Ice is basically Alastair Reynolds' attempt to
sequels to Rendezvous with Rama,
scratch off the serial numbers, and rewrite them so that they don't
suck as much.
In this, he succeeds. Although, honestly,
pretty low bar to clear.
The spoilers in this reaction will contain deeper spoilers than most of
my reactions. In general, I follow a policy of not spoiling content
beyond the first 50 pages of the book. That will not be the case with Pushing
the strengths and weaknesses of the book is actually rather
challenging. Reynolds lacks consistency throughout his narrative, often
soaring to compelling heights only to crash back to mediocre depths.
For example, as a re-imagining of the Rama milieu,
the first challenge for Pushing
is the creation of the Big Dumb Object (BDO). The initial conceptual
strokes of the BDO are absolutely riveting: Without any warning, Janus
-- one of the icy moons of Saturn -- suddenly starts accelerating out
of the solar system. Unbeknownst to any of us, the entire moon had
been masquerading as a spaceship for countless eons.
when the main characters actually reach the BDO, the details are shoddy
and underdeveloped. Reynolds paints with a broad and unfocused brush:
We're told repeatedly how "strange" and "enigmatical" Janus is, but
we're never shown any of the details necessary to really bring the
place to life.
But then Reynolds turns it around again: The
BDO leads them to an even bigger BDO, and that BDO
-- and the larger mechanism it's part of -- is really fascinating. And
the revelations of its true nature are not only continued until the end
the book, but beyond it (as I believe Reynolds is subtly hinting at
that even his own characters don't realize).
One of the areas where Pushing Ice
dramatically improves on the Rama
sequels are the interpersonal dramas of the main characters. To put it
succinctly: Instead of being derived from cheesy soap operas, they're
truthful and meaningful.
Even here, however, Reynolds has
consistency problems. For example, the central drama of the novel
revolves around the schisming friendship of Bella and Svetlana.
Reynolds is attempting to create a dynamic in which two people can both
vehemently disagree with each other and both be right
from their own point of view.
And if he had actually pulled it off (as he
to doing), the result would be absolutely breathtaking.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Largely
resorts to both protagonists being inexplicably idiotic.
I think the company is hacking into our computer systems and altering
the data. But I found a backup that they forgot to change. Here it is.
Okay, I have my doubts. So what I'm going to do is tell the corporation
exactly where the backup data is that you're claiming they forgot to
change is. Then I'll wait awhile. Then I'll go and check it to see if
it says what you claim it says.
SVETLANA: Wait... what?
BELLA: My god! It no longer says what you claim it said! You're lying
Okay. That's pretty bad. But it gets worse.
I've decided that you were right all along. Now that I believe you, I'm
using the true version of the data that you brought to me to conclude
our only possible course of action is X.
SVETLANA: Well, I hate you. And so I think we should do not-X!
BELLA: You mean the course of action which, if you weren't lying to me
before, would mean our inevitable death?
And silliness ensues.
mean, I'm obviously supposed to take it all seriously. But when you set
up this Titanic Clash of Wills(TM) in which both characters are
mentally deficient... well, it's a little hard to take them seriously.
end result of all this is a book which I found both compelling and
frustrating in almost equal measures. It was a book that could both
keep me up into the wee hours of the morning frantically turning pages,
and simultaneously a book that would leave me slamming the covers shut
In the final analysis, Pushing Ice
is a thoroughly mediocre book that could have been (and should have
been) great. This puts it one step up the rung from the
sequels (which are thoroughly awful
books that could have been great), but there's still too much dross to
dig through to find the good bits (which are, at times, very, very
I believe that dungeons should always be
Okay, it’s true. I’m just making words up
now. In the case of jaquaying, the term is referring to Paul Jaquays,
of Thracia, Dark Tower,
and a half dozen other old school classics for Judges Guild, Chaosium,
Flying Buffalo, and TSR before transitioning into video game design. In
the latter capacity he recently wrote some essays on
maps he designed for Halo Wars:
game maps spring from a melding of design intent and fortunate
That’s timeless advice, and a design ethos
which extends beyond the RTS levels he helped design for Halo Wars and
reaches back to his earliest work.
