Sunday, September 29, 2013

Full Metal Cthulhu

A team of eight of the best men and women an army can provide. The best cold weather equipment that technology and money can buy. A simple objective: a recon operation in Antarctica. Go in, gather information, get out. What could possibly go wrong?

This is a summary of yesterday's game, enjoy.


Few things scare players more than an mysterious and larger threat  than the already huge threat they think they are facing. When they entered Antarctica for an undercover recon operation of a strange thermal activity, things were bad enough already. They were cut off from any help as military operations are strictly prohibited in the continent. Add to that the unrelenting cold weather of Antarctica, the near imminent winter and the six month night it brings, the fact that they're operating in practically continual daylight and the area of operations is centered on a major glacier with the risk of sudden gale katabatic winds from the super cooled Antarctic plateau.

As if things weren't bad enough when they reach the target point they realize there is indeed a bunker complex, that it is not a natural phenomenon and that the masters of cold weather warfare, the Russian Spetsnaz are there. Entering the complex and seeing what is inside was clearly not going to be easy, but things got ten times worse when the Spetsnaz themselves started disappearing. Who, or what, is doing away with the masters of the game in their own turf?


Strange heat signatures have been detected at the top most area of the Beardmore Glacier. A team has been requested to investigate the area by setting up "scientific outpost" at the base of the glacier and go on foot or snowmobile to the area to gather information. Determine if the activity is of natural origin such as geothermal activity or something man made.

The following satellite image shows the location of the heat signatures.

The mission begins at McMurdo Station. The team of eight arrive on February 4, planning to set off to the Amundsen-Scott station on February 8 and be dropped off half way there as part of a ice and ozone research team. The leader Major Darya Groshkov is in charge of the "research team" she is also the unit's intelligence specialist and fluent in five languages aside from English: Russian, Spanish, German, Swedish and Norwegian. Carl Owens is the team's medic. Two heavy weapon specialists accompany the unit: Anthony Mc Knight and Andrew Hayes. Two snipers also integrate the group Thomas "The Eye" Young and Mike "Whisper" Gonzalez, the highest ranking NCO in the team. Two more members complete the team Justin "Hawk" Reed and Martin "Hard Head" Wood, both Airborne.

The plan is simple. Setup a decoy scientific station halfway to the south pole, at the mouth of the Beardmore glacier, this will be OP Gentoo. From there go up the glacier's steep incline to the place the heat signatures have been seen, survey the area and get as close as possible to it. If foreign nationals are found try to make contact and obtain as much information as possible. That's what Darya is there for.
Problem is "halfway there" is a 10 day trip which gets delayed four more due to bad weather. By the time the set up camp it's already February 22 and night is less than a month away. Will they make it?

Once setup at the base of the glacier things got interesting. First the team must make it up the glacier for the first 120 km. This under all daylight conditions, freezing temperatures, strong winds coming down the glacier and the ever present risk of crevasses that can swallow the whole party.

After a day's travel they setup RP Echo and start operating from there. An ascent up the mountain sets them in an ideal spotting position they then call OP Alpha. All operations and observations then take place from there for next few days. From OP Alpha the survey the two bunker positions at the entrance of the now clearly human inhabited complex. These are called X-Ray and Whiskey. The main complex being called Yankee and a strange tube/pipeline with a steaming lake is called Zulu.
All seems to be going well as the party monitors the activities of the now clearly identified Russian Spetsnaz in the area. Suddenly on the first of March X-Ray is found empty. The Russians in Whiskey are more interested in monitoring what is going on at X-Ray than doing their normal watch duty of guarding the glacier's entrance. This makes the party scramble a plan to infiltrate the complex through the X-Ray bunker and find out what happened there. Making use of the now scant hours of twilight they're getting they go around and approach X-Ray from the north, keeping themselves hidden from Whiskey.

They enter X-Ray only to find and abandoned complex. Two bunker areas are found deserted with the clothes and personal items of those who stood guard there. A personal diary which Dayra translates to English reads, "The sounds at night, if you can call it that in this place of permanent daylight, have become more frequent lately. They are followed by that strange penetrating smell. More and more we are convinced we are not the only ones in this place. Who built this and are they still here? If not them then who or what lives here? Antarctica is thought to be a desert this far south, but we fear we are not alone here." That is the last entry in the diary and it is dated just a day before, prior to the strange disappearance of the guards at X-Ray.

The arrival of a patrol to X-Ray only increases the tension in the team. Why would the Russians send a team to patrol their own outpost. What are they searching for and why? Do the know what happened to their comrades? Unfortunately that answer will remain unknown as they were neutralized by Hayes and The Eye when they were unfortunate the spot the team inside X-Ray.

The big room in X-Ray is a complex dome/storage area. A complex set of pipes and valves criscross the area and stairways lead to other middle levels and decks. Two corridors lead out aside from the one leading in from the outside observation post. One to what appears to be another set of living quarters and the other to a simple dead end. On both service shafts are found leading to an underground rail tunnel that seems to lead all the way to Yankee.

The party now stands ready to walk down the tunnel. Marks on the floor show footsteps leading in and out as well as indications of something, possibly bodies or prisoners being dragged away from this area.

Join the next session and find out where this leads to and who or what is behind these strange disappearances.

Remember, it's already March 3. It's a two day trip back to RP Echo on foot, or a few hours on snowmobile, if they work. From RP Echo to OP Gentoo it's 123 Km. A day's trip on snowmobile if the weather permits, but 8 or 10 days on foot. From there it's still three of four days back to McMurdo. Sun sets on March 20 for a good 6 months of winter night. Do the math and see how tough things are getting. See you next weekend, and good luck.

