Saturday, June 29, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Hyperspace, Pt. 2

Continuing our investigation of Asimov's Foundation stories and its early precedents for sci-fi hyperspace (with focus on their expression in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks and other beloved works of SF) -- Book Two of the series, Foundation and Empire, contains a pair of novellas originally published in Astounding Magazine in 1945. The first one (subject of today's post) is titled "The General", and is personally my favorite story of the series, I think (large due to its sympathetic and even heroic antagonist). This story features a rogue Trader who has picked up an academic Elder, and together they flee from being jailed by the titular General on a wasteland planet at the edge of the Galactic Empire:
The trade ship was rising above the dead planet before the signal lights began their eerie blink and against the creamy cobweb of the great Lens in the sky which was the Galaxy, other black forms rose.

Devers said grimly, "Hold tight, Barr  – and let's see  if they've got a ship that can match my speed."

He knew they hadn't!...

Devers bent over the little dead globe, watching for a tiny sign of life. The directional control was slowly and thoroughly sieving space with its jabbing tight sheaf of signals.

Barr watched patiently from his seat on the low cot in the corner. He asked, "No more signs of them?"

"The Empire boys? No." The trader growled the words with evident impatience. "We lost the scuppers long ago. Space! With the blind jumps we took through hyperspace, it's lucky we didn't land up in a sun's belly. They couldn't have followed us even if they outranged us, which they didn't."

He sat back and loosened his collar with a jerk. "I don't know what those Empire boys have done here. I think some of the gaps are out of alignment." [Book Two, p. 74-75]

So the first thing that hits me here is how strikingly similar this scene is to the moment in the original Star Wars film when the heroes escape from Mos Eisley spaceport -- the rogue trader odd-coupled with an elderly wise man; a trade ship in hot pursuit by numerous Empire vessels; the trader overwhelmingly confident that his ship is faster; usage of the phrase "jump through hyperspace"; the trader thereafter complaining of malfunctions due to enemy meddling; etc. At the end of this flight the pair will find themselves on the controlling homeworld of the Empire, that being an all-metal planet. In fact, the line about possibly misjumping is almost directly quoted: compare Lathan Devers' "It's lucky we didn't land up in a sun's belly" (above), to Han Solo's "Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star".

Then a few pages later:
Barr stopped, then spoke calmly but with visible restraint. "Look, in the first place, how will you get to the planet Trantor? You don't know its location in space, and I certainly don't remember the co-ordinates, to say nothing of the ephemerae. You don't even know your own position in space."

"You can't get lost in space," grinned Devers. He was at the controls already. "Down we go to the nearest planet, and back we come with complete bearings and the best navigation charts Brodrig's hundred thousand smackers can buy."...

The hypernuclear motor was cut in. The lights flickered and there was the slight internal wrench that marked the shift to hyperspace...

The stars [near the Galactic core] were thick as weeds in an unkempt field, and for the first time, Lathan Devers found the figures to the right of the decimal point of prime importance in calculating the cuts through the hyper-regions. There was a claustrophobic sensation about the necessity for leaps of not more than a light-year. There was a frightening harshness about a sky which glittered unbrokenly in every direction. It was being lost in a sea of radiation. [Book Two, p. 83-85]

So here we see the common trope of a starship pilot anxiously calculating routes for jumps through hyperspace (or whatever you call it). Devers rather callously asserts that "You can't get lost in space", because presumably any nearby planet will be populated and have detailed navigation charts. (This can't be the case in the Star Frontiers campaign setting, because the majority of star systems that one might misjump to are totally unpopulated.) And how much use are those charts? Well, whatever help they provide doesn't entirely negate of the need for labor-intensive per-trip calculations, as we see above (and in other stories, as well). So apparently every interstellar trip needs fresh computations, for some reason -- the details of which I'll leave as an exercise for the reader. What the situation would be like if you didn't have any charts is unknown.

The other thing we see above is one of the relatively few specific references to a specialized drive, here a "hypernuclear motor". That's something which most sci-fi universes presume (including Star Wars), but Doug Niles in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks went pretty far out of his way to avoid including (for some reason). Now, when things go awry for the Foundation heroes on the Empire's capital, then they have an even narrower escape, along similar lines:
"Can you get away from them?" asked Barr.

Ten ships of the traffic-police wildly followed the runaway craft that had burst out of the lawful, radio-beamed Path of Leaving, and then broken every speed law in creation. Further behind still, sleek vessels of the Secret Service were lifting in pursuit of a carefully described ship manned by two thoroughly identified murderers.

"Watch me," said Devers, and savagely shifted into hyperspace two thousand miles above the surface of Trantor. The shift, so near a planetary mass, meant unconsciousness for Barr and a fearful haze of pain for Devers, but light-years further, space above them was clear... 

In grasshopper jumps of increasing magnitude, the trade ship was spanning the Galaxy in its return to the Foundation. [Book Two, p. 93-94]

This is the first-ever mention of yet another potential limitation of the hyperspace Jump mechanic -- namely, that you're not supposed to do it near a large planetary mass. Exactly why this is the case is left unsaid, but clearly it causes a sharp physical change in the experience, resulting in a more dramatic spectacle that the previous established "trifling jar" (link). (See also: "I'd forgotten how much I hate space travel.") Perhaps climbing out of a steep gravity well (as Einstein might put it) increases variation in the calculations to a degree that makes the jump highly unpredictable.