What Jaquays particularly excelled at in
those early Judges Guild modules was non-linear dungeon design.
For example, in Caverns of Thracia
Jaquays includes three separate entrances to the first level of the
dungeon. And from Level 1 of the dungeon you will find two conventional
paths and no less than eight
unconventional or secret paths leading down to the lower levels. (And
Level 2 is where things start getting really interesting.)
The result is a fantastically complex and
dynamic environment: You can literally run dozens of groups through
this module and every one of them will have a fresh and unique
But there’s more value here than just
recycling an old module: That same dynamic flexibility which allows
multiple groups to have unique experiences also allows each individual
group to chart their own course. In other words, it’s not just random
chance that’s resulting in different groups having different
experiences: Each group is actively making the dungeon their own. They
can retreat, circle around, rush ahead, go back over old ground, poke
around, sneak through, interrogate the locals for secret routes… The
possibilities are endless because the environment isn’t forcing them
along a pre-designed path. And throughout it all, the players are
experiencing the thrill of truly exploring
the dungeon complex.
(This diagram uses a method laid out by
Melan in this
post at ENWorld.)
Some would argue that this sort of linear
design is "easier to run". But I don’t think that’s actually true to
any appreciable degree. In practice, the complexity of a jaquayed
dungeon emerges from the same simple structures that make up a linear
dungeon: The room the PCs are currently in has one or more exits. What
are they going to do in this room? Which exit are they going to take?
In a linear dungeon, the pseudo-choices the
PCs make will lead them along a pre-designed, railroad-like route. In a
jaquayed dungeon, on the other hand, the choices the PCs make will have
a meaningful impact on how the adventure plays out, but the actual running of the
adventure isn’t more complex as a result.
On the other hand, the railroad-like quality
of the linear dungeon is not its only flaw. It eliminates true
exploration (for the same reason that Lewis and Clark were explorers;
whereas when I head down I-94 I am merely a driver). It can
significantly inhibit the players’ ability to make meaningful strategic
choices. It is, frankly speaking, less interesting and
So I’m going to use the Keep on the
Shadowfell to show you how easy it is to jaquay your dungeons by making
just a few simple, easy tweaks.
Since we're going to be discussing the Caverns of Thracia
extensively as part of the Jaquaying the
Dungeon essays, I finally motivated myself to collect the
campaign journal / exploration of OD&D that I wrote in early
2009 so that they could all be accessed through one handy link. Check
Let’s start by taking a look at some of the
basic techniques employed by Jaquays.
Some of these techniques are designed to offer complex geographic
relationships (out of which meaningful choices can naturally arise).
Others are designed to confuse the mapping of the complex (or, even in
a game dynamic without player mapping, to confound their general
understanding of the complex). The point is not (necessarily) to create
a maze-like environment, but rather to create an environment of
sufficient complexity that the “hand of the author” and the underlying
structure of the dungeon environment becomes obfuscated.
ENTRANCES: Multiple entrances give the PCs an
immediate strategic choice as they approach the dungeon complex. Hidden
secondary entrances also reward exploration both inside and outside of
the dungeon, allowing for favorable approaches and quick escapes. In
terms of structure, multiple entrances effectively create an additional
“loop” (see below) through the surface above the dungeon.
Branching paths in a dungeon allow for choice, but are still
functionally linear in their design. (In practice, you will follow a
branch to its end; backtrack; and then go down a different branch. But
each branch still presents a linear experience.) Where things get
interesting is when you grab a couple of those branches and hook them
together into a loop. These loops are the basic building blocks for
non-linear dungeons: They provide meaningful strategic and tactical
choices; make exploration meaningful; and allow PCs to find alternative
routes around or through potential threats.
LEVEL CONNECTIONS: If there is only a single route leading
to the next level of the dungeon the complexity of the current level is
collapsed into a chokepoint. But if you introduce multiple connections
between the dungeon levels you create a synergy between complex level
designs. Just as you create new structural loops by including multiple
entrances to the dungeon, each additional connection you draw between levels
creates new looping paths through the dungeon.
