Over the next week while I’m in Malaysia, I will be playing in at least one, if not two gaming sessions at various times. One will be the next-best thing to an actual face-to-face game, using Google Hangouts and TableTop Forge to do video conferencing. The other uses MapTools and is a GURPS Dungeon Fantasy game.

Of the two interfaces, I prefer MapTools for the actual game play. It’s got much niftier macros, is user-editable (and given the proclivities of the group I game with, I don’t have to do hardly any of it), and has really neat tracking features for GURPS  I’m sure it also has nifty tracking features for other games as well. The die-roller is top notch, it can (and does!) have critical hit tables built in, and it will parse out text and dice in one line (to be fair, TTForge does the same thing, but less so).

The thing I really like about Hangouts is the video aspect of it. I find it more immersive to see people’s faces, and interact. I feel worse about leaving the gaming table to do other things than the MapTools game, which is chat-based (it may well have video; we do not use it).

Given how hard it can be to find 6-10 available folks to come over, leave their home, family, kids at a given time on a given schedule, being able to play with people anywhere in the world is just awesome.

And when you combine that with the power of the medium: the computer’s ability to handle complexity, seamlessly build in many levels of rules and rolls? Clearly this has the opportunity to be the platform of the future.

I’ve heard of folks using MineCraft to design 3D dungeons. I’ve heard about other packages being used too, such as CAD tools and even things like Home Designer Suite. It would be fairly straight-forward to make map-creation be a few clicks, and then a beautiful and rendered 3D environment could be presented to the players, from nearly any view using the various camera features available in packages.

The rules engine could be automated or semi-automated, pulling from a character-creation program like GURPS Character Assistant.

Defaults, skill checks, and not having to worry too much about the “one roll is good, two is barely satisfactory, and three rolls to do a task slows play unacceptably) because all of that can be handled with a button click? I think that would be great, though it could also promote lazy game design.

All in all, I of course don’t expect to see GURPS Fifth Edition, AI-enhanced any time soon. But it’s logical to imagine the blending of computer game aids with actual rules and resolution mechanisms.

Boy, though: that would be skill-intensive. Not only would you have to be a good game designer, but you’d also have to have some mad coding skills. Perhaps a sufficiently strong mechanics-engine could be made in a rules-neutral way for any company to build on (yeah, I don’t see that happening, but it would help).

Until that time, I will revel in the ability for me to participate in a game where “the guy seated to my left, well, on the left side of the screen” is probably 9,000 miles away, and be able to laugh real-time at the bad jokes.

The spy creeps through the building, making no noise whatsoever. Even ninjas would have marveled at his stealth, cunning, and patience. At last, he enters the room containing his prey. He extracts his silenced pistol, levels it at his target’s head. He will destroy the man, and sneak out the way he came, no one the wiser.


The custom-tuned 9mm pistol is well balanced in his hand, and he gently squeezes the trigger.

BLAM! The 130 dB noise that results is as loud as the percussion section at a symphony, a jackhammer, or a pneumatic drill. The entire house wakes up, the spy is caught and executed on the spot. His sponsoring organization goes down in a terrible scandal.

At that point, the spy’s player starts pelting his GM with dice and beating him with hardcover copies of the Basic Set. The supporting cast, who helped get that spy into position, are looking at him with that sort of flinty gaze that promises the GM will be footing the bill for pizza, chips, and soda himself for a while if he wants to keep the group running.

This actually happened to me, sort of. I was running an adventure I called OMEN TOWER, which was an adventure I’d written for a Black Ops campaign (and turned into my first prospective e23 supplement, but that is a tale of misery and woe I will not repeat at this time) involving sneaking into a Chinese Army base that was the site of a Grey weapon’s manufacturing plant. My wife’s character opened up with a .300 Win Mag or .338 Lapua Magnum . . . some monstrously powerful rifle . . . that had a “silencer” on it. I knew that most such devices would take the report of such a weapon and tame it by 20-40dB. But magnum rifles like that are still very loud, especially if it’s pointed at you!

