Monday, July 15, 2019

Marvel Money

For a couple reasons, we've been playing a few games of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) recently. It's an enjoyable system but a bit wonky if you scratch the surface on it -- the numerical values for ranks and FEATs (for a variety of real-world assessments) advance in unpredictable jumps and increments. If it had been me, I would have wanted to establish some kind of consistent math at the outset, and then be able to easily slot in outside assessments to the system. On the other hand, I think the DC Heroes game did exactly that, and I don't see as much legacy of love for that system as FASERIP, so what do I know.

But the most obviously broken part of the system was the Resources (money): it was wildly, insanely broken on a rarefied level for gaming systems in my experience -- on par with man-to-man missile fire in classic D&D. Resources was the sub-system that was entirely torn out and replaced with something brand-new in the switch from MSH Basic to Advanced rules. Here it is in the Basic game (Campaign Book, p. 8):

So: An individual of a given rank gets the indicated "resource points" to spend weekly as they see fit, and all items in the game are price in terms of these resource points. Further up the same page there are some sample costs: a knife costs 1r, a plane ticket 10r, an acre of empty land 100r.

Campaign book p. 9 says, "One resource point equals anywhere from 50 to 75 dollars". Let's take $60 as a rounded average. Then we see that the "Typical" salaried employee is making about $360/week, or $18,000/year -- in the same ballpark as the 1984 U.S. median income of $22,415. But on the upper end, a large nation like the U.S. at "Monstrous" rank is indicated as only getting 75r = $4,500/week, or $225,000/year. E.g.: The U.S. government can only pay the salaries for a staff of 12 federal workers total, and absolutely nothing else. In reality, the 1984 U.S. revenue collected was approximately $666 billion, so this figure is over 6 orders of magnitude in error. Lesson: Income advancement isn't linear, it's exponential. 'Nuff said about that.

In the Advanced game released two years later (all editions are by Jeff Grubb), you get the following alteration (Judges' Book, p. 6):

Note that the whole idea of "resource points" is simply gone. Instead the system now uses the standard MSH mechanic of rolling on its Universal Table for success, comparing one's Resource rank versus a Cost rank of similar description. (If the cost is lower, then it's a very easy "green" roll; if equal, a difficult "yellow" roll; if more, then a nigh-impossible "red" roll.) One roll is allowed per game-week. The justification for this is as follows (Player's Book, p. 18):

Resources are modified in the Advanced Set to cut down on the paperwork. As things stood previously in the Original Set, characters gained Resources like money. They had a physical amount of Resource points, and everything cost a certain amount of RPs. This may work for Peter Parker, who has to make the rent every month, but for millionaire Tony Stark who can buy roadsters out of petty cash, this is a bit harder to handle.

While the stated reason is to reduce record-keeping, I'd say the true benefit of this switch is to possibly correct -- or at least obscure -- the prior set's obvious lunacy on the issue. Costs for all items in the game (mostly weapons, vehicles, and headquarters furnishings) are in descriptive ranks, so it's possible that the underlying dollar costs are in a geometric progression. Or not.

In the past I spent a lot of time trying to rationalize this system (I won't recreate all of that here). But it's still going to be very awkward when one puts normal-people and the U.S. federal government on the same list. If we note on the table above that Typical people ($30,000/year) and U.S. Unearthly revenues ($666 billion/year) are 7 ranks apart, then the simplest geometric model would be to have each rank represent a multiplier of the 7th-root of (666 billion/30 thousand) = 7th root of (22 million) = about 11. Let's say it's times-10 per step to make it as simple as possible.

Now, among the problems here is the attempt at equating personal revenues to large companies and countries. Looking at relative values today, the largest company is indeed about one order of magnitude below U.S. revenues. But the wealthiest person should be two orders of magnitude below. A "standard" millionaire should only be one step above a Typical middle-class person (not 4 steps higher, as shown above).

Then if we look at the many copious price charts, a lot of the prices seem to be out-of-sorts with this suggested times-10 model. A simple Axe is Good cost: say the weekly income of a Good-resourced person, so $300,000/50 = $6,000.  A standard Sedan is Remarkable cost, suggesting the weekly revenue of a "large business", i.e., $30 million/50 = $600,000. A large Office Building (30+ floors) is weirdly set at a cost of Shift-Z, that is, 3 steps beyond what any Earthly entity can actually afford (around $6 trillion?). Maybe it's unfair for me to pick on cases like these; I'll stop for now. But you can sort of imagine trying to massage this system and just never getting rid of the many short corners.

