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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Covert Ops: Aiming for Realism

Last post, I discussed the physics behind bullet impact and deflated the myth of a firearm's 'stopping power,' and this time around I want to discuss the two most important factors in putting your target down: skill and luck.

In action movies, we routinely see the heroes performing amazing feats of marksmanship, such as hitting moving targets at long range, while being shot at, and putting them down with a single bullet.  And in the movie's early scenes, we see the evidence of their many hours of practice as they shoot smiley faces in targets at the range.

Of course, the bad guys are never able to hit much at all, so obviously they must not be putting in enough time at the range.

The fact is, though, that marksmanship in the calm, controlled environment of the shooting range does not necessarily transfer to a gun fight in the street when the target is shooting back at you.  Fear and adrenaline make poor marksmen of us all, no matter how many paper targets we've slain.

A great cinematic example of this is from the movie, Pulp Fiction, in the scene where the scared kid bursts out of the bathroom and empties his revolver at point blank range at Jules (Samuel Jackson) and Vince (John Travolta) without hitting either of them.  Jules is convinced that they were saved by divine intervention, while Vince shrugs it off as one of those things that sometimes happens.

It turns out that Vince was right.  There are plenty of accounts of bullets fired at very close range that do not hit their target, usually because the shooter is pulling the trigger rapidly without taking the time to aim.  This kind of 'spray and pray' shooting is not effective and hitting the target is both unlikely and accidental.

Unfamiliar settings and circumstances contribute to diminished performance, especially when you are under pressure, which is why sports teams always prefer to play at home and performers have full-dress rehearsals.  Likewise, lack of familiarity with your weapon will also detract from your performance.  Therefore, the 'best' weapon is the one that you feel most comfortable using and are intimately familiar with.

Consequently, selecting a weapon in Covert Ops will often be an aesthetic choice as much as a practical one.  The weapon that you choose will depend, largely, on the mission at hand, not on game mechanics that clearly favour one over another.  There are a number practical considerations as well, such as magazine capacity, size, weight, and profile.  One the one hand you want a large-capacity magazine to give you as many shots as possible during a fire-fight.  On the other hand, a large and heavy pistol is going to make quite an obvious bulge in your tuxedo, and a weapon with a lot of sharp angles can snag easily on your clothing when you try to draw it.  There is, after all, a very good reason why James Bond favours the small calibre, seven-round Walther PPK over more powerful hand guns.  It is small and thin with a rounded profile that makes it easy to conceal and quick to draw.

Now, finally, I get to the part where this all combines into a unified and hopefully elegant game mechanic.

A character's Shooting skill is derived from two of his primary attributes (Reflexes + IQ).  When making a shot, you must add a number of modifiers (positive and negative) to the Shooting skill to determine the chance to hit.  These include the weapon's range modifier, penalties for both the target's and the shooter's movement, if any, and a few other miscellaneous modifiers.  The character must roll under his adjusted Shooting score on 1d100 to hit, and the damage value for the shot is determined by dividing the chance to hit by 10 and rounding to the nearest whole number.

So, for example, a character with a Shooting score of 52 is shooting at a target at medium range (-10) with an HK USP 9mm pistol.  Neither the target nor the character have moved this round, so the character's chance to hit is 42% and his damage rating for this shot is 4.2 (rounded to 4) so he rolls 1d4 for damage if he hits.

As another example, say that the same character is shooting someone at point blank range (+15) with the same pistol.  This time he has a 67% chance to hit with a damage rating of 6.7 (rounded to 7) and so rolls 1d6+1 points of damage if he hits.

So in Covert Ops, just like in real life, the skill of the shooter and random chance determine not only the likelihood of hitting the target, but also the damage done to the target.

Admittedly, this system is not completely accurate.  For example, in most combat situations in the game you will not be able to kill an enemy with a single shot from a pistol although in actual fact it is, of course, possible to kill someone with a lucky shot even if your chance of hitting is low.  However this is a game and certain compromises to realism must be made for the sake of simplicity and playability.