So, I put my own expectations on the gun and the noise. My players had theirs – strongly informed by Hollywood. They were so upset with the resulting consequences that they agreed to stop the mission and RESTART the entire thing, with the now newly available “Anti-Noise Active Suppression System” provided by the Tech Ops that actually WERE Hollywood “silencers” instead of real-world suppressors.

And everyone was happy.

******

I tell this story because it struck me as pertinent:  A commenter posted that he thought Jeffro’s review of The Deadly Spring was off the mark when Peter linked to it in a post recommending my blog to others (thanks, Peter!).

That made me think of the above story, because what Jeffro is saying (I think), is that TDS is just too complex and fiddly to use at the gaming table. It breaks his own expectations for the amount of work he’s expected to do in order to provide a good, fun story to those around the table.

In fact, I agree with him completely. The Deadly Spring is not meant for at-the-table use. It was originally slated as a 2,500-word article that did the same thing for bows as my guns article did, and how hard could that be, really?

Well, 11,000 words later, I found out. And I built a spreadsheet, so no sane person would have to suffer like I did (and like Steven did in reading and editing the thing) to create such things.

What was the end result? An article that, as the review says, allows you to go through iterative gymnastics to maybe design a bow that shoots an arrow that does 1d+1 imp. Um, so? Well, that bow is probably a 150-lb bow (ST 17 or so?) firing an arrow that weighs as much as some hamburgers (about 0.2 to 0.25 lbs; 1500 grains!). OK, blah, blah, realism; blah blah effectiveness of guns vs bows.

But again: I agree with him. From a narrative purpose, if you will accept all the crap that comes with a semi-realistic bow with cinematically high armor penetration (but you still need a few seconds to draw, ready, and shoot an arrow, and the Acc isn’t that good, but the range penalties are large), then having penetration be cinematically high relative to a 9mm pistol which can fire 3 or more times per second, is easier to aim, and can fire for six rounds or more (and by that time, someone’s dead)? Sure, let the bow guys have their fun, and it’s way easier to just look up “thr+2” and know your thr damage is 1d+2 with ST 17, giving you 1d+4.

So, Jeffro’s expecations are (a) don’t let the crunch interfere with the story, (b) keep it simple and fast, and (c) let people have their proper fun; don’t penalize a player based on expectations clash.

My purpose in writing the rules was to be able to model bows better (it started during the Low-Tech playtest, where I had like a three-line set of equations that worked, sorta, but only within the case of wooden self-bows, and there were some oddities that cropped up even then), and get them scaled more properly vs. firearms (which you should be able to easily do, since you know the energy and diameter of the shaft).

That sort of thing, though, is best kept off the table.  I still may wind up taking up the challenge on the wish list (Low-Tech: Archery) at some point, since it should be fairly straight-forward to execute. That might meet Jeffro’s needs: it would have columns for cinematic damage, realistic damage, AND a number based off of thr+N for those who want to do it that way. Perhaps.

The other thing to do is look at your expectations and assumptions.

Are the players going to load up with Heroic Archer, Weapon Master (Bows), Strongbow, and Special Exercises (Arm ST +3)? With an enchanted Elvish Longbow of Smiting firing Puissant arrows also enchanted with Penetrating Weapon? If that’s the case, well, “realistic” bow damage based on the square root of kinetic energy just ain’t the point, now, is it?

If your goal is to ensure that if you put a warrior in a full-faced helm and high-quality “double-mail” or some such and want him to look like a well-protected porcupine (safe, uninjured, but looking a lot like the shields at 2:59 in this clip from 300), then you’re going to want to ensure that the damage for powerful bows is on the right scale with the armor used.

Back to the silenced firearms thing: I’d pitched the game as “realistic” Black Ops. That meant “only” 350-400 points instead of the 800-1000 required in Fourth Edition to mimic the original 3e templates (Start at this post, and go from there). But as you notice, 300-400 points is well into the Action or Monster Hunters territory; realism just ain’t really in it. Gritty, yes, sure – can be done.

My players took one look at their abilities, and said “this is Jackie Chan meets the X-Files” and well, they probably weren’t wrong. I’d know better now, and I believe that Black Ops should be a spin-off of Monster Hunters, rather than a stand-alone.

