The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘thought of the day’

Spider-Man - John Romita, Sr.

The core of it is that he’s a geeky teenage Everyman that the core reading audience of comics can either identify with, dream about being in 5 years, or can reflect upon with fond nostalgia.

But that’s not enough.

Steve Ditko gifted him with one of the Top 3 rogue’s galleries in the biz. (Batman and Flash are the only ones to give him competition.)

Stan Lee gave him the wisecracking wit that makes him beloved.

Still not enough.

The core philosophical principle of, “With great power comes great responsibility.” carries a lot of weight here. Very few heroes come packaged with a core thematic element which can be used in so many deep and meaningful ways. (Superman used to have this with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but those values don’t lend themselves easily to resonant storytelling and they’ve mostly been turned into a joke over the past couple or three decades.)

The importance of the tragic element can’t be understated. It provides a persistent emotional weight that counterbalances the wisecracking. (It’s not coincidental that the three most popular superheroes — Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman — all have dead parental figures.) The death of Gwen Stacy was a major thing, too. It was a unique angle on the superhero tragedy that nobody else would get until, arguably, Batman lost a Robin.

The fantastic supporting cast from Ditko, Lee, and Romita in the ’60s also can’t be undervalued. Simply richer and larger than any other superhero at the time (and most since). And, as with Gwen Stacy, they’re essential for emphasizing both the central theme and the tragic losses.

But what really pushes him over the top?

It’s the webslinging. It’s so goddamn cool. But, more importantly, it’s so utterly unique: There’s a bajillion Batman-esque and Superman-esque characters. There’s exactly one superhero who can do the webslinging thing.

It’s your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

Orange Juice with Juicy BitsSo, as most of you know, I’ve been working as the line developer on Modiphius Entertainment’s Infinity roleplaying game. Although I live in the middle of America, Modiphius is based out of London. I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments to my time zones, my culture, and even my writing style. (You may have noticed a few UK spellings of words back-creeping onto the Alexandrian.) But if you’re going to do an honourable (ah, there it is) job of it, that’s just what you have to do.

But I’ve also been working with other American freelancers, and I’ve noticed that some of them struggle with the British-isms more than others. Everybody knows you say “flat” instead of “apartment” and you use “lift” instead of “elevator”, but there are more esoteric examples, too. For example, if you’ve ever been to the UK you may have noticed that many of the orange juice containers there are labeled as containing “Juicy Bits”. Most Americans assume that this is just another cultural synonym and buy the orange juice thinking that it’s going to contain what we call “pulp”.

This, however, is just a common misunderstanding.

The “juicy bits” in this case actually refers to the pornographic pictures or text which are sold with the orange juice. This is kind of a weird tradition in England, but it dates back to the 19th century when Queen Victoria signed a law outlawing the sale of pornographic material. However, there was a loophole in the law which allowed the pornography to be given away for free. As a result, the street pornographers would essentially “disguise” themselves as orange sellers: You would buy an orange and they would wrap it for you with “free” pornographic content.

(It’s possible they got the idea from the French, who would wrap croissants with poetry. See Cyrano de Bergerac for a depiction of this practice.)

Eventually the laws were changed, of course, but by that point the whole orange-and-pornography thing had become traditional. This included wrapping glass bottles of orange juice with pornographic labels: As you drank the juice away, the pornographic images would slowly be revealed. A “moral outrage” in the mid-20th century caused the orange juice companies to temporarily eliminate the “juicy bits” OJ containers, but there was a backlash and so they reached a new compromise: They print the “juicy bits” inside the container.

Most people don’t bother of course, but next time you finish off a “juicy bits” container of OJ in the UK, cut it open and enjoy!

(One last thing: A few years ago there was a bit of a scandal because one of the OJ manufacturers thought they could get away without actually printing the “juicy bits” inside. It was never clear if it was a manufacturing mistake or if they were just trying to save money on the assumption that nobody really looked any more. In any case, there was a big kerfluffle about it. So if you cut open your container and there isn’t a “juicy bit” in there, make sure you call the company: They’ll have to provide with a free replacement.)

