Thursday, May 21, 2015

Generic Mutants & Masterminds Conversion Table

Because, geek... 

One of the most interesting role playing game systems I've come across lately is Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition. This system is d20 based, but only loosely. They've done a great deal of creative thinking around how damage and powers work within the system, as well as how it scales. The scaling is truly the most interesting part to me. I've seen a lot of systems over the years that attempt to scale damage, and none of them really do a great job of it. Quite frankly, I don't see this as d20 at all - it's that different. That said, it only uses the d20, so it's almost more deserving of the name! But I digress.

Tree chopping vs. "Capn', she canna take much more o' this!!!"

It's easy enough to model two guys punching each other toward victory. The tree-chopping affect of 1d4 or 1d6 damage opposed to 20 or so hit points is not a lot to deal with. But scale such a system up to a starship with potentially tens of thousands of hit points, and ask yourself how that same system would work. First, a person's fist would do little against such a structure. Even a bullet or a modern rocket would likely do little more than scratch the paint. Such a vehicle has immunity to such lame weaponry. I've seen some systems try to account for this, but only using math and rules that are complicated, inconsistent and even limiting. They don't scale up or down. So you end up with wild swings in power.
If you've ever watched any episode of Star Trek, you know that it takes far less than the maximum number of hit points to be exhausted before Scotty (or Geordi) start losing their minds in engineering.  The M&M system handles this with degrees of failure. A superior blast from a Borg ship may have the Enterprise on its knees after one shot. But again, the nice thing about this system is that it scales. So when the next biggest thing in the universe shows up with a planet busting weapon and fires it against the Borg cube, the cube is relatively similar hot water. There's no flat "big damage vs small damage" line that's drawn as there is in systems like Savage Worlds. There's varying degrees of damage and failure that can happen at any level.
Mutants & Masterminds approach is an exponential ranking system that can work surprisingly well at almost any scale. It does dilute the details a bit, but honestly, when we're talking about the difference between a claymore and a bastard sword... do we really need to nitpick? As long as a dagger is a little different from both of them, I'm happy to lose out on the detailed accounting for such things.

Why Mutants & Masterminds?

But M&M is pegged as a system for super heroes and super powers. Well, I like it so much that I think it could be easily adapted to suit any other genre as well, including horror, sci-fi or even fantasy. I believe M&M could be as flexible and adaptable as Savage Worlds -- which is another fantastic system, and one that I'm learning more about every day. But I think M&M could offer some benefits over it still. In particular, as mentioned above, I feel that M&M can scale far better than Savage Worlds.
If I want to run a scenario whereby Wonder Woman's invisible jet gets sucked through a wormhole in space and is transported into the middle of an epic starship battle, one that has been overrun with vampires, only to be intercepted by a wing of Gundam mecha and Baymax from Big Hero 6, who's trying to stop a planed busting weapon created by Thanos, then I want Mutants & Masterminds. I honestly don't think any other system can scale to handle it. And easily, using the exact same rules, with only a d20.
Not that every scenario needs to be this ridiculous to warrant a M&M conversion. There's simply some great content out there in some of my other game systems, that I want to use in a M&M scenario.

Luckily, most other systems out there use very similar math.

Fibonacci to the rescue!

So how do we map flat, linear, tree-chopping hit points, attack damage and typical XdX dice rolls to an exponential ranking system?

As it turns out, mapping hit points and attack damage as a Fibonacci sequence manages to translate all hit points and attack damage from nearly any other system into M&M rankings quite easily. Fibonacci has the effect of bending the linear nature of typical RPG math toward the shape we want for Mutants & Masterminds rankings. At the very low levels, I simply map 1 to all the low values. This gives M&M a little finer granularity at the low levels, and more coarse granularity at the high levels. But honestly, I would imagine that few people play with low values as the rule. If M&M has a flaw, it's that it uses flat circumstance penalties and bonuses of -2 and -5, meaning that the system gets a bit weak at rankings of 5 or lower anyway.  But for the majority of the cases, this will satisfy. And if it doesn't... just change it so that it makes sense for your situation.