Now, one thing I noticed recently is that the 1991 Revised rules, which mostly just edits and repackages the prior Advanced Rules under a different name, has yet another go at this. It gives a fairly brief table of about 50 example Resource ranks (Revised Basic Book p. 41), including salaries and costs of many common comic-book items, and it has the distinct advantage of leaving out the attempt at including national governments. I took that table and did some research to fill in current real-world estimated dollar values, and then a regression on the logarithms of those values, expecting broadly for the standard MSH Resource lunacy appear. But what I found was actually not the most crazy thing I've ever seen:

You can draw a simple straight regression line through that data, including the origin (0, 0), and have it be a 97% correlated match. The indicated model of f(x) = 0.80x means that the cost-multiplier for x ranks should be about 10^(0.8x); since 10^0.8 ~ 6.3, we could say roughly that each rank here represents about ×6 value over the preceding one (perhaps not what I'd have picked tabula rasa, but a more gentle advancement than the previously considered ×10 one). If we pick the 0-rank to be $1 cost, then the ranks represent costs with perhaps lower-bounds of $6, $40, $250, $1500, $10,000, etc. for Feeble, Poor, Typical, Good, Excellent, and so forth (and annual salaries of about 50 times those numbers). The other costs in this version of the rules are -- surprisingly -- kind of consistent with that model. I could find a half-dozen items in the given list off from the real-world estimated value by 2 ranks, but nothing any more than that.

Disclosure: I did put my thumb on the scale here a tiny bit by re-interpreting a few of the items on the list from my first estimates. For example: Low-rank hotel costs I interpreted as per-night, whereas higher-ranked apartments I took as monthly rentals (none are defined one way or another in the published list). For "Private Plane" I used the cost of a multi-engine Piper instead of, say, a corporate jet. I used entry-level "Old Masters" artwork at around $10 million, instead of the world-record $450 million for a da Vinci painting in 2017 (and likewise for examples of "Archaic Texts").

At the top end of this scale, the Mega-corporation does get promoted 2 ranks from Unearthly to Shift-Y (judging from the example of Saudi Aramco's $356B/year revenue; identified as the one real-world example in the Wikipedia Megacorporation article). If we were to include the U.S. federal government, then that would come in at the Shift Z level (based on revenues of $3.5T/year).

In summary: This is now a system that I think I could use for Marvel RPG purchasing power, and be able to estimate and convert real-world prices into in-game mechanics pretty easily, and not think I'm going to stumble over things that are obviously insane and broken on a regular basis. I did massage a small number of the given ranks in those rules and printed a copy for my MSH house rules. Data and analysis in the spreadsheet below if you want to see it. Excelsior!

Monday, July 8, 2019

24 Hours of D&D

Over the July 4th weekend, our Wandering DMs channel livecast a total of 24 hours, 13 minutes, and 16 seconds of D&D play, with us battling for our lives in the lowest depths of Dyson's Delve. That's all available at our Wandering DMs YouTube channel if you want to check it out.

I'm currently crashing and my throat is pretty torn up from yelling in terror and laughing hysterically over the weekend. I'll point you over to Paul's Gameblog for more specifics and links to the individual episode/sessions. Hope your holiday was half as awesome as ours!

More live D&D play than you can shake a magic sword at.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Birthday Broadcast

A quick reminder that the Wandering DMs channel plans to livestream nonstop D&D play (well: some stops for meals and sleep and pool time) all this holiday weekend from the evening of Thursday July 4 to Sunday July 7th. This will feature birthday-boy Paul DM'ing sessions of Dyson's Delve using our OED house rules for original D&D, and myself playing with a number of our friends and family. Simulcast on these fine sites:
As a preview, here's "the story so far" from our sessions one year ago:

Paul's Birthday Business

Hope you can tune in at some point when you've got downtime from your own weekend festivities. Tell us what you think! :-)

Monday, July 1, 2019

Carrion Crawler Coaching

The Facebook AD&D group had an interesting question posed the other day: "Okay DMs, what was the biggest mistake you ever made trying to homebrew something?" Here's one response that caught my eye:

I kind of really love the honesty here. The major reason I love this is as a case-study that even the biggest-name D&D principals didn't always get things right the first time. First, it serves as a great counterexample to the camp of fundamentalist players who argue that everything in a given edition of D&D is perfect, beyond critique or improvement, and intentional in all ways by the original author (although, am I unwise to spend any time responding to that camp?). Second, it serves to highlight that gauging the danger level of a given monster is not something that even the most experienced DMs can do correctly by sight or instinct. Rather; it needs serious large-scale playtesting -- that I would argue needs some component of computer simulation to get to the right scale.