So they had characters that could pull off amazing stuff, and a background of super-science tech in the game as well. Hollywood Silencers are appropriate here, not my realistic silencers.

As a final nod: two of the best treatments of suppressors in GURPS both came from the same author: Hans-Christian Vortisch. First, in GURPS Modern Firepower, and then recreated for Fourth Edition in GURPS High-Tech (pp. 158-159), where I’m pretty sure Hans wrote the suppressor part.

Peter Dell’Orto, over at Dungeon Fantastic, just posted a link to a First Edition DnD treasure trove generator. I do vaguely remember “Treasure Type,” and would have to look for it more closely. But I tried it out randomly, and got some really neat results. 

Treasure Type D; 3 repeats, verbose gems “on.”

Treasure Type D

  1. 5000 gp, Gems (4): 100 gp Carnelian, 1000 gp Aquamarine, 200 gp Moonstone, 6 gp Tiger Eye Agate. Total Value: 1306 gp.
  2. 4000 ep, Gems (4): 10 gp Moss Agate, 1000 gp Jet, 7 gp Tiger Eye Agate, 70 gp Rock Crystal. Total Value: 1087 gp.
  3. 4000 gp

Sweeeet. I repost this because (a) I agree with him, it’s Awesome, and (b) I’m in a Pathfinder game. Maybe our GM will be inspired.

This morning, as always, I went about 13 miles to work. It took me, from when I hugged my family to when I pushed “go” on my computer, about 30 minutes. That’s not bad.

This weekend, I will (again) travel from Minneapolis to Penang, Malaysia. That’s about 9,000 miles. It will, all told, take me about 36 hours from when I leave my home to when I arrive at my hotel.

Why do I mention this?

The car would normally be assumed to travel 40-60 miles per hour. The listed cruise speed of a 777-200 is 585mph. Raw math would tell you the trips should take about 16 minutes and 15.5 hours, respectively! That would be a pretty common gaming calculation for “how fast can I get there?”

The reality is about double that. It includes loading, waiting, forgetting your keys, switching between waypoints, traffic (hopefully not an issue at 37, 000 feet), and other obstacles.

The interesting thing (for me) here is that the inflation factor for trips of over two orders of magnitude different in length both take about twice as long as their cruise speed would indicate. That’s not a bad rule of thumb.

Want to take a trip from one fantasy town to another? They’re 100 miles apart? Your wagon team can usually manage about 3mph? Well, that trip will likely take closer to 66 hours rather than the 33 you’d expect. Now, that DOES include sleep and stuff! This is an all-in time, about three days.

If you want to go faster, you’re now adventuring. It starts to look like the equivalent of a forced march, and will require some skill (and therefore some skill rolls) to execute. Might be Hiking, Riding, Animal Handling, or some professional or area knowledge skill that gets you from A to B. And that’s ONLY if you’re in control of the trip, because it might not work. My trip to Penang, at best, would be me walking out my door at 11am, departing at 1pm, and flying directly to STPG on a Boeing 777-200, Airbus A340-500 or A350-900R, or 787-9. All four of those platforms have a cruise speed of about 560mph, and more importantly, greater than 9,000 mile unrefueled range. So theoretically, they can make the trip in about 18 hours (40 minutes longer than the A340-500 trip I took direct from LA to Singapore! A long time in an aluminum tube). Then deplane and another hour to the hotel. That’s a total time of 21 hours instead of 36. But it requires you to be able to charter your own long-range jet, and nothing to interfere with getting from your home to the airport, airport to the hotel. So lots of luck, there.

Anyway, when considering travel times, I think a good rule of thumb is probably “twice as long as it would take to cover the distance as a straight-shot at cruising speed.”

The blank slate.

I have made several references on my Facebook page to a writing project that has . . . not been going well.

Over the holiday, I prepped to visit my in-laws. They live about an hour west, so pretty close, but for reasons that will become clear, it’s not a “let me zip home for a moment” kind of trip.

I downloaded my project, and the inevitable pair of spreadsheets that I work from, onto a flash drive.

I then promptly left it on my kitchen table as we left for the overnight stay. Laptop? Check. All previous progress on this work? Crap. Sitting on the table.