Could this latter limitation have been used by Doug Niles in the Knight Hawks game in place of the rather brittle and contradictory requirement of a certain velocity (1% lightspeed) to enter the Void? I think so, and I think it would be a more satisfying explanation, as well. You'd need to include the notion of dedicated "hyperspace motors", as commonly found in Foundation and most other works of sci-fi, and obviously a faster ship would still be useful in accelerating to the required distance away from a planet. But we could then dispose of the rather silly-on-its-face idea that some special distinguished velocity in a relativistic universe accidentally propels us into interstellar jumps, not have to worry about boardgame ships accidentally triggering this threshold, the rather untenable distinction of "system ships", etc. (as per the original criticism here).

Finally, on the theme of nuclear power whose ever-critical importance underlies the entire Foundation series, here's one of a few cut scenes between the General Bel Riose and the rather less reputable Emperor's Privy Secretary, in this case shortly after capturing the trader Devers' ship:
"I have already sent for clever men who can understand  the workings of the odd nuclear field-circuits the ship contains. I have received no answer."

"Men of that type cannot be spared, general. Surely, there must be one man of your vast province who understands nucleics."

"Were there such a one, I would have him heal the limping, invalid motors that power two of my small fleet of ships. Two ships of my meager ten that can not fight a major battle for lack of sufficient power supply. One fifth of my force condemned to the carrion activity of consolidating positions behind the lines." [Book Two, p. 57]

So as the above passage makes clear, the status of the entire Imperial battle fleet is really dependent on whether or not they can find a single person with the knowledge to maintain the (now ancient) "hypernuclear motors" of their capital ships. More on this next time.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Asimov on Hyperspace, Pt. 1

Last week I wrote about the weird combination of ideas in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game around interstellar travel. Coincidentally, I was recently re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and I couldn't help but pick up on a lot of rather obvious links between those works. So what I thought might be fun for the next few Saturdays is to go on a bit of a detour and carefully read the Foundation stories for some of the DNA that's built into traditional sci-fi concepts of interstellar travel (which particular focus, of course, of those parts that made it into the Knight Hawks game).

Now, obviously Foundation is just one of a great body of pulp and sci-fi literature which all contributed to a lot of our "core" expectations in sci-fi adventure. But it's one of the earliest sci-fi works to actually use the word "hyperspace" (granted that word is scrupulously avoided in the SFKH game), and in many other ways is a very canonical work of literature. One slightly earlier example would be E.E. Smith's Lensman series, which was runner-up to Foundation for the Best All-Time Series Hugo Award in 1966 -- but which I haven't personally read. For this purpose I'll only be looking at the original Foundation trilogy (short stories written in the 1940's), and not any later works (even though Asimov expanded his descriptions as the series went on, particularly in 1982's Foundation's Edge and the like). What I want here is the earliest stuff that sowed its genetic material far and wide. I can't express that any better than Mark Rosenfelder in his essay on the fiction of psychohistory:
This essay is based entirely on the first Foundation trilogy. The later books modify our picture of both psychohistory and certain key events in galactic history. But the original trilogy stood on its own for more than thirty years, and it is entirely fair to judge the concept of psychohistory presented in it, unmodified by Asimov's afterthoughts, exactly as it confronted readers for decades. (Link)

Now, the earliest Foundation stories leave the details of interstellar travel sketchy and pretty much entirely off-screen (whereas later on, Asimov became more and more willing to fill in those details as the series evolved).  In the stories that constitute Book One, Foundation (the subject of today's post), there's only one single reference that I could find on the subject of interstellar travel -- and this in the somewhat later-written introductory piece from when the short stories were first published in book form (1949; page numbers as per Del Ray/Ballantine printings of 1987):
He has steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars... Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.

Gaal had waited for the first of those jumps with a little dread curled gently in his stomach, and it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all. [Book One, p. 4-5]

So I think it's pretty telling here that the very first word used regarding starship travel is "Jump" (later it loses the capitalization), which is exactly the verb used in Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks (as well as other science fiction works that we'll consider in later posts). The description of altered space and time is very similar (SFKH Campaign Book p. 3: "Time is very distorted in the Void, and space does not seem to exist at all."). And the time spent in hyperspace is also similar (very short, on the order of seconds).

That's it for the topic of hyperspace in Book One. But the other thing I'll point out is actually the common thematic thread that runs through this and all the other books: the primacy of nuclear power technology. Here is the first time it's mentioned in the initial story:
And then Hardin said ingenuously: "Could Anacreon supply us with adequate quantities of plutonium for our nuclear-power plant? We've only a few years' supply left."

There was a gasp from Pirenne and then a dead silence for minutes. When Haut Rodric spoke it was in a voice quite different from what it had been till then:

"You have nuclear power?"

"Certainly. What's unusual in that? I imagine nuclear power is fifty thousand years old now. Why shouldn't we have it? Except that it's a little difficult to get plutonium."

