NoD #134 — Lost at the mall

I was in Helsinki for a couple of days just now, visiting an ailing relative. The trip went well enough overall, not much to tell about it really. Or rather, I guess I’d like to write a quick newsletter for once. Focus on just one detail about the trip.

Lost in the urban dungeon

A recurring theme of my city adventure was the general navigation difficulty of the grand modern architectural edifice. The expedition involved multiple cases of my wandering about gormlessly in various maze-like parts of the urban landscape. These were generally speaking the kinds of spaces that you’d think are intended for strange visitors to navigate, but for whatever reason it wasn’t easy. I don’t quite know what to think about this, maybe I’m just becoming outdated with my urban navigation skills. Or it was bad luck, who knows. I did get a recurring sense of deja vu over the last couple of days over such simple things as how nice it would be to have things like a map or signage.

For particulars, consider these use cases:

The curiously missing front door

Trio is a mid-sized mall in Lahti, of no particular interest here except for the fact that the local offices of the OP banking concern are located in its depths. I tried to drop off some inconsequential mail there on Monday, on the way to Helsinki, and man was it unreasonably difficult to find the actual entrance into the bank. Here’s how the search pattern went for me in particular:

A bit of a map to illustrate my navigation failure mode here. X marks where I wanted to be.
  1. Enter the mall through what seems like the front entrance, or one of them. Immediately spot the signage of the bank across the promenade, so far so good.
  2. Discover that the bank entrance I’ve found is for some sort of specialty clientele (the explanation on the door was kinda vague), and it was closed already for the day anyway. There was a sign on the door advising general clientele to “use the other door”. OK, so great, let’s go look for the other door! I do know that the bank is still open today, I just happened to find some kind of back entrance first.
  3. I choose arbitrarily to start looking for the main entrance clockwise around the mall promenade, because the architecture vaguely seems to me like that’s a likelier direction. No good reason, could have gone the other way instead, too.
  4. After walking around multiple boutiques (obviously following the right-hand wall, because I want to get “around” the bank) it starts seeming like this isn’t working out. The promenade just goes on and on. But surely it’ll turn around in a bit to double back to where the bank is? Well, apparently not: the lengthy corridor just takes me to an exit out of the building.
  5. Not to be deterred, I continue going around the building, on the premise that there’ll be more entrances inside the mall, and those will then open up to the other side of that bank part, and then everything will be rainbows. That’s true in a general sense, although I do end up walking around the entire block, having exited west and then re-entering from the east, so to say. Or apparently, exiting north-west and then re-entering south-west, now that I look at an actual map of the place? Anyway, going back in.
  6. At this point I’m becoming very aware of the fact that this seems to be the only mall I’ve ever been in that does not have customer navigation maps or signage anywhere. Like you know those free-standing map displays that are so common in public buildings like this, because every day they serve so many people who don’t know where things are? Well, not here in Trio, for whatever reason.
  7. But hey, I find an Info center! It says so right there in the sign on top of this small booth, and it’s right next to the entrance, so that makes sense. They’ll probably have that map of the building and can show me where the bank is.
  8. However, the info center has apparently been refurbished into a ticket sales office (like Ticketmaster, you know), curiously enough, so the service people there don’t know anything about any maps. Confused about me even asking, so apparently they don’t get a lot of this sort of traffic there in ticket sales land. They do advice me that there’s an information center on the second store, though, so perhaps try there.
  9. That info center in the 2nd floor proves to be some kind of unified service hell for the city social services. It’s large and busy and has lots of services if I happen to be a Lahti resident looking to manage my unemployment or whatnot. But not the kind of info I was looking for here. I think it’s around this point that I decide that this mall-wandering is shifting from annoying to hilarious.
  10. I return to the original plan or walking around the building until the bank shows up, which is apparently literally the way you’re supposed to navigate this mall, from all I’ve seen. I find to my delight that I have now circled around the entire place, and have found my way back to where I first entered. Yeah, there’s the bank’s backside, with the sign that tells me to “use the other door”. Helpful.
  11. Because I’m significantly more clever about navigation than the average farm animal, I decide to go the other way this time, counterclockwise around the bank instead of clockwise. Lo and behold, just around the corner I find that main entrance! I could have been there ages ago had I only understood to go right instead of left at step 3. Silly me.

