Sunday, April 24, 2016

Indiana Jones and the Attribute Checks of Peril

Modified Check Table

It's most important to me that a game be fun and simple to play.
– David “Zeb” Cook

Characters in The Adventures of Indiana Jones role-playing game (hereinafter Adventures) have six Attributes:
  • Strength – A measure of “muscle power.”
  • Movement –  A character's movement rate.  This Attribute is also used for determining initiative, whenever a “character tries for that extra boost of speed...tries to do something acrobatic, or when he drives a vehicle.”
  • Prowess – Represents a “character's coordination in a fight.”  Any attempt to hit an opponent uses Prowess.
  • Backbone – Represents a “character's determination and guts.”  This Attribute is used “whenever he encounters something that tests his willpower – torture, drugs, or some terrifying sight.”
  • Instinct – Perception, including “gut” feelings.  In certain sections of the rules, Instinct is used for intelligence and memory.
  • Appeal – This Attribute indicates a character's personality; specifically, “how non-player characters react to” the character.  This is specifically a human concept; animals do not have this Attribute.
Among the seven provided characters, Attribute Ratings range from 44 (the Instinct Rating for both Short Round and Wu Han, as well as the Strength Rating for Willie Scott) to 92 (the Appeal Rating for both Willie Scott and Marion).  (Digression:  Is there a tendency in role-playing games to assign higher 'charisma' values to women characters?)  All of the ratings are divisible by four (for reasons soon to be explained).

The basic mechanic of Adventures involves rolling percentile dice against some multiple of an Attribute Rating.  Rolling equal to or under the specified multiple indicates success.  Regardless, a roll of 96 - 100 represents failure and a Bad Break – some complication to the situation.  A roll of 01 - 05 is not only a success, but also a Lucky Break – “something good has unexpectedly happened.”

Aside from Lucky Breaks, there are degrees of success; the better the roll, the more successful the character is.  The Modified Check Table shown above demonstrates four 'colors' of success (including Lucky Breaks).  We see similar concepts implemented in contemporaneous TSR products such as the Marvel Super Heroes RPG and the Star Frontiers adjunct, Zebulon's Guide to Frontier Space.  Unlike these examples, the 'degrees of success' in Adventures are formulaic – they are based on multiples of the Attribute Rating being checked.

In other games, there can be a plethora of numeric modifiers to a roll (e.g., +x for aiming, -y for darkness, etc.).  The Modified Check Table for Adventures has only four columns because there are only four possible 'states' in which an Attribute can be checked:  the normal Rating of the Attribute, a less difficult circumstance (×2 Attribute Rating), a more difficult circumstance (×½ Attribute Rating), and a much more difficult circumstance (×¼ Attribute Rating).  “Using ropes or levers” would be a ×2 modifier for a Strength check and “Shooting at a moving target” would be a ×½ modifier for a Prowess check.  Modifiers are cumulative (two ×½ modifiers would result in a ×¼ modifier; a ×½ modifier would cancel out a ×2 modifier).  A check cannot be greater than ×2 nor can a check be less than ×¼ (and still be possible).

The Character Dossiers list the ×2, ×½, and ×¼ values for each of a character's Attribute Ratings.  As such, it is a relatively simple matter to determine success for any check as well as the degree of success.  Evidently, some concern was expressed that the system was not sufficiently efficient.  The Judge's Survival Pack includes a “combat computer you assemble, to speed your adventures along.”  This contraption is shown below.  A sleeve is positioned along a narrow sheet to a selected Rating; values exposed by the sleeve indicate the percentile ranges of various degrees of success.  The so-called computer is not limited to combat (i.e., Prowess checks), but is usable for any of the Attributes; results for Instinct and Appeal checks are clearly listed.  It “works,” but it's hardly an aid to simplicity.  If this is an improvement, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

The ×¼, ×½, ×1, ×2 progression is a workable system, but I would use the terminology of “levels” (Level 1 = ×¼, Level 2 = ×½, etc.).  Modifiers would then be -2, -1, and +1.  With “Level 3” being the default Rating, everything would work like it should, but we forgo fractions and the non-intuitive ×1, ×2, ×½, ×¼ Character Dossier display.