Image sources
Google Maps

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Redefining range

As I moved from bow and arrow to long range rifles I carried over a mistake. The naked eye can't see well at the still effective ranges modern machine guns and rifles have. The classic increasing "to hit" penalty by range is not a good model anymore.

If I do a gradual drop in precision over range when using an iron sight the weapon becomes too deadly because I'm not taking into consideration the much faster drop introduced by the shooter's eye. There's a gradual loss in precision due to the weapon's craftsmanship and ammunition properties, but there is a much larger drop in precision due to the naked eye's ability to distinguish a target.

This calls for a separation of modifiers. One for the weapon's range performance (which may vary with ammunition type too), and another for the visual capacity of the shooter (which may be enhanced through optics).

I could factor in the optics into a single modifier to the weapon, but that brings two problems. I'd have to write weapon stats for each type of optic device: reflex, holographic, and scopes by amplification (3x, 4x, ... Nx). This also makes Joe "Carnival" Sniper quite good at shooting with a sniper rifle. He just picks up one with a 9x scope and fires away. But it takes more skill than that to use a sniper rifle at those ranges and I want the game to represent it. I'm even thinking about making the sniper character require a well trained player. It takes a bit more to play a sniper and I feel will be a gratifying feeling for the players masters the sniper as a character class. More on this to come in my next post, Designing the Sniper.

Now back to weapons and the crunchy part of this idea.

Usually weapons have a range modifier based on distance, but no sight modifier. That is, a modifier that adjusts for the attacker's ability to pinpoint the target. A weapon may have a huge range and standard modifiers would add values for different ranges up to the maximum effective range of the weapon. For example 0 at short range, - 1 at medium range, - 3 at long range, etc. This works well with bows, their range limit is within visual range of the naked eye. Firearms on the other hand have ranges that exceed the naked eye's capacity to distinguish things and thus aim correctly. So a weapon, if equipped with basic iron sights, will become ineffective at hitting a bull's eye a lot sooner than it stops being lethal or precise. In other words at 400 m the bullet is still flying pretty much where the sight said it would, but the eye can't pin point the target as well anymore and be precise in the alignment between target and sight. Image amplification is needed.

An error I believe I'm borrowing from other games is taking the range penalty to include both weapon precision and shooter sight. Sight, I believe, should be a penalty applicable based on the character skill and the optics being used, not the weapon's quality. It applies to a human's eye and in the case of fantasy settings it could be modified by race too.

Currently I'm using one modifier for range, the weapon's. But this makes modeling difficult because iron sight weapons seem to be too deadly at ranges where the target could hardly be seen with the naked eye. Optics add benefits to the weapon's effectiveness when in truth they should add better "aim" to the shooter. There are two values so to speak: the weapon's ability to shoot straight and the shooters ability to make use of this precision.

Normally the weapon's quality and ammunition drift in flight lead to the range modifiers. For example: point blank, short, medium, long and extended range all add increasingly negative modifiers due to bullet drop, wind, bullet spin and barrel craftsmanship. Usually with bows dexterity and fighter skill add in the bonuses to compensate for range. In the case of modern weapons optics also add in a modifier by adding image amplification and improving aim.

The option of separating them into to values may be questionable, specially since it adds another value to consider when resolving combat. Yet I believe it simplifies the weapon and sight models considerably and makes skill even more relevant and also easier to implement.

Here's a comparison between both models:

Classic range model

A weapon, say an AK-47 has different ranges: point blank (20 m), short (80 m), medium (200 m) and long (400 m). These are examples and not meant to be based on the real weapon. The modifiers are as follows: 0, -2, -5, and -7. A scope adds a +3 modifier, or for a more detailed model: + 4, + 3, + 2 and + 2 according to each range bracket.

This a simple and quite common and easily understood model, but it has its flaws. What if the weapon is precision manufactured? Will the penalties be less? Why? At long range the error introduced by the naked eye is more than any benefit in better craftsmanship. At 300 or 400 meters the target is so small it is hard to make a precise aim with just an iron sight.

Now the scope gives a flat + 3, or in the more detailed model a succession of values depending on range. Will this be so for weapons that have an effective range of 400 m as those that have an effective range of 800 m? Why? Scopes bring things closer, but something 800 m is still twice as far as 400 m and shouldn't get the same benefit.

Even with the improved model with a modifier for each range, what happens when the same scope is fitted on another weapon that has different ranges? For example point blank (30 m), short (120 m), medium (300 m) and long (600 m). Does it improve it just the same? Why does this weapon get a + 3 at ranges up to 120 m when the AK got + 3 only up to 80 m? What happens the other way around when the weapon's range decreases?

What about skill? Putting a scope on a sniper rifle does not a partisan a marksman make. Really long range rifles are usually trimmed for a distance and quick adjustments outside its set range setting are slow to do and require skill and preparation. That is why the scope have mil marks that help to compensate quickly, but even then there is a limit. Modeling this with a classic range and scope model is difficult. The scope is effective up to 2000 meters, but at any one given moment the sweet spot is plus/minus 100 or 200 m.

Range and sight model

Now let's look at it as two separate and overlapping modifiers. One is sight and the other is weapon precision. Weapon precision is how good a weapon performs at a given range. It is similar to the classic model of range modifiers. Let us assume for the moment that there are three ranges: short, medium and long. These ranges have modifiers depending on weapon quality and they drop of gradually or harshly depending on weapon type. For example : 0 , -1 and -3 for a rifle. The ranges for the rifle are short 50 m,  medium 150 m, long 300 m.

Weapon Modifiers
50 m : 0
150 m : -1
300 m : -3

Sight modifiers on the other hand are fixed by the human eye. For example 0, -3, -6, -12 for ranges of 50 m, 100 m, 150 m and 200 m. When using the weapon the modifiers add up.

