Wednesday, October 8, 2008

DC Heroes RPG & the Power of Exponentiality

It was the summer of 1985 and I was at my friend Greg Love's house when we began digging into the contents of the newest RPG for superheroes by Mayfair Games: DC Heroes.

We excitedly tore into the rulebooks, wanting to find out how strong Superman REALLY was, how smart Batman was, how fast the Flash was! Having cut our teeth on FGU's Villains and Vigilantes to produce our own superheroes, were used to Hit Points, d20's and d10's and using Power points to fuel our powers.

We were blown away, to say the least.

It wasn't like anything we had played before.

"APs? What are those?"

It was brilliant work. Too brilliant for us to appreciate, I'm afraid. This was SO new in style and substance, I felt I was in a school classroom, not perusing a game. It took a lot of time to grok what we were reading.

You see, the designers had to fit Superman and Jimmy Olsen into the same game system, on the same scale, in the same environment. They did not want to give Superman a triple-digit Strength score (that wouldn't bother me, but that's what they said), so they came up with the idea of an logarithmic scale to measure power and abilities. A Strength score of 2 was Normal for humans. A Strength of 3 was able to lift twice that. A 4 could lift twice THAT. So if my hero had a cool score of 4 in Strength and yours had a Strength of 6, you could lift four times as much as me.

Thankfully, Greg was more familiar with this concept due to his computer nerdiness. Its the way bits and bytes work in computers. (Alright... remember kids, this was waaayyy back in the mid-80s, so we used Kilobytes!) 1 Kilobyte or Kb, was stepped up to 2 Kb when you added one more Yes/No gate, then if you added another Yes/No gate, you got 4 Kb... then 8 Kb, 16Kb, 32 Kb, 64 Kb, 128 Kb, 256 Kb, 512 Kb, and at last 1024 Kb - which equaled 1 Megabyte.

So he understood the power of exponential growth, or as I define it, exponentialty. I did not.

Champions, Mutants and Masterminds, and even to some extent V&V (the Carrying Capacity chart) used this concept to emulate the super-powered universe of metahumans. It is too big to be contained in a linear scale with exact measurements being used for every detail.

BTW, Superman's Strength was 50 APs - 50 "Attribute Points" as they were called. Jimmy Olsen was a 2. So Superman was 2 48th power stronger than Jimmy Olsen. 64, 000,000,000,000 [64 trillion] times stronger! Jimmy could lift 200 lbs, his best friend could lift 12,800,000,000,000,000 lbs or 6,400,000,000,000 tons [6.4 trillion tons]!

Suddenly the pithy brilliance of having that gargantuan number expressed as "50 APs" on a logarithmic scale made a lot of sense. You needed that kind of simplicity to handle cosmic-spanning heroes and heroines.

You need to think in exponential terms for God's workings as well. From the Creation in Genesis to the book of Revelations, we are shown a picture of a Creator God who explodes into action and accomplishes His will in less time than it takes to write this sentence.

Seven years ago I read a book by Dr. Richard Swensen, a physician who was a Christ-follower, entitled Hurtling towards Oblivion: a Logical Argument for the End of the Age. In it he clearly declares himself to be NO fatalist, but he goes on to logically argue that humanity is on an exponential curve of development technologically, medically, militarily and biologically - and that growth curve will not - in his opinion, cannot - end pleasantly. It is a very short book, but he describes a pragmatic point of view that we are not going to solve all our problems and move into a utopian future. Why, you may ask?

Because at the same time good things are replicating and growing at this fantastic rate of speed, so are the bad things. We have the internet; we also have porn, phishing and spam from the same source. We have better health care; we also have AIDs. When it comes to biological warfare, the picture gets even uglier with bio-terrorism.

This was written before Sept. 11th. Remember how after that dark day, a powdered Anthrax virus was mailed and caused a handful of deaths? Just by touching them?

He does not go into details, but as a physician, he knows intimately how a virus can kill a host. Even if everything else is sound and healthy, it only takes one virus to kill a human being. Something that you normally cannot see with the naked eye.

How does something so small become so lethal? By replicating, of course. Linearly? No, it must split and divide and grow exponentially.

Here's what is truly scary though: the vast majority of any lethal growth is virtually undetectable until it hits the final stages. This is the problem with predictions. You must keep factoring in exponential growth possibilities and that is hard for us as humans to grok, to accept.

He gives an example of this "late realization" by imagining trying to fill up the Pacific basin using a teaspoon of water, doubling one step at a time.

It would take 80 doublings to fill that vast expanse of water. That's all. (In DC Heroes its 50 APs of Area.)

But do you know how filled up the basin would be at 70 doublings? Less than one-tenth of one percent (.001%)!

Those last ten steps blow you away. The first seventy were just a warm-up in comparison.

Do you know what Jesus said about the end of the Age? How no one could predict when or where it would happen, just gave some identifying marks of it? That's because mankind cannot see cosmic-level events coming. We can only see them after the fact. We are too busy with survival, with day-to-day stuff to see eternity bearing down on us.

We think linearly. We think tomorrow will be better because we will have more information.

I am afraid not.

We are hurtling toward the future where we and all we know and see will cease to exist. This isn't fear-mongering - this is a fact. And there is no hope of surviving it.

Unless the Bible is true, and there is something greater.

"Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ has risen!" goes the liturgy.

I believe God understands your fear of death because His Son died. I think He understands your anger because He also lived in the universe we live in through Jesus. I think He knows how quickly it can come into being -and how blazingly fast it will end.

Do yourself this favor: imagine that God knows more than you. Imagine also that Jesus never tried to use fear to motivate people - only love.

When you love someone, you tell them the truth. You tell them as soon as you can, if a danger is coming.

Dear reader, from the Y2K bug to 9/11 to our present economic crisis, I think we are getting all the fair warnings we need to NOT place our hopes in this world.

It doesn't matter if we survive those events. We have no cause to pat ourselves on the back for survival -that just may be God's mercy before the final blow comes.

What matters is if we learn from them how exponentially fast our world and resources can collapse.

Trust Jesus, and fear no more.

You will be exponentially grateful you did so.

Amen.

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