DVD shown for purposes of scale

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Playing the Heroes of Pulp Fiction

Art by Jeff Dee

Game design for The Adventures of Indiana Jones is credited to David “Zeb” Cook, who is perhaps best known as the lead designer for the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  Other RPGs for which Cook did design work include Bullwinkle and Rocky, Star Frontiers, Conan the Barbarian, and Amazing Engine.  According to the TSR Profiles of Dragon #104 (December, 1985)*, “Zeb is perhaps the most versatile game designer at TSR, having created role-playing games, modules, family board games, card games, rulebooks, and party mystery games.”  After more than fifteen years at TSR, he left for the more lucrative field of computer games.  However, according to RPGGeek, he seems to have kept a hand in writing for table-top RPGs.  When Cook applied for a game designer position at TSR, “He completed the designer test that the company then used.”  I would be interested in finding out what comprised that test.

Anyway, while still at TSR, Cook said, “Whenever there's a licensed game or project in trouble, they throw it on my desk.”  This would account for his association with The Adventures of Indiana Jones.  Regardless, Cook was an appropriate choice for Adventures because he had previously designed a pulp-era adventure RPG.  Crimefighters was included in Dragon #43 (March, 1981), published a few months prior to the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  In this post, we examine Crimefighters in anticipation of comparing it to The Adventures of Indiana Jones.

Excluding flavor text and the sample adventure, Crimefighters has sixteen pages of rules (including illustrations).  Much was excluded from the version provided in Dragon.  According to the Afterword, “Many sections were dropped from the original outline, including rules for airplanes, swimming, more weapons, security devices, special gadgets, exotic adventures, and more detailed contacts.”

Crimefighters characters have seven attributes:  Physical Power, Mental Aptitude, Willpower, Accuracy Left, Accuracy Right, Agility, and Presence.  Scores are determined by rolling percentile dice.  The die rolls for four of the attributes (Physical Power, Mental Aptitude, Accuracy Right, and Agility) are modified to prevent dismal results.

An attribute can be increased by one point for every five experience points spent.  Interestingly, “The use of Presence requires an exertion of the character's Willpower.”  Sleep allows recovery of Willpower expended in this way.

Crimefighters is a skill-based system.  Skills are 'purchased' via pools of points.  A character's Mental Aptitude score represents the number of points available for Mental Skills while Agility represents the number of points available for Agility Skills.  In increments of (at least) ten points, skills cost from ten to sixty points.  Examples of Mental Skills include:  Language (10 pts each), Lockpicking (20 pts), Stage Magic (30 pts), Engineer (40 pts), and Legal (60 pts).  Examples of Agility Skills include:  Juggling (10 pts), Stealth (20 pts), Tightrope (30 pts), and Judo (40 pts).

Starting Crimefighters characters have a 5% of having a randomly determined mysterious power.  With experience points, a character can 'study' to obtain a mysterious power (perhaps chosen by the player with the GM's approval).  For every ten experience points, a character has a 1% chance of acquiring a power.

A character with the mysterious power of 'foresight' gets a +1 modifier to initiative.  Additionally, the character may...
...ask 3 yes-or-no questions of the GM per adventure.  These questions must deal with some action that the character plans to take, or be based upon information that the character might realistically know or suspect...The questions have a 10% chance of being answered incorrectly; this is secretly determined by the GM.
For any given adventure, a character with the mysterious power of 'luck' has a 50% chance of having 'good' luck, a 40% of having 'normal' luck, and a 10% chance for having 'bad' luck.  (The GM rolls for this in secret.)  Good luck grants a +10 modifier in combat while bad luck causes a -10 modifier.  “Furthermore,” the rules state, “the character is allowed a die roll to see if he or she succeeds in doing anything that would be feasible or remotely possible, even in situations where such success would normally be considered nearly impossible.”

