Saturday, March 23, 2019

Rolling 2d6 in PDQ and Apocalypse World: Learning the Numbers

I am supervising two students in independent study projects this semester. One of them is working on a tabletop RPG, and I want to share here a topic that came up on our group's online chat.

I have fiddled with Chad Underkoffler's PDQ a few times over the years, running some short-lived campaigns with my boys. I wrote about one of my favorite aspects of PDQ several years ago, how it models the psychology of learning in a more realistic way than many mass-market games. You can find the PDQ Master Chart in this free PDF, and I'm reproducing it here for convenience:
I remember that every time I played a PDQ session, I would have this simple chart in front of me. I never got to the point where I internalized it, although I'm sure I would have with time. Let's look at some of the structural properties that make it learnable. First, "average" quality is 0, which is simple: a regular person has no bonuses or penalities. Going up or down in quality is in steps of two, which I like from a mathematics point-of-view because it's statistically meaningful in a way that, say, a +1 on a d20 is almost insignificant. For the Difficulty Ranks, there is a sensible centering on 7 as "a straightforward task." Anyone who picks up the rulebook is going to know that 7 is the most likely result on 2d6, so this gives a memorable default. Difficulty Ranks also move up and down in steps of two, which again I think is a much better choice than fine-grained quanta, especially since this is supposed to be a narrative-heavy game rather than a simulationist one. (PDQ stands for "Prose Descriptive Qualities" after all.) I never had problems with the centers of these scales, but I did find it hard to remember, say, the difference between a Difficulty Rank of 11 and an 13. Also, for reasons I cannot quite explain, I find -2, 0, +2, +4, +6 to be much easier to remember than 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, even though they are the result of the same function, just applied to different inputs.

My student who is exploring tabletop roleplaying game design has been inspired by the Powered by the Apocalypse movement, which, briefly, describes a family of designs that are inspired by Vincent and Meguey Baker's Apocalypse World system. I backed the Kickstarter for the second edition of Apocalypse World a few years ago on a forgotten recommendation from a respected designer: I think it was someone like Robin Laws or Richard Bartle who posted about the campaign, saying that anyone serious about game design should support it. It's a riot to read, but it's certainly not the kind of thing my kids are quite ready for yet!

The mechanisms of Apocalypse World that I want to focus on here, though, is resolution of moves through rolling 2d6. These are the only dice used in the system, and it works like this: with less than a 7, it's a failure; between 7 and 9, it's a partial success, and 10 or higher is a complete success. That's it. This is truly elegant for a system that is designed for narrativist gameplay.

A funny thing happened when my student was testing his RPG with the research group. In order to make the game learnable to new players, he put this dice resolution system into a chart and set it in the middle of the table. He himself referenced the chart a few times while we played the game, despite his being the designer and a regular player of Blades in the Dark, another PbtA game. Curiously, the Bakers don't actually have a chart in Apocalypse World second edition at all; they just describe it in prose.

This got me thinking about the specific values used by Apocalypse World, similar to how I analyzed the PDQ Master Chart. Once again, we have 7 as a prominent number: it's the most likely value on 2d6, and it sits at the threshold between failure and partial success. It is, in a way, the easiest number to remember as being significant on 2d6. The next threshold value is 10, which marks the lowest value that represents a full success. Ten is the first double-digit number possible on two dice. It's also, for most people, the number of fingers you have. It's the base of our counting system. A "perfect 10" cannot be beat. 7. 10. Got it. Two numbers, that's the whole system in a very small amount of memory.

Just to be clear, I think this is brilliant. I don't think you could pick two different numbers that would be better for breaking down 2-6 in a more memorable way. I wonder if the Bakers chose these numbers because of their interesting properties or if it was done with intuition and luck.

We had a brief discussion in my research group meeting last week about adding 2d6 vs. counting success on variable numbers of d6. For example, the question was raised, can most players more quickly add 2d6 or count how many of an arbitrary number of dice have rolled above 4? I argued that for anyone who had spent any appreciable time playing tabletop games, rolling 2d6 can be done purely with pattern matching: I don't add five pips and the three pips, I just see a representation of the quantity "8". I mention this here because I think it's a good games research (or perceptual learning) question, but I haven't checked to see if anyone's explored this yet.

Finally, I'll mention that, with the little bit of testing we've done on my student's game, I've grown quite fond of the "partial success" idea. My favorite expression of this as a story device is that you succeed, but at a cost.