LEVEL CONNECTIONS: In a linear design, the
levels of a dungeon must proceed in their predetermined order: Level 1
leads to Level 2. Level 2 leads to Level 3. And Level 3 leads to Level
But once you introduce multiple
connections between levels, you are free to have some of those
levels. For example, there might be an elevator on Level 1 that takes
you down to Level 3. Or a hidden tunnel on Level 4 that takes you back
to the surface a half mile away from the dungeon’s main entrance.
& UNUSUAL PATHS: These are fairly
self-explanatory. They reward curiosity and exploration, and can also
breathe fresh life into areas of the dungeon which have already been
One thing to note is that not every
secret path needs to take the conventional form of a camouflaged
doorway: Tunnels that have suffered cave-ins. Traps that drop you to
lower levels. Archaic teleportation systems that must be decoded. Rope
bridges that cross over caverns that can also be explored from below. A
submerged bypass connecting two seemingly unrelated lakes.
And here, too, you benefit from the
non-linear design of the dungeon: Because there are other viable paths
for the PCs to explore, you can include truly esoteric, unusual, and
flavorful paths the may be missed by the unwary (and, therefore,
appreciated all the more by those who do discover them).
The distinction between a “level” and a “sub-level” is somewhat
arbitrary, but perhaps the defining characteristic of the sub-level is
that it departs from the main “sequence” of the dungeon. It may be
smaller than the other levels of the dungeon; it may be difficult to
reach; or both. As such, sub-levels serve as boulevards of discovery or
elaborate shortcuts (or both).
LEVELS: Similar to the concept of a sub-level
is that of the divided level. While existing within the main “sequence”
of the dungeon, a divided level cannot be completely traversed without
going through the levels above or below it.
For example, on the second level of the
dungeon one might find two staircases both leading down to the third
level. But on the third level itself, there is no path which connects
the two staircases. (Or, if there is such a path, it may be incredibly
well hidden or difficult to traverse.)
DUNGEONS: Nested dungeons are sort of like
sub-levels or divided levels on steroids. Imagine designing two
separate and distinct dungeon complexes, but then linking them together
at selected locations. (For example, consider the Lost Temple of the
Gorgons and the Obsidian Caverns as both being fully developed dungeon
complexes, each with multiple levels and sub-levels. You could nest the
Lost Temple within the Obsidian Caverns by creating two links between
the complexes: A long passage on the first level of the former might
lead to the third level of the latter. And a teleportation pad on the
sixth level of the latter might lead to the fifth level of the former.)
As a practical demonstration of this
technique, consider Jaquays’ Dark Tower:
Both Set’s Tower and Mitra’s Tower are
nested into the four primary levels of the dungeon.
ELEVATION SHIFTS: When the PCs come to a
staircase they may naturally assume that they are going up or down to a
new level of the dungeon. But by including minor elevation shifts
within the topography of a single dungeon level you can confound their
expectations. Here’s an example from the Temple of Elemental Evil:
In addition to short stairways and
misleading slopes, you can also include tunnels that loop under each
other while technically remaining on the same “level” of the dungeon.
It’s also important to “think vertically” within rooms as well.
These techniques aren’t just a matter of
confusing the players’ mapping. You are disrupting their ability to
intuit the organization of your maps by analyzing the reality of the
game world. While maintaining clean and simple maps for your own use
and reference, you are creating a world that not only seems more
dynamic and complex, but actually is more dynamic and complex.
Basically, don’t fall into the trap of
thinking that just because your map is two-dimensional that the world should be
ENTRY: I don’t think Jaquays ever used this technique, but
you can complicate the players’ approach to the dungeon by creating
immediate bilateral exploration. In other words, PCs entering a dungeon
are usually only faced with one navigational question at the
macro-level: “How do we get down to level 2?”
But if the PCs are instead entering in
of the dungeon – with levels above and below them – then they’re first
faced with a tougher question: “Which way do we go?”
Note that this decision point is similar
to the one faced by PCs who have “skipped” a level as a result of a
discontinuous level connection. It is also similar to the situation
faced by PCs who have taken advantage of a hidden entrance leading to a
lower level of the dungeon. The distinction of the midpoint entry is
that it is the expected, default entry point to the dungeon. (And in
classic dungeon arrangements, where difficulty corresponds to dungeon
level, the difficulty of the dungeon would increase in both directions
away from the midpoint entry.)