The actual bank was also a bit weird in how they sort of didn’t seem to be geared towards knowing what to do with routine mail, but whatever, I’m just happy that I finally found the place. Looking at the map of the mall now, back home, I still don’t get why it’s set up the way it is. I did suggest to the bank people that they could potentially save people a hell of a lot of trouble by adding a simple arrow on their back door instructions. Telling a person to “use the other door” is simply not very useful advice unless that person is already familiar with the institution. And you’re probably not putting up these instructions for the sake of somebody who already know what they’re doing, right?

The case of the medical labyrinth

The Meilahti hospital complex in Helsinki is the largest center of medical services in the country. It’s basically like a large college campus, an entire neighbourhood of a score of different buildings and institutions, each a major operation on its own. Just about everything you could imagine medicine-wise, with large specialized institutions for pediatrics, gynecology, surgery-related stuff and whatnot, the list just goes on and on.

For some reason I’m not seeing an official website for the hospital complex taken together. The entire campus is clearly managed in an unified manner in logistical terms, even if the individual hospitals tucked into the neighbourhood seem to be independent in their medical operations. Joint parking arrangements, snow-plowing, and so on.

Wait no, here‘s a fairly clear map of the campus, actually. You can see how it’s fairly large. I’d never visited the place, but it sure is impressive (dare I say, world-class), and unlike the Trio mall, the Meilahti hospital complex actually does have map emplacements and signage around the campus, almost as if they’re predicting that literally thousands of people will be visiting every day, some of them for the first time.

So I was visiting an ailing relative at the “tower hospital”, one of the hospitals in this cluster. On Monday I was part of a drive-in party taken in by a native guide, whose strategy for navigating the place involved entering the campus parking caverns by car, and then driving to park in a location close to by to the tower hospital, such that we could enter the correct building via a direct underground passage. Neat, as long as you know what to do. (I never saw any resources for how to know; you just gotta know.)

Inside the building I came to learn that the elevators and stairway signage of the tower hospital have been developed in a style that I would characterize as “cryptic”; namely, you can get where you want to go if you have prior knowledge of the floor and section number codes of the place. For example, if you want to find a visitor bathroom (which I would have liked to find), you first have to know to take the elevator from the parking hall to the ground floor (I think the ground floor was marked as “3” on this elevator), and then find your way into the lobby. Fair enough that this is the only bathroom open to visitors in a large hospital, it’s not like they’re there to serve my needs in particular. I’m sure this wouldn’t even be hard if I somehow already knew my way around the building.

If you don’t know which floor is the ground floor, then you’re in for a fun ride, because that basement service elevator doesn’t indicate this at all. You’re also likely take a good long while figuring out that there are actually two sets of elevator shafts in the building, separately for the basement and the upper floors, so if you’re going up then there’s going to be an elevator shift in there somewhere. This is all “you just gotta know”, as far as I can see.

At least I got a handle on how to navigate the tower hospital on Monday. On Tuesday I was dropped off on the street on the opposite side of the hospital campus, intent on navigating my way back to the tower hospital and the same parts of it as the last time. Gotta say, the exercise felt a lot like a convoluted D&D megadungeon. I foolishly used one of these campus maps to convince myself that I could shortcut through the campus (as opposed to circling around it for a a kilometer or two, to enter from the official entry point). At this point I hadn’t ever even seen the tower hospital from the front, so I had only a vague idea of what I was in for here.

A hint on navigating the Meilahti hospital complex: don’t go into the back yards. I know that it looks like there’s ways to travel between the buildings like that and get directly to where you’re going, with cleanly maintained walking routes, but these are in fact only intended for staff and logistics use. The back alleys will lead you to cryptic doors leading into specialized departments of the various hospitals, ones where a visitor shouldn’t be wandering just on the principle of trying to find your way to the lobby. Walk the long way around to the front entrance and enter through the lobby.

I ended up wandering the back alleys, entering some kind of radiology building (it was wackily numbered the same as the tower hospital, apparently in some alternate address scheme), finding an elevator down into the parking caverns, concluding that it’s impossible to walk through the parking caverns to reach the target… after some more back alleys wandering I found yet another building with another set of elevators that actually by accident took me to a tunnel that led me underneath the tower hospital. Sort of a deal where you enter one building and then go underneath it to emerge in another.

