Monday, October 19, 2020

Damn You, Gygax! Part 4

Previously, I wrote a series of posts called "Damn You, Gygax!" on a theme: That in the transition from Original D&D to Advanced D&D (circa 1977-1979), Gygax stumbled several times in trying to make the system "fully abstract" (i.e., applicable to any world or milieu), thereby losing the flavor, specificity, visceralness, and game-mechanical utility of the original. 

That series had 3 parts, but was originally intended to have 4. The prior parts focused on:

  • Diseases switching from real-world named contagions, to packages of complicated symptoms and affected body parts. 
  • Ship movement switching from per-round tactical tabletop scales and points-of-sail (and specific numbers of crewmen), to units of miles-per-hour and stripped-out wind directions (as well as hazy broad ranges for crew). 
  • Overland movement switching from specific hexes-per-day on a recommended campaign map scale (with a clear rule for handling changes in terrain), to a more generalized miles-per-day which are not evenly divisible by any possible map scale (and no rule for handling the obvious case of covering multiple types in a day).

Now, eight years later, I'm at long-last filling in that final 4th part. Sometimes I get hugely delayed on important tasks, but I do generally keep track of them. My coming back to this is partly inspired by the always-excellent Justin Alexander of The Alexandrian blog, who wrote a series of posts on Twitter last week defending the wandering monster mechanic, like so:


I like that a lot; well put, as usual, Justin. However, I'll add a bit of a nuance: Arguably Gygax fell down on precisely that issue in the 1E AD&D core materials; such that if a player first became familiar with the game through those books, they might actually have a reasonable criticism about that. Digging into specifics:

Original D&D, Vol-3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventure (1974)

The initial tables for dungeon random encounters are fairly short, and look like this:


Here we see the first 4 monster level tables (out of 6) for Underworld adventures. These tables are reasonably sized: either 8 or 10 monsters listed per level. My primary point is this: These tables are specific the to the environment of Gary's Castle Greyhawk. It doesn't say that explicitly in the book, but if you compare the monsters on the Level 1 table to the first level key of Castle Greyhawk (unearthed and analyzed here earlier this year), you'll see that it's all precisely the same monsters. If they're on the wandering table, it's because they have a lair or nest on that level, and vice-versa. Every random encounter indeed gives a clue as to what the nearby lairs are about. And we know from other verbal sources that lairs and themes of other levels likewise matched the distribution of monsters on the other tables seen here. Every possible random encounters is a synthetic reflection and communication of the environment around you.

Advanced D&D, Dungeon Masters Guide (1979)

As the game expands and new monster listings expand between 1974 and 1979, Gary makes the mistake of expanding the wandering monster tables in the core rulebook to make sure that they include every monster in the game. Here are two (the Level I and Level VII lists):

 

That's, um... a lot of monsters. Frankly, way too many. (Instead of 8-12 types per table in OD&D Vol-3, we see 20-40+ listings in these tables, not counting the subtype tables). It's too many to build any cohesive theme or tone around, way too many to place lairs for all of them on the densest dungeon map I've ever seen. Every type and subtype of men, demons, devils, otyughs, and dragons (the types there likewise doubled from OD&D) are included. 

The fundamental problem here is that the random monster tables have become disconnected from any specific adventuring environment, such as Castle Greyhawk. Rather, the tables' primary function has become an encyclopedic index to list every monster in the game (and also indicate their power level). Encountering a particular monster from these tables likely tells you nothing about the ecosystem around you; there's no reason to think an associated lair exists, and chances are basically negligible that you'll ever meet the same type a second time (so no preparation or strategic response will help you). If you were adventuring with these tables in use for wandering monsters, actually, yeah -- there would seem to be no rhyme nor reason to what was happening. 

This is sort of a classic, even understandable, misstep which leads to design "bloat". You're only adding a few extra monsters at each step (e.g., OD&D Vol-3, then OD&D Supplement-I Greyhawk, followed by Supplement-III Eldritch Wizardry, then here in 1E AD&D DMG; each publication expanded the tables a little bit). What are you going to do today, paste in a few more monsters to your tables, or overhaul the entire system you've got going on? Most days and workplaces, the answer will be the former. Without tasteful editorial oversight, you get the "bloat" and loss of effective functionality.

Of course, that's just the story for the dungeon encounters; an identical story runs through the wilderness encounters. In OD&D Vol-3 they're pretty reasonable in size (like the dungeon tables, they take up just 2 digest-size pages in the book). In the AD&D DMG, every climactic zone and terrain type on Earth gets its own table with every imaginable animal and monster listed in them -- often a whole standard-size page is needed for a single table (the whole runs over 8 pages, not counting the tables for cities, castles, ethereal/astral planes, etc.) The table for Tropical areas alone has over 50 entries.