Consider the Arena/Monster Metrics program (and related blog posts here you can search for) that we've developed to assess Equivalent Hit Dice (EHD) measurements for monsters -- results available in the OED Monster Database. Consider that carrion crawlers and other zero-damage monsters were highlighted as particularly broken in Turnbull's MonsterMarks and related a-la-carte point-buy systems. Recall that the stated "monster level" for carrion crawlers jumped around radically in early versions of D&D -- just 2nd level (of 6; say, 33%) in their first appearance in Sup-I (p. 64); then up to 6th level (of 10; so, 60%) by the time of the AD&D  DMG (p. 178). I think that's the single biggest adjustment for any individual monster between those editions.

Regarding Mentzer's comment above, I asked a follow-up question: "I've seen some people play that a crawler can only attack one PC at a time (w/all 8 atks), others they can attack 8 PCs at once. How'd you play that?" His reply:

So that's clearly "more than one", normally around 3-4 from how I read that. Interestingly, if the designers had a systematic model like our Arena program available, then the danger of carrion crawlers would have been immediately evident. If I run the Monster Metrics assessment with the crawler allowed 8 attacks against different opponents, it estimates an EHD value of 12 (i.e., roughly 50% likely to win a fight against 4 3rd-level fighters, or 3 4th-level fighters), putting it in league with the top 6th-level bracket in OD&D (comparable to a chimera, gorgon, balrog, etc.). That's why in my own game for some time I've actually house-ruled them to halve their attacks, i.e., a total of 4 attacks -- basically the same as what Mentzer suggests for targetable opponents here. At this level carrion crawlers are estimated to be EHD 9, or about 5th level in OD&D terms.

Anyway, big props to Mr. Mentzer for this important peek behind the screen, and the not-too-surprising lesson that we can always continue to make improvements to our game art.

Don't forget about our July 4th game with WanderingDMs on YouTube and Twitch: broadcasting live play all weekend, four days straight! (Starts Thursday night.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Advanced Multi & Media

Over at Wandering DMs, we've been rolling out a bunch of new social-media contact ways for you to get in touch and follow us, as per your current preferences. Please do consider the following fine sites and handles:
So far this year we've had some new content on the video sites up every Sunday at around 1 PM EST. In particular, we have a livecast discussion that you can join in and pitch comments/questions on alternate Sundays at that time (next one scheduled end of this week: Sunday June 30). Broadcasts are currently streamed simultaneously to Twitch & YouTube, and then you can see old stuff archived permanently on YouTube.

But the thing that's coming up I'm most excited about is that over the upcoming Independence Day weekend we'll be making our first dive into indie live-stream gaming, and it's a deep one. We plan to play D&D all weekend from Jul-4 to Jul-7 and broadcast the whole thing for four days straight. (Well, subject to breaks for meals and sleeping and pool time and whatever.) That's what we normally do for the weekend of the 4th anyway, so we figured, what the heck, let other people see how we run that. Don't look at me, people have actually asked us for that. :-)

Enormous thanks to Paul who's entirely responsible for taking the vanguard and rolling all that stuff out. He's the one who's kitted out his game space for livestreaming, and he'll also be DM'ing on the 4th while I play with another half-dozen of our close friends -- actually a continuation from last year, where we got about halfway through the famed Dyson's Delve. Either we finish it off, or it finishes us off; fair fight, I think.

See more of Paul's setup for the Jul-4th mega-stream at his blog here. 