Sight Modifiers
50 m : 0
100 m : -3
150 m : -6
200 m : -12

At 40 m the modifier is 0, 0 from rifle range and 0 from sight. At 120 m the modifier is -7, -1 from rifle range and -6 from the sight modifier. At 180 m the modifier is -15, -3 for rifle range and -12 for eye sight. As you can see the weapon quickly becomes ineffective at such ranges, but the weapon model is still simple and not affected by optics.

Now let's put a 3x ACOG scope on the rifle. The magnification means everything seems closer to the shooter's eye, but only to the eye not the weapon. The bullet still has to travel the full length of the distance to target and weapon craftsmanship and ammo selection plays a huge role here. The target at 40 m is now apparently 13 m away, the target at 120 m is now apparently 40 m away and the target at 180 m is now apparently 60 m away. This improves the sight modifier greatly as these are taken at the apparent distance not actual distance. The weapon's modifiers are still taken at the real distance to target. Taking the same modifiers as the previous example:

Weapon Modifiers
50 m : 0
150 m : -1
300 m : -3

Sight Modifiers
50 m : 0
100 m : -3
150 m : -6
200 m : -12

The examples convert to:

40 m : 0 modifier before, now apparently at 13 m, 0 modifier now : 0 for weapon range modifier (use real distance of 40 m) and 0 for sight modifier (use apparent distance to target of 13 m)

120 m : -7 modifier before, now apparently at 40 m, - 1 modifier now : -1 for weapon range modifier (use real distance of 120 m) and 0 for sight modifier (use apparent distance to target of 40 m)

180 m : -15 modifier before, now apparently at 60 m, - 6 modifier now : -3 for weapon range modifier (use real distance of 180 m) and -3 for sight modifier (use apparent distance to target of 60 m)

Notice how effective adding 3x amplification was to the weapon's performance. The shot at 120 m got a seven fold improvement and the shot at 180 m nearly a three fold improvement.

This mechanism adds complexity because it requires another value to add when calculating modifiers, but it simplifies weapon modeling as a whole. As you can see the rifle is still the same and the player doesn't have to deal with lots and lots of weapon stats, each for a different attached scope. The weapon is one thing and the scope is another and they're now easily combined.

Next post will cover the sniper and his rifle in more detail.

Image source

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lead aim initiative modifiers for bows

The farther out your target is the more an initiative penalty your character gets. In another post I talked about tabletop RPG frames per second (FPS) and how long things take to propagate through the battlefield. Indicating that some effects, like arrow attacks, are not immediate. I came up with some modifiers for initiative based on range. Now I'll talk about another important element required for long range shooting: lead. Leading is the act of putting the arrow or bullet ahead of the target so the shot goes to where the target will be and not where it is now.

Now, you can't lead a target if you don't know the target speed, and you can't know the target speed if you don't measure it. To measure it you must wait, wait for the target to move enough to make an accurate guess. How does range affect initiative? Simply put, the further away the target is the harder it is to calculate the lead. The target will have to move more for your character to guess better and a bad guess will be more significant at that long range.

For example at Pathfinder lists the heavy repeating crossbow as having 120ft range, that's 40 yards. An 8 inch target at 40 yards measures 5 mils. At 80 yards the same target measures about 3 mils, 2 mils at about 120 yards and 1 mil at the weapon's max range of 200 yards. But 1 mil is so small you might not even see the target, much less notice it moving until it takes a step or two.

A simple rule is to add 1 point penalty for every range increment in range. If the weapon has a 80ft range anything up to 80ft has a 1 penalty to initiative if the shooter wants to lead the target, above 80ft and up to 160ft the penalty is 2, and so forth up to 5.

The shooter can fire without leading, but if the target moves in the round the shot enjoys a 1 point penalty for every range increment. For example, a bow with 80ft range fired at 140ft (less than 160ft which is 2x base range) suffers a 1 point penalty to initiative if the bowman leads the target or a 1 point penalty to hit if the bowman fires quickly and the target moves. These to hit penalties are added to the already calculated penalties for range.

Image Source

Friday, September 20, 2013

A day in Antarctica

Next weekend my players will spend a day in Antarctica. They will land at McMurdo station, prep their gear, fly to Amundsen–Scott station (geographic south pole) and from there they will be "smuggled" as a science crew to get close enough to their target. A strange complex in the mountains and their inhabitants, a group of rogue mercenaries up to something. After the drop off it's all on foot and snow mobiles to the merc complex. Sneak, spy and even infiltrate are their orders.

Quite a lot for a day's work you'd think. Well think again because a day in Antarctica lasts a whole six months. That's right. Although the duration may vary the further north you go, at true south sun is coming up tomorrow September 21 at 5:26 am and ain't setting for a whole six months. That gives our brave adventurers quite some time to finish their mission. But let's not let them get too confident because when the sun sets night will last a whole six months too, and not even the Energizer bunny is going to keep their NVGs going that long!

Sunrise marks the beginning of spring, the arrival of warmer days and supply airplanes. Warmer is a relative term there, it means going from an average high of -55°C (-68°F) in winter to -26°C (-14°F) in summer. It also literally means the appearance of the sun over the horizon. something that has been missing for the last six months.

No wonder "Here comes the sun" by the Beatles has been played at least once to welcome the sunrise and nowhere is the song's lyrics more fitting after six months of no sun.

Probably unaware to many is the Sun's role in bone structure and mood swings of human beings. Vitamin D is produced in the skin. Without it the body suffers. It is strongly related with bone issues like osteoporosis, rickets (bone softening) in children and osteomalacia. "Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with increased risks of deadly cancers, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and type 1 diabetes mellitus." (

Lack of sunlight is also related to depression as serotonin is dependent on sunlight as well. Without it mood swings and even suicidal tendencies could emerge. Men respond differently to serotonin deficiency than women " became impulsive but not necessarily depressed. Women, on the other hand, experienced a marked drop in mood and became more cautious, an emotional response commonly associated with depression." (

So let's start piecing things together. Antarctica is a wonderful place where firearms tend to malfunction, get stuck, become brittle, can't be fired as quickly in a stressful situation, food and water freezes, your next step on the snow could be your last, you might find yourself stranded in a pancake of snow as flat as the eye can see and on top of that the lack of sunlight creates painful bone diseases and lack of brain chemicals that lead to mood swings. Isn't this a lovely setting??