"Yes... yes." The envoy paused and added uncomfortably: "Well, gentlemen, we'll pursue the subject tomorrow. You'll excuse me --" [Book One, p. 60-61]

Famously, Asimov ended this first short story with a cliffhanger to rope the publisher into ordering another piece of writing from him. Wishing to use this nuclear power revelation against its enemies, the kingdom of Anacreon invades the defenseless Foundation -- so we are left with a mystery, but one where nuclear power is clearly the centerpiece, ending with these words:
In fact, as Hari Seldon had said, and as Salvor Hardin had guessed since the day that Anselm haut Rodric had first revealed to him Anacreon's lack of nuclear power -- the solution to this first crisis was obvious.

Obvious as all hell! [Book One, p. 93]

If you haven't read the Foundation books to know exactly what that "obvious" (not really: wink, wink) solution was, then I'm going to spoil it for you right now. In Hardin's own words, as he recounts the situation in the follow-up story (some 30 years later in-setting):
"What I did, instead, was to visit the three other kingdoms, one by one; point out to each that to allow the secret of nuclear power to fall into the hands of Anacreon was the quickest way of cutting their own throats; and suggest gently that they do the obvious thing. That was all. One month after the Anacreonian force had landed on Terminus, their king received a joint ultimatum from his three neighbors. In seven days, the last Anacreonian was off Terminus...

The Four Kingdoms were more our enemies than ever, for each wanted nuclear power -- and each was kept off our throats only for fear of the other three. We are balanced on the point of a very sharp sword...

I played them one against the other. I helped each in turn. I offered them science, trade, education, scientific medicine. I made Terminus of more value to them as a flourishing world than as a military prize. It worked for thirty years." [Book One, p. 104-105]

And so it continues, in some form or another, for centuries of time throughout all the Foundation books. Initially nuclear power is the political bargaining chip used to hold off enemies, as seen here. Then it becomes the centerpiece of a faux religion, complete with masses awed by atomic-generated glowing halos (and the ability of the Foundation to shut off the power of insurgent forces). Then it is the fundamental currency of an expanding merchant/trade system, using it to entice more worlds to join the Foundation (including atomic-powered knives, washing machines, weapons, and invulnerable personal force-screens). At the end, it is the major leverage with which the First Foundation might hold its own against the Second.

Fundamentally, the story of Foundation from beginning to end is a story of the apparently irresistible power of atomic technology. Now, while this might seem perhaps a bit parochial to us today (in the wake of computing and communications revolutions, a sputtering nuclear industry, the hope for natural and renewable energy sources, etc.), it's easy to see how a writer in the 1940's could perceive nuclear power as the greatest achievement of humankind, the crown jewel of technological advancement per se, and perhaps the main driver of all future history.

And so (to bring it back to our game) we see a direct projection of this sensibility into Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks, where the pinnacle engine design is the "atomic engine". Only atomic engines can be used to propel military vessels in the combat game, and they are the only way to speedily pass through the Void on interstellar trips (in fact -- they are so powerful that they do so accidentally, without any further technology breakthrough for the purpose). As much as nuclear power is the driver of all the plots in the Foundation series, so too is it literally the drive used in all the ships of the Knight Hawks space combat game. Perhaps it is in this shared near-fetish for atomic power that we see the closest linkage between Asimov's classic sci-fi literature and Doug Niles' campaign game setting.

Monday, June 17, 2013

More Drow Tactics (Module D1)

Back in April I ran a convention session of AD&D Module D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth (Gygax, 1978), and the ensuing discussion of what was intended for Drow behavior, reactions, and tactics has been continuing up through the time that I write this. When I ran that session I was afterward somewhat unsatisfied with how I'd run the initial encounter between PCs and the first Drow watch area. Today I thought it would be illuminating (no pun intended) to compare the ranges of the many special abilities that would be at play in a standard encounter such as that in module D1. Ranges below are in scale inches, with values shown for both AD&D and OD&D rulesets (for AD&D, based on minimum necessary caster level; sorted from high to low by AD&D range):


AD&D OD&D
Ability or Spell Range Range
Drow female move 15 15
Slow spell 14 24
Drow infravision 12 12
Drow male move 12 12
Dispel magic 12 12
Javelin & atlatl 9 9
Staff sling 9 9
Lightning bolt 9 24
Ice storm 7 12
Magic missile 7 15
Hand crossbow 6 6
Continual light radius 6 24
Darkness range 3 12
Detect invisible 3 3
Light radius 2 3

One of the lessons that we can take away from this is that seemingly minor changes to a ruleset (in this case, fiddling with numerical values for spell ranges) can really make enormous difference in gameplay upon close inspection. Consider the situation in the D1-3 modules, where much of the action happens as a high-level PC party (with my players always carrying continual light without fail) navigates a mostly wide, straight, arbitrarily long tunnel in the underearth, and encounters various Drow watchpoints. I assume that we run the situation tournament-style, and that the Drow are tasked with automatically ambushing any intruders (perhaps flagged by anyone carrying a bright light source into the dark underworld):
  • In AD&D, the continual light radius is only 6". Hence, the Drow can use any of their longer abilities such as dispel magic, lightning bolts, ice storms, magic missiles, javelins, hand crossbows, etc. at range, by surprise from the darkness without needing to enter the area of light, pretty much at will. 
  • In OD&D, the continual light radius is a large 24". Therefore, at best the Drow can use slow or lightning bolt at the very edge of the illumination – and to use anything like a dispel, darkness, hand crossbow, etc., requires that they commit to actually entering the light radius (and thus being revealed and suffering numerous penalties) before making their attacks.
In other editions, you're likely to have still other permutations of these abilities, and thus different feasible tactics for the Drow under those rules. (Although note that in both editions above, darkness is at exactly half the range of continual light, and thus cannot be used without entering the light sphere; although the range is always greater than the standard light spell).