GEOMETRY: If you want to have some real fun,
consider using non-Euclidian geometry. These Escher-inspired designs
can result in counter-intuitive navigation and may even result in PCs
moving between levels without realizing that it’s happened. For
examples of non-Euclidian design, check out my work on FFG’s The Lost Hunt
and the award-winning Halls of the Mad Mage.
SPACES: Sections of a dungeon complex may lead
into areas completely beyond the dungeon itself while still remaining
intimately tied to the dungeon’s topography and/or experience. For
example, module EX1 Dungeonland
detailed a Wonderland-inspired demi-plane that could be accessed deep
below Castle Greyhawk. I’ve read about another DM incorporating the
lost island of X1 The Isle of Dread
as a similar demi-plane within their megadungeon complex.
While such excursions can certainly
breathe a little air into a claustrophobic dungeon delve, I think it
remains an open question where the distinction between an
extradimensional space which “belongs” to the dungeon and a
teleportation effect which simply takes the PCs out of the dungeon
entirely actually lies. In practice, the line between the two is
probably more a blur than a distinct demarcation.
Laying aside these broader questions, I
include extradimensional spaces in the list of jaquaying techniques
because they also allow you to super-impose multiple areas into a
single geographic space.
There is a temptation to think of the
complexity arising from the Jaquays Techniques as being inherently
chaotic – a “funhouse dungeon” that doesn’t make any logical sense. But
while that certainly can be true, the reality is that these techniques
actually result in more realistic designs.
For example, consider the layout of my
house. Ignoring windows (which effectively turn every room in the house
into a potential point of entry), the Melan diagram looks like this:
I (tragically) don’t have much in the way of
secret paths, sub-levels, or non-Euclidian spaces, but even in this
simple structure we can see multiple midpoint entries and looping
paths. I think if you take a moment to consider the architecture of the
world around you, you’ll discover that linear paths are the exception
and not the rule.
And yet how often do we see a D&D
module featuring a giant mansion without any windows? (Because if there
were windows, the PCs would be able to break through them and ruin the
DM’s carefully orchestrated railroad.)
Nor is this effect limited to man-made
structures. Consider, for example, this map of Robber
Baron Cave, complete with hidden passages (click for a larger
It’s complex to the point of being virtually
ungameable. (Although I take that as a challenge even as I type it.)
decidedly non-palatial house also makes the point that dungeons don’t
have to be large in order to take advantage of jaquaying. For example,
the map I designed for Darkwoods’ Secret only featured a dozen
locations, but the flow of the dungeon looks like this:
This smaller scale actually highlights the
gameplay impact of non-linear dungeon designs. It becomes very easy to
see the many different ways in which the dungeon can be played: Can
certain dangers be avoided? Will the PCs or the monsters determine the
field of engagement? Where will reinforcements be coming from? What
viable lines of defense can be held?
BEWARE THE SPRAWL:
None of this, however, is to say that you should never use branching
paths or create chokepoints for accessing the lower levels of the
dungeon. (Any more than it is to say that every single means of egress
should be secret or unusual.) It is merely to say that such features
should be used to effect and not simply by default. Variety is the
spice of dungeon design, after all.
It’s also important to realize that there
really can be too much of a good thing: There is a point at which
endless loops and countless connections within the dungeon result in
meaningless choice instead of meaningful choice. In jaquaying your
dungeon it’s important to beware this featureless sprawl of
STRUCTURE IN THE DUNGEON:
A comprehensive guide to effective dungeon design is beyond the scope
of this essay, but there are a couple of useful barometers you can use
in the process of jaquaying.
vs. Easy: Looking at your map, there should be areas of
the dungeon which are difficult to reach and areas which are easy to
reach. In saying this, I’m not specifically referring to isolated
secret rooms (although there’s nothing wrong with those), but rather
with large sections of the dungeon.
In making this assessment you are
diagnosing whether you’ve made the dungeon too boring by making the
choice of path through the dungeon irrelevant. You want the dungeon to
benefit from being interconnected, but if everything in the dungeon
trivially connects to everything else then navigation becomes
vs. Near: Similarly, have the interconnections made your
dungeon too shallow? Look at where the PCs will be entering the
dungeon. There should be areas of the dungeon which feel far away from
these entrances. If everything in the dungeon feels equidistant, break
some of those connections or delve a little deeper in your design.