The fact that people keep commenting on my stories of hospital dungeoneering with anecdotes about how there totally is a direct underground tunnel connecting building A to building B is not particularly helpful for the scenario here. Maybe other people just read some kind of guidebook on this place before visiting, and I don’t, and that’s why I don’t know about these easy direct routes. Or alternatively, you just gotta know. The hospital staff obviously doesn’t have any difficulties navigating, I wouldn’t either if I spent a few days exploring the premises.

At least getting out of the hospital after the visiting hours was easy, I just walked out of the lobby. The front entrance is clear enough, I suppose, that even I can’t get lost while exiting the orbit of the majestic medical institute.

Signs only carry trivial information

Before going to the hospital on Tuesday I visited the Jumbo-Flamingo megamall hellscape with my father. I learn from Wikipedia that the place is apparently the largest mall in the Nordic region altogether, so surely fun times for the urban navigation impaired.

The Flamingo arrangement of floor signage is combined for the parking garage and various entertainment functions, like how the bowling alley is on floor “A K2” and so on. When entering the place through the the parking garage (as one does when traveling by car, surely) we again enter the delightful world of “you just gotta know”. In this case you just gotta know that the helpful signage in the staircases, describing mysterious places like “A 1.5” and such is referring to floor numbering that you have no way of contextualizing without a map, none of which is available until you’ve navigated your way to the lobby. I guess writing “lobby this way” on the wall was not possible when designing this affair.

The lack of descriptive signage is actually kinda awe-inspiring in hindsight. After formulating an understanding of the architecture I can say that the parking hall mystery staircase was just plain a stack of floors with a stair and an elevator, most of which only exist to let people enter the various floors of the multi-storied parking garage. The excessive amount of signage, with the refusal to use actual words, makes it seem much grander than that.

It’s like, how do I describe this… you’re standing at a staircase platform, and there are these painted colored lines on the walls showing the directions to mysterious destinations like “A 1” and “A 1.5” and “A 2”, so you can just pick which one you want to go to and follow the painted line on the wall up or down the stairs or wherever the line goes. Fine enough, except you have no clue whatsoever what is at these numbered destinations (I’m told that you’re just supposed to know that “1” is the lobby floor), and ultimately it proves that all this signage does not actually contain any interesting information: it’s essentially just telling you that floor 1.5 is above floor 1, and floor 2 is above that. These painted follow-the-line signs do not do anything that a plain “this is floor 1.5” sign wouldn’t do. I am apparently not smart enough to know that floor 1 is where I want to be going, but I am smart enough to know that floor 2 is above floor 1 without having a painted line directing me to go up the stairs if I want the numbers to go up. This would all be vastly more useful if instead of having a line directing you to “A 1” you had a sign telling you that the lobby is this way.

(The “A” in these signs is apparently just saying that it’s staircase A. There’s probably a staircase B somewhere in Flamingo, too.)

The mall itself was, surprisingly at this point, easy to navigate compared to the parking hall staircase. The Jumbo mall consists of basically two promenades arranged as a cross. There’s maps at regular intervals, and while I hear from second-hand sources that they’re sometimes not working (gotta have touch-screen interactivity these days, which comes with the screens sometimes not working), on Tuesday they worked just fine, and it’s not like I need a lot of navigation aid. Give me a glance of the floor map, and I can figure out the rest myself.

One more for good measure

This one’s just plain urban reality of life, I imagine everybody’s had this experience.

I visited the Helsinki university rpg club Alter Ego on their club night on Tuesday. The AE clubhouse moves around every half decade or so as the student association reshuffles its clubs, and now AE has moved back to Domus Academica, this large block house in the western part of the city center. Fair enough, it was there 20 years ago as well.

(The new club rooms are grand, by the way; if you haven’t been there yet, do visit by all means. The atmosphere is also lively, I could see just plain visiting regularly if I was living in Helsinki. A simple and functional solution for a gaming space every Tuesday, say.)

The new AE club rooms are in a different part of the Domus Academica house from before, though. The entrance is from the back of the building, through one of the many secondary doors that a large student apartment kind of building features. No screaming visible signage pointing you to an ephemeral hobby club room either, obviously. Kinda difficult to find in that you need either intimate familiarity with the building’s layout… or a native guide.

I had no difficulties at all visiting the new AE club rooms because I had a native guide. I could just trudge along without a care in the world. And now that I’ve visited once, I could find my way back easily enough despite the place being secreted away in an innocuous basement. There’s nothing inherently difficult about following a path through the urban landscape, the difficulties are entirely in the way the routing information is transmitted to a person when they don’t already have it. Signs, maps, described paths, whatever.

