Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mutant Bastards!

My good and highly talented friend B.J. Johnson (a.k.a. BigFella Games) has just released his own game product: Mutant Bastards, a lovingly detailed mashup of Gamma World and Wild West ideas some 20 years in the making. I played some of this a few years back, and I must say that B.J.'s capacity for world- and character-building is simply top-notch. And he's also an A+-grade fantasy and science fiction artist. (My top experience in video games is probably getting his art back from unit descriptions I'd designed and having my socks blown off with wondrous delight every time.)

Downloadable version is up on DriveThruRPG now. Print version mere days away as I write this. Check it out!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The FBI's TSR Files

A week or two back, the FBI released a half-dozen file reports on TSR in response to a FOIA request filed last year. These were posted on (see 6/8/2017 post there), one of which prompted a short article at The partly-redacted files seem to cover two different cases:

1983-4: Cocaine Trafficking

Parts 1 & 2 (respectively dated 12/27/83 and 3/12/84) apparently related to a cocaine trafficking investigation in the Lake Geneva area. A local bartender is the primary target of investigation, and secondarily Gary Gygax seems to be. This is from a "reliable Milwaukee informant" (p. 2). Someone is considered "ARMED AND DANGEROUS" (p. 3).

1995: Unabomber Investigation

Parts 3-5 seem to be about the very extensive Unabomber investigation that was being carried out at that time (see Part 3, p. 1, "Title: UNABOM"). These files are presented in reverse order of date (Part 5 from 3/22/95, Part 4 4/28/95, and Part 3 9/27/95). It bears noting that the Unabomber Manifesto was published in the New York Times and Washington Post on September 19 of that year, partly in the hopes of identifying that person (link).

Part 5 is heavily redacted, but involves an interview with some male employee at TSR regarding former acquaintances, with whom they are apparently no longer in contact. The last page has a paragraph suggesting that a possibly-paranoid former gaming group all started fingering each other as being a bomber.

Part 4 is the longest file, with a one-paragraph section on Gygax highlighted in the Reason article. Here a certain female employee is being interviewed ("She", p. 3). Much of the conversation is about the business of TSR and fantasy and war-gaming in general. Hard feelings by some over the SPI buyout are mentioned (p. 2-3); the staff of TSR itself are confused about the exact details of the purchase. The majority of the file is concerned with an individual with the Fresno Gaming Association and Company (p. 1), with whom TSR was engaged in lengthy, ongoing litigation regarding copyright violations over the reissue of certain SPI titles. The staff member "further advised that the typical war gaming enthusiast is overweight and not neat in appearance" (p. 2).

Page 3-4 of Part 4 has the paragraphs concerning Gygax. Choice passages from the perspective of the interviewee TSR staff member:
  •  "found the interaction with GYGAX at TSR to be very difficult".
  • "involved in an unpleasant divorce and [redacted] further advised that GYGAX was a drug abuser". 
  • "considers GYGAX to be eccentric and frightening. He is known to carry a weapon and was proud of his record of personally answering any letter coming from a prison."
  • "He is known to be a member of the Libertarian party". 
  • "GYGAX would be extremely uncoopoerative if the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to interview him".
(Note: is a Libertarian-oriented site, which is probably why their attention was drawn to this particular paragraph.)

After the profile of Gygax, the TSR interviewee is apparently shown photos of an IED that was mailed aboard an American Airlines flight in 1979 (inscribed with the initials "F.C."), and also a composite of the suspect, of which the TSR staffer had no familiarity (I'd guess that the cited photo is the famous Unabomber composite sketch). Apparently TSR received bomb threats on two occasions, one in 1986 and again in 1992-3, likely pranks.

Finally, the Part 3 file mostly recaps the TSR business profile in Part 4, and also indicates that a list was generated of "players and peripheral players involved in a loosely knit group of individuals commonly referred to as 'The Dungeons and Dragons Group'" (p. 1), by way of reviewing certain computer files (p. 3).


Well, that's interesting and provocative, isn't it? It's kind of hard to read the comments by the unnamed TSR staffer (apparently a high-ranking woman at the company in 1995) without thinking that they seem intended to cast Gygax in the worst possible light -- and recalling the extremely bad blood between the post-Gygax management and Gygax himself and his family (which continues to this day, even).

