entity's jailers, or be part of its escape attempt. Whichever it is, they're still mites crawling around the body of a fallen God, using scraps of its energy to power their schemes.

Further, when buildings are designed but not built, as with Hood's creation, this might in turn affect the potential megapolisomantic workings available within the city.

Take the idea of vanishing into a crowd, for example. Spend a point to increase the tracker's Difficulty number by a point, is how it's expressed mechanically. But does the caster really vanish into the crowd, or instead disappear into an idea of the city that doesn't exist yet, except on paper in an architect's office? When a victim's driven mad by the city, is that because of echoing howls of sirens, the chittering of telegraph wires, or is it by the inexplicable appearance of a city completely unlike the one the target thinks exists? What would happen if, against all previous knowledge, the target found herself wandering Hood's bridge, completely lost within architecture that, the target believes, should not be?   

Talk soon!

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