Also, this is just an early draft of the combat system that has not yet been play tested, so I can't promise that it won't get emended before the game is finished, so take this all with a grain of salt.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Firearm Stopping Power: Exploring the Myth

"Guns! When do we get guns?" 
- Eugene Tackleberry, Police Academy

Almost every modern-setting role playing game I've ever played has dealt with firearms pretty much the same way: each weapon has its own individual damage rating.  This is understandable since all role playing games ultimately derive from D&D, and it stands to reason that weapon damage follows suit.  Ironically, the original Top Secret game handled weapons very differently: every firearm did the same damage, regardless of type, and you rolled on a table to determine the severity of the hit.  That is, until you got to the optional rules and discovered the tables of damage modifiers based on bullet calibre.  

As I've been working on compiling the firearms tables and working out the combat system for Covert Ops, I've been thinking a lot about the mythology of firearms in contemporary western culture.  We seem to have fetishistic fascination with firearms that elevates their status above that of the shooter.  If you should ever visit online forums for firearm enthusiasts you will see heated debates about which weapon is the most accurate, the most reliable, has the greatest stopping power, etc., and people tend to be very partisan in their preference of one gun over another.  There are a great many misconceptions about the effect of a bullet's impact on the human body, arising from the fact that most commentators, despite having shot a lot of guns on a range, have never been in a gun fight and have never shot a person.  These misconceptions are further fueled by the endless stream of Hollywood action movies that grossly misrepresent both the accuracy and lethality of handguns.  How often have we seen bad-guys in movies shot by a large calibre handgun or shotgun and get knocked backwards through a plate-glass window?  Likewise, action heroes in movies routinely pull of feats of marksmanship with their Beretta M92 that would really be a Hail Mary shot for a sharpshooter with a precision sniper rifle (e.g. Lethal Weapon).

Although during my prior military service I've had the opportunity to fire a fair number of pistols, assault rifles, and submachine guns, and growing up in western Canada, shot a fair few number of deer, I am far from being a firearms expert.  Consequently, I've been doing a lot research the past few weeks, not only to familiarize myself with recent developments in military small arms, but also with the actual effectiveness of small arms in real situations, and I thought it would be fun to share some of what I've learned to give some background to the rationale behind the combat mechanics in Covert Ops.

The first thing I want to discuss is the concept of a weapon's 'stopping power.'  Stopping power is a bullet's ability to incapacitate a target.  It doesn't necessarily correspond to lethality, but rather its ability to put a man down and quickly remove him as a threat.  There is a lot of debate about the stopping power of various calibres, and many enthusiasts insist upon the supremacy of the .45 acp round as the best 'man stopper.'  To settle the question of how hard various bullets hit, I've consulted with the world's foremost authority on ballistics, Sir Isaac Newton.

As I've mentioned, we routinely see movie bad-guys knocked back by the impact of a bullet or shot gun blast (except for heroes who always get shot in the shoulder with no effect).  Even if you've never taken a physics class, I'm sure that everyone is at least familiar with Newton's Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  This means that the force of a bullet leaving the gun is equal to the force of the weapon's recoil.  It's odd that we see bad-guys getting knocked off their feet by a bullet, but we never see Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson get knocked through a window after pulling the trigger.  Although much of a semi-automatic weapon's recoil is absorbed by the operation of the action, if you've ever fired a manual action rifle or shotgun, or fired a revolver, you've felt the full impact of recoil, which is exactly the same impact that the bullet delivers to the target.  What makes the bullet lethal is not the force of its impact, but the penetration.

Now lets take a look at the energy and momentum of various small arms calibres and see what the difference between them is.  9 mm and .38 calibre ammunition get a pretty bad rap for lack of 'stopping power,' so let's see how they compare to a .45 calibre round.

If you recall from high school physics, Energy = 1/2 Mass times the square of Velocity, and Momentum = Mass times Velocity.

Once the trigger is pulled, the bullet is subjected to acceleration along the length of the barrel (less the force of friction applied by the barrel).  Once the bullet leaves the barrel acceleration ceases and the bullet is then subject to negative acceleration due to gravity and air friction.  I'm going to limit the analysis to energy and momentum since data on muzzle velocity (the speed of the bullet as it leaves the barrel) is easily obtainable, and ignore the force of impact because this would involve some seriously pain-in-the-ass calculations due to the many variables affecting acceleration.  Also, I'm going to assume the target is shot at point blank range so I can ignore the diminished velocity of the bullet at various ranges.