So once we got there, and Short Stack (the cute little girl in my profile pic) was happily playing with her cousins (all five of them), I opened my wife’s dv6 . . . and faced a blank slate (“tabula rasa” for those not a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or Latin.)

What happened? Unburdened by my previous work, I solved the mechanics problem that had been plaguing me for so very, very long.

Sometimes it’s good to start fresh. This can apply to game mechanics, a writing project, or letting go of an argument. It was a good lesson to re-learn.

I love the Size-Speed/Range table in GURPS. It’s a logarithmic progression where every six steps is a factor of ten in magnitude.

Every time I used to look at a scaling issue, I’d try and work it, and work it, and work it . . . and in the end, I’d realize that the answer was within me all along, like the answer to the question “Who is the master?” from The Last Dragon. (Come on, you saw it too: “…there is one place that you have not looked and it is there, only there that you shall find the master!”)

The Last Gasp? I struggled to find the right progression for how long-term fatigue recovered. The best mathematical solution I found was to use the progression for the SSR table so that each FP recovered at basically 1.5x slower than the FP before. Every single FP accumulated was worse than the last.

Steven (Marsh) came up with the suggestion that it was too complicated as-is (true), and that levels of fatigue, rather than a continuous progression, would be more playable (also true). But mathematically, boy was the SSR-based table pretty.

You can also do some really fun work extending the Size table when it comes to shooting things at large and small creatures and objects. David Pulver did something like this in his Eidetic Memory column on Extreme Damage. Personally, I’d use the Size-Speed Range table for both size modifier and bullet sizes, and just let them interact naturally. I have a SJG Forum post on this somewhere; I’ll have to search for it, but I did this, and it worked well enough. Both are good solutions to the same problem: Age of Sail warships didn’t exactly disintegrate after receiving one broadside (they can do so in GURPS), and some creatures are large enough that firing lots of low-power bullets at them will just piss ’em off, and do very little real damage.

Anyway, wherever you encounter a scaling issue, be it weapons, powers, etc., the table provided at the core of GURPS is a great place to start.

I hope everyone had a safe and happy New Year, wherever you are.

I made good progress on a very stubborn project (actually, several of them, one was not gaming related) yesterday. It’s amazing what staring at a blank piece of paper will do sometimes.

Looking forward to this year in gaming. I hope to see publication of GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling, and I have a few concepts for Pyramid articles that I’d like to set down. I also have a mental thought about another book-length project or two.

Continuing, I hope, will be the Dungeon Fantasy game I play in, and another GURPS game will be starting up with the group I currently play Pathfinder pirates with. It’s interesting and cool to use the online video and chat technology to game with people all over the world.

But that’s the subject for another post.

I love tinkering with rules and mechanics. The things I’ve published have all been basically tweaks to the rules and mechanics of GURPS. I did do one for Frag, once. (Huh . . . all my old articles are available as free samples. Weird.)


But why? The system is pretty darn cool as it is. It’s a freshly-cut Christmas tree, and you can put whatever lights and ornaments you want on it. You have to choose carefully, though. The box of stuff that comes with GURPS will overload any tree. And you’ll lose the specialness of a particular arrangement if it’s ornaments and glitter crowded and overlapping from base to star.

And yet, I write rules. Some of them are really complicated. Some seem that way, but are pretty workable in play.

I write rules in service of narrative. No, really. Why else would you do it? The old Star Wars RPG by West End Games was (and is!) one of my favorite treatments of Star Wars. Ever. It took five minutes or so to make a character (just pick out a template and assign the dice pool the GM gives you), and was able to help steer stunningly playable narrative that just felt like Star Wars. You just needed a ‘blaster,’ or maybe if you were badass, a ‘heavy blaster.’ If you wanted to call it a DL-44 Heavy Blaster Pistol, well, fine. Who cares? Much like Episodes IV-VI, it was all story, flash, and fun, and point-five past lightspeed and stupid comments about making the Kessel Run in less than some number of parsecs. And Han shooting first.