Other thoughts: Running my game under OD&D-like rules, I initially presumed that the party depending on a continual light spell would be to their detriment – that it would be darknessed away at the first encounter, and then they would be nearly blind for the fight. But closer inspection here shows that (again under this ruleset at least), it's a very effective way to keep the Drow at bay, and mostly beyond the range of their attacks without them actually entering the light, being revealed, and suffering penalties. Also: A high-level party will have so many resources with which to re-create their magic light, that the illumination battle will likely just switch back-and-forth every round.

In addition to all that, my high-level players customarily use an advance scout with infravision and invisibility out in front of the main party (and its light source), so that even if the Drow are alerted to the intruding light, the advance scout will likely be in their midst and need adjudication for what they can perceive (at the very least, noting unusual geographic formations, side cave entrances, etc.)

Perhaps the final lesson is how complicated all the special-ability interactions can get when Gygax went into lavish-magic-on-everyone design mode. In particular, I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the thematics of why, for all their light-hating and vulnerabilities, Gygax also gave every Drow trooper the dancing lights and faerie fire abilities. (Faerie fire isn't even visible as far as the Drow infravision range, so I'm not totally sure what the point was there.) Got any ideas for how that makes sense?

Last thing – To give myself a better idea for the proceedings, I took the encounter map in module D1 and actually noted the locations of individual NPCs and their expected ambush tactics. If I run it again I think that will give me a much better grip on where all the many moving parts will be to these encounters. (The result winds up looking a bit like late 3E/early 4E encounter design, and for that I apologize.) Obviously, if you're planning on playing through this adventure (specifically AD&D Module D1), then you should skip the following link because it does contain SPOILERS. Otherwise, comments or other ideas welcome:

AD&D Module D1 – Tactical Detail Notes (PDF, 200KB)


Saturday, June 15, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Jumping the Void

The Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game has one of the oddest descriptions for interstellar travel, and in truth it's probably the most puzzling part of the game. And it gets more puzzling the more you poke at it. Here's the rundown from the first Introductory page of text in the Campaign Book:
The discovery that allowed the members of the four races to expand beyond their home worlds and enter the Frontier was purely accidental. It occurred when spaceships were developed that could accelerate to a speed of about 12 million km per hour (1% of the speed of light). At this speed, a unique reality of space becomes apparent; in defiance of all previously accepted laws of physics. a ship will disappear from the space known as the universe and enter a region called “the Void."
 

Time is very distorted in the Void, and space does not seem to exist at all. If a ship decelerates slightly while in the Void, it will emerge into the "real" universe at some point far distant from where it left the universe. By carefully coordinating the ship's direction with the length of time the ship spends in the Void (usually 3 to 15 seconds), a navigator can "jump" his ship into the vicinity of another star. 
Although this process of jumping through the Void allows ships to cover immense distances in very short times, jumping still takes several days. Most of this time is spent accelerating to jump speed and then decelerating at the other end. [CB, p. 3]

Some initial points: Mostly this feels like a dodge on the part of the designer Doug Niles, trying to avoid any real description or argument over fictional faster-than-light travel, but the cure may be worse than the disease. Unlike most conventional science fiction (space opera), Star Frontiers ships don't have any kind of special technology or sci-fi engine to enable crossing interstellar distances. It is just, well, an accident. (I suppose that when Niles was writing, we didn't have concrete examples of macroscopic bodies in the universe traveling faster than 1% light speed, but now we do know about hypervelocity planets and the like.)

What Star Frontiers ships do have is 20th-century technology for engines (chemical, ion, or atomic), and when they happen to accelerate to the magic speed of 12 million km/hr, then they enter the "Void" and cross interstellar distances in a few seconds. Note that this works out to a tactical game speed of 200 hexes/turn, so in principle this could serve as a maximum velocity for ships in the boardgame (and perhaps intentionally or unintentionally triggering a Void jump). Why Niles called this easily-recognizable space the Void (instead of more the customary "hyperspace"), and why he didn't include one of the common gamut of specialized sci-fi engines (jump drive, hyperdrive, warp drive), is unclear.

Now, in the original Star Frontiers RPG ("Alpha Dawn"), interstellar travel was said to simply be at a rate of 1 light-year per day (SFAD p. 49), and the campaign setting shows routes between systems anywhere from 4 to 14 light-years distant (days travel time). Most of the routes are on the lower end of that range (median 7, mean 7.7, stdev 2.5; about 2/3 are in the range 5-8, i.e., 13/20 = 65%). But this conflicts with the core information above, that jumping need only vary from "3 to 15 seconds" to travel a desired distance between stars. The Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks Campaign Book includes not one, but two distinct systems intending to resolve this situation, seemingly in isolation from one another, and each with their own kinks and problems. I'll describe each separately below.