9 mm
9 mm bullets range from 7.5 to 9.5 grams of mass, so let's say we have a 7.5 gram bullet with a muzzle velocity of 377 m/s.  This means the bullet delivers 533 Joules of energy with a momentum of 2.83 kg m/s

.45 bullets tend to vary from 12 to 15 grams of mass, so lets say we have a 15 gram bullet with a muzzle velocity of 260 m/s.  This means the bullet delivers 500 Joules of energy with a momentum of 3.9 kg m/s

We see that because the .45 bullet is both heavier and slower than the 9 mm, the energy of the two rounds is nearly identical, and the momentum of the .45 is only slightly higher.

For fun, let's compare this to a 5.56 mm round (equivalent to .223 calibre) which is used in most modern assault rifles, including the M16A2.

5.56 mm
5.56 mm bullets are tiny and have a mass of only 4 grams, with a muzzle velocity of 940 m/s (the muzzle velocity is much higher than that of pistols, because rifle bullets have larger powder loads and are accelerated over a much greater distance, due to the longer barrel of a rifle).  This gives us a whopping 1,767 Joules of energy and a momentum of of 3.76 kg m/s

So now we've seen the energy and momentum of three types of ammunition.  Compare this to the impact of me running into you while I'm out jogging.

Let's say my mass is about 90 kg and I'm running at an average sustained jogging speed of 12 km/hr (3.3 m/s).  When I run into you I'll hit with 490 Joules of energy and a momentum of 297 kg m/s.  So I'm delivering almost exactly the same amount of kinetic energy as a .45 calibre bullet and seventy-six times the momentum!

So, I think we've pretty much deflated the myth of 'stopping power.'  A larger calibre bullet doesn't hit any harder than a small calibre one, and the impact certainly isn't going to knock you down, let alone knock you through any doors or windows.

So, really, it is penetration that makes a bullet dangerous, but only if it hits the target in the right spots.  In order to really do significant damage, a bullet needs to strike an organ, and even then there's no guarantee that you'll kill, let alone stop, your target.  If you do score a lethal wound, it may take some time for the target to drop: from several seconds to several hours, depending on the injury.  Plenty of time for him to empty a clip of ammunition into you.

Calibre does play some role in improving the odds of a lethal injury.  The bigger the hole the better, but even then it is pretty a much a crap shoot and the damage dealt still depends on where the bullet hits.

I've been reading a number of after-action reports of police gun fights.  In one report, an officer shot a suspect five times in the centre of mass with .357 magnum hollow-point rounds.  The suspect fired back with a small calibre weapon, striking the officer under the armpit.  The bullet penetrated the heart, killing the officer.  The suspect lived.

In another report, a suspect was shot fifty-five times by police before going down.  These examples are by no means unusual aberrations or freak occurrences; they are actually the norm.  Putting someone down with a single shot is what is uncommon.

Here is an interesting account of a gunfight between eight FBI agents and two armed robbers.

So when we see James Bond consistently killing moving targets at long range with a single shot from his tiny little Walther PPK we need to suspend a whole lot of disbelief.

Ultimately, in a gun fight, it is not the weapon or calibre used, but the skill and experience of the shooter and a large degree of random chance that determines the outcome.

So,  based on this, firearm damage in Covert Ops will depend largely on the skill of the shooter, not on the calibre used, although accuracy ratings of individual weapons will figure into both the chance to hit and the amount of damage done.  Next post I'll discuss weapon accuracy and burst a few more Hollywood bubbles, and finally explain the mechanics of ranged combat in Covert Ops.

Spence: "What do you use, weapons-wise?"
Sam: "Well, you know.  It's a tool-box.  You put the tools in for the job."
- Ronin

Monday, May 14, 2012

Covert Ops Weapons and Equipment: Buy or Borrow?

It has been well over a year since I first announced Project: Covert Ops, and since then I've made very little progress.  My excuse is that I got distracted by Megadungeon!, which ended up taking a lot more time to complete than I had expected.  I took a little break after Megadungeon! was released, but now I'm back at work and Covert Ops is my top priority.  I've got enough done now that I think it is time to start sharing this work in progress.  These development posts are my way of 'thinking out loud' to help me resolve issues of design philosophy or problems with game mechanics, so whatever I write here is definitely subject to change particularly after play-testing begins.

What I wanted to discuss this time around is the various philosophies of equipment acquisition in espionage roleplaying games.  In the original Top Secret game, which is the primary inspiration for Covert Ops, characters started the game with $400 with which to equip themselves.  They were paid by the mission and all weapons and equipment had to be purchased.  While Top Secret was a very sand-boxy type of game, with no default campaign style, the mechanic of payment and purchase seems to indicate that designer Merle Rasmussen assumed that characters would be free-lance agents working for hire.