That didn’t mean they didn’t publish weapon, gadget, and especially starship expansions. They did, and I greedily consumed them. But mostly it was flash, and the most fun was had with my group back in college (with me as player) and in grad school (this time as GM) was heavy on plot, and a lot of “roll and shout.” And whip out lightsabers. Any game is made better with lightsabers.

OK, enough Star Wars – but how can someone as detail oriented as I am just love the hell out of such an almost aggressively non-simulationist game? Expectations. For a grounded/realistic game, you’re going to want to ensure your players’ expectations for a believable outcome do not clash with what the results of the game mechanics bring. The outcome must be plausible, believable (not necessarily realistic), and rare events must be, well . . . rare. Or at least something that happens due to good planning (like the nifty rules for “Tactics Re-rolls” on GURPS High Tech  p. 60 of GURPS Martial Arts) or the various versions of luck, such as Destiny Points from Monster Hunters or the Advantage of the same name in Basic.

So the bow design rules were targeted at having a weapon of choice for punching through armor be a gun, not a composite bow. It was not hard to match Strongbow, Arm ST+2, and a Composite Bow with (say) ST 13 to have an effective ST 17 and thr+3, for 1d+5 damage . . . about as much penetration (and injury, though that bothers me not at all; arrows are nasty) as a .40 S&W.

The Last Gasp came from a desire to have lulls and flurries in GURPS combat. But I wanted it playable, so my first thought was “you have to spend a point every time you roll dice.” That didn’t quite work out, but what did come out – Action Points where most normal actions were 1 AP, “All-Out” actions were 2 AP, and various other actions were fairly simple – is intuitive enough that everyone who’s tried it (and written me back to comment) has enjoyed the feel. Once I had Action Points, though, Fatigue Points needed to recover more slowly. That, however, is worthy of its own post.

Technical Grappling? That one was inspired by a desire to have the quality of a grapple not be fixed (currently, a successful grappling attack inflicts -4 DX. Period.), ensure that strength was restored to it’s real-world importance, and allow grappling matches to have all the wonderful color and flavor that hand-to-hand striking and armed combat currently enjoy thanks to Sean and Peter’s GURPS Martial Arts.

What does that have to do with expectations? I studied Hwa Rang Do at the Minneapolis Academy for about ten years. We did serious grappling for eight or nine of them. And the rapidity and finality of “you’re grappled, you’re Arm Locked, you’re crippled” that fell out of certain applications of the existing rules just wasn’t right for reality, and strained suspension of disbelief in any realistic game. Not all grappling combats go like Black Widow taking on a bunch of guys in Iron Man 2. So I came up with an idea. That led to more thoughts. Then a system. Pretty soon, I had enough that I wanted to do a proposal, and after some back-and-forth emails, I had a contract.

So: Whom do I serve? I serve storytelling. I serve telling a believable narrative that allows (but never requires) people to have their characters enter the story in a meaningful way. Granted, I’m a geek with a rather technical background, so frequently that means math as the basis for what I do. I collaborate with people who smack me around when that math needs to be done mid-play, though.

Keeps me honest. We all need that.

I speculate that GURPS (and maybe The Fantasy Trip; I wasn’t around for that one) started with a fairly generic view of damage that incorporated penetration, blunt trauma, injury, and a certain amount of gamist fun. GURPS High Tech introduced the dependence on the square root of kinetic energy as a “damage” scale by giving the general rule of 20d = DR 70 = penetration of one inch of armor steel. I’m not sure from whence that one came, but I suspect David Pulver provided it to Mike Hurst

All of a sudden, you had two different progressions for damage, and some projectiles (bows) were on the ST-based scale, while the more-easily-quantified set (guns) were on another.

Sometime around the year 2000, I started fiddling with Excel’s solver. I thought that if I could find enough penetration data, I should be able to take a priori data about projectiles (specifically bullets) and turn that into GURPS stats. The result got me a mention on TV Tropes (look for Arbitrary Gun Power), and was published in 2002. But it worked fairly well, and got me noticed by a few other gamers

Anyway, THAT little adventure got me to notice that while firearms matched penetration of armor with known and quantifiable data – in this case the mass, velocity, and caliber of the bullet (from which you derive kinetic energy and momentum – that and cross-section are all you need to derive basic damage/penetration and a wound channel size modifier), weapons on the melee scale (things that you look up as “thr+2” or “swing+3” on the Damage Table on p. B16 of GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition) got pretty high penetration numbers pretty fast. Maybe too fast.