While you're waiting for that (less than two weeks away!), also consider some recent stuff we've posted on WanderingDMs: Paul's visit to the "D&D Live 2019" convention event in LA with a few coworkers, and my visit to the NYC Morgan Library for an exhibit of J.R.R. Tolkien's artwork (with guest artist Isabelle Garbani for thoughts & analysis). Hope you enjoy!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Air Elemental Whirlwinds

Random math-y investigation: How powerful are air elemental whirlwinds? Pretty powerful. OD&D says this (Vol-2, p. 18):
Air Elementals: Air Elementals move only by flying, moving at a maximum rate of 36". When engaged in combat in the air they add +1 to damage scored from hits. They normally do one die roll of damage. They can turn into a whirlwind which will sweep all creatures under two hit dice away, the whirlwind being conical in shape, 3" diameter at the base, 6" diameter at the top, and as high as the number of hit dice possessed by the Elemental (16", 12" or 8"). Forming a whirlwind requires one full turn as does dissolving it.
A few other notes: The general elemental description on this page says, "Only magical weapons/ attacks affect Elementals", whereas OD&D Sup-I boosts that to, "Elementals are impervious to normal weapons and to magical weapons under +2" (p. 34). The "turn" in the last line is arguably the same as a "round" (or something), as they seem to be used interchangeably in this text, and the 1 turn = 10 minutes rule is not given until Vol-3 (e.g., the other elemental descriptions all say "move at a rate of 18" per turn" and the like). The AD&D Monster Manual limits the whirlwind to just 1 round duration, and adds a 2d8 damage factor to creatures it can't kill outright.

Consider using an air elemental against a large body of humanoids, such as in a mass-combat situation. If we use the by-the-book D&D scale that 1" = 10 feet, then the elemental can fly 360 feet in a round, and affect a 30' diameter along that path, for an area of about 10,800 square feet; if we allow one man per 5' square (25 sq. ft.), then that's about 432 men automatically destroyed per round by this rule. I'm pretty sure that makes the air elemental exponentially the most destructive mass-combat weapon in the game.

On the other hand, if we use the better-reasoned scale of 1" = 5 feet, then the distances are halved, and the area and number affected are thereby quartered: 180 feet move, 15' diameter path, 2700 square feet area, for about 108 men destroyed. I think it's then still the most destructive force against normal men, but not quite so stupendously overkill-y.

But there's a final limiting factor that's easy to forget; the rules for aerial movement in Vol-3, thought to be written by Dave Arneson, and inspired by "Dawn Patrol/Fight in the Skies" by Mike Carr. For air elementals (4th row down in the table on p. 26), the specifiers give "number of turns per move: 6", and "number of spaces between turns: 3". Given these and a hex map (specified in Vol-3 on the prior page), I attempted to find out what the most-compacting "sweeping" movement was that could be made by an air elemental in one round. Consider the following:

Path A: Trying to make the tightest loop possible; this depletes the available turns fairly quickly, and forces us to make a long straight path away from the fight at the end. Covers about 45 hexes in the initial loop, with a donut-hole in the middle.

Path B: Trying to make a back-and-forth sweeping action, but the required spaces-between-turns leaves sizable gaps between each "sweep". Each straight segment covers about 27 hexes. You need to have a packed-in army of about 30 rows x 15 columns (450 men) to hit a man on every hex of this path (for a total of about 100 victims, as noted above, assuming 1 hex = 1 man = 5 feet).

Path C: Here I have the elemental spin away and then back, so as to sweep a kind of contiguous block at the start and end of the path. The top-left part thereby has something approximating a 6 x 8 rectangle, thereby hitting about 48 normal men in close formation there.

Path D: An iteration on the previous strategy; again, we get a top-left block of about 6 x 8 = 48 contiguous hexes.

Conclusion: In open mass combat, I might summarize this with a rule saying that an air elemental in whirlwind form can wipe out about 50 normal men in formation in one turn. That's still very powerful, so before one shows up in your game you might want to consider interpreting or house-ruling things to a power level that you're comfortable with. For example, reducing the diameter of the whirlwind (AD&D took it from 3" to 2"), making the attack 1d6 damage or with a saving throw, etc. Another option is to strictly enforce the book's given rule, "Forming a whirlwind requires one full turn as does dissolving it", which would arguably make it still extremely powerful in (turn-based) mass combat, but basically not ever usable in standard man-to-man D&D action. Thoughts?

Monday, June 10, 2019

Prep Time Poll Results

On March 28 of this year, I asked on the Facebook AD&D group the following poll question: "As DM, how much preparation time do you take before a single game session?". Over the next few weeks I got 310 responses. As you can see below, a bit more than 50% answered in the range of "Hours".

In the comments/discussion attached to that poll, there were a small number of people who answered with "years", or "my whole life", which are very interesting ways to look at it, I think. :-)