Thanks to C.J. Ciaramella at Muckrock and Reason for making these files available via the FOIA request. Thanks to D.G. for pointing out the article to me last week.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Spells Through the Ages Poylmorph – Polymorph Matrix

We've had some extensive reflectections on the various polymorph spells in the past (link one, two). I just realized that I made a graphical matrix of abilities conferred by polymorph in editions from 0th to 3rd, but never posted it here. See below:

Monday, June 12, 2017

Thief Weapons Through the Ages

Looking at the OED house rules recently, my friend Paul S. and I realized that we had a stark difference of opinion in what weapons are customarily allotted to thief characters. This was a result of him coming from the direction of the Moldvay B/X set, and me coming more from the Gygax AD&D game. I didn't realize previously how much thief weapons vary by edition of the game. Here's a look:

Some notes:
  • * The first appearance of the thief class in Original D&D Supplement I mentions only that "Thieves can employ magic daggers and magic swords but none of the other magical weaponry." Thus proficiency with any non-magical types is technically undefined, and can be interpreted in different ways. Compare to OD&D Vol-1 which likewise only refers to magical weapons in any of the class descriptions, which everyone agrees is identical to the nonmagical weapons they can use (e.g., for clerics, "all non-edged magical weapons (no arrows!)"). Thus the AD&D branch (Gygax) tends to interpret this restrictively, while the Basic D&D line (Holmes) assumes no restriction to thieves on any nonmagical weapons.
  • ** The weapons in 1E are all one-handed only (e.g., bastard and two-handed swords are explicitly prohibited in a footnote). 
  • *** Note the addition of the shortbow to 1E. The 1E Unearthed Arcana also presents a thief-acrobat "split-class", with all the weapons of a thief, plus lasso and staff.
  • **** The 2E weapons list is effectively identical to the 1E UA thief-acrobat class.
  • ***** The 3.5 list is expressed as "all simple weapons, plus the hand crossbow, rapier, sap, shortbow, and short sword". 

In particular, the thing that's really jamming me up in OED is the question of what missile weapons to permit to thief characters. To my eye it seems like a very big switch that Gygax made from 1E to UA in allowing them use of the shortbow. Thieves with slings very much appear like the urban thieves' guild members in the stories of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (and of course Gygaxian thieves are very explicitly restricted to bases in cities only). Interestingly in Gygax's first novel, "Saga of Old City" starring Gord the Rogue, that figure picks up the thief-acrobat split-class and use of the crossbow while venturing with the Roma-like Rhennee people, among other rule-breaking advantages noted in the Afterword (p. 350). These are specifically noted as heavy crossbows in the text (Ch. 10, p. 92, 95). I've gone back-and-forth about the strategic and thematic pros and cons of giving thieves access to bows and/or crossbows many times.

Here's a matrix of missile weapons allowed to thieves by edition (note that advancing columns are synonymous with historical weapons that are easier to learn, as seen earlier):

In short: Thief weapons in Original D&D Sup-I is really undefined. Every other edition gives them the sling (with the anomalous exception of 3.0). The Basic line always gave all bows & crossbows to thieves (by virtue of Holmes "use all weapons" interpretation, although later versions gave only one-handed melee weapons). The AD&D line starting with Gygax's 1E Unearthed Arcana always gave them shortbows (never long) and at least the exotic Drowish hand crossbows. Note that the AD&D rule seems reverse to the real-life observation that slings, bows, and crossbows are progressively easier to use (whereas Gygax gives them sequentially stricter prohibitions; note also that most groups of D&D men like bandits and buccaneers are using crossbows even if they lack self bows).

I went so far as to ask this question on the Facebook 1E AD&D group and got a large number of responses (N = 166, not including joke responses). Of course we would expect the responses to be biased in the direction of 1E AD&D. That said, there was more variation than I expected; a significant number of people prefer the Basic or 3E approaches (about 30 people for each of those). If we tally options for missile weapons, mostly following the 1E UA tradition, it seems like a majority of people like their thieves to have access to slings and shortbows, but apparently not crossbows (again, something that seems historically backward). Zero people selected the strict interpretation of the OD&D Sup-I rule.