Furthermore, this bloat problem continued even further in the follow-up AD&D monster book of the Fiend Folio. Still committed to this same creaking design idiom, the authors were compelled to present all brand-new encounter tables for every dungeon level and wilderness area, again including every single monster in the entire further-expanded game. Now every single dungeon-level table requires a whole standard-sized page to fit it (e.g., the Level VII table has over 60 entries in it, plus follow-up dragon and sphinx subtables). Likewise the mammoth wilderness tables go for more and more pages. Over 15% of the whole book's page count is just the wandering monster tables, basically without any rhyme or reason. Just: Everything in the entire world, here in one place.

Advanced D&D, Monster Manual II (1983)

Now, I'll come back around and finish by giving Gygax some praise in the end: ultimately he did see the problem with this design path and made a course-correction in the Monster Manual II (this being a short 2 years before he departed TSR). Here, the new tables at the back of the book are, for the first time, cut down to a more manageable size. 



The mechanic used in all the tables here is a somewhat oddball method of 1d8 + 1d12, such that a range of 2-20 is generated (19 monsters in every list), with a "flat spot of equal probability in the 9-13 range" (as he writes), and bell-like tapering of chances down at the extremes. As usual, tables are presented for every dungeon level (I to X), outdoor climate types, aquatic zones, etc. Many iconic monsters are left out entirely (note the weirdly exotic population in the tables above); and there are no subtype tables (other than for character parties). The whole system matrix, underworld and wilderness, takes only 6 pages in the book (admittedly in a very small font, and with no art). 

More interesting is that following this is a section on, "Creating Your Own Random Encounter Tables" which explicates the mechanic and encourages the DM to make their own customized tables for specific adventure locations, as follows:

Two example are given: both wilderness tables ("Elven Forest", and "Spider Woods"), but clearly this system is meant to be used for customized dungeon areas, as well (otherwise, for example, no Giant other than the Hill variety can possibly appear in the game, etc., etc.). This is followed by 18 pages of teeny-tiny font listings of every monster indexed by every possible dungeon level, frequency class, climactic range, degree of civilization, etc. Clearly DMs are expected to pick from these (non-dice-indexed) master tables to populate their own d8 + d12 encounter tables. Finally, Gygax has written, "DMs are encouraged to tailor their encounters to their own worlds in a similar fashion".

With benefit of hindsight, is this a patently obvious thing for a DM to do? Perhaps. But it took almost the entire first decade of the game before anyone thought to write it in a rulebook. When someone picks up one of these big rulebooks, particularly as a child or teenager new to the game, one generally assumes that the structures defined in them give a reasonable play experience out-of-the-box. (If not, then exactly what are they for?) Even here, I'd opine that the d8 + d12 tables are too long at 19 monsters; as few as around seven things will likely fill up one's memory space (compare again to the OD&D tables at the top). So, I'd be happy with 2d6 or even 1d6 monster tables in my dungeons (compare to classic AD&D modules: the G1-3 and D1 series all have 1d3 or 1d4 tables; T1 and D2 have 1d6 and 1d8 tables; table size expands in later modules, etc.)

Even though Gygax finally saw the light and offered an explicit mechanic and advice for designing tables specific to a DMs' own campaign areas, I would argue -- at that point the damage had been done. Too many young people had picked up the books in the 1975-1983 era, used them as written by default, and had long series of wandering encounters that were confusing and disconnected from the adventuring environment they found themselves in. I think it's that play experience that gave random, wandering encounters a rotten smell that's lingered to this day. Anyway, that's my thesis: a whole lot of genius in those books, and also a large number of decadent semi-broken systems when Gygax tried to overly-abstract AD&D to make it the everything-game.

Phew! That was a bunch of stuff. I knew that was going to be a long one, which is why I've been trepidatious to write it lo, these many years. Big thanks to J. Alexander for kicking me back into action with a great observation on how wandering monsters definitely ought to be used, in synthesis with the immediate, specific adventuring locale. 


Monday, October 12, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Thor's Power Stunts

Last time we took a look at the Advanced Marvel FASERIP (1986) rules with its novel "Power Stunts" rule. In brief: a character can expand their super-powers in creative ways by spending Karma and making a FEAT roll; and this roll gets easier the more times they try it. In particular, the rule calls out the fact that published examples of Power Stunts in Marvel comics count for canon characters -- and therefore, the more knowledge a player is in the lore of their favorite character, the more functionally powerful that character is at the table. From the book:

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

In the last post I wrote, "Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made." On that note, here's a complete accounting of power uses for my favorite Marvel character, Thor, from the first decade of his comic's publication -- which is to say, issues #83-195 (1962-1972), that is, all of the classic Lee/Kirby era, into the switch of John Buscema as artist, as collected in Marvel Essentials Thor Vol. 1-4. (ODS version here.)

