Wednesday, April 28, 2021

My Earliest Comic Issues

On Discord, From the Sorcerer's Skull posed a question about people's earliest memories of owning comic books. I believe his questions were about the first comic you ever read, the first comic that was ever bought for you, and the first comic you ever bought with your own money.

I'm not following his prompt exactly, but I decided to poke around on the Great Comic Database and try to find the earliest comics issues I ever owned. Today, most of my media consumption is pretty purposeful. I rarely watch or read anything that hasn't been recommended to me by a friend, or that I haven't read about first by browsing reviews. But as a kid, I was far more beholden to what was available at the time. As a result, many of my first issues are the final part of a multi-part storyline.

I only ever had the one issue of Amethyst, and maybe a couple of Transformers. I collected perhaps a half-dozen Alf issues over the next few years, and the same with What If? I got maybe a dozen or so issues of Spider-Man before moving on to other things. I somehow never bought another Superman or Flash or Captain America, although that's how I learned about Daredevil, and Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil became the main two comics I collected after that, along with Generation X when it showed up. I never had anything like complete runs of any comic though. There were always gaps where we didn't make it to the bookstore that month, or for whatever reason there was no new issue available.

Looking back on them now, I notice how beautiful the art in Amethyst was, and what a terrifying body-horror villain Skyhook made in Superman. I wonder about Circuit Breaker's war against the machines in Transformers, and what it was that made the world go mad in The Flash.
Amethyst #4, Feb 88
What about you? What were the earliest comics you remember reading or owning or buying?

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG

The Class Alphabet for DCC
In spring 2016, David Coppoletti reached out to me and a couple dozen other DCC fans on Google+. He had an ambitious idea - a sourcebook of 26 character classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Sometime in fall or winter 2020, David's idea appeared as a finished book, The Class Alphabet for DCC RPG. You can read Raven Crowking's review here.

I was convinced by David's G+ pitch, and wrote the Knave. Later, due to the logistical challenges of managing the contributions of so many collaborators, I ended up a second class, the Cyber-Zombie.

The Knave receives, I think, the single longest class write-up in the book. My goal was to combine the various Jacks of fairy tale and nursery rhyme, characters like Liane the Wayfarer and Cugel the Clever from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, the Fool from Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, the imagery of playing cards, and the tarot. I was also experimenting with the limits of the "you're no hero" writing style; I described Knaves as being nasty in a way that almost makes me uncomfortable to reread. The Knave class is so long because there are four fully described sub-classes based on the suits of playing cards, each subclass has its three Mighty Deed of Arms equivalents they can learn, there are 22 spell-like effects based on the major arcana of tarot, and also, yes, because of long-windedness on my part.

The Cyber-Zombie was my attempt to create a class that you can only start playing after your previous character has died. I was definitely inspired by Terra Frank's three undead classes from the first Gongfarmer's Almanac. As a Cyber-Zombie, you start out at whatever level your old character was, and you retain a remnant of your old class powers, although reduced from before. Cyber-Zombies also get upgrades. I based the possible upgrades on Super Metroid and Mega Man X, and on the Centurions cartoon series. 

The other authors in the collection are a veritable Who's Who of DCC fans and publishers - including Reid San Filippo of the Crawling Under a Broken Moon zine and the subsequent Umerica sourcebook and adventure series, Diogo Nogueira of Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells and Solar Blades & Cosmic Spells and plenty of other projects, and plenty of other names that you might recognize from their contributions to The Gongfarmer's Almanac, their participation in various DCC podcasts, their DCC blogs, or other gaming publications.

It's a pleasant surprise for me to see The Class Alphabet finally out. This was one of the first times I was invited to contribute to a collaborative writing project. Quite a lot has happened in my life, and in the world, since David first approached me. I'm very happy to see that he was able to realize his goal.

The Forgotten Rites of the Moldering Dead

The Forgotten Rites of the Moldering Dead
Donn Stroud invited me to contribute to a sourcebook of tables for generating undead monsters for DCC, The Forgotten Rites of the Moldering Dead. The end result is something quite similar to Stroud's Lesser Key to the Celestial Legion. But where Lesser Key focused on angels and celestials, Forgotten Rites is about all types of corporeal undead, and all sorts of graverobbing adventures.

I wrote some of the entries about undead animals and some of the longer adventure seeds. I also contributed to some of the tables for creating a unique encounter with a specific undead monster and for finding treasures by digging up graves. Donn did the lion's share of the work on this project, writing at least half the book himself, as well coordinating the involvement of all the other contributors.

If you've been wanting something similar to the Libris Mortis for DCC, you will probably be pleased by Donn's book. It's not really meant to be used "straight through" - it's more like a reference you could consult if you know you want to use this undead or that undead, but you want to do something to make the encounter a bit different than standard.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds

How much damage does a hit point represent?

For some time now, the official standard in D&D and Pathfinder has been that starting characters get the maximum hit points at 1st level, based on class. So typically 6, 8, or 10 - maybe 12 for certain fighting types or 4 for certain magicians, depending on the ruleset - plus a bonus for a high Constitution, which is pretty common.

You gain about half that amount, rounded up, plus the Con bonus again, each level. So it would be fairly normal to see an adventuring party with hp totals of 7, 10, 13 at 1st level; 12, 17, 22 at 2nd; and 17, 24, 31 at third. 

I would also say it's standard that these hit points are treated as representing real, physical damage. In most games I've run, played in, or observed at an FLGS, the Game Master says something like "you hit!" and "you miss!" to describe combat results. They describe damage as being "just a scratch" or "a really bad wound". Characters recover lost hit points with the help of healing potions or healing spells, because those lost hit points represent bodily injuries that need to heal before the hit points can be restored.