Thinking specifically about the thief missile weapons, let me ruminate on the possible advantages to their permissive use. In each case it is of course valuable for thieves to use missile weapons, which leverages their high Dexterity, and offsets their weakness in melee combat:
  • Slings Only: Looks most like the earliest Gygaxian take on the subject. Conjures images of Lankhmar's Thieves' Guild minions. Emphasizes the role of thieves as being almost uniquely city-oriented (as per Gygaxian works), with weapons that are easy to carry and hide. If given stats equivalent to bows, emphasizes the exotically-skilled status of thieves. 
  • Slings & Crossbows: Realistically observes that crossbows are easy to learn. Allows thieves to hide among groups of bandits or buccaneers using crossbows. Encourages some in-game usage of otherwise slow-firing crossbows, since thieves would not have access to bows (although if the sling dominates the crossbow, then perhaps this would not be seen anyway). 
  • Slings, Bows, and Crossbows: Matches every version of D&D except Gygax's 1E and (arguably) 0E. Makes it even easier for thieves to disguise themselves as archers. Opens up more possibilities for thieves in wilderness adventures (for example, participating in archery tournaments). Encourages use of the thief class for outdoorsy-outlaw types like Robin Hood, William Tell, Adam Bell, Palnatoki, etc. (link); even though official D&D write-ups of such figures in Dragon magazine always made them high-level fighters.
So at first glance that looks like 3 advantages for the slings & crossbow idea; and 4 advantages each to either "slings only" or "all missile weapons". What are your thoughts on that?

P.S.: Paul S. is running several games next weekend at the Origins Game Fair, using the OED house rules, and he's arguably the best DM I've ever experienced in running any RPG. If you're at Origins and you have an open slot, I'd recommend that you look for his games!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Everything in Moderation

Oh, will you look at that... I just realized that there's a setting in Blogger to direct all comments on posts over 30 days old into a "needs moderation" queue. Which doesn't give any notifications that stuff is sitting in there. Which I think has been happening for most of the last calendar year.

So if at any point in the last year you made comments on old posts which apparently didn't show up, they probably are visible now. And I went through and answered a bunch of outstanding questions regarding those this week. Usually people commenting on old posts were highly motivated and had great observations/questions!

Except for those of you suggesting 5E advantage/disadvantage as the solution to every problem. Get that crap outta here. I kid because I love.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Advantage and Disadvantage

D&D 5th Edition has this featured new mechanic called "Advantage and Disadvantage" and I don't like it. In fact, this alone is pretty much capable of making me look not much further into 5E. In case you're living in a cave: "Advantage" lets you roll twice and take the better d20 in a variety of circumstances; "Disadvantage" makes you roll twice and take the worse d20. (To me this brings to mind the mechanic for the "Luck" superpower in FASERIP Marvel Super Heroes).

But I did wonder as to the exact probability distribution. There a couple of sites that have done this in the past, but for some reason they made it look like some big complicated analysis was involved. Hint: It's close to the most basic thing you can do with probability; if this was surprising for you, spend an afternoon reading the start of a chapter on probability. For disadvantage it's P^2 and for advantage it's 1-(1-P)^2, where P is the base probability of success (because of the complement rule for "not", and the multiplying rule for "and"). The results:

The obvious thing is that the mechanic is nonlinear. It gives a near-negligible change at the far ends, equivalent to a +1 bonus on a d20; or up to a +5 bonus in the middle for targets of 10-12 (symmetric penalties for disadvantage). This essential nonlinearity makes it hard for a DM to gauge its effect in a particular situation, because it scales up and then down depending on the original success target. Probability analyses are made more complicated in the design stage. In the middle, +5 is a rather huge level of bonus (arguably too large) by D&D standards.

In fact, this unpredictable up-and-down scaling is exactly why early RPG designers wanted to get away from rolling two dice (e.g., 2d6) and start using d20's, with their linear probability distribution, in the first place. To quote Jon Peterson in Playing at the World (section
Gygax surely knew, as we can ascertain from the previous section, that the probability distribution for pairs of dice favors sums in the middle disproportionately; thus, the accuracy dice for Chainmail are far more likely to roll a 7 than a 12. The resulting bell curve creates all sorts of anomalies when you aim to roll over a given number; for example, a modifier that adds or subtracts 1 from the sum of throws can skew the results by different percentages depending on what the dice yield. Designers can scale the requirements to hit a target accordingly, but the subtle differences in likelihood may not be apparent to the players themselves. Unfortunately, with only six-sided dice as implements of chance, the options available to designers are limited... Modifiers to the roll of a d20, as opposed to the bell curve of 2d6, have a much more predictable result on the probabilities associated with event resolution.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Slings and Arrows and Outrageous Formulae