Had a familiar discussion today about whether or not the millennium started on January 1st, 2000, or on January 1st, 2001. (Spoiler Alert: It was 2001.)

General rule of thumb: You can tell what millennium / century / decade you are in by taking the relevant digit and rounding up.

For example: What decade is the year 39 AD in?

  • Decade 1: 1-10
  • Decade 2: 11-20
  • Decade 3: 21-30
  • Decade 4: 31-40

Or you can treat 39 as 3.9, round up to 4. 4th decade.

Same thing with centuries: What century is the year 1675 in? The 17th century. Because 16.75 rounded up is 17.

What century is the year 1600 in? The 16th. Because 16.00 rounded up is 16.

Same thing with millennia. 2000 is in the second millenium (2.000 rounded up is 2). 2001 is in the third millennium (2.001 rounded up is 3).

The Tomb of Horrors - Gary GygaxJohn Wick has written an article describing the Tomb of Horrors as the Worst Adventure of All Times. Personally, I disagree. Although back in 1999 I wrote a review of the Tomb which was critical of its many flaws and shortcomings (particularly by modern standards), even then I wrote that the module tantalized me “because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do”. My interest in the module eventually culminated in 2005 when I wrote a 3.5 adaptation which sought to make the module more usable by presenting it in a format easier for DMs to use (while also clearing up some of the design flaws). The result has been a really great one-shot scenario that has provided nearly a dozen different groups with some incredibly memorable experiences.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, and if John Wick considers it to be the “Worst Adventure of All Times”, that’s certainly a thing he’s allowed to think. I can’t object to that.

But you know what you’re NOT entitled to? Your own facts.

So what I do object to is the fact that Wick’s article is filled with the most ridiculous lies about the Tomb of Horrors.


My players picked the entrance with the long corridor rather than the two other entrances which are instant kills.

No they’re not. Lots of things in the Tomb that will instantly kill you, these two things explicitly are not that.

The devil’s face has an open mouth just big enough for someone to fit inside. The booklet told me to say that.

It does not tell you to say that.

Told me to encourage players to climb in.

Bullshit. In fact, the module tells you to do exactly the opposite. It tells the DM specifically NOT to give helpful hints or mislead players into taking certain courses of action.

The actual text from the adventure:

The mouth of the green devil’s face is the equivalent of a fixed sphere of annihilation. Anyone who passes through the devil’s mouth appears to simply vanish into the darkness but they are completely destroyed with no chance to resist.

That is not actual text from the adventure. I actually made a point of going through every version of the Tomb of Horrors that I own (and I’m pretty sure I own all of them) to make sure that Wick hadn’t just accidentally grabbed a quote from the wrong version of the adventure. This text doesn’t appear in any of them. As far as I (or Google) can tell, Wick just made this up out of whole cloth.

(This is also where I went from scratching my head about Wick getting his facts wrong to deciding that I was going to write this exposé. Because there’s no way that you just accidentally make up an imaginary quote. That signals that you’re deliberately lying.)

If we walk down that corridor and try to open one of the two doors, a stone wall drops down, trapping us in. The walls then collapse on us, crushing us.

The fact that the stone wall doesn’t drop down but instead comes in from the side of the passage is a largely inconsequential inaccuracy. But the entire second sentence is a lie.

I didn’t tell them about the secret passage at the bottom of the pit at the very beginning that allows you to skip a third of the dungeon because it isn’t a trap, but it’s there anyway, and you should find it and save yourself the trouble of trudging through a third of this worthless, piece of shit adventure.

Taking that secret passage doesn’t “skip a third of the dungeon”. It actually leads you into a dangerous combat and then a series of painful traps before dumping you out in the exact same location that you’ll end up if you puzzle out the correct exit from that room.

If you do finish the adventure, to prove the whole thing is nothing more than a way for a sadistic prick to get his jollies off, as a final “FU” from Gary, the treasure in the lich’s tomb is cursed.

Sort of true, but not really. While the final treasure does include three cursed weapons, the vast majority of the treasure is not cursed.