Commentary:

  • Color-coding above follows the rule for FEAT level from the book: stunts tried 1-3 times require a Yellow FEAT, those tried 4-10 times take Green FEAT, and those tried more than require no FEAT at all (in this list: only making wind & rain, and the lifting vortex-tornado attack form). 
  • Recall that the book rule uniquely calls out weather control powers as being intimately tied to the Power Stunt rule (perhaps the author was trying to rein in the powers of Thor specifically?), so if it ever matters for any character to make this survey, it seems most important in this case. 
  • There were a very small number of cases where Thor used the same "stunt" twice in a single issue of the comic. For simplicity, I only ever documented one case of a stunt per issue. 
  • The majority of this run has Stan Lee listed as writer, and Jack Kirby as artist, with occasional fill-ins by other artists. Notably, early issues #90-96 mostly have art by Joe Sinnot. Kirby's last issue is #179 (out-of-order with issue #178; delay or dispute in production?), #180-181 by Neal Adams, and then John Buscema from #182 on. Similarly, with issue #193 Lee's credit switches from Writer (et. al.) to Editor (or the like), with Gerry Conway as writer. Note that the tone and pacing changes considerably when Kirby leaves, even with Lee credited as writer throughout, giving evidence that the artist was greatly involved in plotting in the Marvel Method.
  • On that shift in tone, Thor's most prominent powers shift a bit. For example, up until issue #180, the "Lifting vortex-tornado" power is actually the most frequent ability seen, beating out even the "Make wind and rain" power. After Buscema becomes artist, that latter power gets used much more frequently, and it then takes the lead.
  • Likewise, there’s a change in the aspect of energy-blasts directed from the hammer. In issues #104, 114, and 156 it’s clearly a lightning-blast (so described and shown as jagged stroke). Then in #164-165 it becomes a single straight-line force blast, even though Thor in #165 describes this as “The fury of the thunder... the carnage of the storm... !!” From that point on, the attack always looks like a straightforward force-blast, and it gets used quite a bit more frequently thereafter (again, into the Buscema transition). I actually considered distinguishing these powers, but the verbal description in #165 convinced me to count them together.
  • Some of the powers which the FASERIP rules indicate as core powers of Thor are actually not  used very much in this run. For example: In most of the run, the power of Dimensional Travel is limited to Thor transporting himself from Earth to the Rainbow Bridge, with Odin being the who sends him back to Earth when necessary. Shooting the lightning-blast from the hammer only happens 3 times in the first 70 issues (becoming more common later, although the form changes, as noted above). Calling lightning from the skies only happens 3 times in the decade. Spinning the hammer in front of him as a shield likewise only happens 3 times -- far more common is for Thor to simply hold the invulnerable hammer fixed in front of him to ward off shooting attacks ("Parry projectiles", with 9 occurrences). 
  • A common trope is for Thor to battle a villain to a standstill throughout an issue, and then in the last few panels of the issue (on the last page) whip out some never-before-seen power that ends the battle. A deus ex malleo, if you will. The long list of powers used one single time, in the tail of the table above, is mostly evidence of this. (Was that also common for other Marvel comics at the time, or were they particularly prone to the "power stuntiness" of the divine magic hammer?)
  • Another thing that should be noted, and is not handled in the FASERIP rules, is the several instances of powers being canonically removed in the comics. For example, in Thor #282 (1979), Thor sacrifices the time-travel power of the hammer at the behest of Immortus, in order to save the world of Phantus. Later in Thor #340 (1984) the power/curse to transform into a mortal man is removed by Odin and transferred to Beta Ray Bill. (I think it's been returned and removed a few more times since then.) So this presents another pitfall in the FASERIP rule: a player could quote evidence of some particular power, and use that to their advantage at the table, while simply omitting the fact that it was known to have been removed at a later date. 
  • Again, the list above covers the 1962-1972 issues of Thor (originally Journey Into Mystery). A few other options for timeframe come to mind. Perhaps one could cut off the list around issue #180 for a purely classic Lee/Kirby presentation of the character. Or one could expand up to 1986 to when Jeff Grubb was writing those rules (about an additional decade-and-a-half), that is, close to the end of Walter Simonson's seminal run on the comic. Or one could try for an encyclopedic iteration up to the current day (another 35 years), and commit to adding more in the future. Also, one could look to crossover comics like the Avengers and add any other interesting power stunts that appear there. But that would certainly be beyond this writer's resources at this point!

Anything in the list here that was particularly surprising? Any critical things I missed? Don't try this at home.