Of course not all Antarctica is all day for six months and then all night for another six months. The amount of light is shown on the following diagram. As you can see light gradually diminishes and then increases over a period of months, not hours.

At McMurdo station the light fluctuation is as follows:

Even though there is more fluctuation in sunlight during the day it never really becomes daylight during winter, specially the coldest months of June and July. It also never quite gets dark during summer. Posing another threat to the party: visual contact.

Moving undetected at night is kinda hard if night doesn't come, and waiting for night fall is quite a long wait. Are you getting stressed already? Wait until your character's serotonin levels begin to drop. Mood swings with heavily armed men and women. What a great mix!!!

Operating in days that have day and night periods during the day pose a serious threat of exposure and extreme cold as those days occur in the coldest most bitter months of the year.

Daylight operations are the only viable alternative as they fall within the warmest months of the year and enjoy more transportation in and out of the area. Although there is a road, the McMurdo South Pole Highway, airplanes are the preferred means of transportation in and out.

Daylight months also provide a good cover story for the team's presence in the area. As a cover up science team their movement will become less suspicious. In the summer the south pole Amundsen-Scott Station population peaks at 200, making their presence and activities less notorious to watching eyes.

We'll see how they fare. The have a few months to finish their task. Their last chance of a ride home is the last C-130 leaving for McMurdo just before sunset in March. If they miss it they'll have to join the winter-over and enjoy the movies. I hear the first played just after sunset is The Thing followed by The Shining. No kidding, that's what they do over there. Of course a whole six months of darkness presents so many great opportunities for adventure so who would want to miss that?

Amundsen-Scott Station Temperature Table

The following table shows the average and record temperatures per month as well as the amount of sunlight at the south pole station.

Climate data for the South Pole
Record high °C (°F)−14
Average high °C (°F)−25.9
Average low °C (°F)−29.4
Record low °C (°F)−41
Mean monthly sunshine hours55848021700000604346005892,938
Source #1: Weatherbase [11]
Source #2: Cool Antarctica [12]

Image sources


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Firearms in cold weather

The next adventure takes the players to the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica. The setting will push the limits of the characters and their equipment. Fortunately they will be equipped with the best of the best. They'll carry Accuracy International's Arctic Warfare rifle and the world's best cold weather clothing.

The Artic Warfare rifle is specially designed to endure extreme cold temperatures. It has a deicing feature that allows it to be operated as low as -40°C (-40°F). Which is really good news! Bad news is the mean temperature in Antarctica is -57°C (-70°F). Did I mention Antarctica has the record for the lowest temperature recorded over land? A chilling -89.2°C (-128.6°C)!!!! At that temperature your car's exhaust snows CO2 flakes. That's right! No fear of suffocating with your car exhaust, no sir, it's going to be snowing dry ice!!! I know there's a joke to be made there somewhere, but I digress.

Extreme cold is definitely bad for weapons, but sooner or later the party is going to enter some warm place, like a shelter or building and that's going to make things so much worse!!! An extremely cold weapon will quickly condense water on its surface. That means it will build up dew drops inside it which will freeze up again the weapon exits the building. Isn't this just wonderful? A five minute chase in and out a building is enough to render all your firearms useless. I can't buahahahahaha loud enough! Am I an evil GM or what?!?!

Here are a few things that make weapon use in extreme cold weather problematic (aside from issues with the ammo itself) :

  • Lubricants become very thick and may even freeze too. Weapons may have to be used without any lubrication so as to prevent stoppage. Fortunately our players are on a government sponsored trip and will have access to United Bio Lube's "Bio Arctic", which is rated at up to -50°F. Which is good for Antarctica's summer, but come winter and well... buahahahaaha....
  • Air humidity. As mentioned before bringing a cold gun into a warm room will immediately cover it with a thin film of water that will quickly freeze if the weapon is once again taken outside. This ice can block the internal components even when the weapon is completely dried on its outside. Aside form jamming, this can be damaging in gas or short throw piston weapons.
  • Rapid heating. Remember the T1000 scene? Or better yet the Aliens 3 scene? Hot then cold or cold then hot can be damaging to a weapon. Rapid increases in temperature can begin fracturing the barrel. Rounds should be put down range at a slow pace before the weapon is placed in a higher full auto o cyclic rate.
  • Accidentally firing the weapon. It's cold and the character has big gloves on that make it hard to feel just how much pressure is being placed on the trigger. Even with a modified trigger and more room for a gloved finger firing the weapon with precision can be a challenge. Option b is exposing the finger during the shot, but that endangers it to frostbite, and numbness can be as bad if not worse than the glove itself.
  • Air density. Last, but not least, air gets denser as temperature drops. About 1% for every 4.5°F (about 2.5°C). This will affect the range and effectiveness of the weapon.
If this wasn't enough did I mention they're going against the masters of cold weather warfare? The Russians and their AK-47, good luck!


Image Source

New Zealand Army - SAS cold weather training in mountain environment.

An Afghan soldier in Kamdesh, a village in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan. Winter 2006,

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bow initiative modifiers for range

Arrows take some time to reach their target and this can impose a initiative modifier to bows. In my post about flight times I raised the point that for sufficiently large distances the flight time of the projectile does matter.