Note that “near” and “easy to reach” portions of the dungeon aren’t
problems to be eliminated. What you’re looking for is an effective
balance in the mix between all four of these design elements
(difficult, easy, far, near).
Finally, the complexity of connections within a properly jaquayed
dungeon can also leave the players feeling somewhat adrift. In some
cases this can be taken advantage of. In other cases, it’s a problem
that needs to be solved.
I started map development by
literally copying and pasting a large
chunk the Alpha Base ruins into one corner of the map. This established
a particularly unique landmark in that corner. These large landmarks in
skirmish maps help players immediately know where they are and let them
navigate from point to point by in-game visual references. Ideally,
each "corner" of any skirmish map is visually unique, and this was my
design goal with Terminal Moraine.
Different context, but Jaquays provides the
solution once again. In order to successfully navigate a dungeon, the
players will need distinct, memorable landmarks to orient themselves.
If you’re designing a dungeon with lots of
unique, interesting features, this problem will generally take care of
itself: The players will glom on to whatever details particularly
resonate with them, and use those details to guide themselves. On the
other hand, it can never hurt to do another quick pass on your design
and add in a few deliberate landmarks: A large bloodstain. A unique
statue. A room of strange runes.
Of course, players may also provide their
own landmarks: “Hey, it’s that ogre we killed last week. Awesome.”
On the other hand, you may also be able to
use landmarks to mess with your players. Some landmarks could easily
disappear. (An ogre’s corpse that gets dragged away by scavengers.)
Those unreliable landmarks then open the question of how a missing
landmark should be interpreted. (The runes are missing. Does that mean
we’re in a different room? Or have the runes vanished?) And some
landmarks which might seem unique could easily prove otherwise.
(There’s the golden statue of a cyclops in a hexagonal room… but I
thought that was on the other side of the complex. Did we get turned
To flip it around one last time,
particularly crafty DMs might be able to hide reliable navigation
information into seemingly unreliable landmarks.
You'll frequently hear authors and IP
bitching and moaning about the fact that they don't see a penny when
their copyrighted material is sold on the used market. Even otherwise
fairly intelligent folks like Isaac Asimov have irrationally believed
that people buying used paperbacks were sticking daggers in their backs.
Even if we ignore the ethically tenuous
of people who want to sell you a toaster and then prohibit you from
ever selling that toaster to somebody else (which a few weeks ago I
would have considered hyperbole, but then the Ninth Circuit Court of
Appeals decided it would be a good idea to gut
consumer protection and ship American jobs overseas all in
one fell swoop), the claim being espoused here is fundamentally
What they're overlooking (either willfully
ignorantly), is the actual effect that being able to sell used books
has on the original
customer's buying habits:
First, it influences their decision to buy. ("I'm willing to pay $50
for this textbook, but only because I know I can sell it back for $15
at the end of the semester.") If they weren't able to recoup a portion
of their investment, they might never buy it in the first place.
Second, it amortizes risk. ("I dunno if this DVD is worth $20. But I
guess if I don't like it, I'll be able to sell it for at least $8. $12
isn't that much of a risk.") Customers who can amortize their risk are
more likely to buy. And if the product turns out to be good, they may
not resell at all.
Finally, it injects fresh capital: The $10 you get from GameStop for
your video game is often going right back into purchasing a brand new
game at GameStop.
This effect is somewhat diffused and may, therefore, not be clear when
it comes to books or DVDs or video games. But it's crystal clear when
you look at the auto industry: X buys a $30,000 car from Ford. X sells
a couple years later to Y for $10,000 and uses that money to buy
another $30,000 car. A couple years later X sells his new $30,000 car
to Y for $10,000, while Y sells the original car to Z for $2,000.
Holy shit! Ford has lost all that money spent by Y and Z! X is ripping
Ford off! ... right?