Acceleration to Void Speed


The first explanation for the standard travel time between stars is the idea that several days must be spent accelerating to the magic "Void speed" (and this is included in the initial description above: "Most of this time is spent accelerating to jump speed and then decelerating at the other end"). Now, the first and most significant problem here is that since Void speed is a fixed number, the travel time will be identical between any two star systems, differing at most by the 3-15 seconds mentioned above (not a difference of days). A second problem pops up around how Niles mangled the conversion between ADF and g-values (boardgame acceleration and standard gravity factors); if ships normally accelerate at 1 ADF, then it would take a fixed 2×200 turns ~ 67 hours ~ 3 days for a one-way trip, but if ships accelerate at 1 g, then it takes 6×200 turns ~ 200 hours ~ 10 days on every trip (they're not the same, despite the book saying that they are: CB p. 33).

"Risk Jumping" in the campaign game (Second Sathar War) is based on increasing the acceleration value when needed (something like a forced march). If desired, military ships or task forces can choose to increase their acceleration to Void speed, shortening the amount of time they spend traveling between systems, in exchange for a percent-chance that they misjump entirely out of the game (see CB p. 58). Presumably the crew and equipment will be suffering from the increased gravitational pressure throughout the several days of this maneuver (either 2-3g or 6-9g depending on your preferred conversion).

Plotting Interstellar Jumps

Meanwhile, in the Campaign Book's section on Spaceship Skills, we get our second rationale for why jumping takes a variable number of days. Every starship must carry a character with Astrogation skill, and they are tasked with computing the complicated flight path between star systems:
A ship that makes an interstellar jump must carry an astrogator, or the pilot will not be able to predict where the ship will exit the Void. The time needed to make course calculations increases for long jumps, because even small errors become very serious as the distance increases.

Normal plotting time for a jump is 10 hours for each light-year that will be jumped. For example, an astrogator plotting an 8 light-year jump must spend 80 hours performing calculations before the ship could accelerate to jump speed.... [CB p. 25]
Note that 10 hours is exactly the normal workday in the Frontier (half a day), so the 10 hours/light-year perfectly recreates the 1 day/light-year travel time mentioned in the original RPG. This kind of restriction is also very familiar from lots of traditional sci-fi, from Asimov's Foundation series to Star Wars ("Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star", and all that). But in some ways it raises more questions than it answers -- How far in advance of the trip can calculations be made? Can they be done at a spaceport before the ship ever leaves (and then just take 3 days of travel, per the prior section)? Or is there some reason that the ship must actually be in motion while plotting takes place? If a ship delays jumping for some reason, can they hold onto the flight plan indefinitely? Can precalculated routes be stored, copied, sold commercially? Doesn't this imply that almost all of the "delay" time is on the departure side of the trip, with no computing needed on the destination side after the jump (in contradiction to the campaign game travel box display)? And worse...

"Risk Jumping" has an entirely different meaning and mechanic in this section of the rules. Here, it means that the astrogator is reducing the amount of time that they'll spend working on the calculations for the flight path (CB p. 25; compare to usage of the same term in the section above, or CB p. 58). In this case, the chance for success is a ratio of time spent to optimal time, with a bonus for the astrogator's skill level. Interesting added detail -- even on a misjump, starships automatically re-appear in the vicinity of some star system (possibly a random or uninhabited one: see CB p. 31). This tidbit could possibly be extrapolated into a broader description of Void-jumping physics, although it was glitched up/overlooked in certain later adventures and supplements (like the execrable Zebulon's Guide).


So, in summary: Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks goes out of its way to avoid conventional sci-fi explanations for interstellar travel, and seems to create more problems for its trouble. It has two separate explanations for the core 1 day/light-year travel schedule, neither of which is completely satisfying, each with its own problems, and they even manage to bonk heads together with two contradictory meanings of "Risk Jumping". To say nothing of how the two mechanics interact: Does one imply the other? Can you choose to implement (wholly or partially) some of each version of "risk jumping"? Was Doug Niles aware of the conflict between these two separate sections of rules -- and why did he radically depart from traditional sci-fi with the "Void" idea (a fixed real speed, no special engines), for little or no apparent benefit?