In combat, ranged attacks are resolved by a roll based on the appropriate Accuracy of the attacker; hand-to-hand attacks are resolved by a roll based on the average of the attacker's Physical Power and Agility.  The formula for determining Hit Points is:  1d8 + ( [Physical Power + Willpower] / 10).  There are two types of wounds in Crimefighters :  (1) missile/edged weapon and (2) hand-to-hand.  If a character suffers missile/edged weapon damage in excess of his or her Hit Points, death ensues.  Otherwise, “missile/edged weapon wounds in Crimefighters can become more serious if they are not tended to.”  Hit Points lost due to missile/edged weapons “are recovered at the rate of 1 hit point for every two days of rest.”  If a character suffers hand-to-hand damage in excess of his or her Hit Points, he or she falls unconscious. Hit Points lost because of hand-to-hand damage “may be recovered at the rate of 1 hit point per hour of rest.”

All Crimefighters characters have three contacts determined randomly.  For each contact, the GM secretly determines an Effectiveness Rating.  Crimefighters goes into detail about what sort of information each type of contact is able to provide.

Each Crimefighters character has an 'Experience Type'.  (In order to distinguish the concept from experience points, I would have called it 'Style' – or in a more pretentious mood – 'Paradigm'.)
  • The Defender “attempts to uphold and protect the society he or she belongs to.”  Defenders do not intentionally kill or torture.  They receive no experience points “for criminals he or she might kill, but is given double the amount of points for those whom he or she captures without assistance.”  Defenders have an extra police contact.
  • The Avenger “only believes in the system when it works to his or her best interests.”  They receive no experience if they have “notable assistance in bringing villains to justice” nor do they receive “experience for criminals captured unless that person confesses (to witnesses) his or her guilt of a serious crime.”  Avengers can have, at most, one police contact.
  • The Pragmatist “will normally attempt to abide by the laws of society and operate within this framework.”  They “receive normal experience for criminals captured and half normal experience for criminals who meet their demise.”  Pragmatists have an extra underworld contact.
There are also two optional Experience Type 'modifiers'.
  • Technological characters receive additional experience when they use “a device to create a significant result.”
  • Anti-technological characters “receive no experience for a result if [unusual technology] items are used to aid his or her efforts.”  However, if an anti-technological character “manages to destroy an opponent’s technological device, he or she will receive experience points as if a criminal of similar power had been overcome.”
A GM can assign 'negative' experience points when “the motives of the character...are generally evil or selfish.”  However, a player can have his or her character 'turn bad' permanently.  If so, negative experience is thereafter treated as positive and positive experience treated as negative.

* All quotes about Cook in this post come from this source.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

This Is Serious?

™ and © and $ Lucasfilm Ltd

I've said it before, and I'm saying it again.  (OK, I'm typing it but you get the point.)  A role-playing game can be judged on three aspects:  setting, rules system, and presentation.  The setting for The Adventures of Indiana Jones (hereinafter Adventures) is a “pulp” interpretation of world of the 1930s – it is what it is, there's nothing to add.  The rules...well, we'll address the rules eventually.  Thus, for this post, we have presentation to discuss.

Adventures was sold as a boxed set.  The back of the box listed the contents, as is usually the case for this kind of product.  However, the box copy did not use a term so prosaic as 'contents'.  Instead, the game came with “special features.”  Why the “features” were “special” was not explained.  I suppose they were special in the sense of “Designed or organized for a particular...purpose.”  Of course, in that sense, the “features” of just about every game are “special.”  Yes, this was merely marketing hyperbole, but such hyperbole raised expectations and failure to meet these expectations contributed to the unenviable legacy of the game.  Anyway, the listed “special features” were:
  • 3-D figures that you cut out and stand up to show walls, doors, traps, and characters
  • a 64-page rules booklet
  • an 8-page Evidence File, which features adventure clues
  • a World of INDIANA JONES Map
  • a Referee's Screen, which features tables and Adventure Backdrops
Surprisingly, the included percentile dice were not mentioned; perhaps they weren't “special” enough.