In case you were wondering about the dearth of posts here: I've been meaning to write more about my research group activities this semester, since it's been very rewarding. I hope to write up some kind of summary at the end of the semester at least. However, the past few weeks, my attention has been pulled away into a departmental self-study report. I think the sections I have been spearheading are strong, but it's had a significant impact on my research time as well as my reflective writing time.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Painting Middle Earth Quest

Here's a project that was years in the making: painting the miniatures from Middle Earth Quest.
Middle Earth Quest is an asymmetric one-vs-all game, one player as Sauron and the rest as heroes of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. The setting is between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as Sauron is establishing his foothold while the Free Peoples are trying to rally to face him. This is a game that I remember being fun, although I haven't played in years. How do I know that? Well, if you go way back to a post from December 2014, I mentioned that I had painted Argalad, one of the heroes, and I know I primed and based them all in one go. I have another post from July 2015 in which I described how I painted the Witch King. Some time after that, I painted Gothmog, and I started the Ringwraiths, and then the figures sat around for years, first on my painting table, and then in a box. Some time in between, Fantasy Flight Games removed all reference to the game from their site, so it looks like there won't be any more printings or expansions; it must not have sold well.

I actually had Argalad, the Witch King, and Gothmog sitting on my desk the whole time, at first because I liked how they looked and wanted to inspire myself to continue the set, and then because of inertia. A few months ago, #2 Son finished reading The Hobbit, which got me thinking about this game again. Would he enjoy playing this game, now that he's older and knows a little bit of the LotR lore? Maybe it was time to finally get back to the Ringwraiths and finish this set.

Without further ado, here's a quick summary of each of the figures from this game. I'll start with the ones I painted some years ago and then move through them in the order I addressed them.

Argalad is the token elf. Or is that Tolkien elf? I remember being quite pleased with him at the time, and I spent quite a while on him. It's worth noting that all these figures were primed in black, because that's how I was working at the time, when I was less than a year back into the hobby. I'm sure it was all done with layering and some washes, but the only part that really sticks in my memory was the silver embroidery on the cape. That was done by mixing silver paint with Future Floor Polish, which flowed really well into the engraved pattern on the cloak.

There's a whole post about the Witch King of Angmar, so I'll just leave you to check the link if you want to read about that.

Here is Gothmog, who I painted some time between winter 2015 and now, but certainly nearer then than now. I know I gave him quite a bit of time, but I don't remember much else about the process. He's pretty dark, but I did want all the villains to have clearly dark color schemes. I remember that, playing the game, it was sometimes hard to tell at a glance who was heroes and who was villains. This is particularly difficult for the two upcoming horse-riding figures. As you'll see later, I think I did meet the goal of having the "sides" of the game clearly contrast.

Now we move into the figures that I have painted in the last few weeks. It was interesting, but also frustrating, to come back to these figures—especially the Ringwraiths. At the time I started this project, I thought it was a good idea to prime in black (as Dr. Faust does) and also to work on the bases first. All of these figures were in jet black primer but with painted bases. If I were to start the project today, I would build the bases, use zenithal priming over the whole figure (as I started with Massive Darkness), paint the bases, and then paint the figures. I thought about re-priming the figures, but I decided it would be a fun to try to keep them as I started them, as a sort of artistic archaeology project.

Getting into the Ringwraiths reminded me why I stopped this project. Horses are the worst. These figures are pre-assembled, so there are lots of hard-to-reach areas on the miniature. The sculpts are not very good, with flat-faced hooded men. It's also black-robed guys on black horses. It's hard to think of anything that could make this a worse project! I had indeed started painting the horses some four years ago, but it was hardly noticeable: I had done very faint layered grey highlights and then given up.

I recently watched Dr. Faust's episode on highlighting black in which he mixed a few different tones of black onto one figure. (Ironically, that figure is not primed in black!) He suggests that in most cases you wouldn't mix blacks on one figure, but looking at the Ringwraiths, I thought this would be good exercise if nothing else. I mixed a warm black by adding some VMC Flat Brown, which I used for the horses, and then a cool black by adding VMC Deep Sky Blue, which I used for the robes. I overhighlighted the robes in the first pass and then used a black ink glaze over the whole thing to bring it down. Unfortunately, I used my Liquitex Glaze Medium for this, which left the robes super glossy. I knew my matte varnish would take that away, but it made it really hard to compare the blacks of the robes with the blacks of the horses because the glossiness contrast dominated the viewing.

These guys sat on my desk while I painted the rest of the series too, but in anything but the best light, they really just looked like a black blob. I did go in and touch up the highlights on the robes, even before varnishing, and I also punched the leather parts way up. I had been going with a dark leather look, because wouldn't you put dark leather on your black horse if you were a black rider? Yes, you would, but it wouldn't help your miniature any.

In the end, they still look like a bit of a black lump, but at least they're done, which is better than they have been in years.