As for character attribute levels, most games use the same 3d6 attribute rankings, with bonuses or perhaps extra attribute dice. They are almost always opposed to a D20, so their values generally represent about the same ratings. Large robots, creatures and super humans can be mapped in a similar way.

Limitations and Adjustments

So is there any system that this doesn't work for? Absolutely. I wouldn't try converting Savage Worlds using this approach. But I would never do so anyway. Savage Worlds is another system that I would target moving content to, not from. Luckily, Savage Worlds already has numerous Companion books for sci-fi, fantasy and horror that make conversion a breeze without any of my extras here. I would consider it for situations where I'm not worried about scaling or diversity in a single scenario - or for games with simply less super people or equipment.

In this table, I've accounted for very high numbers, as one of the more interesting themes to me is sci-fi, which demands large starships with massive amounts of hit points. Do I want to see Superman as presented in DC Adventures (an awesome M&M setting based on the comics) punch a starship, or a planet? Why yes I do...
Depending on the system you're coming from, you may want to shift the ranking up one row (thus Rank 0 would translate to 8 hit points or 1 attack damage). Or you may decide you want to offset the damage one row separately from the hit points. Moving things up or down a row will probably slot the system of your choice in line with the M&M rankings pretty easily.
You may initially be disappointed when converting your characters, thinking they aren't powerful enough. Well keep in mind that M&M is a supers game. And most low level characters from fantasy or sci-fi settings are little more than normal people. This is especially true of sci-fi settings where they're still normal people even at high levels. But that's where equipment, devices and vehicles come in. The M&M Gadget Guides has all the rules needed for equipment, vehicles and even mecha from anime fame to power up your character. So if you want to see how Iron Man would fare against a Gundam armor, then knock yourself out!

I won't underestimate the effort to convert or create content that isn't available from the publishers themselves. But what I can say is that with a little practice and the examples in all of the M&M Gadget Guides, Power Profiles and especially the DCA Heroes and Villains books (Vol 1 & 2), you have more than enough examples to piece ideas together.

Hey wait, is this legal?

Absofrickinlutely. The table below is a list of numbers and dice rolls that are used in tens or even hundreds of role playing game systems. They're mathematical dice formulas and dice statistics, which cannot be protected by copyright. But I would warn against publishing conversions or creations of any content for which the IP is owned and protected by copyright. So if you do make Iron Man and Gundam suits... keep them to yourself or seek permission (which you aren't likely to get).

The thing is, converting and creating things will become very quick and easy. Nobody is doing anyone any favors by publishing their interpretation anyway. Yours may differ and suit your campaign better.

You're not striving for perfection, just close enough to get the point across so that you can focus the rest of your attention on the game. And by no means do I recommend trying to convert entire games over. That would be far too much effort. Covert what you need for your game and move on. You'll find that this way you won't be spending more time converting content you'll never use than playing the game!

In case I'm wrong on the Internet...

I haven't had the opportunity to test this out enough to call it perfect. It's highly unlikely that it is. So please feel free to leave a comment with improvements and suggestions.

Some of the numbers in the table aren't absolutely mathematically correct. I moved some things around based on gut feeling. If you disagree, point it out. It might just be a typo too.

Available as PDF and Excel.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

How I Buy Board Games

How I buy Board Games

Those who know me well, know that I rarely pay full price for anything. I believe if someone is selling it, then someone else is selling it for less. :-)  Board games are no exception. Board games can be very expensive.  And yet, if you compare it to a video game, it's not unreasonable, considering the replay value of a good board game and that it entertains a group of people at a time.


Spending a lot of money on a good board game will never be regretful. However, spending even a little money on a bad one can make you want to put the game to the fire. So research is key. It's not enough to simply look at top-ten lists, as your own personal preferences, play style and group are going to guide what works for you.  Obviously actually playing the game is the best way to know if you should buy it (many shops rent games or host game nights). But if that option isn't readily available to you, then here are a few online resources.

Reading about board games is difficult at best, and some of the worst (*cough* geek dad *cough*) simply go through the rules of the game. If you're looking for the rules, you can download them for pretty much any game straight from the publisher's site -- which I also recommend you do before purchasing the game.