(Let me digress for a moment to acknowledge that there are people who'll talk until they're blue in the face and you're blue in your soul about how well actually Gary never intended hit points to indicate anything so concrete as bodily health, etc, they have always and everywhere represented an abstracted reserve of luck, martial skill, fighting spirit, elan vitae, and character morale that gets depleted during combat, etc etc, anyone who says differently is playing the game wrong and ruining the hobby with their scurrilous misinterpretation of the founders' intentions, etc etc etc. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that we could describe combat differently, but I think I'm on solid footing about how the game is usually played, and I don't find it useful to pretend that one's own preferred playstyle has some deep rooting in custom and tradition just to facilitate a rhetorical appeal to faux-historical authority.)

Most weapons use d6, d8, and d10 dice to deal damage, plus of course a likely bonus for high Strength. That means that depending on the match-up of character and monster and weapon, most starting characters can sustain maybe 2-3 hits before they run out of hit points, and can probably endure another 1-2 hits each time they level up.

So returning to my original question, how much damage does one hit point represent?

The Alexandrian argues that the answer is on a sliding scale. Suppose getting hit with a short sword deals 4 damage - how much bodily injury that 4 damage represents depends on whose body it is. For a 1st level thief with 7 hp, that 4 damage is over half their total. That's a pretty grievous injury. Another hit like that and they'll either be dying or just plain dead. For a 3rd level fighter with 31 hp, it's not so bad really. They could get hit 6-7 more times like that before it would kill them. The severity of the injury isn't determined so much by the number of hit points as it is by the proportion of the total.

DM David suggests that the abstraction of hit points - the fact that they don't easily map to any particular amount of bodily injury - is the reason for their enduring appeal. He observes that virtually every game that sets out to "fix" D&D's combat settles on some kind of rule to make hit points and weapons damage more "realistic", and that despite these many "fixes", D&D's decidedly un-realistic combat remains more popular. He argues that this is because it's more fun. Players like the positive feedback of actually hitting their opponents, and they like not dying instantly the first time an attack hits them. It's more fun to narrate combat as a trading of blows than as a series of dodges, blocks, whiffs, and misses.

When I first learned about D&D, before I started playing, I thought that 100 hit points per character sounded about right. I suppose I must have been thinking of hp as percents. If you'd asked me how long a fight should last back then, I probably would have wanted something like the duration of combat you get in a round of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat. For "boss fights" anyway, although I don't know if the rhythm of lesser battles against weaker monsters leading up to the climactic crescendo of a "final boss" would have occurred to me then. 

But some people want something different. They want combat to be short, decisive, and deadly. Or they want combat to be a "fail state", a mistake that you instantly regret making. Or they want it to be more "realistic". Or they want it to be more concrete and less abstract. At the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past, reinventing the square wheel as it were, I have a proposal for how to do that.

You're dying, John.

Hit Points as Bullet Wounds
  • One hit point represents one bullet wound.
  • The number of hit point a character possesses represents the number of times they can get shot before dying.
  • The amount of damage an attack deals represents the number of bullets that hit the target.

Saito's not going to make it, is he?
  • Attack rolls truly are "to-hit" rolls. If you roll a miss, that means the bullet misses its target.
  • Your "armor class" represents your ability to dodge or evade. It's affected by your agility and by ducking behind cover, which causes the bullets to miss you.
  • Body armor allows bullets to hit you, and so doesn't affect your "armor class" at all. Instead it provides something like a saving throw after combat to see if it successfully prevent the bullets from damaging you as much as they normally would.

  • Hit point totals are low and will remain low. A non-combat character can survive being shot maybe 1-4 times, a combat-oriented character can survive maybe 1-6. Hit point totals probably don't increase as you gain levels, or only very slightly.

  • If a character with 1 hit point gets shot, they start dying. If a character with 0 hit points gets shot, they're instantly dead. Most civilian NPCs have 1 hp. Having 0 hit points represents an state of illness or frailty.
  • Dying will turn into dead unless you go to a hospital or other surgeon. Any character who gets shot will die from their injuries unless they take the time needed to apply competent first aid to their wounds. 
  • Any bullet wound that isn't treated in a hospital or equivalent will result in the permanent loss of 1 hp. Any bullet wound that is treated still requires something like a saving throw after treatment to recover, otherwise it's lost permanently anyway.
  • Recovery times are long. Expect to spend something like 1 hour per bullet wound on first aid and something like 2 weeks per wound recovering afterward. And those might still be "unrealistically" abbreviated. Translate into your game's relevant "turn" and "downtime" categories as necessary.

  • Most unarmed combat deals 0 damage. You can wrestle someone to restrain them, get in a fistfight in lieu of negotiation, maybe even knock someone unconscious, but your bare hands aren't likely to kill anyone, except under extraordinary circumstances. A critical hit might kill, even by accident, and so might beating a helpless person.
  • Knives deal maybe 1 damage. You get something like a saving throw. If you succeed, you still need first aid, and will suffer the consequences without it, but otherwise you take 0 damage. If you fail your save, you need a hospital, and take 1 damage. Knives can kill, but not as easily as a gun.
  • Most bullets deal 1 damage, but special guns might have special characteristics. A very weak gun, perhaps one that's very quiet or easy to conceal, deals maybe 1 damage, like a knife. A very powerful gun, or one that's firing very dangerous ammo, will definitely deal 1 point of damage and will maybe deal 2. Again, you need something like a saving throw. Armor piercing bullets don't allow you to make a save to prevent their damage, but let's say they only deal 1 damage if you're wearing a vest. Special guns and special bullets are very expensive.