Monday, June 26, 2017

Socrates on the Elements

Regarding Plato's Timaeus, the translator Benjamin Jowett could write, "Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader, and has nevertheless had the greatest influence over the ancient and mediaeval world." Here Socrates explains the composition of the classical elements.

I was wrong in imagining that all the four elements could be generated into and out of one another. For as they are formed, three of them from the triangle which has the sides unequal, the fourth from the triangle which has equal sides, three can be resolved into one another, but the fourth cannot be resolved into them nor they into it. So much for their passage into one another: I must now speak of their construction. From the triangle of which the hypotenuse is twice the lesser side the three first regular solids are formed—first, the equilateral pyramid or tetrahedron; secondly, the octahedron; thirdly, the icosahedron; and from the isosceles triangle is formed the cube. And there is a fifth figure (which is made out of twelve pentagons), the dodecahedron—this God used as a model for the twelvefold division of the Zodiac.

Let us now assign the geometrical forms to their respective elements. The cube is the most stable of them because resting on a quadrangular plane surface, and composed of isosceles triangles. To the earth then, which is the most stable of bodies and the most easily modelled of them, may be assigned the form of a cube; and the remaining forms to the other elements,—to fire the pyramid, to air the octahedron, and to water the icosahedron,—according to their degrees of lightness or heaviness or power, or want of power, of penetration. The single particles of any of the elements are not seen by reason of their smallness; they only become visible when collected. The ratios of their motions, numbers, and other properties, are ordered by the God, who harmonized them as far as necessity permitted...

What makes fire burn? The fineness of the sides, the sharpness of the angles, the smallness of the particles, the quickness of the motion. Moreover, the pyramid, which is the figure of fire, is more cutting than any other. The feeling of cold is produced by the larger particles of moisture outside the body trying to eject the smaller ones in the body which they compress. The struggle which arises between elements thus unnaturally brought together causes shivering. That is hard to which the flesh yields, and soft which yields to the flesh, and these two terms are also relative to one another. The yielding matter is that which has the slenderest base, whereas that which has a rectangular base is compact and repellent...

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.

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.