But mostly, I prefer video reviews. Mostly. Aliens reference! The best video research sources that I know of are:
  • Watch It Played: There is simply no better, more complete and comprehensive review of board games anywhere online. Rodney does a fantastic job of delivery and his reviews are very thorough. However, for this reason, his reviews can often be very long, often multiple parts and you might not have the patience for it, if it's your first exposure to the game. That said, once you've decided to invest in a pricey game, I highly recommend checking to see if there's a Watch It Played series for the game, and watch it entirely. It will ensure you're making the right decision, and also will teach you how to play the game.  Context helps when faced with a thick instruction manual! I also have to mention, as a natural non-smiler, Rodney's persistent smile is to be envied! :-)
  • Starlit Citadel: Kaja and Joanna are a close second favourite of mine when it comes to online video reviews. They give a great overview of the rules and gameplay, and also offer up intelligent opinions without judging for you. They'll tell you if the game is slow to set up, good for younger gamers, etc... but they won't outright say it's a bad game. It's good information, a low time investment and a good summary to introduce you to the game.  The videos are also very well produced with good shots of the game components.  Joanna and Kaja have fairly diverse opinions regarding genres and styles of games, so you usually get a good contrast.
  • The Dice Tower: Now if opinions are what you're looking for, you will find no shortage of them at The Dice Tower. Of the three sources I'm listing here, The Dice Tower has possibly the worst reviews, the worst video quality, the worst explanations and the most opinions. That said, I respect people that don't sit on the fence. Luckily, you can often get conflicting opinions among the various reviewers at The Dice Tower. I tend to use these videos to highlight aspects of a game that I should watch out for. So if Tom Vasel says a game plays slow and has low quality components, I'll be sure to research that further (perhaps via one of the other video sources).  But I do appreciate the experienced opinions that these guys offer.
Why is TableTop not here? Well, as much as I love Wil Wheaton, the signal to noise ration on TableTop is a net loss for me. I rarely get anything useful out of those videos when compared to the others, so I will only watch them if I have no other choice.

I can usually find popular games on at least one of the review sites above, but when I can't there are a number of other great reviewers on YouTube. They vary in quality, but they usually get the job done. The point here is: do your research. Don't trust star ratings on Amazon or Board Game Geek to make your decision for you. 

Where and When to Buy

Now for the tricky part. And I apologize to my American friends, this is mostly specific to Canada. The good news is, in the US, you generally get the games cheaper and with lower shipping costs, so you don't need my help!

Shipping is the killer. Plain and simple. Games are made of cardboard and paper -- and often lots of it. They're also big, sometimes bigger than they need to be (Android Netrunner, I'm looking at you).  And mailing anything in Canada these days just seems to be unusually costly.  Big country, not a lot of people... I guess we have to take the good with the bad.

So what do you do? Well, volume helps.  Brick and mortar stores have to make a profit. They do so by getting wholesale cost of the games initially (probably with some distribution middle-man markup), and they buy in bulk, so they save on the shipping.  Still though, as much as I'd love to support my local hobby shop, most of them don't offer the kinds of loyalty programs that they should to earn my repeat business. 

