Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Probability Part 1: Randomness is a A**hole

I am talking about probability in this post. All discussions of probability involve foul language on my part. Consider yourself forewarned.

Play enough games and you will start thinking about odds. How often can you succeed? How often will you fail? The fact that games use dice (and sometimes cards) to generate success and failure makes the odds easy to figure out. Rather than dig into details and figure out the odds, a lot of my gamer brethren dive into the world of luck, superstition, and even prayer (Seen it once. It worked). For the rest of us there is the angry tentacle monster known as probability theory. We are subject to its random outcomes every time we roll the dice, and most of us never really take the time to understand it.

One of the most infuriating concepts in probability is the idea randomness. For me, it helps to think of the concept as an old-school Greek god. His name is Kaos and he's an asshole. Kaos does not care about you at all. He gives no shits about who you are, what you've done, or what you want. He doesn't love you, but he doesn't hate you either, but he sure as hell isn't listening to you. You are less than an ant to him. In addition to the not caring about you, he has all sorts of other problems. Most important, his memory is so bad that he makes Alzheimer's sufferers look like they have photographic memories. He pretty much forgets things as they happen, leaving him totally clueless as to anything in the past. He also can't look into the future. I'm not talking about prophecy here. I mean he can't plan where to go for lunch, or even how he will spend the next five minutes, or five seconds. That shit is just beyond him.

So what does this crazy bastard do? He shouts out numbers because he thinks it's funny. Every time you roll a die Kaos gleefully yells out the number he wants to see. He can't remember what the last roll was, and he has no clue what he'll want on the next one, but in the moment he will be happy with his choice and you get to suffer the consequences. On the next roll he might shout the same number, or he might not. He doesn't know what he's going to do. If you stand far enough back from this insane amnesiac bastard you can suss out a few things. Mainly, he likes all the numbers about the same, so if you listen to him shout a few million times, then all 6 numbers on your six-sided die will come up about the same amount. Thing is though, they often don't. You look in there and find the asshole deity called out 3 twenty times in a row just for shits and giggles. Another time he went over a hundred tosses without calling 6. Bottom line: randomness means there's no pattern and you cannot predict future outcomes of the dice. You are at the whim of an insane God on the worst power trip imaginable.
All you can do is play the odds and remember that each toss of the die is totally new to Kaos and you and all outcomes are equally likely. Unless the die lands balanced on an edge. In that case the asshole has noticed you and is totally fucking with you. Roll again and keep in mind he just forgot what he was doing.

Summing Up
You cannot defeat Kaos. You cannot outplay him. His power is narrow but unstoppable. To all those gamblers out there thinking their number is due, it isn't. Kaos doesn't care about your bullshit. To all those players who think their dice are hot, cold, or hating you. You're wrong. Kaos doesn't care about you either.

But I will leave you on a hopeful note. Despite all of Kaos' power and indifference, he has a glaring weakness that we can twist and exploit: he's an idiot. He can only call his numbers. He has to call his numbers. Knowing this, we can bend those numbers to our will. Next time, I will explain how.

Monday, 6 July 2015

These Hands Are Not Idle

No posts don’t necessarily mean no work. I have been doing stuff, and perhaps even things of late. Outrider Studios’ webpage, after languishing in update purgatory is looking clean and spiffy with a new sleek design that I had absolutely nothing to do with. I just saw the finished product, and said, “ Ooh, that looks good.” I might take a more active role in redesigning some of our sub-sections, but we will wait and see on that.

As for Me
I’ve been working on Warbirds… stuff. We are almost there on a few new bits and pieces for the game. As per usual, I can’t talk specifics or deadlines. Keep your eyes open, and we will announce something soon enough. My other Warbirds project is one I can talk about: I’ve been running it for my weekly D&D group. We took the summer off from the 5th Edition to do some other games and give the new kids some non D&D experience. Right now I am running a Warbirds mini-series, and will follow it up with some Wars of the Star kind.

So far Warbirds has been a big hit with the players, but they keep running into what I would call “conversion problems.” The players like the setting, and they like the fast, variable air combat, but they are having some trouble with converting from the D&D mindset. Most of them build characters with good air combat abilities (a Warbirds design feature) but without great personal combat skills, and thus they should be avoiding personal combat at all costs. Yet time and again they stand their ground when they should run for the copious amounts of cover that I am always sure to provide. In other words, they keep getting shot. Now I designed the rules with a lot of give in them to allow PCs to get in Pulp gun battles without them all ending up in the ER, but I have actually had to relax the rules even further just to keep players playing. Here’s the hack I made for my own game.

Warbirds Alternate Injury Rules “It Ain’t Nothin’”
If you want to have maximum heroic action with minimal injury interruptions you can employ the “It Ain’t Nothin’” rules. Under these rules, characters knocked out of the fight never stay out for long. A character with the Medicine skill can make a difficulty 6 roll to immediately give a character back one point of health. This will probably take the form of a quick bandage followed by an injection of painkillers and adrenaline. On a failed roll the character remains out of the fight until the end of the scene, at which point the character gains back one health as if they were down but not out. Success on the roll immediately makes the character up and fighting,  and they can act normally (with the listed penalty) on their next action. Remaining injuries heal at the standard rate. These rules no longer apply when a character’s life goes on the line.

Some Madness
One or two of my players fell in love with the Mad Science in Warbirds, and one made it his sole goal to become a mad scientist. Being a magnanimous being, I indulged him. He then discovered that Mad Science is expensive. Even buying a basic workbench requires Fame 3. The high barrier to entry keeps Mad Science rare, and makes the Mad Scientist PC really earn their cool toys. My player, however, wanted a shortcut. Being a malicious being, I indulged him. So I created a new Mad Science item:

Discount Workbench
Cost: Fame 2
Mad Scientists love shortcuts, and starting mad scientists need shortcuts just to get started. Those who cannot afford full price for proper tools can cheap out on the hardware, and get inventing right away. This discount workbench looks like a normal workbench, but is made with defective materials, sub-standard parts, and shoddy workmanship. Its storage containers leak, its tools rust, and the whole thing starts to stink something fierce a few weeks after it’s installed. The workbench functions exactly as it should until the Mad Scientist fails a creation or maintenance roll. After the failed roll the GM may force the scientist to take a critical failure (“It’s Perfect!”) regardless of the actual dice outcome. The GM has total control over which rolls are regular failures and which ones are critical, leaving the Mad Scientist character confused as to what is actually going on. Alternately, the GM can roll a d6 with a 50/50 outcome: 1-3 regular failure, 4-6 critical failure.

Other Work
A young gamer approached me about taking a look at his game. My first action was to try waiving him off the whole RPG creation gig. It’s not that I don’ want young people creating new RPGs, I do. It’s just that I want them to do it with their eyes open. I told him all the standard stuff about how there’s almost no money to be made, and making RPGs has more to do with seeing ideas through than having the next great idea (I think everyone has the next great idea at some point. I have at least 2). After my wave-off attempts I tentatively agreed to give his work the editorial once over. I don’t know where this will go, but... I'm an editor now, hooray?

(Cait, Patrick, I just want to be clear that I am in no way shape or form an editor and the work that you do is both brilliant and vital to the company's continued success. Love you guys!)

Next time I will get technical. I want to about to talk about the probability monster.