Your character may win initiative and fire now, but the effect of the action takes time to propagate, it is not immediate. The arrow has to fly to its target to cause damage. In this time the target may take actions against your party. Same applies for enemies attacking your party with ranged weapons.

My suggestion is a ranged based modifier value as follows (working on a roll high initiative value):
Point blank : -0
Short range : -2
Medium range : -4
Long range : -6

For example a character rolls 8 against an orc who rolls 6 and is attacking the party wizard who rolls 5. The orc and wizard at at medium range and thus the character suffers a medium range modifier of -4, his effective initiative value is now 4 (8 - 4). The character attacks first and fires his bow, then the orc (6 initiative) attacks the wizard, then the wizard attacks the orc (5 initiative) and finally the arrow lands on the orc (4 effective initiative).

Thoughts? How would the delay and the consideration of such propagation time affect the way players handles combat? The point of this rule is not to make combat unnecessarily complex, but rather portray delay times as something that affects PC strategy.

Image source

Sunday, September 15, 2013

FPS, the economy of consequences

What's the frame per second rate of your tabletop RPG?

Games handle the economy of actions in many ways, but seldom is there a measure of the response of the environment to such actions. Nature, it would seem, is not a player in games. Looking at various games and means to keep tabs on actions and time I'm convinced there is some implicit FPS rate that nobody talks about, but varies from game to game. The choice of time frame directly affects the narrative power of a game as it dictates how PC created effects propagate and how nature provides feedback to character about the things occurring around them. Effects are not instantaneous and the disregard for this can cause issues in tabletop RPGs when the action speed is too high. Let's say it's not captured "on screen" because the frames per second are too low. Let me explain..

+Cory Owens does a great work summarizing the Economy of Actions in various games. In his blog he enumerates a variety of ways to keep track of character actions in a certain time frame and indicates the pros and cons of each. The balance generally tilting between detail and ease of use and speed in the game.

What I want to look into right now is how those different economies of action affect the narrative potential of the game and how they enable or not the potential a player has to manifest the power of his or her character into the story. Let us put the issues of complexity and overhead aside for a moment and ponder on the impact of more detailed time measurements.

Minuscule time measurements allow for heart stopping moments in the story. Recent playtests have shown the importance of half second or quarter second differences between PC and NPC actions. Their impact on the story is outstanding. Within the context of a modern warfare game, like the one I'm running, half a second or less is the difference between life or death. Modern RPGs not your cup of tea?, worry not, I'll be getting to arrows soon, there's even a video.

Getting back to the bullets. Will your character respond in time, set that shot of before the entering enemy can hit my character? Will the bullets fly across the field fast enough to reach the target before it shoots back or worse, detonates a bomb? Those details can no doubt be added by a purely storytelling process but, as is quite common sometimes, reality surpasses fantasy, and having a "realistic" rule system that lays the groundwork for such mechanics can open a whole set of truly fantastic possibilities in a game.

So let us look at frames per second as a concept. How the story unfolds not only in player actions, but also in the consequences of their actions. Even light, as fast as it is, takes time to travel from one point of the galaxy to another. In much the same way bullets, arrows, magic and all sorts of effects take time to propagate through. Could we call this the "Economy of Consequences"? The economy of consequences isn't about the casting time of a spell, as in I cast a spell and four seconds later it occurs. No, that's not what I'm talking about, it's about a frame by frame representation of the spell actually manifesting itself. The four seconds have already gone by, now the spell, the fireball, wall of fire, lightning bolt, whatever, is racing towards the enemy, what's happening then?

Turn based games allocate a certain amount of time to each player, the player takes an action and then the next player's turn comes up, he or she takes and action and so on. There's an action and a consequence of said action: a sliced goblin, charred orcs, shattered skeletons, etc. In such games actions take a time to occur, but consequences are immediate. There's an economy of actions, but no economy of consequences.

Now let's imagine we break a 10 second round into one quarter second time frames and loop through character actions at that rate. Once again, set aside complexity and bear with me. What happens then? Every player gets an action every 250ms. Not that we'll actually ask each player what their character is doing, we'll just update the setting ever 250ms instead of every 10 seconds or every action taken, which may take a few seconds or more. To analyze this let's look at a combat encounter example.

Our brave adventurers are corned by a group of orcs and are fighting back when a group that broke off returns and finds them in trouble. They roll for initiative, two archers from the returning party fire at the orcs killing two, the orc chieftain turns and fires at the archers, the pinned and cornered fighters slice up a couple of orcs, the orcs attack the fighters and the archers fire at the orcs again. End of round.

Now let's speed up the frame rate at 250ms per frame. Nothing happens for the first 3 frames, then the archers fire, not much happens for the next 8 frames, the orc chieftain turns, wait 3 frames, fires the bow at the archers, two frames go by, the fighters attack the orcs (there are more now, the arrows are not there yet and the will be dead orcs are not dead yet), a frame goes by and they slice up a few orcs, two frames go by and the arrows arrive hitting a few more orcs (did they hit orcs that were already killed by the fighters???), three frames go by the chieftain's arrow arrives and hits an archer, the archers fire a second volley, 15 frames go by, somehow nobody does anything, arrows arrive and hit the orcs.

Before jumping to complexity concerns let us look at the following video by Lars Andersen

He puts 11 arrows into the air before the first hits the ground just 8 seconds after it was shot. Don't think 250ms or 500ms precision is important? That's 8 seconds before you know if your target is hit or not. Do you shift aim to the next orc? There are 10 arrows in waiting, quick make up your mind.