With that, let's get the elephant out of the way:
  • Amazon. Do not buy games from Amazon. I'm a huge fan of Amazon, but when it comes to board games, there are few worse places that you could buy. The prices are often higher than brick and mortar shops (at least in Canada). So don't buy from there, unless you must. The only time I did, was to purchase a very rare out of print game from Germany via a retailer who had an Amazon store. And it was pricey... 
  • The Sentry Box (Calgary): This is basically Disneyland for tabletop gamers. They have everything. And I mean, if it's in print, or even if it's ever been printed, they probably have it. That said, they also have a lot of floor space, a downtown location, a lot of employees and the prices to match. The Sentry Box's prices are fair, I won't say that they aren't. In fact sometimes cheaper than online alternatives and almost always cheaper than Amazon(!). Still, I will only buy the rarest of finds from The Sentry Box. I really wish they had a loyalty program. Or perhaps they do, and it's simply the most exclusive an poorly advertised loyalty program in existence. But as it stands, to buy from Sentry Box you will generally pay list price or higher. They also have quite possibly the worst website in the business...  
  • Revolution Games (Calgary): This is the local brick and mortar shop I choose to support most of the time.  Their store is a tiny little hole in the wall, but is somehow often more comfortable to look through than other large shops. They carry a ton of stuff, and they have good insight in what to carry. It's rare that I can't get what I'm looking for, despite their limited shelf space compared to Sentry Box or others.  Most importantly, their prices are very good, usually better than Sentry Box, and they have a 10% per $100 loyalty program. In Board Game terms, that's like 2 games. Good enough for me! That's all I'm looking for. So if I only need to buy one game, and I don't have a bulk order in mind (see below), I will buy from Revolution first. I should also mention that their staff are great, and the owner is absolutely fantastic. Very helpful, insightful and a gamer himself.  They have a surprisingly good website, with a search that actually works.
  • Myth Games (Calgary): Myth Games is a bit of an odd duck. they have a decent amount of floor space, but very low stock. They do have a decent amount of LARPing equipment if you're into that.  But most of the time they just don't have what I'm looking for. However, they often have very good blowout sales (their boxing day sale was better than any other online or brick and mortar that I know of).  I've probably bought more stuff that I don't need from Myth Games than anywhere else (other than Steam perhaps).  But more importantly, they often get the latest stuff first. I don't know how or why, but it seems to me that they have a very good supplier and I see new stuff on their shelves before anyone else.  So I've bought a fair amount there. They also have a decent loyalty program similar to Revolution Games, although with multiple tiers that I don't have time to remember or understand. But for the most part, I treat it as the same 10% per $100 type program.  Their website is little more than a business card.
  • Starlit Citadel (Online, Canadian): Sometimes to save money you have to spend money.  With Starlit Citadel, you can often get board games at wholesale prices and with free shipping, as long as you spend $175 or more. I keep a wish list of board games that I intend to buy (as I'm sure many gamers do). Once I reach a critical point of needing/wanting/must have a certain number of games, I'll place a big order with Starlit Citadel. Usually it takes about 5 games in total to get to $175 (unless you're buying all big ones, but often I am not).  Sure it's online, and you have to wait and stuff, and they're often out of stock... but the savings often amount to a significant amount. It's not uncommon to save %30, which means with a purchase of 5 games, you're getting one or two of them for free.  But remember, don't rush your purchases. Be sure to research and try out games that you are interested in before buying. If you recall from the research section above, Starlit Citadel hosts those reviews as well. This place has my number.  Needless to say, their website rocks:

These are my own experiences and opinions. Please don't take the omission of your favourite store or site as an offence. But please do share your own recommendations in the comments section.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Awesome Budget Standing Desk

It's been six months since I built my standing desk, and I have to say: I'll never go back.  My latest setup is shown in the photo above.  The two photos that follow show the desk in various angles and stages.

I started with this design:

I modified it mostly for safety.  With all of my tweaks, I probably spent around $100 (not including the base Galant desk itself).  In the original design, I have no idea how they keep it from tipping over.  So, I built what's in that doc, but:
  • Used only bolts, no screws (other than for the keyboard tray).  The Lack table is hollow, so screws are not very secure.  Home Depot had bolts of a perfect length.  I recommend using washers to avoid crushing the Lack's hollow wood legs.
  • I bolted L brackets to the back legs to act as mount points.  
  • I used mini-vices to mount the brackets to the table. These are cheap at Home Depot. I think they look neat and they also act as additional cable management!
  • I padded all feet and brackets so as not to damage the table underneath (so it's a low commitment if you don't like it).  
  • I also used non-slip material between the padding and the desk, such that the combined effect is a stable, non-slip, quiet structure.
  • Later I added the second Lack table for another monitor. I didn't need to secure it, as it doesn't physically interact with anything else. 
  • Finally, I also added extra legs (not shown) to my Galant desk. The default Galant uses T-legs (seen below), which can rock when significant leverage is applied. You'd be surprised how much leverage you can generate while simply typing.  So I bought a couple of additional adjustable legs from Ikea (this links to chrome, I found them in a color that matched the Galant legs in the store).  I added them to the front of the desk. I didn't need to screw them in, as when tightened appropriately with some non-slip material between, the pressure holds them in place and keeps the desk from rocking and made everything more stable.  