Nope. Because (a) X couldn't afford to buy a $30,000 car every two
if he wasn't selling to Y; and neither Y nor Z can afford $30,000 new
cars. The money from Y and Z is, in fact, funneling right up the system
and into Ford's pocket. And everybody wins: Ford makes more money. X
gets fancy new cars on a more frequent basis. Y and Z get cars they
otherwise couldn't afford.
This is why nobody in the auto industry makes a new car that they can
sell for $5,000 despite the obvious market for $5,000 vehicles..
They're already getting the money from the $5,000
This is the complete map of the Keep of the
Shadowfell, taken from the adventure of the same name. (The red arrow
indicates the dungeon’s entrance. The black arrow indicates the
connection between Level 1 and Level 2 of the dungeon.) At first
glance, this dungeon may appear quite complex and interesting: There
are lots of twisting corridors, and the PCs appear to be given an
immediate and meaningful choice of three separate corridors upon
entering the dungeon.
But as I mentioned earlier, when you
straighten out all of those twisting corridors the overwhelmingly
linear structure of the dungeon becomes quite clear:
The only legitimately interesting feature of
this dungeon, from a cartographical standpoint, is the loop of
encounters in areas 1 thru 4. Everything else in the dungeon has been
designed to proceed in an essentially predetermined fashion: The DM
sets up the encounters, the PCs knock them down, and then the DM sets
up the next encounter.
What I’m going to do is take a few simple
jaquaying techniques and use them to tweak the Keep of the Shadowfell
in order to make it a more dynamic and interesting dungeon. By changing
the macro-structure of the dungeon, we’ll be able to unlock the full
potential of the “local interest” in the map (all those twisting
corridors and mini-loops) and the encounters themselves.
To do this, I’m going to suggest making four
slight adjustments to the dungeon’s design.
As described in my original
remix of Keep on the Shadowfell, add a second entrance to the
dungeon. About a half mile to the west of the keep, up in the foothills
of the Cairngorms, there’s a natural cave that leads, more or less
directly, to area 10 of the Keep.
(This is how the kruthiks and rats got into
areas 9 and 10. As described in the remix PDF,
the PCs can discover this entrance either by scouting the area around
the Keep or by researching it in Lord Padraig’s library in Winterhaven.
If this entrance is found before the PCs enter the Keep, it’s a nice
reward for their cleverness and preparation. If it’s found during their
explorations of the Keep, it can provide a valuable avenue of escape or
allow them to sneak back into the complex after a guard has been raised
at the primary entrance.)
ADDING A STAIRCASE:
Add a staircase leading from the Torture Room (area 2) to the
antechamber of Sir Keegan’s tomb (area 7).
(My primary motivation here is to remove
some of the dead ends from the dungeon. By linking two of the dead ends
together, I’m creating a dynamic loop. Note, however, that I’m actually
linking the loop in just before the actual dead end of Sir Keegan’s
tomb in area 8. This is partly due to the internal logic of the
adventure – it doesn’t make any sense for a hallway to pass straight
through Keegan’s tomb – but it’s also practical in terms of design: By
leaving the branch into area 8 intact, we’re providing a flavorful
navigational choice to PCs entering area 7.)
ADDING A SECRET PASSAGE:
Add a secret passage leading from area 6 to area 15.
(This provides a second connection to the
lower level, providing the dungeon with important multiple connections
between level. By properly positioning these connections, we can turn
entire dungeon levels into looping structures.)
MOVING A STAIRCASE:
Move the staircase leading to area 12 from area 5 to area 3.
(The primary reason for this shift is to
open up some real estate between the primary and secondary routes
leading to the lower level. Admittedly, this is a problem that only
exists because of where I chose to put the secret passage. But this
also allows the goblins to reach the lower levels without passing
through undead-infested halls, thus correcting a problem with the
original dungeon’s design. And by hooking a level connector into the
far end of the adventure’s original loop we’re layering the complexity
of the dungeon’s cartography.)
Finally, in order to make these changes fit
into a natural, logical geography, I’ve simply inverted the entirety of
areas 6 thru 8. With this change, these areas, which originally
required the PCs to descend a staircase from area 1, become a true
“second level” to the complex, passing directly beneath areas of the
(Level 1 is highlighted in red. The “new”
Level 2 is highlighted in blue. And Level 3, the original second level,
is now highlighted in green.)