Let's start with the Referee's Screen and work backwards.  “Referee” is the Adventures equivalent of “game master.”  In 1985, the year after Adventures was released, TSR published an “official game accessory” which addressed some of the inadequacies of the base set.  This product was called Judge's Survival Pack – not Referee's Survival Pack...but Judge's.  Inconsistent use of basic game terminology in product titles signaled an utter lack of concern for quality.  I mention this as a glaring example of the insouciance to be found in the product line.  TSR might as well have broadcast the sentiment, “We know people are going to buy this because of the license, so let's just produce crap out product with minimum necessary effort.”  Anyway, the Referee's Screen had three panels.  On the player side, each panel was an 'Adventure Backdrop' – a jungle, an exotic marketplace, and the scene of the climax of the introductory adventure.  The Referee side displayed information that the Referee would likely consult during the course of an adventure (such as an equipment list, scatter diagram, turn sequence summary, et al.).  The screen also displayed information not present in the rules booklet (such as a list of attribute modifiers, the action results table, et al.).  I would have preferred a weapons chart and a summary of damage results instead of the equipment list and the vehicle movement table, but this is a minor complaint.

The World of INDIANA JONES Map shows the world with national boundaries circa the 1930s.  Also, “Dotted lines represent major commercial air routes.”  I have a fondness for maps.  The reader may have divined this given that “maps” is this blog's most commonly used tag.  As such, I may have a low tolerance for cartographic errors.  Among such errors, Ascension Island was spelled Anscension Island and Estonia somehow occupied Lake Ladoga.  The map had three scales:  one each for sea, air, and rail travel.  Specifically, the scales showed distance in terms of travel time and cost.  Although the accuracy with regard to cost is equivocal, I like the idea.  Printed on the reverse side of the map was a “Combat Grid.”

The Evidence File consisted of eight pages or – more accurately – sixteen half-pages.  The first half-page explained the contents of the Evidence File.  Otherwise, the Evidence File contained seven character dossiers, a blank character dossier with the name “NPC” (because original PCs weren't possible), blank stationery “From the Desk of MARCUS BRODY,” a blank telegram, a blank “treasure map” (see below), generic maps for a flophouse room and a sleazy dive, a map of a native village (for use with the introductory adventure), an aid for the introductory adventure (which is the only thing that could remotely be considered an “adventure clue”).

I have no idea why the term booklet was used for the rules book.  Other than the title, two statements were placed on the front cover:  (1) “Featuring an Introductory Adventure – The Ikons of Ikammanen,” and (2) “Also, How to Play the Game!”  Was the second statement really necessary?  It's position on the cover and the word “Also” suggest that the rules were ancillary to the adventure.  The ten episodes of the introductory adventure take up 14 of the book(let)'s 64 pages.  The first five episodes are interspersed among the rules, while the remaining five are grouped at the end.  Since Adventurers was a boxed set, the introductory adventure ought to have been a book(let) separate from the rules.  Perhaps it was thought that having the introductory adventure among the rules might make the adventure easier to run and/or help people learn the rules.  Even if it did either (or both) things, afterward those pages lose any utility and serve only to distract. There are also two pages of the rules book(let) that explain “How to Cut-Out and Assemble the 3-D Figures.”  Seriously, this information should have been on a loose sheet of paper.  By excluding the introductory adventure and the 'How To' pages, they could have reduced the page count to 48.  Alternately, they could have included sixteen pages of other material.  (The page count of the Judge's Survival Pack happens to be 16.)

The book(let) was illustrated with scenes from the first two Indiana Jones films.  This was to be expected; however, the photos were varying quality and were often displayed as though they had ripped edges.  If they were trying for an effect other than “crappy,” they failed.  Some instances – such as the image at the beginning of this post – have cartoon word balloons.  I have nothing against carton word balloons in the right context; the Adventures rule book(let) is not the right context.  This particular image has speed lines next to the page number at the bottom, as if it is trying to get out of the way.  All in all, the art did not possess a serious tone.