So that’s the killer application in these navigation affairs: discover where you’re going first, then travel back in time to guide yourself to where you’re going. Gets you through some fairly convoluted urban navigation challenges in an entirely trivial way. Even easier if you can find a second person to be the guide for you, streamlines that time travel part out of the equation. None of my other urban navigation experiences this week would have been issues if I had a guide with me.

Urban design considerations

I’m inclined to conclude that I just have too high expectations of space design. I recognize the inclination in myself to think that anything that’s not designed well is somehow unacceptable. These spaces are probably all just fine, people get by. I’m just bad at mall navigation, or I’m surprised by the amount of aimless wandering that is necessarily involved in visiting a new space. I wouldn’t have any difficulty visiting any of these places a second time.

I do know that if I were to design a public space like this, I’d use playtesting methodology for ensuring that the user interfaces actually function: set up mock signage, bring in large numbers of mock users, observe how the playtesters utilize spaces. Do they wander in confusion, or do they find where they’re going? If my maps, signage and hinting prove insufficient, I could improve on them, really add navigation aids everywhere until even the dumbest customers can figure out how to go about things.

I’m not sure if these places I visited this week would pass that sort of rigorous engineering as they are now. Maybe I’m basically an insignificant minority in not inherently knowing that the only way to get out of the parking garage staircase is to seek the floor labeled “1”. Or that of course the ground floor in a hospital is on floor 3. Or that the bank’s “other door” is counterclockwise instead of clockwise. But I would certainly find out first, because I’m worried that other people could get lost as well with these user interfaces. Not a problem for the staff and regular visitors either, so maybe it’s not a concern for many spaces like this.

Coup de Main in Greyhawk

Online Coup continues apace. The game’s open to visitors, newcomers, inexperienced players, cats and dogs.

Sunday Basic session #9 is scheduled for Sunday 15.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. Teemu primarily GMs the time-slot and offers a dungeoneering-focused “Basic” style game set in the Duchy of Urnst. Rules and character stables and so on are basically compatible with the “main” game.

Monday Coup session #114 is scheduled for Monday 16.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. I’m currently GMing, and we’re doing the usual, strategic full panoply sandbox around the Selintan Valley region of Flanaess.

Coup de Main #93

Coup de Gnarley continued with a bit of a breather session. As per Tuomas:

Knights Temp had gathered some loot from their latest dungeon excursions and decided to return to Narwel to sell them and resupply.

The session turned out to be a logistics one when everyone ended up spending much more time enjoying the services of a city and doing their own things by taking couple of weeks downtime.

A herbalist was hired to Knights Temp who promptly identified all the weird herbs and mushroom the Knights had found in the dungeon. There were healing ones, some that allowed breathing water and few mixed bags that had both beneficial and detrimental effects.

Magical types spent time researching, Kenna learned to make healing potions, inspired by the healing mushrooms and the Wizard identified numerous magical items. Magnus went to religious retreat and contacted his goddess and learned about the myths of his cult.

Rob was busy selling loot, buying equipment and providing contacts for everyone else. Thrumhal spent time ability training and relaxing to get hp re-roll. Young Will was sponsored a vacation as well and the brave lad managed to triple his hp with successful hp re-roll. Kiel was also shopping and spending his loot gambling.

The month of Patchwall ended and Knights Temp are looking to return to dungeon on the first days of Ready’reat, possibly their last big excursion before the coming winter.

Coup in Sunndi #67

I think I’m probably a little bit confused about the exact order these sessions occurred in, because I can’t figure out why we would have switched campaign forks here again, but whatever; let’s say for the sake of the argument that after the big setups in the Doom of Naerie storyline last session, we decided to play the Temple of the Seven Stars adventure this time around. I don’t think the choice was caused by player scheduling either, we had all the regulars participating here. I guess the players might have just been more inspired by this adventure or something?

Last time at the Temple of the Seven Stars the adventurers had discovered that the somewhat remote temple had been under a dangerous siege by lycanthropic demonic cultivators intent on razing the place and co-opting its secrets. As one does. The axis of evil here was known to involve outlaw rabble, a wererat kungfu monk with priestly pretensions, a worryingly vague idea of there being werewolves in the forest, and lastly, some sort of wicked demon blood magic that had been used to corrupt a large number of the outer disciples of the temple into insane werebirds and dog-men (gnolls), each according to their inclinations. An impressive circus, all told! (There were also demon monkeys brought in from the outside, but those hardly count in this sort of menagerie!)