Here's the Black Serpent. The last thing I wanted to paint after the Ringwraiths was more horses, but decided that getting the horses done was actually the best thing for me to do. I think it turned out fairly well, although it was working on this one where I made a conscious decision that the rest of them would only be "good enough." I was much more interested in getting this set done than in making any showpieces. Also, these sculpts are not very good. The game is from 2009, which is before these sorts of miniatures became centerpieces of marketing strategies a la Kickstarter. The frustrating was exacerbated by the fact that I didn't used to spend as much time cleaning mold lines and flash off of the minis, so some have some awkward tags and creases.

Let me mention a funny thing about the capes. All the caped figures have designs on the capes, but these designs are actually etched into the cape. This makes them look decent unpainted, but it's not actually how a design on cloth "works." Also, this is a place where the detail is not very clear, so it's hard to see the real edges. Argalad's cape turned out pretty good, and I thought about doing something similar with the Black Serpent. However, as I worked on the cape, I realized that if he's truly "The Black Serpent," then he really should have a black serpent on him, shouldn't he? I'm glad I used the etched design as a border here rather than anything else, since it provided convenient lines to paint in, and the paint job makes the actual etching invisible.

The last of the villains is the Mouth of Sauron, who I remember being one of my favorite cards in Middle Earth: The Wizards, which of course remains the grandest Middle Earth game adaptation ever created. In any case, in keeping with the "make the villains wear black" theme, I decided to go with a cool black and warm, maroon trim. This provides a nice contrast both in temperature and in hue but keeping relatively similar saturation. I think the metallic and bone provide more visual interest to the figure as well, so although he's only a few colors and relatively simple, the result is nice.

Which hero to start with? The one one the horse, of course. This is Eomer, clearly from Rohan. He took the most time out of any of them, in part for his size and in part because of his detail. There are lot of greens, browns, greys, yellows, and golds on the card art that don't exactly match those of the sculpt, but it comes close. I also think I did a decent job of the horse, which was done almost entirely with layering.

The cape is the weakest link. I tried to reproduce my approach from Argalad and make it look like there is gold embroidery on his cape. The details on this cape were too ambitious for the casting, however, and it's kind of hard to tell what's going on there, unlike the simple border of Argalad's. I decided to keep it rather than repaint it. Good enough, I say, and most importantly, no more horses.

Next up is the figure that I have long considered the worst of the bunch: Thálin. He's basically a lump of plastic. All right, maybe he's not all bad, but if he stood up and let his arms rest, they would reach past his knees. Also, his back is clearly sculpted to be a natural material of some kind, but who would want to leave their back so unprotected? It's an odd piece.

Whereas the cloaked heroes have etched designs on their cloaks, Thálin's are in his ... is it a tabard? A loincloth? I'm not sure. Anyway, on the card art there's a clear yellow-on-red pattern here, and I copied that idea onto my painting. This part is actually really strong, adding visual interest to an otherwise leather-and-metal warrior.

Berevor is a ranger who provided a chance to play with shades of green. I think the different greens look good together, with enough difference to be visually interesting, and the brown leather bits give her a good earthy tone. The slightly bluish color also adds a bit of cool contrast to the more dominant warm greens.

Last up is Eleanor from the White City. She has really sharp contrasts between her dominant colors, which I think came out strongly in the painting. I originally had the tree on her chest painted in white also, but looking again at the card art, it was clearly silver. I painted that over in silver, while the rear is simply white. I think hers is another case where a fairly limited palette makes her visually distinct and interesting, without needing lots of bells and whistles.

I'm glad to have this set complete, and I look forward to getting these to the table some time soon. Re-reading the rulebook, I was reminded about how it is a bit fiddly, which makes me question whether #2 son would find it interesting or frustrating. We'll see. A nice thing about games is that they don't go bad, so I can always put these guys back in the box they were in for so long, and revisit them when the kids are at the age and interest to want to try it.

As seems to be customary for many of my painting posts, I want to close with a comment about the photography. My first two rounds of photos did not turn out well for the usual reasons: using the default camera app, I was getting light and dark lines from my lamp's frequency, and using Open Camera to adjust the shutter speed, I was getting poor color temperatures and washed out images. I ended up doing a different physical layout, as shown in the photo below:
I tried to make sure the lamp was pointing at the figure, which leaves the background slightly in shadow. If you look again at the photos, you see a slight gradient, which I think is fine though not artistically intended. Using Android's default camera app, I was able to eliminate the lamp-lines by raising the exposure to 0.7. Doing so manually meant that I could not refocus without it dropping back to 0.0, so I tried shooting all the figures without refocusing. This worked on some but not others, the latter of which I had to shoot again. If I were to do it again this way, I would have just focused each time and then adjusted the exposure, so as not to waste time taking out-of-focus shots.

Thanks for reading this tale of my multi-year project to paint Middle Earth Quest! As always, feel free to leave a comment.