Work on Weapons Free begun as a quest to create an RPG for fast action thriller games. This got me working on new ways to handle weapons and firearms, but the real trick seems to be in the measurement of time. Not only to allocate actions to players, but to track consequences. In the classic turn based systems your character can aim to fire when suddenly an RPG is fired your way (RPG as in grenade not a big fat rulebook). A roll for your attack is made and then a roll for the enemy RPG, damage dealt and turn ended. In a more action packed game, certain events must be able to intervene in the middle of someone's action. Let me replay the same round at a much higher FPS rate. Your character aims the rifle, an RPG is fired, someone yells "RPG!!!!", will your character mindlessly keep aiming and taking the shot because the rules dictate no action can be taken until the next round or will he or she instinctively seek cover?

In my subsuption post I talked about small, compact and loosely bound rules that worked in parallel and could be triggered by sudden changes in the scene which lead to some actions superseding others (namely saving one's life over taking a shot). To do so, the game needs to track the propagation of events, not only the occurrence of events themselves as instant effects in the game. The RPG is not fired and instantly hits the target, it takes a small amount of time, but that bit of time can mean the difference between being exposed or behind cover when it goes off.

It is my strong belief that common turn based systems create an effect in the tabletop RPG similar to network latency in an online video game, and I'll quote wikipedia regarding this:

" Additionally some games such as Quake 3 Arena perform physics, AI, networking, and other calculations in sync with the rendered frame rate - this can result in inconsistencies with movement and network prediction code if players are unable to maintain the designed maximum frame rate of 125 FPS. "

In the same way insufficient frames can cause glitches in a fast paced game such as Quake 3 Arena, so can insufficient frames cause glitches in tabletop RPGs dealing with the fast paced action of modern day action thrillers.

Image source

Friday, September 13, 2013

When flight time matters

There are some scenarios in which winning initiative just isn't enough. Your character has to win initiative by a long shot. In a long range sniper shot the bullet can have a flight time of 3 to 5 seconds. That's one third to one half the duration of a combat round.

Winning initiative and taking the shot in the first second of the round does not ensure a kill fast enough to save your fellow party members. The enemy can be technically dead, but the bullet isn't there yet when he presses the trigger. When he is hit, his bullet is already on the way back to hit your character or some other party member.

Initiative mechanics set a sequence of events, but rarely specify how much time is between them. Sometimes it could be inferred that a certain amount of seconds are represented by a roll difference, but what if as a GM you roll once for all enemies? How is initiative modified by preparedness and skill? A better sniper should be able to adjust for variables in the bullets path a lot faster than an inexperienced one.

Same issues can be seen in fantasy settings. For example, the flight time of an arrow can be considerable as well, not only could the target fire back before getting hit, the target could move behind a friendly party member as is the case of close combat. Yet how many times have our archers fired at attackers tangled in mortal combat with a fellow party member without any regard for said party member's well being. In reality the two are moving around each other and not standing still in the position marked by the tokens. What could be a clear shot now may be an obstructed flight path a second later. But the arrow is already in flight!

Flight time matters a lot more in modern combat RPGs due to the nature of the weapons themselves and there much longer ranges when compared to medieval ranged weapons. Yet some of the issues apply to fantasy settings as well. How do you take flight time into consideration when running your game?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Subsumption game rules, an AI approach to game design

I'm a big robotics fan, and back in the day when I was doing way more robotics than I have time for today I had the good fortune to stumble upon some good reads from Rodney Brooks and learned about the subsumption architecture,
"... a way of decomposing complicated intelligent behaviour into many "simple" behaviour modules, which are in turn organized into layers. Each layer implements a particular goal of the agent, and higher layers are increasingly abstract." 1

It is inherently a bottom-up design that starts with small and simple systems that are incorporated into bigger ones. The small systems become part of a bigger system that emerges through the union of different layers. It is a design mechanism I've been using for Weapons Free. During the first playtests players would ask how I was determining initiative, order of events, etc. I was, as it is commonly said, winging it. I lacked the systems to determine many of the things players are used to in games which are designed in a top-down manner. In these, combat is decomposed into different elements and in turn these elements into their individual black boxes that make up the whole combat mechanics.

Although subsumption and Brooks are common terms in AI based RPGs I haven't found that many references to such an architecture applied to RPG rule designs nor its impact on rule simplification. I'm really interested in seeing where this ends up as I strongly believe a layered rule system would be simpler than a complex flow chart type rule system. Particularly when it comes to complex tasks like combat.

The following diagram show an example subsumption network for a robot. It's pretty easy to see how terms can be replaced to account for protection/cover, movement and attack behavior. In a subsumption system "the main caveat is that separate tasks can suppress (or overrule) inputs or inhibit outputs. This way, the lowest layers can work like fast-adapting mechanisms (e.g. reflexes), while the higher layers work to achieve the overall goal" 2

The higher layers in this architecture hold the more abstract goals: "I attack the orc", "I cast fireball at the goblins", etc. Middle layers handle elements like the actual sword swings or spell casting, on top of the lower layers handling the environment and movement. Attacking and moving are things done concurrently and handled by each layer of the rule system, instead of a fixed sequence of activities done by each character in the party, like a move, casting and attack phase.

This way of assembling the rules poses some problems, but also some great benefits. On the downside there is no clear flowchart to follow and that is something players familiar with initiative-round-robin type rules will find disturbing. Initiative, which sets sequence of events in most games, must be replaced with a means to synchronize concurrent player action. All players in a scene are acting out their higher level activities, and each can be suppressed by their lower layers. The advantage I see is that a great deal many possibilities become available which were blocked out by a more structured flowchart type rule system. Quick reflexes are not commonly handled well in structured flowchart mechanics. If your character moved and is then attacked he can't move again. Why? Because the rules say so even when his instincts would say otherwise. If as player I decide to move and attack and the battlefield changes and my move doesn't seem that wise anymore, there is little I can do. Not because my character wouldn't move, but because the rules say so. All the actions my character could take at that point are blocked, not because my character could or couldn't really do them, but because the rules state something like one move and one action, etc.