The scenario here is essentially a fantasy wargame, with the adventurers coming into the middle of a siege already in progress. Opposed to the demonic forces stood the remnants of the 7⭐ temple membership: some outer disciples who managed to resist the initial onslaught of demonic blood magic, most of the inner disciples, the abbot (master) of the temple, and most significantly, the “7 Stars”, seven of the top-ranked disciples of the monastery. Or five of them, rather; one of them was away from the temple as the attack happened, and another had been successfully poisoned and suborned by the demonic faction.

The 7⭐ temple is a cultivation (self-improvement) center following a particular tradition combining martial arts training with “divine cultivation”, a type of training that seeks to develop spiritual organs for manipulation of astral energies, and ultimately ascend into literal godhood. Divine cultivation in the Coup campaign is sort of the equivalent of standard xianxia cultivation, so it’d be fair to say that the 7⭐ here is essentially your typical cultivation fantasy magic school in all ways. The scenario is basically about exploring what that’s like with players who aren’t familiar with the genre.

This being the case, the Seven Stars disciples obviously stand clearly above the rest of the pack within the temple hierarchy, being generally more powerful (higher level) than the abbot himself. Mid-tier (about level 4–5) each, as opposed to the low-ish level ranges of everybody else at 7⭐. The way the monks look at it, the dashing heroes (each with their own color schemes, show tunes, mottoes, signature weapons and cultivation themes, as one does) form a significant part of their remaining punching weight, and are surely essential to the temple surviving this trying time.

And certainly, it’s true that one of the Seven Star disciples, the formation expert, had set up a magical anti-lycanthropy barrier that served a large role in maintaining the perceived stalemate siege situation at the temple: the lycanthropes were not confident about their odds in attempting a direct assault on the main hall used as a sanctuary by the defenders, while the defenders were all too aware of how impossible it would be to escape through the wilderness as long as the werewolves kept patrolling the area.

The players got all this and more infodumped on them as their characters were introduced to the temple defenders at their besieged main hall. The gist of the scenario at this point was clear: the players would need to investigate and explore the situation, and make their own plans and designs for how to resolve the siege, or failing that, escape with their lives.

A scenario of this sort involves shifting through a fair bit of detail on terrain and troop compositions. The players mostly focused on getting a sense for the temple grounds and buildings, the terrain over which the siege was occurring, and the way the demonic forces occupied those buildings and conducted patrols and generally exerted control over the outside spaces. They were less focused on engaging the defenders and getting to know them, but they could hardly entirely avoid the way that the particular personalities and desires of the Seven Stars cultivators influenced the conduct of the siege.

One of the particularly amusing avenues of investigation involved the party discovering “Rocksteady”, one of the missing 7 Star cultivators, who had been suborned by the lycanthropic curse such that he’d turned into, well, a rhinoceros of ambiguous sanity. One of the other 7 Stars was keeping the rhino situation a bit under the wraps to avoid despair among the rank and file, hoping to reverse the lycanthropic degeneration and cure the poor man.

The siege was in general dotted with these sorts of small details, sidequests I guess. The players flitted about a bit, exploring different venues in advancing the cause. Plans were drafted for raiding the enemy positions in the outer sect barracks and storehouses, utilizing the nocturnal tendencies of the Tengu cultivators. The adventurers also rooted through one of the unoccupied star towers in the hopes of finding something useful. That sort of thing.

A conclusive path forward was yet to be discovered in this session, so we agreed to break for the week and leave the players to mull over the situation. This was all a bit different from the usual fare in that the factions in conflict both involved forces clearly mechanically superior to the PCs themselves; theirs was not a task of indeterminate slaughter of those weaker than themselves. If something was to be done, it would have to be a focused and clever ploy.

State of the Productive Facilities

I guess it’s back to the grind for me. The Muster proofs haven’t shown up yet, but I imagine they’ll arrive soon-ish. The personal drama around this Helsinki trip will probably keep lingering for a time, too. Bothersome, but that’s being human.

The need to set up that Call of Cthulhu campaign for next week is probably more than enough to keep me occupied as things stand.