Monday, June 10, 2013

AD&D Monster Levels and XP

In Original D&D, all of the hostile dungeon-type creatures (basically the first page of monster listings, Vol-2, p. 3) are split into one of the various Monster Level Tables from 1-6 (for both wandering monsters and random stocking; Vol-3, p. 10-11). Pretty simple; but then in the AD&D DMG, this was formalized to a greater degree, and allowed for the ongoing possibility of adding new monsters to the game and those tables.
The state of ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is such that new and different creatures are being devised regularly and often, so that by-and-large, the only monsters which are included are those in MONSTER MANUAL... It is quite possible that at some future time a new edition of this work will be updated to include all of the recognized AD&D monsters. You may do this for yourself now - and include your own favorite creatures at the same time - by finding the experience points value of such monsters and equating them to those already found herein. Determine the frequency (common, uncommon, etc.) of the new creatures, and then include them on the appropriate tables by adding them after comparable monsters already shown. Be careful not to upset the probability balance. [AD&D 1E DMG, 174]

While later AD&D products include the Level & XP in each monster listing (Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, etc.), this wasn't done in the earlier (pre-DMG) Monster Manual. Instead, for the official Level of the core monsters you have to search through the Random Monster Tables in the DMG (Appendix C), and for the exact XP award you have to separately inspect the Alphabetical Monster Listing (Appendix E). Comparing those two different appendices, here's the point that I want to make today, which goes unstated in the DMG text above:
AD&D DMG monster level categorizations are keyed only to base XP value, and do not include any bonuses for hit points.

Recall that whereas OD&D and the Basic line (Moldvay, etc.) have a simple, single XP value for every monster of a particular type, in the AD&D DMG Gygax complicated things by adding a per-hit-point bonus addition to that. (Back in the day, it took me lots of time to compute XP awards after adventures because you'd have to separately compute every individual monster based on its unique hit point score. Nowadays you could use a computer spreadsheet, etc. -- but still one of the many issues where OD&D wins out over AD&D on usability.) Traditionally when I saw this section in the DMG I assumed that it took into account total XP value, or at least including average hit points for the monster type. Looking closely today at the book examples I see that's not the case -- granted the change in AD&D, it's conceivable that Appendix C here was written before the inclusion of per-hit-point bonuses, such that no such distinction existed as it was being written.

Here are some case examples (flipping between Appendix C for level tables and Appendix E for hit dice and official experience valuations):
  • Level I (probably the easiest case to analyze) is said to be anything "up to 20 X.P.". But note how many monsters on the Level I table actually have a base value of exactly 20 XP, such that even the 1st hit point will obviously make them greater than that -- giant ant, badger, fire beetle, hobgoblin, zombie. The manes demon (HD 1, XP 18+1/hp) is also obviously above the mark with average hit points.
  • Level II is indicated as "21-50 X.P.", but likewise includes the giant toad (XP 50+3/hp) and troglodyte (HD 2, XP 36+2/hp; so average XP 54).
  • Level III is meant to include anything from "51-150 X.P.", but it includes the ogre (HD 4+1, XP 90+5/hp, average 185) and boring beetle (HD 5, XP 90+5/hp, average 203).
  • For an example at the higher end, you can look at Level VIII ("3,001-5,500 X.P.") and spot the purple worm monster (HD 15, XP 4900+20/hp, average 6,250). If this was meant to include total hit points, then it would only fit for the very smallest of purple worms -- up to 2 hp per die, something which is statistically very unlikely. Thus it serves as further evidence that the writer of those tables was looking only at base XP value (or even that only such existed at the time of its writing).
So I'm making a margin note in my copy of the AD&D DMG -- if you or I need to use or add to those tables in the future, note that base XP value alone (including special abilities, but not per-hp bonuses) dictates what level the monster is placed at. This actually does dramatically reduce the labor necessary to use those tables (no average-hp-addition math needed), and also opens up the possibility of a more convenient interface with simpler systems such as OD&D or Moldvay Basic D&D.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Painting Frigates

Previously I showed off some pictures of how I'm forging a whole fleet out of my Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniatures set. Today I got around to painting them, and I'm pretty happy with how they've come out.

First of all there's the whole preparing and basing the miniatures process. I take the casts of the bases, clean them up with a file as necessary, and use a pin vise to drill a hole in the center. I also take some 1/16" wire, cut it in 2" lengths, roll them out straight (with a block of wood on a cement floor), and then clean them. Both of these get spray-painted black and then glued together. The miniatures also need to get a hole drilled in them so we can attach them to the bases.



Here's me midway through the painting process. I'm actually finding this far more satisfying and enjoyable than character figures, because there's just three steps: primer, base coat, and top coat. (As opposed to RPG figures with primer, skin, clothes, hair, armor, belts, boots, hands, helmet, eyeballs, pupils, highlights, buckles, weapons, shield, backpack, charms, threads, base, wash OHMYGOD I have totally sworn off any more of that stuff!!). I'm using a gray primer on both fleets. For UPF (good guys) I do a navy-blue base coat and a metallic-silver top coat. For Sathar (bad guys) I'm doing a greenish-black base coat and a gold top coat. I've always thought that ships really need a shiny metallic paint scheme to represent the standard "reflective hull" shown in the rules. 



The UPF ships have a lot more intricate sculptural detail, so the blue base coat gets shown off a lot a more easily, and thus gives more depth, than the rather flatter Sathar ships.Below, a few photos as they're drying off.



A nicely dramatic shot that Isabelle took:



So here are the completed paint schemes of my fleets of opposing frigates. I'm personally really happy with how they came out!


Monday, June 3, 2013

Designing Diablo

So last night (as I write this), I got an old hankering and popped in the CD to Blizzard's original Diablo game. First of all: Man, that game is just addictive as crack. (Hello, 5:30 AM before I knew what hit me.) You could argue it's just a perfect expression of the big dungeon-crawl motif.