In a subsumption system some layers can kick in and quickly change the flow of events. This is possible because they're occurring concurrently instead of being fixed at some point on a flowchart. For example in the game a soldier may raise his rifle and aim to shoot at a target. He may go unnoticed or call attention and get fired upon. The moment he begins to take fire his survival layer makes him take cover even when his intent is to fire the rifle. His higher, more abstract objective to attack is suppressed by the lower more imminent objective of staying alive. This turns game design from creating a series of flow charts describing the combat process in a neat cut way, as would be done in a top-down design, to an assemble of perception rules, notification rules, and activity rules.

Perception rules describe how your character or NPCs for that matter sense and are influenced by their environment: spotting rules, listening rules, etc., in general how the current environment is perceived by the character and turned into decisions by each layer. Notification rules specify how each layer can intercede in the other layers: ducking when taking fire, running when all is clear, etc. Activity rules specify how each activity in turn modifies the environment: casting a spell, firing a weapon, slashing with the sword, speaking, and moving around, among others.

Rules then become an assembly of lower systems that kick in when needed instead of a fixed set of rules described in a flowchart. So far these rules are simpler than their flowchart counterparts. Although I still have many holes in the system, the overall experience that emerges from the interaction of what is already in place is a lot more interesting that what I could have done with a more classic top-down approach to modern combat rules. The rules are more compact and more flexible.

Subsumption image courtesy:

1, 2 :

Friday, September 06, 2013

How much detail is good enough detail?

Looking back at modern warfare RPGs I've played and examining their "detail" got me wondering what's important and what isn't. Is the exact caliber of the gun important? Might be if you have to scavange for ammo. Caseless ammo was a very uncommon item in Twilight2000. Yet it didn't portray any clear tactical advantage I couldn't use in the game to roleplay a scenario. Overall ballistic detail was not adding tactical realism.

More so how do we arrive at such ballistic detail? Through mathematics and models and number crunching that, in the case of simulationist warfare RPG, calculates the bullet trajectory, momentum and impact location.

What does all this work lead to? Does this added detail and workload actually lead to some effect in role playing? When I played Twilight2000 I felt like a submachine gun was just the same as an assault rifle and pretty much like a light machine gun. Sure, there were damage and ammo differences, but when I rolled once to hit with an assault rifle and rolled once to hit with the machine gun it felt all the same. I didn't feel like I was firing a fear inspiring weapon. I always heard it was important to take the machine gunner out first. I wondered why? I felt just about as unimpressive as when using an M-14. A documentary I just saw mentioned that a soldier with a BAR or a machine gun was worth 10 riflemen. I quite didn't feel 10 times more powerful or relevant in an advance on the battlefield than my fellow players. Calculating the exact parabolic trajectory of the machine gun round, finding its exact range and momentum, its impact point and damage, adjusting for recoil, wind, and what not was not making me feel more impressive. I needed something else.

I begun looking elsewhere for detail. I'm designing weapons based not on math, but on experts. Documentaries and people who've used them and told me how they respond. From videos and research I've done on how these weapons are used, their advantages and disadvantages. I'm dialing in the numbers into a program and getting the modifiers I need by a means of regression. I work with these numbers until the weapons feel right.

I strongly believe a game can be simulationist without being "number-crunchinist". There's more to detail than the exact trajectory of the bullet. I've found that a lot of detail and realism can be filled in by the mind itself if simple easy to use models are presented and complemented with other equally important aspects of modern warfare. Fear of being shot at. Responding under pressure. Unknown enemy size and location. Really deadly encounters that require the player to move, cover, relocate and find new strategies. All these are aspects that are sometimes left as an afterthought or enjoy less "detail" or "realism" than the bullets and weapons. Nonetheless the level of detail and realism portrayed by these less glamorous aspects of the game enable or disable a huge set of role playing options for players.

A certain initiative rule, a limit on attacks per round, how a often and quickly a character may move, or simply the need to see a target to resolve combat rolls may change the way the game is played in such a way that makes it much more unrealistic than having an error on the exact range of a weapon.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The bad GM roll, having a TPK day

The GM rolls and the whole party dies. Bummer, that sucks!

My recent post on the lethality in a modern combat RPG stirred some comments and concerns regarding players or GMs rolling poorly and causing player death or even a TPK in a highly lethal game. Is this so? Does high lethality translate directly to high player death? Shouldn't it be a latent game element that leads to a more exciting adventure and becomes more or less evident as a consequence of the dice selected to determine outcomes?

For me die rolls are not in the game to define the fate of the player or party, but rather to introduce a degree of randomness and entropy into the outcome of a single action. The succession of these actions is what seals the fate of the character, not a single roll. I use more than one die in hit rolls to reduce outliner values that may produce extremely bad outcomes. Thus if the character is well trained and the player thinks (hint), lethality should be low, at least for the character. Can't vouch for the bad guys. ;)

Now getting back to dice. When using 2d10 instead of 1d20 the odds of the roll summing 11 (10%) is very different from the odds of summing a 2 (1%). With a d20 the odds of getting a 2 (5%) are the same as an 11 (5%). Thus the odds of getting two successive 2s with a d20 is the same as getting a 2 and a 11 or a 2 and a 20 or two 11s for that matter, 0.25%. With a 2d10 the odds of getting two successive rolls each adding 2 is 0.01%, the odds of getting two successive rolls each adding 11 is 1%. That's a hundredfold difference in favor of things turning out right.

What does this mean in layman's terms? Basically that it takes a succession of highly improbable die rolls to seal a character's fate on die rolls only using 2d10s. If the character is highly trained and prepared, the odds of actually dying are slim. Player decisions become a more relevant factor in determining character fate than the die rolls on behalf of the GM, be them good or bad. Sticking your character's head into a room without proper precautions is going to get you killed more often than a bad roll by the GM.