Scheduling note: Don't forget that next Sunday on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we've scheduled Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb to be our live interview guest. That's Oct-18, 1 PM ET. Hopefully I'll sneak in a question about how comprehensively he expected players to be poring over their old comic books for their favorite characters' Power Stunts. Hope you'll join us as well and get your FASERIP questions in the live chat when he joins us!


Monday, October 5, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Power Stunts

The Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Game (i.e., the 2nd edition of the FASERIP rules in 1986), by Jeff Grubb, has a novel rule called "Power Stunts". Basically, it gives a formal way to extend a character's super-powers by paying a fairly hefty amount of Karma (quasi-experience awards) for a chance to do some previously undefined ability. Here's what it says on its first appearance in the Advanced Players' Book (p. 16-17):

There are some cases when a hero may use a Power in a way it was not originally intended to carry out a certain task. These are known as Power Stunts.

For example, a character with the Speed Power suddenly decides to run in a circle very fast, creating a whirlwind. Or a character with Leaping Power decides to use his powerful leg muscles to disrupt the ground, knocking over an opponent. Or our example above, the wall-crawler decides to use his stick-to-it-ness to grapple a thief. These are Power Stunts. Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

The players will, without a doubt, come up with an innumerable amount of stunts for their Powers (and the Judge will be told how to decide if a Power Stunt is possible in his Judge’s Book). The basic question to be asked is: Has this hero done this sort of thing before?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time. Example: In one issue of X-Men, Nightcrawler uses his power to make three quick teleports, behind three separate opponents. He does it again several issues later. This means he has pulled this Power Stunt twice.

If you are playing a hero of your own creation, or a hero that you have never seen perform this stunt, this means you have never performed it before. In either case, the Judge may say "no" to a stunt, it he feels it unbalances the character. The type of FEAT (made against the Power rank) needed to make a Power Stunt is determined by the number of times your character has tried it.

Never tried it — red FEAT roll
Tried it up to three times — yellow FEAT roll
Tried it more than three times — green FEAT roll

In addition, a character making a Power Stunt must lay out 100 Karma points to make the roll (in addition to any other Karma he may spend -- see Karma). Spending the Karma does not guarantee success; it only ensures that yes, the character can try the stunt. If the stunt is ruled impossible by the Judge, no Karma is spent.

If a player character has tried a stunt more then ten times, it is considered to be part of his or her bag of tricks for that Power, and a FEAT roll is not necessary to say if it is possible (this is similar to purchasing another Power in full, but allowing the player to use the Power as he is paying for it).
 

Now, some people love this rule to death, and consider it to be a way to unleash creativity in the use of one's super-powers in one's Marvel game. Admittedly it's pretty common in classic Marvel comics for a hero to pull out a surprising deus ex machina with a previously-unseen power in a tense fight (more on that below). And maybe for custom characters this is an okay way to advance the character. However, I'm a lot more ambivalent about this rule in terms of the established Marvel comic book characters -- which is the way that I've most often see the game being played, then and now.

First, it's extremely interesting that Grubb calls out one specific power in the game as being most intimately tied to this rule -- weather control, which will of course will affect my favorite character of Thor quite a lot (e.g., see our recent live plays on the Wandering DMs channel of MH-6 Thunder Over Jotunheim):

Certain Powers, such as weather elemental controls, almost entirely consist of these stunts.

Secondly, and far more critically, is the call to player recall of the published appearances of the classic Marvel Super Heroes character that you're playing. The more well-read you are in that character, the more functionally powerful he or she becomes at the table. In some cases, this could incite certain players to research the whole back-catalog of that character to gain as much advantage at the table as possible. And presumably the powers in question expand more as time of publication history moves forward in time. And also: How does the Referee confirm a certain fanboy's claims that their favorite character has done power stunt X 10+ times is actually accurate?

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made. So perhaps this bifurcated rule was perhaps reasonable for custom characters, but I'd argue that it's highly problematic for pre-established Marvel characters (even though that use-case is the first one presented in the rules text above). 

I think that many old-school referees would be happy to adjudicate novel or creative uses of super-powers on an ad-hoc basis for reasonability, without the bookkeeping overhead of tracking how often a particular stunt has been used or appeared in publication. I know for myself I'd be a lot happier with a general of Karma payment + FEAT roll with difficulty based on judge's assessment of overall reasonability, without that documentary clause in the rule. 

Did you love or loathe the Advanced FASERIP Power Stunts rule? Did you actually apply, count, and document the number of times each power stunt was used?

Scheduling note: Over on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we're planning on having Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb as our guest in two weeks, on Sunday Oct-18 -- so I'm making a note to ask him how he feels about the Power Stunt rule these days. Hope you'll join us and get your burning questions in the live chat when he joins us!