This ran counter to my assumptions, as a kid, when I was playing Top Secret.  At that time my grounding in the spy genre came from James Bond movies, so I naturally assumed that characters would be government agents and it struck me as odd that MI-6 or the CIA would send agents out to assassinate the president of Uruguay with nothing more than a billy club and switchblade (because, if you started the game with even a pistol, you wouldn't be able to afford anything else).

Other games assumed that characters would be issued the weapons and equipment they needed for each mission, on a case by case basis.  This is far more realistic for an agency-based campaign - intelligence agencies are likely to issue their agents with the equipment they need and, furthermore, salaried agents make only a living wage and wouldn't be able to afford to fund their own equipment anyway.  So for this type of game you don't need to worry about mission payment nor equipment costs.  But this leaves free-lancers out in the cold.

I want Covert Ops to be able to support both styles of play, but I must confess that I am strongly drawn to the freelance style of play.  One of my favourite genre novels is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth, which focuses in on the meticulous details that a hired assassin, known as the Jackal, makes to undertake the assassination of French president, Charles DeGaul.  We get to see every step the Jackal makes in planning the job, from constructing a new identity with phony papers, to the commissioning of a custom-built rifle.  Another important influence in my development of Covert Ops is the movie, Ronin, starring Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, and Sean Bean.  The movie, set in the '90's after the end of the cold war features a group of expatriate agents cut loose by their former agencies, who are hired to steal a briefcase from a heavily guarded courier.  In both of these stories, payment for services rendered is the primary motivation for most of the protagonists.

Consequently there needs to be job payment guidelines in Covert Ops so that freelance characters know what they can expect for the execution of certain mission types.  There also needs to be a table of equipment costs.  Even though agents, whether agency employees or freelancers, can usually expect their employer to issue necessary equipment for the mission at hand, there will often be times when you want, or need, to be able to buy your own gear.  A hit in Morocco goes bad, exit routes are compromised, and characters are now without any operational support until they get out of country.  Agents are mistakenly believed to have gone rogue and are now being hunted by their own agency; they can now only equip themselves with what they can buy or steal.

I had originally intended that all equipment, like in Top Secret, would have an associated dollar cost.  However, while doing the equipment research, I discovered that it is damned hard to find out how much certain things cost - particularly weapons and equipment that is restricted to government purchase.  I suppose I could make an Access to Information request to find out how much the government paid for its submachine guns, but that's way more work than I want to go to.  Besides if you can't easily find an MSRP for something, then  it can't be purchased through civilian channels anyway.  If your character really wants his own assault rifle he'll either have to steal one or buy it through the black market; and since there are no standardized prices on black market items I don't need to worry about fixing a price - the GM will have just have to exercise personal judgement in these cases.

So, Covert Ops will include a mission payment table, which you can use or ignore as you see fit, and there will be a price list for all equipment that can legally be purchased on the civilian market.  Otherwise you'll have to beg, borrow, or steal it.  It's a conveniently realistic system that saves me the grief of figuring out how much governments are paying for military and intelligence hardware and, as a tax payer, I probably don't want to know anyway.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Megadungeon! Now on Sale

I am happy to announce that the fantasy adventure boardgame, Megadungeon! is now available for download at RPGNow!

This product has been a long time in coming, with nearly ten months of playtesting and revision, so it is with great satisfaction, and no small amount of relief that it is done and out the door.

I've had a great time working on this game and an even better time playing it.  It has become a favourite on family game night.  My daughter, especially, loves it and says that it is her favourite game, which is gratifying since it is for her that I designed it in the first place.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit this, but after the many, many Megadungeon! sessions I've played, I have yet to win a single game.  My wife and daughter have each won many times, and I've lost to all of my friends that I've played with.  Needless to say, this gives me great incentive to continue playing in the hopes that I might someday win my own game!

Nonetheless, I am very proud of this game; it fulfills my design criterion of being fun for both adults and children, which makes it an ideal family game.

Click on the link above or on the Megadungeon! icon in 'Latest Releases' on the sidebar at the fight and head on over to RPGNow to get your copy for just $2.00.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More Megadungeon! Art

You want to know something funny?  When I started working on the art for Megadungeon! I lamented not being able to afford to hire an artist so that the game would have a polished and professional look.  But now that I'm well into the art project I'm kind of glad that I didn't.