Now, let's talk about the design of that dungeon. There's 16 levels broken up into 4 themed "chapters" (as I'll call them). Apparently those levels are uncannily like Gygax's original Dungeon Greyhawk design. For those to whom this is unfamiliar, here's a link, but I'll summarize myself right after:

http://diablo2.diablowiki.net/Diablo_Levels

Cathedral, Catacombs, Caverns


Chapter 1 (Levels 1-4): Officially called the "Dungeon", or popularly (and as I'd expect) the "Cathedral". This is directly connected to the ruined Church in town, and has lots of large galleries with supporting columns similar to such a building. Vision/light goes quite far and there's a real sense of sweeping, overarching open space. Obviously it's been taken over by things like skeletons and goblins and rat-like vermin; as the hero enters, he utters, "The sanctity of this place has been fouled."

Chapter 2 (Levels 5-8): Called the "Catacombs". The first time I entered this space (lo these many years ago), I was sincerely pretty freaked out. It's very narrow, mazy, the wall design is rough and crumbly, the light/vision range is reduced to a fairly small region, and it's absolutely claustrophobic. Among the monsters, there's usually one that is invisible by default and hits really hard, frequently popping up on all sides of you at once. The whole play on limited vision is really compelling and builds tension. When the hero first accesses this place, he says, "The smell of death surrounds me."

Chapter 3 (Levels 9-12): The "Caves", or as I mentally refer to them, the "Caverns" (sort of to keep the word-length in line with the other sections). These areas are mostly very large, naturally rocky caves with central lakes and rivers of lava -- no one can move over them (even, oddly, flyers), but missile combat across them is fast and furious. Commonly there are clever little bridges and exposed peninsulas that cause tactical dilemmas about letting a shooter sit there or going after them and possibly being cut off from behind. The walls (although technically straight in the engine) look jagged and irregular, as they should. This serves as a very nice contrast to what's come before. As the hero enters, he says, "It's hot down here."

Hell Levels


Let me pause here (hotkey "P") and praise all of the above. Everything so far has been really well done, and builds tension very nicely in both the architecture and visual design elements (and sound/music and strategy development). There's a sensibility to it all, inspired by real-life elements, that cathedrals really do look like that, and have catacombs beneath them, and somewhere deep in the earth there are caverns that some might possibly connect to (and I suppose do in old-world places like Rome, etc.) The audio that the hero speaks on the entrance to each chapter further reinforces the theme with some real useful, deeper detail (either thermal or olfactory, or perhaps spiritual) that we could not get from graphics or sound. But:

Chapter 4 (Levels 13-16):  These are the "Hell" levels where Diablo (the devil) ultimately resides. (Apparently this was retconned in Diablo II -- never played it -- to not be the "real" Hell, but all signals here are that's the intention). To me, this area is a real misfire. The designers here took the opportunity (or were forced) to go in a unique fantastical direction that I find puzzling. The overall design is one of extremely large, perfectly rectangular chambers connected by straight and wide hallways; the architectural elements are enormous bones for the walls, columns, and stairs (giants? dinosaurs? dragons?), embedded in a surrounding sea of blood.

Problems with this: When I think of "Hell", I don't think of large, perfectly rectilinear room boxes. (Although admittedly from a game-tactical standpoint it makes it tough on the player to find cover from mobs of shooting enemies.) I find myself bemused by what the referents for the giant bones or sea of blood are supposed to be (up until now Diablo was pretty surprising in its use of straight and hardcore Christian mythlogy -- angels and demons, pentagrams and upside-down burning crosses, corrupt kings and priests, etc.) The presence of standard storage containers like wooden barrels seems off. Previously, clearing a level and having an empty cathedral, catacombs, or cavern seems reasonable and "right" -- but clearing a level here and then walking around an empty and sterile Hell seems to wrongly break the tension (and seeing that it's basically 4 big connected boxes doesn't help).

Even the entry observation by the hero is weak: "I must be getting close". This is the first bit of audio that fails to given any added cues or sense of the environment. Furthermore, it's frankly wrong and confusing -- the first time I heard it, I assumed that I was entering the last level in which Diablo would be found, but as it turns out, there are a full 4 more difficult levels to plow through. (Again, causing my tension to slowly peter out as that dawned on me.) There's even a unique in-game cut scene in level 15 as you confront the town's fallen archpriest -- it's short, confusing, and doesn't add any information (it pans into the above-ground church, which should be far removed from where the hero currently seems to be). Likewise, the exact moment when you kill Diablo is jumpy, amateurish, and abruptly boots you out of the game -- so I'd say there's evidence of something here at the end being under-designed, rushed, and/or cut out.

Making a Hell of Hell


So over breakfast this morning I posed the following question to myself and Isabelle: "If you had the chance, how would you have designed Diablo's Hell levels?" One interesting thing -- Isabelle having also played the game very heavily back in the day -- she could remember a great deal about the cathedral/catacombs/cavern levels in detail, but absolutely nothing about the design of the Hell levels until I prompted her with some details.