After repeatedly telling bafflingly unnecessary lies about what the text of the module actually says, Wick then tells us a couple of stories about his experiences with the module: The first is about how he ran the module for friends in grade school, one of them beat him up for killing them, and then they ostracized him for an entire year. The second is about how he joined a convention game of the scenario many decades later, watched the other players kill themselves, and then had his character take their stuff, leave the dungeon, and retire on the proceeds from selling it.

Those stories could be true. Unlike all the bizarre lies he chooses to tell about easily verifiable facts, I have no way of fact-checking his personal anecdotes.

But you know what?

I don’t believe him.

The handling of distance in roleplaying games can be roughly broken down into two types: First, there are systems which calculate and manipulate the specific measurements of the game world (measured in feet or meters or whatever). Second, there are systems which handle movement and distance through some form of abstract mechanic.

Let’s refer to these as “precise” systems and “abstract” systems, respectively.

When executed properly, abstract distance systems are really just formalizing the way that people handle “precise” distance without using some form of visual reference.

For example, imagine that you’re playing D&D without a grid or battlemap and the GM says, “They’re about 20 feet away from you.” What’s the GM really saying there? There’s no tape measure. He imagined the scene, eyeballed the distance in his head, and gave a figure that’s basically in the right ballpark. He could have just as easily said 15 feet or 25 feet.

In general, the GM is going to make these decisions based on one of two criteria:

(1) A visualization of the game world (“they just came out of the tree line and that’s a fair distance away, let’s call it 150 ft.”); or

Numenera - Monte Cook Games(2) A mechanical assessment (“a typical PC should need to run for at least two rounds before reaching them; they can run 120 ft. per round, so let’s say it’s 150 ft. away”)

When using an abstract system, a GM should be able to use these exact same criteria.

Numenera, for example, breaks distance down into four categories: Immediate distance (anything up to about 10 ft.), Short distance (anything up to about 50 ft.), Long distance (anything up to about 100 ft.), and Extreme distance (anything beyond that).

So now the GM can use the same basic process:

(1) The archers came out of the tree line. The PCs are really far away from the tree line, so that’s an Extreme distance.

(2) The PCs shouldn’t be able to reach them in a single round, so they must be at an Extreme distance.


When not using a precise visual reference, the other thing a GM needs to keep track of is the relative position of the various characters in a combat scene. This is relatively easy if there are only a few characters, but as the number of characters grows it will eventually surpass the GM’s capacity unless (a) they’re some kind of savant, or (b) they figure out shortcuts. One of these shortcuts is to simply group characters together: You know that Gwen and Cassie are engaged in melee with the ogre, so all three of them are in one group. There are a couple of PC archers standing a few feet behind Gwen and Cassie, so that’s another group. And then you’ve got six goblins running towards the party from across the room. (This way you’re only tracking three groups instead of eleven characters.)

Infinity - Modiphius EntertainmentAnother common form of abstract distance mechanic are Zones. (We’re using those in Infinity.) And what zones basically do is formalize the mental process of grouping characters together: Gwen, Cassie, and the ogre are all standing near each other (they’re in the same zone). The two archers are a little bit off to one side (one zone away). And the goblins racing towards them are still a couple zones away.

One of the common problems people seem to run into with abstract distance systems, in my experience, is that they try to translate the abstract system back into specific measurements. Then they run the specific measurements back through whatever mental process they use for abstracting it in the theater of their mind, and then they try to translate it back into the abstract mechanic. The result tends to be like a drunk centipede trying to tap dance — they end up tripping over themselves a lot.

Okay, so if all these abstract mechanics are basically doing the same thing as the “theater of the mind”, what’s the point of them?

First, it gets away from the false deity of “precision”. Precision is great if that’s what you want and if you’re using a visual representation (usually miniatures) and mechanics which allow you to take advantage of that precision. But if you’re not, pretending that there’s any real difference between 125 feet and 130 feet is an illusion.

Second, it can eliminate irrelevant mathematical calculations by cutting directly to the mechanically relevant distinctions.

Third, these mechanics can also serve as a nice, flexible foundation for other mechanical features. For example, you can define zones with various effects that can make it easier to manage strategically interesting terrain without using battlemaps.



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