Finally, we come to the cardboard figures.  Some might find the notion of the 3-D figures to be childish.  Certainly, they are not necessary, but I believe they provide a visual and tactile component that can only enhance the gaming experience.  (TSR also produced metal Indiana Jones figures.)  I would be remiss if I did not mention the infamous, trademarked Nazi (shown below).  A copyright for the illustration of the Nazi is quite understandable; however, trying to trademark a character having “Nazi” as its sole descriptive attribute strains the notion of intellectual property beyond rationality.  Possibly, TSR was attempting to comply with Lucasfilm's licensing requirements and someone decided to be overly cautious.  However, since the other Nazi figure included with the boxed set did not have the trademark symbol, we might assume that this is another instance of carelessness.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

If Adventure Has A Game...

from Dragon #89 (September, 1984)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a wonderful film.  Part of that wonder – at least for me – stems from the genuine suspense an initial viewing conveys.  For instance, after all the excitement of the temple scene, a guy takes the idol from Indy – a French guy.  Sure, Indy gets away, but he loses the idol.  Here's a protagonist who doesn't always win...maybe he won't prevail.  Marion dies...or does she?  Indy finds Marion but leaves her tied up so as not to alert Belloq and the Nazis.  Indy threatens to blow-up the Ark.  Is this the end?  Does he destroy it to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis?  Spirits or angels or whatever come out of the Ark.  DON'T LOOK AT IT!  KEEP YOUR EYES SHUT!  Finally, hiding the Ark in a warehouse.  The melting Nazi is the cherry on a sundae of awesomeness.

This sounds like the basis of a terrific role-playing game.  Certainly, there were games that could tie into the élan of the movie, but an official, licensed game did not appear until 1984, the same year as the release of the second film.  As the advertisement above indicates, the game is from “the producers of the world-famous DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Fantasy Role Playing Game.”  (Not the creators of course, but the producers. Does “producers” sound better than “publishers”?) Wow, those guys must know what they're doing; surely, they're not going to drop the ball when dealing with a prominent franchise...Alas, the game was not received well.  This is an understatement; The Adventures of Indiana Jones is one of the “most unloved and least-mourned” role-playing games.  Ouch.  How could such a promising prospect be so disappointing?  Thoul's Paradise shall examine the reasons in this and subsequent posts.

One of the ways the game is disappointing is the lack of rules (in the base set) for generating original characters.  As shown on the box depicted above, the game is intended “for 2 or more.”  Usually, TSR promoted its role-playing games as “for 3 or more.”  For Indiana Jones, the “2” would be a referee and someone to play the character of Indiana Jones – it is assumed that Indiana Jones will be a player character.  For games based on intellectual properties such as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, it is possible to to play the lead characters but the setting is usually the feature of the game.  Players want to play original characters in a well known setting; they can't with Indiana Jones.  Not even George Lucas can trademark “the pulp era” or “the thirties,” so the setting of Indiana Jones cannot be licensed.  The game is called The Adventures of Indiana Jones (instead of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Artifacts & Archaeologists) because the character of Indiana Jones is the feature.  So, one person is the referee and another person plays Indiana Jones.  What about the “or more” part of “for 2 or more”?  The rule book pragmatically notes, “The world simply isn't big enough for two Indiana Joneses.”  This means that additional players are stuck with the six other characters that the game provides:
  • Marion Ravenwood, romantic interest from the first film; feisty, and she can out-drink an Australian climber.  (To the game's credit, it does include rules on losing consciousness due to imbibing alcohol.)
  • Willie Scott, romantic interest from the second installment; useless.
  • Sallah, the beloved character played by John Rhys-Davies.  I would have thought that his geographic range of activity would be limited, but whatever.
  • Jock Lindsey, a character who has a minute (or less) of screen time in the first film; at least he can fly a plane.
  • Wu Han (Yeah, I know...Who Han?).  This is another guy who spends – maybe – a minute on screen AND THEN HE PROMPTLY DIES.  Aside from his death scene, all he does is (ineffectively) cover Lao Che with a gun.  Who thought anyone would want to play this character?  Who thought anyone would remember this character?
  • Last and least, Short Round.  It's not that I hate Short Round, but he doesn't bring anything worthwhile to the table.  I'd rather play Katanga or Marcus Brody; you know, characters who are interesting.
Of course, Indiana Jones is the most capable character – the others are merely supporting entities.  Not only must other players be confined to supporting roles, “Each specific Indiana Jones adventure will outline which player characters will participate in that adventure.”  So, players may not even be allowed to choose which supporting character to play.