I've ran games with some players who stay put waiting for that lucky roll or storm rooms without preparation, believing die rolls and hit points will save the character. Wrong. In a real firefight there's sporadic fire, movement, then some more fire, movement, spotting, relocating, fire again, and so on.

Laying behind a log rolling for initiative and then resolving a nice volley of fire, first me, then him, then some more initiative, now him, then me, initiative again, now me killing him and turning my machine gun to his buddy and going over the drill all over again is not how real firefights turn out. Does the expression "sitting duck" ring a bell?

In a real firefight if you sit behind a log firing round after round like that you'll have a lot of "blowing the fuck out of you" going your way real soon. From heavy machine guns to grenades and mortar fire.

In a real firefight the bad guy isn't going to be there, round after round, with his head sticking out nice and dandy just waiting for you to blow it away before he blows your nice and dandy head, that also happens to be sticking out. You're going to be moving, he's going to be moving and it's all going to be a big mess of a fight.

In a highly lethal game as is the case with modern warfare games, tactics, preparation and character training should supersede die rolls. So characters don't actually die. Catastrophic failure should come after either a) player stupidity or b) a succession of bad yet highly improbable die rolls. When failure comes it should be swift and final, to remind players what is at stake.

Players in turn should shift their tactics from rolling high to thinking fast. If the dice will make it less probable to get hit, but if you do you're done for, you might think the odds are in your favor. Think again, recall the part of a whole lot of  "blowing the fuck out of you" that's coming your way if you don't move and keep thinking fast. Take the battle to the enemy, keep him pinned down and move in a whole lot of "blowing the fuck out of them" quicker than they move in a whole lot of "blowing the fuck out of you".

At this point forget about simulationist realism, who cares about the exact trajectory of the bullet when all these interesting dynamics are emerging once characters are no longer pampered behind high hit points and players aren't psyco about scitzo die rolls that may land a 2, 10 or 20 just as easily. When the stakes are high and speed and planning really matter, a great deal of previously ignored or omitted tricks and tactics take a center role.  They now have real application in the game and give the party an upper hand in the game.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Movement reigns as a means to add realism

Putting time to create a simple yet rather detailed weapon mechanism has paid off, but movement is quickly emerging as a means to make the game even more interesting and realistic. Rounds, single actions per round and initiative rolls are yielding to a flexible time frame with a reflex roll mechanism that may yield not only an initiative benefit, but also extra attacks.

Adding detail to the weapons is good, but a player might not know the difference between the game's weapon and a real weapon if he's never fired it for real, and thus not really value the hard work put into obtain such a detailed model or the added math required during the game to make such a weapon feel real. This is even more so for futuristic weapons that don't even exist and thus lack any real life reference point. Now movement, that's something all players can relate to. How a character jumps, runs, turns, swings, stretches out, etc. are all things players can vividly identify with.

When a game forces the character to either take an action or move a great degree of realism is lost. I can't relate that well to a game that doesn't let me shoot as I move, or move, shoot and move again. When I can't run my character past something while swinging left and right, the game looses a great deal of realism.

I'm more forgiving when the weapon range or reach isn't quite right than when I can't do with it what I could clearly do in real life. I can't tightrope walk, nor can I climb walls, but when a character that can do that can't run as he swings his sword... well that's just simply unrealistic as it gets.

What are you thoughts about movement in the games you play? Do you think characters should be given more freedom to move and attack or would that break the game?

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Surfing Bird

A-well-a, everybody's heard about the bird Bird, bird, bird, b-bird's the word 
A-well-a, bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word...

Who hasn't watched Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and just loved the Surfing Bird scene? God I just love it. For those who haven't seen it and for those who love it as much as I do, here it is again.

Damn I love that grin as he sees they've gone down, but I digress, this is not what I want to talk about. I want to look at why the first group of VCs pass unscratched and the second is hit. Well it's clear enough that he was reloading while the first group passed, but was he the only one in the whole platoon looking that way? If not so, why didn't anybody else fire? Did they not see them in time?

This scene has been spinning in my head for a few weeks now as I try to resolve a way to portray split second reactions in the game. Who aims first? Who fires first? Conventional theory says that's initiative, but initiative is sometimes too random, it involves the whole party and it generally dictates order and not necessarily advantage when it comes to many split second actions. Particularly an advantage that strongly leverages character training.

What do I mean with the last point? Well conventional initiative says the VC move first then the Marine fires or vice versa. If initiative rolls matched they'd be caught as they run, but otherwise the Marine would have nothing to shoot at or they'd pass unscratched as the first group did. But what if he wasn't aiming just there and then? What about spotting them with the corner of his eye and then turning, aiming and shooting?

To solve those split second reaction times, setting a sense of order and at the same time an advantage in time I'm introducing a time frame called a beat. A beat doesn't specifically last a second or for that matter a fixed amount of time, it's more of an abstract response advantage. Beats are a measure of how well a character made a reflex check, which is basically an attribute check modified by skills. For every four points a character wins he earns a beat which equates to a short action. For example if a character earns a whole beat he may fire his gun twice during the span of the action. If two enemies are involved and they roll 2 and 4 while the character rolls 8, the character may discharge his weapon twice ( has a whole beat lead on the fastest enemy). The character fires once, then a beat goes by and the counter drops to 4, the enemy who rolled 4 fires, but also the character as he earned a beat ( 8 - 4, a beat = 4 again). They fire simultaneously and finally the enemy with the 2 roll fires.

By leveraging the character's skill in the roll as well as the character's attributes the roll means more than just simply who goes first. It is strongly weighted for the well trained party members and it gives a clear and distinctive value to training. Making well trained characters ever so lethal and more prone to survive in high risk situations.