I once again scored a mention in TV Tropes by nearly breaking my brain (and Steven Marsh‘s sanity) figuring out how to do for bows and arrows what I did for guns. It was phenomenally more difficult. 

OK, so I’ve covered arrows and bullets. What about sling stones? Swords? Maces? Polearms? Pointed sticks? 

Um . . .

My previous post was an attempt to show how you could at least get the scaling of melee weapons right, where every doubling of ST also doubles penetration.

What you say?! GURPS ST measures applied force, and it goes as your ST score squared (Basic Lift is measured in pounds of force). Energy is force times distance, and if distance is more or less related to how far you can move your body (push-pull-twist-turn!), then doubling force should double deliverable energy, quadruple force is quadruple energy, etc. Then when you put this on the same sqrt(KE) progression as guns, you can arrive at a nice progression where ST 10 is about 1d, ST 20 is 2d, ST 40 is 4d, etc.

Hey, that’s damn playable. Even for me.

Well, that’s penetration, great. But injury? GURPS as-is is probably more right than wrong here when it comes to squishing meatbags. People are notoriously fragile (and strangely and unpredictably robust as well). 

So then you get into wounds, penetrating trauma, blunt trauma, and other things.

Fortunately, GURPS already has the tools required to handle this.

It has a basic damage number that should be used to represent penetration.

It has damage type and damage size modifiers that I’d personally apply a bit differently (maybe that’ll be Part 3), but basically are a “wound channel severity” modifier. 

It has armor divisors to represent something that penetrates better (or worse) than the raw energy might otherwise indicate.

With those things in mind, the only thing that’s really missing is a better way to represent blunt trauma and other non-penetrating injury.

Were I to start from scratch, I’d try and figure out:

Penetration rating, probably mainly based on energy. This would be GURPS’ “basic damage,” but possibly on a new scale. I like the “ST equivalent” number from the last post, since many weapons just act as lever arms, multiplying force. Multipliers are also nice because they allow the quite-simple “add +1 per die” type math, which is even easy in play.

Blunt Trauma rating, probably based on momentum and impact force. I think this is mostly what is done for hand weapons now, implicitly.

Armor Penetration modifier based on shape, hardness, or other factors. This is the source of my assertion that impaling weapons (a damage type I loathe) should probably get a (2) armor divisor, due to all their force being concentrated on a tiny, hard point.

Wound/Injury modifier based on the size and depth of damage. If I were really good, you’d incorporate some sort of “you have to achieve so much penetration before you can get to a Vitals type location.” That would help scale certain effects where you really NEED to go deep (Giganotosaurus hunting! Or a Frumious Bandersnatch)

I’d also have blunt trauma (including punches) be resisted by a HT roll, possibly influenced by skill. During the writing of The Last Gasp, one of my helpers ran a boxing match, and we decided that a HT roll to avoid actual HP of damage (but preserving the AP loss damage causes) from punches would make a LOT of sense, since even with boxing gloves, a typical 15-round boxing match as played in GURPS would kill both fighters. Extending this to all blunt trauma wouldn’t be too much of a leap, and if there were a penalty to HT rolls based on the rolled damage or something, that would keep maces and staffs scary. Alternately, padded hands might do the trick for bonuses to HT. People CAN get killed in fights, after all. They just usually don’t.


None of this is to say “GURPS is broken, wah!” It’s the best playable simulation out there that you can nod your head and say “yep, I get that” for most things. But when the tool of choice for penetrating DR 8 plate armor is “give me a sword” rather than “give me a spiked warhammer” (this one, not that one) or “grab me my gun,” then some head scratching might be in order!

The key in all this is to keep it fun and playable. All this crap needs to be subsumed into a table and calculated but once, during character generation or on obtaining the item the first time, and then never again. Even as ugly as The Deadly Spring was, the math is all in a spreadsheet (generously provided by Steven along with the issue of the magazine!) done up front.