Here was Isabelle's immediate take -- First, they made a mistake of using the fire theme for the lava caverns in the section above. Change that in Chapter 3 (my input here: adjust it to watery lakes and rivers), and then use the fire theme, as expected for Hell. Have the walls be flickering flames and occasionally shifting and opening/shutting off areas as you pass through them. I think that's a pretty good idea (and thinks "outside the box" in a way I didn't consider about needing to fix Chapter 3 for contrast).

My initial stab at it was this -- Go Dante's Inferno on it. Make the layout of these levels more of a circular design (to the extent the engine could support it), in distinct contrast to anything that came before, on each level spiraling in to a central stair down. Also, in Dante the innermost prison for the Devil was actually a frozen-over lake of ice, so you could use that to make these levels icy, blue, and cold (surprising some players who weren't familiar with it), and again have a totally different theme than anything in the levels above.

What's your thought on this? Are the original Diablo Hell levels perfect as written,  or would you have some better idea for how to design their geometry and architecture in the context of this particular game engine?


Saturday, June 1, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Campaign Book Oddities

My prior posts on the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game have almost entirely about the tactical boardgame and related miniatures (i.e., the 16-page "Tactical Operations Manual" book). As we start June, I'd like to transition to focus more on the associated "Campaign Book" by Doug Niles. This 64-page book includes sections on designing, equipping, and purchasing spaceships by players; information on how PCs interact with spaceships by way of skills, navigation, personal equipment, and close combat; and expanded detail to the Frontier campaign setting, including major organizations, plots, and economic activity (with lots of nice tables to run mining operations, freight hauling, passenger lines, etc.) Finally, it details the Second Sathar War, a grand campaign game in which Frontier space suffers a massive invasion by the Sathar, and hopefully battled back by the United Planetary Federation (although not successfully in the one time I played the campaign as the Sathar forces).

Today I thought I'd point out some of the smaller, but nonetheless notable oddities in the Campaign Book that are easily to overlook or, at first blush, not see the surprising import that they carry for the campaign:
  1. Star Frontiers spaceships don't have artificial gravity; instead they only have whatever gravity occurs as they accelerate with their engines (see p. 23 and 33, etc.) Therefore, spaceships are designed like skyscrapers, with a series of tiered decks arranged up the long axis. (Anyone familiar with the game will be cognizant of this, but I mention it again here because it's so important and unusual in sci-fi settings. Personally I love this fact and the opportunity to explore the ramifications of real-acceleration implications.) This retcons certain details in the ship maps from the original RPG.
  2. As a result of this, travel between stars is said to be constantly accelerating forward for half the trip, at which point the ship rotates around to use its engines for deceleration, and apparent proper gravity is kept in the ship the whole time (p. 33). While that's reasonable real-world physics, it does contradict the fact that in the boardgame turning the nose of a ship immediately changes its movement in that same direction (so no traveling backwards).
  3. In addition, it's stated that this standard travel is at a rate of the boardgame's 1 ADF (acceleration-deceleration factor), equal to 1 g of acceleration (p. 33). But unfortunately, that's an incorrect conversion; 1 ADF (an added 10,000 km per 10 min over 10 min) is closer to 3 g of acceleration (see Google calculation here). So either travel is much slower than expected in the book (at 1/3 ADF), or else travelers are subjected to a crushing effective gravity (3 g) for days or weeks on end. Moreover, space fighter-pilots would be carrying a 15g load at max acceleration, possibly for times as long as an hour, which I'm pretty sure would crush any human to a fine paste. One possible solution is that the Frontier races have some solution to these massive g-forces, or are just naturally much tougher than humans on Earth.
  4. Another implication of this state of affairs is that the delightful Agriculture Ship design (a series of transparent hemispheres all pointed "up" to catch sunlight; p. 7) would usually be functioning in zero-g, whenever it's in orbit around a planet that it's supposed to be supplying, and this has major ramifications for its internal layout, equipment, robots in use, etc. A possible alternative fix would be to make ag ships into cylinders and rotate them for gravity, much as space stations do (including the associated ag space stations).
  5. A surprisingly small number of locations in the setting can support building starships. The information in "spaceship construction" (p. 9) asserts that only two systems can build military vessels larger than a frigate or destroyer: Prenglar and Cassadine (the Class I centers). Aside from that, only three other systems can build interstellar ships at all: Theseus, Fromeltar, and Araks (the Class II centers; note one each Human, Dralasite, and Yazirian system). There are 4 other systems that are only allowed to build in-system ships (the Class III centers).
  6. Finally, an interesting assertion in the Personal Space Equipment section, under the item "Velcro Boots" (p. 29): "Since it is standard procedure to carpet all inhabited sections of a ship, velcro boots are a very common accessory." Have you been describing your spaceships as having plush carpeting throughout every part of the interior? I know that I haven't. From what I can tell, this concept owes its existence entirely to the early scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where a stewardess on the Pan Am Orion shuttle is walking around in zero-g via velcro shoes (see clip below). In reality, I don't think anyone's used velcro boots for that purpose -- NASA uses velcro to secure tools to the walls, but that's about it (link).


Which of these Campaign Book oddities seems the most surprising to you? Which seems most clearly in need of a fix or alteration? Is there some other shocking detail that I've overlooked myself?