I found that even the best commercial standing desks can suffer from "wobble". With this design, the key is to get monitors with really good stands -- preferably ones that adjust! The dual high-end BenQs shown in the top picture are excellent.  I suppose my reasoning is that if I'd rather spend $1000 on monitors than on a desk.

While standing, I wear Crocs (but never outside of my house).  I also have a balance board and a foam balance pad. I can easily swap between standing surfaces by kicking them out of the way.  Changing surfaces and footwear throughout the day is key to remaining comfortable. I also have a drafting chair, although I never really use it.  One of the most surprising things about switching to a standing desk is that I rarely have the desire to sit.

  • Cheap, cheap, cheap.
  • Totally customized for individual preferences.
  • Properly offset monitor and keyboard tray. Many retail standing desks center the keyboard tray relative to the center of the both monitors, which makes no sense. You want one monitor directly in front of you and the other off to the side (right or left). Google images for "standing desk dual monitors" to see some bad examples.  Here's an example of what you do NOT want:
  • Added bonus is that the 2nd level that the Lack desk creates above the keyboard tray is incredibly useful. I use it to hold my drawing tablet, as well as tea cups, pens, notepads etc.
  • Multi-level design. While the lack of adjustability is a con, it creates the opportunity to organize lots of stuff vertically. I have my laptop and a laser printer under the monitors, as well as a USB hub and all my cables etc.
  • Not easily adjustable. I have two of those red shelves, so I can adjust 1cm up or down fairly easily. And my monitors have adjustable stands.  Otherwise I vary height by standing on different things (which is beneficial anyway).  However, if you share this desk or computer with someone else (who isn't a clone of you), then this becomes a major consideration. 
  • If you're taller than 5' 10", I don't recommend this design. I'm exactly 5' 10", and I think some of the design limitations of the parts used here would make it less ideal for taller people.
  • Finding a drafting chair that's tall enough. You need a surprisingly high chair to match the height of the desk. This is where adjustment would be beneficial. Although, shorter people will have a much easier time with this.   
  • Tweaking. I tweaked mine for a couple weeks after I built it. For example, I added the non-slip material to stop the legs from moving around etc. Minor, but worth noting.
  • For the first week or maybe two, you'll be sore and unconvinced that standing is a good thing. For me it was my trapezius and shoulders that needed to adjust to "not slouching" or "persistently shrugging" (check your shoulders right now, are they up around your ears?) :-)
Standing... but not still. Keep Active.

The key is to listen to your body, but don't give up on standing.  Find different footwear and standing surfaces that you can easily swap throughout the day.  And don't stand too still! Be active. The balance boards, pads and some music go a long way to keeping you moving throughout the day. Just like with sitting, be sure to take breaks, stretch out, watch your posture etc.

Another Con for Gamers:

This may be a minor point for some people, but if you use your computer for both work and gaming, you may find that standing has less appeal while playing many games. When you just want to chill out and play some Bioshock Infinite or Skyrim, you may find that you're less interested.  A primary contributing factor is that you could potentially end up standing for 18 hours... too much of a good thing. So if you have the space to have your gaming machine at a separate desk, I would recommend it. Luckily for League of Legends fans, I don't think you'll have a problem, because LoL is more like work than it is like gaming, so I've had no reduction in LoL time. This gaming factor may make a stronger case for a more expensive commercial power-adjustable desk.

Overall I'd say standing desks are worth it, regardless of which solution you choose. This is a cheap way to try it out before spending thousands on a big heavy piece of furniture. Currently I have no plans to "upgrade", but I'd say any such desk is worth the money. Just watch out for those commercial models with the keyboard tray centered between two monitors. That's a deal breaker IMHO.