The word "sling" appears nowhere in the entirety of Chainmail or any of the core books of Original D&D. (Well, one exception: a reference to a "sling-ended catapult" used in aerial combat in Vol-3). It does appear in Supplement I in the damage table (1d4 points vs. man-size, p. 15) and corrections list ("All hobbits add  +3  to hit probabilities when using the sling", p. 68). But without anywhere the rules giving them a range, rate of fire, or cost, it's a bit of a murky issue. In AD&D Gygax gave them a range in between that of a short- or longbow, and a rate of fire half that of bows. I wanted to do some research to make sure that was dialed in correctly for my games.

The amazing thing is that numerous sources state that slings had a rate of fire at least as fast as bows, and a range that likely exceeded them, with a heavier and faster projectile, that was possibly more accurate and more damaging. How can this be? Of course, you also have the case of the crossbow with clearly deficient rate of fire, and thus borderline useless in standard D&D play. And yet at a late point it was favored over the bow. Why?

Among other resources, I came across a very nice article by Chris Harrison (Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Institute), originally published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (2006). Near the conclusion he writes:
When looking at the evolution of ranged weapons, there is a trend towards increasingly simple operation. The sling requires enormous skill, one that can generally only be obtained with training from childhood (Hawkins, 1847; Korfmann, 1973; Wise, 1976; Ferrill, 1985). Without this mastery, a person armed with the weapon would be practically useless. The sling is exceptionally difficult to aim because it is being rotated when fired. It is common for people to fire projectiles backwards when they are first learning, meaning a high degree of proficiency is needed before they can be safely placed in a battlefield situation. On the other hand, the bow could be taught at any point in life, and be deadly with minimal experience. The bow does not suffer from the sling’s accuracy problems because of its ability to be drawn and then aimed. However, archers did have to be strong, which increased the required training time (Wise, 1976). The development of the crossbow with a mechanical device to cock the weapon enabled anyone to use it and have the ability to kill even an armored soldier at distance. The crossbow was the first true ‘point-and-shoot’ weapon, as it could be cocked and then easily aimed using the large stock. Although much slower to reload than bows, it was seen as an acceptable tradeoff for the ease-of-use gained. The shift to firearms was similar. They were even slower than the already sluggish crossbow, at least at first. However, the operation was simple and there was no physical strength needed to load the weapon. Also, its ‘point-and-shoot’ nature made someone with almost no experience immediately useful on the battlefield, and very deadly. This evolution occurred primarily because of changes in military and governmental organization. In feudal times, lords could recruit their serf population as soldiers (Wise, 1976). Many of these men were already proficient with the bow or sling, which were used for hunting game. However, by the High Middle Ages, nations and cities had developed large standing armies, which were recruited, sustained, and equipped by the government (Martin, 1968). An increasing number of these recruits were from urban populations which had far less exposure to ranged weapons. These units had to be trained from scratch and there was a high turnover. This led to the increased use of weapons that were deadlier with less training. The sling was perhaps the least effective choice of ranged weapon in this role. 

See the full article here. We might phrase that observation in economic terms; the advance of missile weapons was to get cheaper and faster -- lower quality, but able to be fielded in larger numbers and in that way more powerful. We might well look to many things in our own era that became dominant by virtue of being crappier but cheaper: MP3 audio encoding, travel agencies, car ride services, etc.

This is not something that D&D models very well. By default Fighters simply have proficiency in all weapon types. If the sling were the best missile weapon in an expert's hands, then every Fighter would be carrying slings and nothing else. If we want our game to look like the medieval era that would be a bit jarring. In any heroic story, the protagonist uses the weapon common to his people; e.g., David with his sling, Robin Hood with his longbow, William Tell with his crossbow, etc.

So in lieu of modelling more ancient/personalized weapons as taking greater amounts of training time and commitment, AD&D reverses the statistics to make sure that slings are a deficient choice for adventurers. What could we do to give slings their real-life fire rate and range (and advantages in small size, low weight, conceal-ability, etc.) without their completely eliminating the use of bows by PC adventurers? Or would that actually be acceptable?