Besides enjoying doing the illustrations, I've come to appreciate how much the artwork influences the feel of the game and, because I didn't have an aesthetic for the game firmly in mind when I wrote the rules, hiring an artist to illustrate a list of things would have put a lot of creative control in someone else's hands.  There is nothing wrong with that, but I really like that Megadungeon! is entirely mine; no one else has had a hand in it, which will make it special to me regardless of whether the game is a success or a flop.  While the drawings are not up to the standard of a skilled artist, they don't look like they were done by an six-year-old, either, and I'm pretty happy with the DIY feel of the game.

Doing the work myself has also resulted in a gradual evolution of the game's imagery.  As I mentioned, I didn't have any fixed ideas for the game's aesthetic, but if you look at the art for the treasure cards in this and the last post, you'll notice some recurring imagery, which creates some degree of internal consistency in the treasure and artifacts.  Consequently, the treasures convey some of the background of the world that the game is set in, and it all evolved organically as I drew what felt 'right.'  My current sword & sorcery roleplaying campaign, The City States of Lemuria, certainly had an influence on how I wanted the game to feel.  Also, I was listening to a lot of Dead Can Dance while I was drawing, which must certainly have affected my mood and subconsciously influenced what I drew.

So, here are few more inked illustrations of some of the treasures that can be found in the game:

Chest of Gold


Book of Forbidden Lore

Cloak of Shadows

Magic Sword

Crystal Ball

Sapphire Necklace

Staff of Power

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Megadungeon! Treasure Art

In the comic book industry the art team usually consists of pencillers and inkers; the guys who do the pencil layouts are the rock-stars, while inkers are often unappreciated and mistakenly believed to be merely tracing the original drawing in ink.  This, of course, is not so, and in a lot of cases they get only very rough sketches to work from and 80% of the finished product is the inker's work.

I've always appreciated the inkers for the artists that they are, and Ernie Chan and Klaus Janson are two of my favourites.  But, over the last week or so, as I've been working on inking my Megadungeon! pencil sketches, I've gained a whole new level of appreciation for the art.

I've always been mildly phobic about inking my sketches.  I'm always terrified by the permanence of ink - unlike pencils, you can't just erase a mistake; I live in perpetual fear of ruining my work.  On the other hand, skillful inking can embellish a sketch and elevate it to new heights.

Anyhow, for better or worse, here is a sampling of some of the drawings for the Megadungeon! treasure cards that I've inked so far.  I've been putting off my 'precious' drawings and been practicing on the sketches that were not so complex or that weren't my favourites.`

Gold Bracelet

Signet Ring

Thief's Tools


Coffer of Gold


More to follow...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Megadungeon! Early Pics

On the heels of Sean's update on Megadungeon!, I wanted to share a few early pics of the playtest copy I have of the game. The first is the game all printed, and ready to play. I found that the game fits nicely into a Crystal Light lemonade container, which makes it easy to store. Sorry, this container will not be included with the final release of the game.  :-)

Next, here is a pic of all the game components laid out. The left stack is the hallway tiles, the center is the dungeon entrance tile, and the right is a stack of room tiles. The character sheets for the game are pictured in the lower right. You will notice the simple design, which makes this game great for introducing the youngsters to the concept of dungeon crawling. The dice shown are mine, and will not be included (as far as I know) with the final release of the game.

Here is a closer look at the character sheets for the sorcerer, warrior, and thief classes. Again, I have added the miniatures for a bit of flair, and they will not be included with the final game. Maybe I can get Sean to start painting a few of these unpainted minis for me! :-)

Finally, here is a pic of some of the tiles laid out, and what the game might look like in play. Notice the round room in the center, which is the dungeon entrance. This is where the game begins, and then works its way out as players take their moves. The game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic, and the tiles are drawn randomly as the characters move through the dungeon. The gameplay is competitive, with the acquisition of gold being the goal of the game.

Like I said before, these are very early pictures of Megadungeon!, and I just wanted to throw these out mainly as a teaser. Once I have had a chance to play the game with other participants, I will post additional pics, as well as a playtest report. Please ignore the terrible printouts of the dungeon tiles. My printer is not a high quality one, but I feel the game still looks great despite this.