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!


15 comments:

  1. That’s a lot of wonk! But good work.

    If you need things so cut and dried, just play Champions. Your penchant for mathematical analysis and need for consistent results seems perfect for Champions and the HERO system c. 5th Ed Revised.

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  2. Am currently working with Heroes Unlimited and wishing it had an abstract "resource" system like MSH. I always felt the Advanced version was a pretty decent model "back in the day" (the gulf between haves and have nots has increased in recent years, to the point I might put average Americans at "Poor" resource rank and adjust most of the costs accordingly). *ahem*

    However, does the system get easier when you look at it on a point-by-point basis, as opposed to rank? The jumps, number-wise, between ranks increase as one increases in ability (2 points between Poor and Typical, 4 points between Typical and Good, 25 points between Amazing and Monstrous, etc.). While the original game largely ignored these points, the Advanced game made every point matter: starting new heroes at the minimal points for their particular rank, making players spend karma on each individual point increase, etc. Each rank was thus a range of points (though for dice roll purposes, the target number remains the same at every pip of the range). Does the geometric scale work better when tracking individual points rather than ranks?

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    1. That's an interesting question, and one that wouldn't occur to me, because I don't use those continuous point scales from the Advanced game. It always seemed problematic to me to use those non-round numbers, and to have new PCs under-powered compared to the known Marvel heroes/villains (all of whom kept the regular fixed median values).

      N.B.: In the 1991 Revised rules, while keeping most details from the Advanced set (e.g., ranks ShY, ShZ, Cl3000, Cl5000), the continuous number ranges are removed, and everyone is back to just using one fixed number per rank.

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    2. Interesting. Never saw the 1991 edition; hadn't even known there WAS one. Of course, by 1991 I was playing Rifts or Vampire the Masquerade for all my "superhero needs."
      ; )

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    3. I agree that I wouldn't be very aware of it if it weren't available on this site (under "Revised" books).

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  3. Is it possible the older editions were only modeling what you could buy without breaking the budget? That is to say, living expenses were assumed and your weekly purchasing power was only representing disposable income. Or in the case of nations, discretionary funds outside of what has been pre-allocated in the annual budget.

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    1. If anything, I read it as the other way around. The Basic rules were silent on the issue, while the Advanced rules say (Player's book p. 18), "To purchase anything, a character must make a Resource FEAT... This is over and above that amount necessary to get by on." So one could either interpret that as (a) a change from the Basic rules, or (b) a shared implied rule in the Basic rules.

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    2. Hm, okay. I'd be willing to wager it's the latter, since the Good level gives a weekly rate of 10r, or something like $30k per year - but then gives Doctor Strange as an example. But the average income for surgeons in 1983-1984 was $118k, so the $30k figure makes much more sense as Doctor Strange's disposable income. Similarly, you compared the Typical rank to median income, but salaried workers typically make more than that - the figures I found showed a median individual income of about $31k for a full-time worker in 2016, but for salaried employees the number I found was about $51k.

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    3. I see what you're saying there. That's a strong argument, thanks for analyzing that!

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    4. I will follow-up with this: As a design strategy, that may seem like a fine simplifying choice, but it gets into trouble quickly, e.g., in cases where a body is operating at a deficit. More: It's much easier to research total income for companies than operating profit. Operating profit may be wildly variable from year to year. And in economic circles there's prolonged debate about whether it's helpful to include debts in things like total wealth of a population and whatnot.

      I bet you're right that's what was done here -- just leaving this a note of caution if anyone thinks about doing the same in a new game.

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  4. I can't really remember if the first abstract wealth system I came across was in Swordbearer or Tales of the Arabian Nights, but it is an interesting concept that deserves to be pursued in some games. Superhero games should probably use the idea, for sure. To date, the best iteration I'd found was in BTRC's obscure little game, Epiphany. That system was pretty much like what you describe here, but on a log base 10 scale. There's a lot to recommend the log base 6 scale you're describing here, and that happens to be the scale that GURPS (4E) tends toward.

    Not sure where I'm going with this, really. I am running a supers-type game using GURPS at the moment. Maybe I should look up their optional abstract wealth system and see if it works for me.

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    1. Wow, I'm surprised another game system uses almost that exact same ×6 scale! Fascinating to hear that. It sounds like a smashing idea to stipulate that in advance so you have some gauge of where to set things later on. I was always attracted to that as a way to handle possible huge difference in scale (could also imagine in an SF game where you want to handle individuals to starfleets, e.g., Trillion Credit Squadron).

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    2. Yeah, tired me got things pretty well backward. It's x10 for every +6 in GURPS (4E, there wasn't a standardized scaling in 3E or earlier), so a base 10 logarithmic scale. Sorry about that.

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    3. Aha, thanks for the clarification. Still sounds cool as a starting structure. I will point out that Marvel rank values do a similar thing in at least part of the table (6 ranks from Good to Unearthly, values 10 to 100).

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